It was a huge shock when, having sheared their sheep, the supplier who had been buying wool from their Oregon ranch for a century told the Carvers in 1999 that it was moving offshore and wouldn’t be buying their wool. But, as the old saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. And in this case, it was a door that ended up aiding a whole sector of the endangered American textile industry.
Jeanne Carver and the other Oregon ranchers who make up Shaniko Wool Company now produce the only wool in North America that is independently certified as having been produced regeneratively. The Carvers, who had been running the historic 32,000-acre Imperial Stock Ranch since 1988, realized that unless they wanted to give up their sheep, they would have to find their own markets. In an era of outsourcing and disconnect, Jeanne Carver has led tirelessly with traceability and accountability, building relationships across the domestic textile industry, says Shaniko.
Photo by Shaniko Wool Co.
Jeanne reached an agreement with a local textile mill, 180 miles away. “We became their biggest customer immediately. I got some yarn made. I only had one color, natural, and I tried to sell by word of mouth,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about the apparel industry. I didn’t know anything about trade associations. I only knew that sheep mattered; that the ranch’s history mattered. The land certainly mattered and we needed to find a way forward.”
They were selling to 450 yarn stores by the time when, in August 2012, she got a surprise phone call from the Ralph Lauren company. It was coping with controversy over how the US team uniforms for the 2012 Summer Olympics, while designed in the US, were produced in China. While the company had responded by pledging that its 2014 uniforms would be made in the US, thousands of US sheep producers had gone out of business at the end of the 1990s. So had many textile mills. Looking to see who still made yarn in the US, Ralph Lauren kept hearing about Jeanne.
That was what led to the phone call. They talked for 45 minutes that first time, and she told him their story. The next day she sent yarn samples. He called her every day for a month. And then the company sent a design team to the ranch. She told the amazing story of how it all happened on the podcast ‘Rebooting Capitalism’ in March 2022.
“We fed them local food. And then we toured my textiles. And they started clutching the skeins of gorgeous wool yarn.” Six months later, she got a purchase order for more yarn than she had ever sold before. It turned out that it was for the first made-in-American team uniforms for the Olympics at Sochi, Russia. And Ralph Lauren went a step further – it made a film about the ranch, its sustainability efforts, and its wool.
(And in fact, the drive to make the US team uniforms in the US helped the American textile industry, which also had suffered from offshoring. Kraemer Yarns or Textiles, one of the few remaining textile mills operating in the US, had been a client of the Imperial Stock Ranch and it processed the yarn sent by the ranch.)
Jeanne also got a call from Patagonia, the outdoor gear company which was working with a program to audit suppliers for farm stewardship and sustainability, called the Responsible Wool Standard. Her ranch became the first one in the world to be certified for this Textiles Exchange standard, which requires all sites, from wool farmers to the seller in the final business-to-business transaction, to be certified as meeting animal welfare, land management, and social requirements.
Patagonia, which has its own Patagonia Wool Standard, believes “the best way to ensure quality and an ethical wool supply chain is to partner directly with the farmers from whom we source wool. ….Through these partnerships, we can improve the welfare of the animals, the health of the land, and provide consumers with the most transparent wool supply chain in the industry.”
It is a vision long held by Jeanne and her late husband, Dan. “Everything we’ve done since 1999 has been because of his management and care for the land and the animals that graze it,” she said. In 1990, just two years into their management of the ranch, Dan developed a comprehensive plan for ensuring its sustainability. They also worked with surrounding landholders to restore the salmon spawning capacity of Buckhollow Creek which flows from their ranch into nearby Deschutes River. after only two salmon came home to spawn in 1990.
In 2018, Jeanne formed Shaniko Wool Co., providing RWS-certified US Merino wool to US apparel brands. Its seven sheep producers graze on over 2.6 million acres and shear an estimated 500,000 pounds of fine Merino wool every year. “Shaniko Wool Company is really about honoring the heritage of sheep and their history and production in the American West,” she says.
In 2022, Shaniko signed an exclusive licensing agreement with the Paris-based Chargeurs Group, one of the world’s largest wool suppliers. Backed by blockchain technology, NATIVA™Regen-Shaniko is traceable from farm to end product. Since 2020, the Shaniko Wool farm group has been part of a Carbon Management Initiative to determine the ecosystem and climate impacts of each ranching operation.
In January, 2023, when Jeanne was awarded the American Sheep Industry Association’s 2023 Innovation Award, she credited the Shaniko Wool sheep ranches as the reason for the award. “The work I am doing today with these family sheep operations is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done,” she said. “They are good people doing great work, supporting rural communities and our U.S. textile industry. Together, we are stronger. It’s a great privilege.”
The work they are doing is literally changing the domestic wool landscape in terms of enhanced land management, says Indoor Outdoor Magazine. In turn, Shaniko Wool Company has given major brands, such as Ralph Lauren, a source of American-grown wool with a pristine, verifiable sustainability story that they can use in marketing their products. It is a win for everyone, including the earth.
“For us, it’s never been different. all these harvest gifts of creation, whether you eat it, or wear it or live in it, you recognize it’s a gift,” says Jeanne. “It’s life to all of us, but it’s even deeper. It’s life to the spirit.”
Makers Monday: Imperial Stock Ranch. Shinola, Aug. 10, 2015
Shaniko Wool Company featured in 2022 Winter Olympics uniforms. Madras Pioneer, Feb. 23, 2022
Sustainable Ranching with Jeanne Carver of Shaniko Wool Company. Rebooting Capitalism podcast, Mar. 2022
Shaniko Wool Company website.
Meet the female rancher fighting to make your clothes out of American wool. Fast Company, Apr. 26, 2023
Shaniko’s Jeanne Carver Receives Major Award From U.S. Sheep Industry. Textile World, Jan. 23, 2023
Pioneering new trails for American wool. Indoor Outdoor Magazine, Spring 2022
Cover image: USDA