BOZEMAN, Mont. – Helle Rambouillet, which grows its Merino wool exclusively for Duckworth apparel, is proud to announce that the companies have donated $50,000 to build a new Montana Wool Lab at Montana State University, one of only two wool research and service laboratories in the United States. The substantial donation is the latest in an ongoing effort to modernize the Wool Lab and help the U.S. wool industry meet growing demand as consumers return to Merino and other natural fibers. It also reinforces Helle Rambouillet and Duckworth’s commitment to strengthening the U.S. wool industry and domestic apparel manufacturers, ensuring they’re leaders in the global Merino market.
Constructed in 1947, the Wool Lab serves sheep and wool producers throughout Montana and the region. Research and testing at the lab allow producers to enhance the genetics of their flocks to improve wool yield and traits such as fiber diameter and staple length. In 2020, the Wool Lab tested 15,000 samples, but demand continues to grow as U.S. producers and apparel manufacturers look to innovate Merino technology for better performance and sustainability as consumers return to wool.
The Wool Lab is looking to capitalize on this situation by offering its services on a national level, ideally doubling the number of samples it can test and vastly improving the research it can provide to producers and manufacturers to help them become market leaders. However, research and testing at the Wool Lab cannot increase without expanded and upgraded facilities. The historic building the Wool Lab occupies lacks climate control for the detailed measuring required, adequate space, updated tools and equipment, and important safety measures.
In 2021, the Montana Legislature provided capital project funding for a new Wool Lab, and to supplement that MSU has committed to raising an additional $1 million to support the design, construction, furnishing and equipping of the facility. Helle Rambouillet and Duckworth’s $50,000 donation is among the largest donations to the effort to date.
“For 75 years, the Wool Lab at Montana State University has provided testing and research to its partners in the ranching industry to improve wool yield and quality, and to help them develop value-added industries – taking raw wool and turning it into a finished product,” said Brent Roeder, Montana State University Extension Sheep Specialist. “With funding from the state and donations from Helle Rambouillet, Duckworth and others, the new Wool Lab will be able to use state-of-the-art technology to help future generations refine wool characteristics, sustainability and processing methods, bringing economic development to Montana and beyond.”
For John Helle, third-generation rancher at the Helle Rambouillet ranch in Dillon and a co-founder of Duckworth, the donation and lab improvements are ways to strengthen the U.S. wool industry and domestic apparel manufacturers, ensuring they’re leaders in the global Merino market. Duckworth was founded to highlight both domestic wool production and apparel manufacturing, with its Merino coming from Helle Rambouillet sheep and its garments being made in America.
“A new Wool Lab represents an enormous opportunity to help the industry at every level – from producing raw wool at the ranch to spinning, knitting and finishing fabrics and manufacturing garments,” Helle said. “The current Wool Lab has helped us build Duckworth into a successful, vertically integrated company over the past 20 years, but with the technology and research methods now available, an upgraded lab is needed to take us and our partners in this industry into the future. Because we’ve benefitted greatly from the lab’s work, we felt it would only be right to make a substantial donation and encourage others to chip in.”
Benefits of a new Wool Lab will extend beyond producers like Helle Rambouillet to companies like Cyberknit Fabrics, a manufacturer of performance fabrics for the active wear and tactical markets.
“My family was in the wool business for many years, with a sheep farm in New Jersey and a worsted mill in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, as consumer taste changed and imports rose, all but a handful of U.S. mills closed,” said Danny Honig, President of Cyberknit. “Today, however, there’s renewed interest in the performance and value of wool garments, and rising demand and advances in technology are driving a revival in domestic production and manufacturing. Without infrastructure like the Wool Lab, this wouldn’t be possible – and a new lab will help ensure it continues.”
For more information about the Montana Wool Lab and its fundraising effort, visit http://animalrange.montana.edu/facilities/woollab.html.
Photos: Kyle Niego/Duckworth