STORY BY Lauren Steele
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Alyssa Larson
We said, ‘To hell with it,’ and didn’t wait for the rest of the world to say that what we are doing is a good idea.
According to the textbooks, you can’t create a Henley-style shirt out of wool. And you definitely cannot do it using old cotton-factory machinery. It’s a good thing, then, that the team at Duckworth doesn’t go by the book.
A former pro-soccer player, a world-traveling wool expert, and a Montana sheep rancher were much more inclined to go with their gut. It’s that kind of attitude that allowed them to become trailblazers of all-American wool in less than a year.
“Call us fool-hearted, but we wanted to make a waffle-stitched wool Henley on cotton-processing machinery,” says Graham Stewart, cofounder and resident wool expert at Duckworth. Every sample they made resulted in a button placket that was bunched up. Finally, one of their seamstresses who has been in the wool business with Stewart for more than 25 years spotted the problem and declared she could fix it. “She cut out a new pattern and did it. That’s the pioneering spirit in us—pioneers don’t know what they’re looking for and they make history.”
Stewart identifies with the American settler more than he lets on. The England-born wool specialist has bounced across the globe and collected a melting pot of a dialect. His English accent holds on to remnants of his time spent in Italy, Australia, China, and New Zealand. He traveled in pursuit of the finest fabric. He found it in Montana.
The spark came in the form of a phone call from his friend Robert “Bernie” Bernthal, the pro-soccer player turned mountaineer. Bernthal dreamed of reviving the American wool industry after seeing thermal base layer company J.E. Morgan sell out to Morgan-Duofold in Europe in the 1990s. Shortly thereafter, he met Stewart, and the pair decided that one day they would create an U.S. brand that held true to their values. “The money guys always step in and ruin it,” Bernthal says with convinction. “They don’t care that the ingredients of a product make a mess of difference. We did, so we put in the time and gained the knowledge to do things our way.”
Bernthal and Stewart talked about Duckworth for years but couldn’t find the common denominator they needed: an American sheep rancher who had wool that would rival the best in the world.
That’s where rancher John Helle and his 12,000 Rambouillet Merino sheep came in. His flock was tucked away in the Gravelly Range along with a warehouse containing three years’ worth of wool. The high altitude of the range results in sweltering summers and frigid winters, as well as an all-weather fleece with crimping and curvature that can’t be found anywhere else. But somehow it was ending up everywhere else. Helle was tired of sending his precious material into the market, just to lose track of it. He wanted to see the finished product. “He was the one guy in the country who decided to say, ‘I won’t sell to anyone who can’t tell me where my bales of wool end up,’” Stewart says. “We told him that we would keep track of where every staple of fabric goes, from start to finish.”
After years of imagining the company, they knew this was it. Stewart flew to America from Shanghai and in the Duckworth name, bought some old cotton factories in the Carolinas, where J.E. Morgan had created its garments all those years ago. “We are running with that entrepreneurial American self-reliance,” says Bernthal. “We said, ‘To hell with it,’ and didn’t wait for the rest of the world to say that what we are doing is a good idea.”
Some days, it doesn’t seem like a good idea. As a small boutique label, producing a garment that is up to par can be costly—and scary, at times. It takes nearly a full day to set up the spinning machines for product trials and tests that can burn through 294 pounds of wool. Those tests can end in beautiful apparel or a heap of wasted wool, but the goal is to improve with every shearing and every spin.
“We are a bunch of incurable optimists,” Stewart says. “We will take two steps forward and then one step back, but we only see the ground we are gaining. If any of us saw anything less, then it wouldn’t work. That’s the reward at the end of the day—not the dollars.” —Lauren Steele