Textile Byways: The Ranch - Montana 2014

A little recap: In October, I inherited Sweet Grass Wool, a Montana yarn and fiber company, lovingly run by Patti Bobonich. She uses Targhee wool grown by her neighbor, Carolyn Greene. I traveled to Montana to see Patti and to meet Carolyn and her sheep in person. The following two weeks on the blog are dedicated to Patti and Carolyn, and are about us discovering the beauty Montana holds.


Carolyn suggested we meet at Bill's Place, their local diner - where we could grab some lunch, get to know each other, and then head out to the ranch. Driving to meet Carolyn, we passed hills with golden grasses, sprinkled with aspens and cottonwoods, their yellow leaves shimmering in the autumn sun. As we drove further into the hills, and the plains stretched for miles, I became increasingly excited to think about the sheep and their life on the range!

As we pulled up to Bill's Place, it was love at first sight. In front of Bill's, the parking lot was full of flat bed work trucks, horse trailers attached, and it seemed as if each truck had a herding dog, sitting on the flat bed, waiting loyally for their owner to return from lunch. Inside, it is basically a one room building that doubles as the lunch counter, community center, and post office. A great place to learn the word on the street. Inside there were cowboys eating lunch - and some of the cowboys were even wearing leather chaps. We don't live far from the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco - so I have definitely seen my fair share of leather chaps - though not so much on real cowboys "in the wild"

It was great to see Patti. It had been a couple years. The first thing I noticed about Carolyn is that she was wearing a hand-knit sweater. I learned that Carolyn doesn't know how to knit. Her sister-in-law knit her sweater, and many others, using yarn made of wool from her flock. Carolyn's specialty is raising the sheep and the wool. Over lunch, I learned about Carolyn's background. She majored in Animal Science at Cal Poly. It was fun to learn that Carolyn was originally from California. In 1970, Carolyn moved to Montana - as she wanted to use her degree. She lived and worked on a cattle ranch.

It was in Montana where she met her husband John. She and John are the fourth generation of his family to raise white-face wool type sheep. In the 1950s the Targhee breed of sheep was developed at the US Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho. The goal was to create a breed of sheep which have the stamina to live in the western Rocky Mountain Region of the United States - to be able to handle cold conditions, rugged landscape, be able to transverse hundreds of miles, and live within herds numbering sometimes in the thousands. Once developed, Carolyn and John began to raise Targhee sheep.

Today, Carolyn calls herself a sheep producer or sheep breeder. And she raises only Targhee sheep - as she supports the local region. She collects extensive data on the sheep she breeds and she submits it to the National Sheep Improvement Program with the hope and intent to create Targhee sheep which can be the healthiest within the above described environment. Specific characteristics she looks for are heavier lambs, ewes which birth twins, and improving the fleece - so that it is soft and is pure white - not containing any black fibers. By improving these characteristics, ranchers are able to earn more money for the products produced by each sheep. In her breeding flock she has about 100 ewes. In the Fall she attends a sheep sale, where she sells about 1/2 of her ram lambs. She keeps her ewe lambs until they are at least one year's old, so she can record their characteristics. Then, she either sells them to other farmers or she incorporates them into her flock.

Carolyn was prompted to create yarn from her wool in 1990, when wool prices were low and she was unable to get the compensation commensurate with its quality. She had worked really hard to create bright, white wool - and was so happy to see it made into yarn, and be able to be used. She began to sell her yarn and fiber. She really enjoyed meeting the spinners, knitters, and weavers using the wool and seeing what they made from it. Though as time went on, she found herself at a crossroads. She would either need to scale up quite a bit to handle the demand or begin to work with someone else who could lead the fiber and yarn portion of the process. This is when Patti comes into the picture.

Patti had learned to knit as a child. In 1982, she learned to spin, in 1983, to weave, and in 1988, to felt. In June of 2004, she decided to open a yarn shop in Livingston, Montana. It was around this time that Carolyn and Patti met. And in 2005, Carolyn approached Patti inquiring if she would be interested in running the yarn portion of Sweet Grass - and Patti accepted. From then on, Carolyn focused on raising the sheep and creating beautiful wool, and Patti focused on taking this wool and making it into beautiful fiber and yarn.

At this point in our lunch, with an understanding of how Carolyn came to be a sheep rancher, and how Carolyn and Patti met, it seemed like a good time to go out and see the sheep. So we packed up our things, and drove out to the Greene's 1400 acre ranch.

Once on the ranch, we piled into Carolyn's car and drove out to the pasture to meet the sheep. Driving down a dirt road, we came to a wooden bridge, beneath it flows the Sweet Grass river. This is the view from the bridge.

And here are the sheep, and one of their two loyal guard dogs. Hard to believe with that sweet face.

The sheep spend all their time in the pasture and live off the grasses and clover which grow naturally. I am completely smitten with the fact that this adorable sheep on the left makes the wool from which we can create this yarn on the right. 

After a while, we left the sheep and Carolyn gave us a tour of the barn. This is where the lambing and the shearing takes place.

This was an absolutely amazing day. I am so grateful to Carolyn and Patti for teaching me about their history, for introducing me to the sheep, and for showing us this beautiful land. Here's one last photo - of Patti walking with her dog Buster from the barn to the house.

Tomorrow on the blog, I will write about the new yarn; how it was made and dyed. And it will be available for sale. Stay tuned!