Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ranch family spins a good yarn

American wool was on parade at Sochi Olympics

Express Staff Writer

U.S. Olympians wear Ralph Lauren sweaters made from American wool during the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. Photo courtesy of Imperial Stock Ranch

    The Imperial Stock Ranch is a family-owned ranch on more than 32,000 acres in the central Oregon desert. Under the leadership of owners Dan and Jeanne Carver, the ranch produces a wide variety of all-natural products—hand-crafted meats, wool, yarn and apparel.
    For about 130 years, the ranch sold its harvests, including wool, as commodities. But the 1990s witnessed dramatic shifts in the sheep industry. Industrialization and consolidation impacted the processing and pricing of lamb in the food sector. Globalization shook up the markets for raw wool, and the textile processing and manufacturing infrastructure in America experienced a huge decline. Thousands of U.S. sheep producers went out of business at the end of the 1990s. By 1999, the Imperial Stock Ranch found itself unable to sell the raw wool harvest through traditional channels.
    “Fifteen years ago, all I heard was wool had no value anymore,” Jeanne Carver told the online style magazine A Continuous Lean. “People weren’t wearing wool that much. It was out of favor. Newer high-tech performance fabrics and recycled plastics had flooded the markets. In addition, it seemed everything was made offshore.”
    The Carvers set out to prove that you don’t have to cross an ocean to make clothing. And so Imperial Yarn was born. Similar to the farm-to-fork “slow food” movement that reconnects us to our food, the Carvers are leading a ranch-to-runway “slow wear” movement that reconnects us to the source of the fibers that we wear, and the animals that provide it. 
    Once a year, the ranch harvests the soft, versatile wool from its Columbia sheep and begins the process of transforming it into a wide selection of fibers and yarns. Imperial Yarn operates out of the historic Hinton House at the ranch headquarters, offering yarns to knitters, weavers and fiber artists in a natural array of hues, textures and weights.
    Their fibers began to attract attention. In July 2012, Jeanne Carver received a surprise phone call from a representative from clothing manufacturer Ralph Lauren. In late December, the company placed a production order.
    “We didn’t know through this whole process what the yarn was being used for,” Carver told A Continuous Lean. “It was simply a ‘special project’ for one of their teams.”
    Eventually, in 2013, they learned what the special project was—sweaters to be worn by the U.S. Winter Olympic Team at Sochi, Russia. Ralph Lauren had promised that all the clothing it provided to the team would be made in America.
    “I’m getting more and more inquiries from designers and apparel companies who want to make things here in the U.S.,” Carver said. “It’s important, however, to ask a lot of questions. It’s not always clear what “American made” yarns are composed of. In many cases, it’s foreign-sourced fiber that’s been dyed offshore, then brought here and spun.
    “The bottom line to all this is the consumer. If the consumer demands traceability and support for U.S. raw materials and manufacturing, they will effect a positive change in investment in infrastructure needed again to grow manufacturing in this country.”

Wool producer will give two presentations
Dan and Jeanne Carver will speak about their experiences during two occasions at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival:

  • Thursday, Oct. 9, from 4-6 p.m. at the Sheepskin Coat Factory in Ketchum in a talk titled “How American Wool Got Into the Olympics.”
  • Friday Oct. 10, from 8-9 a.m. at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden south of Ketchum in a talk titled “The Imperial Stock Ranch Wool Marketing Journey.”

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