Spinning wool into yard, Brown Sheep Company sells yarn around the country
Mitchell, Neb. – Founded in 1980 by Harlan Brown, Brown Sheep Company is a wool yarn-spinning mill that produces yarn for crafters across the United States (U.S.).
“Raw wool is processed in the mill into yarn for knitting, crocheting and weaving,” says Brittany Wells, daughter-in-law and employee of owners Robert and Peggy Wells.
Peggy is the daughter of Harlan Brown and came back to Nebraska with her husband to help her father with the Brown Sheep Company in the late 1990s.
Founder Harlan Brown ran a sheep operation before starting Brown Sheep Company on the land where the mill currently stands, according to Wells.
“Brown’s sheep flock was originally produced for meat, until the market for mutton crashed and the meat industry shifted towards beef,” Wells explains. “So, he traveled to Georgia and found some used textile machinery, brought the equipment back to Nebraska and figured out how to make yarn.”
All of the raw wool used to make Brown Sheep Company yarn is sourced from Wyoming and Colorado producers, she mentions.
Once the wool yarn has been spun, dyed and packaged, it is shipped to local yarn shops that sell the products to customers.
“Some of the first people to discover Brown Sheep Company wool yarn were the Navajo weavers in the Southwest,” notes Wells. “The Navajo weavers continue to be major customers of our yarn today.”
Wells mentions there are 25 employees who work at Brown Sheep Company, including the owners.
“I’m married to Robert and Peggy’s son Andrew and have been working for the family business for about three years now,” she says.
Over the years, the production of wool yarn has increased to the point Brown Sheep Company ships between 3,000 and 5,000 pounds of wool yarn per week.
“The entire process, starting with clean, raw wool that ends up as dyed and packaged wool yarn, takes almost two weeks,” Wells states.
Each day, the maximum amount of yarn the mill can process is 3,000 pounds.
“Every year, we also attend multiple trade showsfor The National Needle Arts Association (TNNA),” adds Wells. “TNNA trade shows are for wholesale manufacturers who make yarn, knitting needles and other related products.”
The equipment Harlan Brown bought back in the 1980s has also changed, as it’s been replaced and upgraded with modern equipment.
“The mill has definitely expanded and is more up-to-date compared to the beginning,” Wells mentions.
In 2017, Brown Sheep Company made a trip to Germany to participate in an international trade show, adds Wells.
“In the spring of 2018, we are going to back to the trade show in Germany to try and expand the company in an international market,” she states.
Pros and cons
Like any business, Brown Sheep Company has faced challenges along the way.
“Water in western Nebraska is in short supply,” says Wells. “Our mill has developed a water recycling system where 80 percent of the wastewater from the dyeing process can be reused over and over again.”
Another challenge is the location and logistics of shipping the wool yarn, she adds.
“Since the wool is shipped to different parts of the country, only a small portion of Brown Sheep Company’s business is done in Nebraska,” Wells explains. “The shipping and logistics of the process can be quite the challenge sometimes.”
Wells also believes there are benefits to western Nebraska for the Brown Sheep Company.
“There is a really strong workforce in the Mitchell, Neb. area. Our employees have a strong work ethic and long-standing relationships with those who have been with the company for many years,” she states.
“Being in Nebraska is an advantage because the company is in a very central location. Even though shipping is a challenge, we’re in the middle of both the west and east coasts,” Wells says.
According to Wells, the main goal for Brown Sheep Company is to make high-quality wool yarn using U.S. wool and to help support U.S. workers.
“Our products bring a lot of joy, happiness and warmth to the people who use them,” she states. “We want to continue to grow and expand our customer base.”
Brown Sheep Company is a part of the agriculture industry most people don’t think about because the company is different than what most people would think of as agriculture, Wells notes.
“I would say, in a lot of ways, we’re at the intersection of several different industries, including agriculture because we use wool and all natural fibers,” she says.
Wells thinks the way products are sold is changing but not in a good way.
“Traditional craft shops struggle to keep up with the pace of internet sales and technology,” she notes. “Brown Sheep Company plans to stay with the times and make sure we can get our product to the customers.”
For more information, visit brownsheep.com.
Heather Loraas is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.