We’ve been Brown Sheep yarn fans for over a decade. Their Lamb’s Pride is one of our desert island yarns—if, of course, it’s a chilly desert island where a nice blanket would be a help. Lamb’s Pride was the obvious choice when we were figuring out the yarn for our first blanket pattern for Field Guide No. 1, the Station Wagon Blanket.
We’ve known for a long time that Brown Sheep Company is an admirably all-American operation, located at the westernmost edge of Nebraska. But when we met Peggy Jo Wells, the owner of Brown Sheep, in person, we were completely knocked out by her sincerity and good humor. It made us feel great to know that this yarn we love comes from a family business now with a third generation at work.
In a recent conversation, she gave us a lot to think about when it comes to running a family business, generation to generation.
Lamb’s Pride Worsted comes in a jillion shades. we had to pick five.
A hundred years ago, the goal wasn’t to make yarns. When Edwin Brown bought the land that Brown Sheep Company now sits on in Mitchell, Nebraska, he farmed and raised sheep. As the generations passed, the sheep business dwindled. In 1980, Edwin’s grandson Harlan Brown decided to buy some old spinning equipment and make yarn. By the late 1990s, his daughter Peggy Jo Wells and her husband Robert left professional careers in Colorado to further the family business.
Working with those you are related to can be wonderful, Wells says, because you know each other so well. For the same reasons, it can also be challenging.
“It’s not always a walk in the park,” Wells says. “I had a fabulous father. He was truly an entrepreneur—but he had a hard time always accepting other ideas. Yet he was very gracious until his very last day. I think he realized that if his business was going to make it, it was going to have to be us that would make it go. Sometimes we had to peel his fingers off of the steering wheel and sometimes he let go willingly.”
The Station Wagon Blanket is a garter stitch fest, in easy strips.
Wells herself is having to face the same changes now, too. Her youngest son Andrew graduated from college and stepped on board the Brown Sheep train with his wife Brittney.
“We’re thrilled. They bring on board with them their own set of skills and enthusiasm. Now I’m having to do the same thing my Dad did. It’s not always as easy as people think, making a family business work,” Wells says.
For the record, you will find no brown sheep at the Brown Sheep Company. What you will find, however, are solid and useful yarns.
You’ve probably used them already. Lamb’s Pride comes in dozens of colors and is perfect for felting. Cotton Fleece and Fine are baby-wear staples.
85% wool, 15% mohair means there’s a lovely, subtle sheen to this yarn.
Wells has been well pleased with what the passage of time has brought to the business. The factory recaptures and reuses 70-90 percent of its wastewater. The yarns and fibers are all-American made, even though that can present economic challenges when it can be done offshore for a fraction of the price. Wells is committed to staying, so much so that “over the last 10 years, we’ve totally rebuilt our mill. All of our equipment is modern and safe. The old textile equipment was terribly dangerous. Our employees matter way more to us than they do to OSHA. We’ve really cleaned up not only outside for our waste, but inside too. That really matters,” Wells says.
Brown Sheep, she hopes, will be around for a while, despite the challenges that face it. After all, it’s faced hard circumstances before.
“You read the statistics about how few businesses make it, being passed down from the first generation to the second. Then it drops down into single digits being passed down into the third generation. It’s understandable,” she says. “I believe very strongly that every generation has the right to decide for themselves what they want to do.”
Knitters, however, may rejoice that this third generation seems up for the job of keeping us in yarns for years to come.