20 August 2005

How Brown Is My Sheep?

Panhandle-based Brown Sheep Co. produces yarns for high-end knitting shops.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2005 Omaha World-Herald
Byline: Chris Clayton

May 23--MITCHELL, Neb. -- Sometimes getting ahead of everyone else, even in a computerized world, means spending the morning on your hands and knees trying to figure out what's wrong.

The computer sensor wasn't reading the color marker, so the new-fangled Swiss labeling machine wasn't working.

"When it works, it can do the work of three people doing labels manually," said Robert Wells, vice president of Brown Sheep Co., south of Mitchell.

Beyond minor problems with new technology, Brown Sheep Co. is on a business high. The world might have iPods, BlackBerrys, cell phones with video games and plasma televisions, but one of humanity's earliest civilized skills knitting is trendy again. And any knitter worth her or his needles wants Brown Sheep yarn.

Yarns from the company mill are sold in about 2,000 high-end knitting shops nationwide, including a handful of stores in Omaha. At least 400 stores are on a waiting list.

With a wide array of yarn thickness, color and styles, Brown Sheep Co. is the largest producer of natural fiber yarns in the United States.

Brown Sheep Co. came to be just west of Scottsbluff because the family patriarch, Harlan Brown, who raised sheep for more than 30 years, grew tired of watching the ups and downs of the wool market. He decided 25 years ago to add value to the operation by manufacturing yarn.

The company now employs 40 full-time and six part-time workers.

About six years ago, Brown's daughter and son-in-law, Peggy Jo and Robert Wells, moved from Colorado to work in the mill after careers in the medical field.

Brown Sheep Co.'s focus on knitting yarns has provided steady growth in an era of continued decline for U.S.-produced textiles. As traditional textile mills in the Southeast close, sales growth for Brown Sheep over the past three years has exceeded 20 percent, company officials said.

And lately, Robert Wells said, "we've noticed the demand has been high year round."

In Omaha's Countryside Village, String of Purls got on the customer list about six months before the company stopped taking new shops. Robyn Hubbard, one of the store co-owners, said she and the other owners wanted to sell U.S.-produced yarn.

"A lot of people come in and ask if we have any local yarn and we tell them about Brown Sheep," Hubbard said.

Joe Wynn, manager of Personal Threads, 8025 West Dodge Road, said the store stocks a small amount of yarn from Brown Sheep Co. but has eight specialty orders waiting for customers. Personal Threads plans to expand into a bigger space, and Wynn said he hopes to stock more products from the Mitchell company.

Another shop, Touché at 6053 Maple St., has stocked most Brown Sheep colors and weights since the store opened in the Benson area three years ago, owner Glenda Stone said.

Although considered a high-end yarn, Brown Sheep Co. products are priced reasonably for all-natural fibers, she said.

"I wouldn't say they are high priced, no," Stone said. "You can definitely get higher prices from other companies."

Retail prices for 245 yards of thin, lightweight yarn can start at about $3.95, the same as for a Peruvian competitor product that offers less overall yarn. Much heavier yarn weights can run $20 or more.

Discount chains and craft shops may sell yarn at comparable and lower prices, Stone said, but they often have synthetic materials. The synthetics may make the product easier to wash, but take away from the "heirloom" nature of the homeknitted product and don't have the same texture, she said.

"There is a quality difference, and you can feel it," Stone said. "You can see it. If you are going to spend the time working on an heirloom sweater or other item, you also are going to take the time to hand wash it and care for it to preserve it as well."

Knitting is trendy again after a generation of downturn. According to the Craft Yarn Council of America, knitting has increased 150 percent over the past two years among young adults, though participation is up in almost all age groups with 1.4 million new knitters added last year.

"Knitting now is on an incredible increase," said Peggy Jo Wells. "The most exciting thing now about the new knitters is they are 35 and younger."

The knitting bug even has hit college campuses, where groups of students gather to knit.

"It's a return of the old quilting bee concept," she said. "It's a way to unwind and a way to deal with today's stress."

She also attributes the rise in knitting to the "hurry-up and wait" pace of society. Knitting can fill idle time, and it's easy for people to carry knitting bags, she said.

Brown Sheep Co., gets its wool from producers in mostly Western states, including Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming. The company also imports from countries such as Chile.

Wool then is shipped to one of the few remaining mills in South Carolina, which cleans and prepares it before sending it back to Nebraska to be put on the spinners, dyed, packaged and shipped to customers.

The company stocks various yarns in blends using wool, mohair, cotton and silk. Yarn with a mohair component is particularly desirable, because it has a special texture that knitters like. Most mohair comes from goat ranches in Texas, which are declining in number, the Wellses said.

Brown Sheep Co. is banking on the growth of knitting to be more than just a short-term fad. The company has invested millions of dollars in new machinery, making it one of the few remaining U.S. textile companies to expand production.

Two of the biggest improvements were in drying and spinning capacity. The company's old drying machine dried 900 pounds of yarn over 24 hours. A new dryer handles 1,600 pounds in eight hours. New spinning machines, meanwhile, twine yarn twice as fast as older models.

Almost all the new equipment comes from overseas, including Turkey, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Distributors and repairmen are often far away, which can be a problem when, for example, a new Swiss labeling machine isn't functioning.

Brown Sheep is the first company to use the machine for its retail yarn labels.

"Somebody had to be the first, and we were the ones," Robert Wells said.

The Mitchell company has captured its share of the new knitters but doesn't plan to change its marketing practices. Its products are sold exclusively by high-end knitting shops, not general craft stores or large discount chains.

"Our desire is to stay in the high-end yarn shops that provide the services with the yarn," Peggy Wells said.

Robert Wells said he has received e-mails from people in Germany who have used his yarn, but he doesn't know how they got it. The company, which has decided not to sell yarn on the Internet, will sell directly to customers in Great Britain and Australia.

"We don't want to undercut the shops," Robert Wells said. "There's pressure to do that sell directly but we don't want to do that."

Knitting Web sites promote Brown Sheep Co.'s mill and small adjoining retail shop as being worth the effort to veer off Interstate 80. The store can't keep in stock such products as hand-painted yarns with color flaws, called "seconds," that sell for $24 a pound, Peggy Wells said.

"We have built up quite a reputation for people coming to the mill. We have people come all the way from Omaha to shop here."

Last summer, Brown Sheep Co. froze its client list because increasing demand threatened to overwhelm the company.

"We won't take on any new account until we can service the accounts we have," Peggy Wells said.

Copyright (c) 2005, Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

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