Long Thread Podcast Spotlight Episode: Brown Sheep Company

In the decades since Brown Sheep Company began, nearly everything in the American wool business has changed. Maintaining the company’s tradition of high-quality wool yarns is a tale of family, persistence, and self-reliance.

Anne Merrow Jul 6, 2024 - 8 min read

Long Thread Podcast Spotlight Episode: Brown Sheep Company Primary Image

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Andrew Wells is the third generation of the iconic American yarn manufacturer Brown Sheep Company. Living near the family business outside Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, he grew up giving tours and sweeping the floors when his parents, Peggy and Robert Wells, ran the business. His grandfather, Harlan Brown, had been a sheep and lamb farmer before deciding to begin processing wool yarns, a business he eventually passed along to his daughter and son-in-law. (The company is named not for the color of the sheep but for the Brown family.)

In 1980, the following ad appeared in Spin Off magazine:

Sheep Company Starts Mill
The Brown Sheep Co. of Mitchell, Nebraska, has started a spinning mill. They have wools in gray, black and white and knitting and weaving yarns for sale. For more information write: The Brown Sheep Co., Rt. 1, Mitchell, NE 69357. Send $1 for samples.

The risk that Harlan Brown took in 1980 put the family on a course to become an important resource for American crafters. Decades later, Andrew and his family are pushing their commitment to American wool forward.

Brittany and Andrew Wells, with their two young sons, are following in the family tradition of manufacturing quality wool yarns. Photo courtesy of Brown Sheep Company

Building on Tradition

The first five decades of Brown Sheep Company have been times of decline for both natural fibers and American manufacturing, but the Wells family continues producing wool yarn. Mantaining consistent quality in the face of such seismic shifts has called on the family’s creativity and perseverance. Instead of straying from their core values by moving production overseas or reducing quality, they continue purchasing wool from the American West and creating yarn in their small-town facility.

Brown Sheep Company performs as much of the processing as they can do themselves, from spinning through dyeing and packaging. Finding a dye house has become a challenge for many yarn manufacturers, and Western Nebraska has a dry climate with scant water resources. Brown Sheep Company keeps the process within their own hands by doing all their own dyeing. Their dye facility conserves water and energy by filtering waste water to use for the next dye bath (even if it’s a different color). The company stores a sample length of each dye lot for years, just to make sure that each skein of Lamb’s Pride or Nature Spun will match the same colorway that you bought years ago.

Rainbow of wool yarns Brown Sheep Company dyes an extensive range of colorways, using a process that filters the dyebaths and conserves hot water. Photo courtesy of Brown Sheep Company

The choice of fiber reflects Brown Sheep Company’s philosophy, too. Instead of chasing ultrafine fibers that prove less durable in finished goods, Andrew travels to the Center of the Nation Wool Warehouse in South Dakota to choose soft wool in grades appropriate for hats, mittens, scarves, and sweaters. Lamb’s Pride blends in some mohair for luster, drape, and durability. The easy-care classics Cotton Fleece and Cotton Fine include enough wool to stay light and elastic, which makes them popular for summer and baby items as well as weaving. Their newest yarn, Harborside Aran, is composed of four plies for a substantial yarn inspired by Irish sweaters; the palette of 17 colors has a rich, slightly heathered look.

On the Needles and Beyond

These days, Brown Sheep yarns may be most popular for knitting and crochet, but the company has always served a variety of fiber crafts. Lamb’s Pride and other non-superwash wool yarns are go-to essentials for fulling (knitted or crocheted feltmaking). The company offers a number of their yarns wound on cones to make them accessible to weavers from pin loom to rigid heddle to multi-shaft.

Green and white table runner  and felted leaf-shaped trivets sitting on a table with hot cocoa. Brittany Wells’s Falling Leaves Table Set combines a wool runner with felted trivets, taking advantage of wool’s insulating and fulling properties. The project uses Lamb’s Pride yarn and appeared in Little Looms Fall 2023. Photo by Matt Graves.

Brown Sheep Company’s yarns have been used in weaving since the very beginning, when Harlan Brown sold his yarns to Diné (Navajo) weavers out of his car on his first sales trip. Diné weavers continue to use Brown Sheep yarns in their handwoven textiles, and they are an important partner for the company. Closer to home, the company’s Director of Merchandising—and Andrew’s wife—Brittany Wells has fallen in love with weaving and design. In addition to designing for magazines such as Handwoven and Little Looms, she created an officially registered pattern for Scotts Bluff County Tartan. Andrew and Brittany’s young sons are the fourth generation of the Brown-Wells family to work in the family business—so far, as models.

In this spotlight episode, Andrew and Brittany talk about the process of making high-quality wool yarns, the impact that Brown Sheep Company has in the American craft landscape, and what makes them more excited than ever to carry on the family tradition.

Brown and cream placemat on outdoor table Brittany Wells was inspired by the natural surroundings of her grandfather’s cabin to design these placemats, called Birches of Northern Saskatchewan, which appeared in Handwoven March/April 2020. Photo by George Boe

This episode is brought to you by:

Brown Sheep Company is a four-generation family business bringing you high quality wool and natural fiber yarns. We spin and dye U.S.-grown wool into hundreds of vibrant colors at our mill in western Nebraska. Our mill has something to offer for every craft, from our well-known knitting and crochet yarns to wool roving for spinning and felting. We offer U.S-made needlepoint yarn as well as yarn on cones for weaving. Learn more about our company and products at BrownSheep.com.