The Montana company is best known for its American-made outdoor gear made of Merino wool. But when employees discovered a product was made abroad, they got to work.
The Montana-based clothing company Duckworth produces the most luxurious wool-layered outdoors garments in America, if not the world.
Duckworth bills itself as the only 100 percent, American-made wool manufacturer in the United States, and is popular among folks who prefer to spend their recreational free time in the great outdoors, whether it be frigid Montana winter months or hot summertime days.
Since the company’s inception in 2013, the Duckworth mission has been to control an American-made supply chain and work solely with American manufacturers. But in early 2022, the Duckworth team noticed something about one of their promotional hats: a tag on the inside read “Made in Bangladesh.”
“I was just looking at our hats, and I had seen the Bangladesh tag, and immediately just said, ‘Enough. Enough is enough,’” said Mike Somerby, the company’s director of marketing. “Everyone agreed, and we pulled hundreds of units from the shop that were still there, and we just gave them away for free at various in-person events in Bozeman and said, ‘Let’s start looking for an American-made manufacturer.’”
Duckworth was founded in 2013 when Montana rancher John Helle spent an afternoon on the ski slopes with avid outdoorsman and entrepreneur Robert “Bernie” Bernthal. In true Montana fashion, the two men became inspired while surrounded by the vast beauty of the “Big Sky” state’s mountain ranges and seemingly endless prairies.
Helle is a fourth-generation rancher of a rare breed of Rambouillet Merino sheep. Along with other family members and ranch hands, Helle tends to a flock of 10,000 of the prized animals from the 25,000-acre Helle Ranch in Dillon, Montana, located about 115 miles from the Duckworth company headquarters in Bozeman.
Merino wool is highly valued because it provides excellent insulation, transports moisture when drying quickly, does not itch like lower quality wool fabric, is lightweight, keeps its shape remarkably well and is odor resistant.
Helle and Bernthal decided to take this soft yet durable fleece and create their own brand of exquisite outdoor clothing. The company started with a slow but steady business model, growing year-over-year. But on Christmas Eve 2017, NBC’s Today Show broadcast a segment on the company and sales skyrocketed.
Duckworth sales continued on a steady upward trajectory, but like many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic created unexpected supply chain and labor problems. So, a decision was made to change the company strategy to a direct-to-consumer e-commerce company and cease in-person retail sales.
By the end of 2020, Duckworth had a new team of employees in place to make the transition to a business to an online-focused company.
“The pandemic put our business, as with every business that retails B to C, in a precarious position, because of course all of our brick-and-mortar locations were shut down permanently or closed for pandemic restrictions,” Somerby said. “With the pandemic, people already had a negative feeling of shopping while having to wear a mask and then they were probably not as receptive to learn about the virtues of American manufacturing, Montana wool or what have you. I was brought in to transition the business from a majority brick-and-mortar traditional retail model to a direct-to-consumer e-commerce model.
“We probably do just about 98% of our annual sales via e-commerce at this point. We have one retail location now, when we used to have dozens across the country. Our only retail location now is a shop called Schnee’s which is here in Bozeman, and we do have a special relationship with them.”
Duckworth does not own a manufacturing facility, but instead contracts with smaller cut and sew shops. After the Merino sheep are sheared in Montana, the wool is sent to textile companies in North and South Carolina to be spun, dyed and woven. The fabric is then sent to smaller entities that cut, stitch, and sew the material into impeccable garments.
“We have 26 facilities across 12 states, so you can kind of get a sense for a small company how much proportionally we are contributing to the American manufacturing space,” Somerby said. “We grow the wool, which is fundamental to our business. Every piece of fleece comes from our ranch in Montana, and we sell the end product. So, we are slowly but surely trying to connect the two dots but we do own the two bookends of the supply chain.”
Duckworth employees and the people of Montana take great pride in their homegrown products, since the state only accounts for about 20,000 people working in the manufacturing industry. That mission has not changed with the move to an e-commerce platform.
So when Somerby and his coworkers noticed the small line of baseball caps Duckworth was selling had a tag on the inside that read “Made in Bangladesh,” they wanted to do something about it.
The baseball-style caps are not made with any of the company’s famous Merino wool, and are instead offered as a type of promotional merchandise in the same way that hats emblazoned with John Deere or Caterpillar (Cat Hats) once became popular among residents of Midwestern rural communities.
But still, it just seemed wrong for a company that takes so much pride in its American manufacturing to offer a promotional item that was imported.
“We pulled every single one of them that were made in Bangladesh,” Somerby said. “We gave away our entire inventory of these hats for free. I know they are not wool and have nothing to do with our core piece of the business, but all the same if we are going to offer hats they should be Made in America.
“These hats kind of straddle the line of promotion as well. We really don’t brand our stuff the same way that other brands do. We don’t have Duckworth printed in gold fonts across our chests on our T-shirts. That is really not our style.”
Other companies that take such pride in being American-made may not have brought attention to this imported hat boondoggle, but Somerby not only sent emails to all Duckworth customers on its correspondence list, but he also put out a press release explaining the embarrassing sourcing mistake.
The emails and press release were included with a photo of new Duckworth baseball-style caps, which are now being manufactured by Cali Headwear in Los Angeles. Cali Headwear also offers hats that were sourced from overseas, but has a Made in USA line of 22 ballcaps that are entirely Made in America. The Made in USA collection is now producing the new Duckworth promotional-style baseball caps.
The following is the correspondence from Duckworth to its loyal customers, which is an admirable effort to rectify a situation the new Duckworth team inherited from its previous retail sales decision makers:
“Introducing the new and improved Powder Hound Hat, featuring five panels, a mesh back, a snapback closure and a 100% American-made supply chain.
“Made in Bangladesh – that’s what our ballcaps used to say on the inside tag. NO LONGER. Back in the day, we weren’t aware of any high-quality American hat manufacturers, so we went with what was available to us at the time. We partnered with a USA-based company that outsourced production. Perhaps our focus to forge the finest American-made layers in the game using our premium Merino fleece took our eye off of that ball. There’s no doubt about it, that was our bad, and we pulled these hats from the shop in early 2022. Well, after searching high and low, we found the right partner: a fully USA-made hat manufacturer crafting high-quality ball caps.”
“Most companies wouldn’t admit this mistake but that is the thing, we are brutally honest and that’s what our customers love in many respects,” said Somerby, a 28-year-old native of Connecticut. “We are a Montana brand which means that we talk less and speak more, but we do open our mouths and communicate things and we are sincere. We are not going to hide behind some mistake.”
The rest of Duckworth’s product line continues to be American-made.
The Montana Merino wool is among the world’s finest because of the stress-free existence the sheep experience under the Big Sky, where daily temperatures vary from minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 90-degrees plus during the sheep dog days of summer. The 10,000 sheep owned by the Helle family graze at elevations from 5,000 feet to 9,500 feet of the Rocky Mountains.
Each sheep produces from eight to 14 pounds of wool during the shearing season, which is currently in full swing. The shearing will be complete in early June and the sheep will then make their climb to higher elevations where they make their summer home. It is estimated that each sheep will produce enough wool to make eight to 10 T-shirts per year.
The Duckworth catalog of apparel features all Merino wool-based items, the majority of which are a blend with other fabrics such as cotton or plant-based modal, which is a desirable fabric for warm weather construction.
The Duckworth design team has created a wide range of clothing items such as T-shirts, button-down shirts, hoodies, socks, casual pants, gloves, camisoles, skirts, underwear, base wool layers for warmth and genuine Montana Merino wool knit hats for winter warmth.
“Montana is not an easy place to raise any type of agricultural product,” Somerby said. “You have very harsh winters; short summers and you deal with crazy weather conditions. Merino wool is already a pinnacle variety of wool, but our Merino is top of the line.”