Road Trip: Brown Sheep Wool Company

I've been on the road, and when I haven't been on the road I've been running to keep up with editorial and design-related questions from the publisher about the book, as well as the ongoing freelance work. So I've got piles of ideas for blog posts and they haven't been getting written.

But here's one.

On the road trip that I completed Tuesday evening about 5:30, I started by heading for Brown Sheep Wool Company, outside Mitchell, Nebraska, which is in the western part of the state (the panhandle), west of Scottsbluff. This is the factory. It's fun to visit, but not so easy to find because I hadn't been there before—even though I had printed out directions and maps from online sources. I went all the way into Mitchell and asked for directional help at the post office, then backtracked.

Here's what the entry to the factory looks like when you finally get there:


Here's the neighborhood:


I really like the sign, so I took a closer photo:


During "regular business hours" (roughly), there is a small but well-packed outlet store on the premises. It's not exactly marked, but if you look around and see what might be an office entry on the main building, that's where you go. It's up a few stairs.

Because this is the factory and Brown Sheep yarns are sold through a network of retailers, the store's stock consists of seconds. In this case, as Donna and Peggy Jo explained to me, "seconds" are one-of-a-kind dye experiments; dyelots that came out a little astray of the color specifications; ends of dyelots; and other oddball skeins. Some may have too many knots, but they said that's generally not the case.

The yarns are sold by the pound: one price for all of the solids and standard-run colors ($13 at present) and a different price for the hand-dyed yarns ($26). On the day I was there, the hand-dyes filled the better part of a wall, and while there were groups of similar skeins there were also a whole lot of one-off dye experiments . . . great fun. There were at least three times as many cubbies full of the standard colors. Both sections had a broad range of yarn weights, neatly organized. The one-of-a-kind yarns didn't have labels or tags, but if you're familiar with the Brown Sheep line you can tell by feel what the base yarn is.

I succumbed. At those prices, and when faced with yarns that I know I'll use because Brown Sheep is one of my favorite non-handspun yarns, it just made sense. My daughter gets to pick out the yarn for her next project from the collection I brought home. The frugal part of me concentrated on the standard colors. I only got a few of the hand-dyed skeins. Because of the per-pound pricing, sock yarn is almost a giveaway, and the rest is astonishingly reasonable. Here's what happened:

Lamb's Pride worsted-weight singles, which is a wool (85%) and mohair (15%) blend, all the same dyelot:


Lamb's Pride bulky-weight singles, also the wool (85%) and mohair
(15%) blend, two different dyelots:


The four center skeins are one dyelot and the two outer skeins are another. I checked the lots as I was buying, and I know that I can easily work with different dyelots if I'm aware of the situation at the planning stage (I can also work with them later, but it's more complicated). In the store's lighting, the shade variations were not as obvious as they were later in daylight. Yet these colors are close enough to be used artfully and without breaking a sweat. My daughter is thinking of making a short-sleeved pullover vest/sweater. She immediately thought of using the lighter-colored skeins in a center panel that would already be distinguished by a pattern difference. If she does this, she'll get practice with intarsia-style joins at the edges of the panel, and likely no one seeing the finished object will notice the color shift.

Lamb's Pride superwash, 100% wool, worsted-weight two-ply, all the same dyelot:


Lanaloft worsted-weight singles, 100% wool,
all the same dyelot:


Still browsing in the regular section, I found some irresistible sock yarn. It takes two skeins of sock yarn to make a pair. Of course there were single skeins here, so I'll have some fun with designing, putting the two upper skeins together and the two lower ones together. The upper skeins are Wildfoote, a blend of wool (75%) and nylon (25%), and the lower ones are Lamb's Pride superwash, in a sportweight (a bit heavier than the Wildfoote). At $13 a pound, these were $1.42 a skein, so I'll be making two pairs of socks at less than $3 each. I sure couldn't I pass that up.


Within the shop, the lower skeins looked almost the same at first
glance, were more obviously different when I set them next to each
other, and . . . neither has a dyelot indicated. Using up bits of extra
singles by plying them together? Whatever, it's my good fortune to have
found them.

The next photo shows what I couldn't leave behind from the hand-dyed selections.


The skeins on the left were among a large stash of one-off dye experiments. There were more skeins of the sock yarns on the right, but this is all I need (at hand-dyed seconds pricing, I'll get a pair of socks for less than $6). The single skeins may offer me an excuse to try out some of the patterns in Miriam Felton's new book, which features ideas that make optimum use of special yarns. . . .

From the hand-dyed section I also wanted to gather a bunch of gorgeously subtle autumn-colored Burly
Spun (the extra heavyweight singles) so I could knit a second afghan in the
design I contributed to the new book on Dorothy Reade's lace designs,
but even at these prices that wasn't an option right now. Maybe next time
I'm at the factory (because I'll be going back) there will be something
equally appealing (in sufficient quantities) and my budget will accommodate the stretch.

Finally, I got two skeins just because I know they will come in handy. The seafoam (Lamb's Pride, on the bottom) is one of the colors I use to knit the swatches that are photographed for Nomad Press's books. The Nature Spun is just a weight and color that will find itself on the needles some time.


Brown Sheep was founded by a family and is still family-owned—Peggy Wells, one of the people I spoke with, is a fourth-generation owner (sheep have been in the picture all along, although only in the form of yarn-production for two generations). Brown Sheep has been a source of reliable knitting and needlepoint yarns since 1980, when her father set up a small spinning mill in a corner of a barn. A lot of the wool is bought from nearby sheep growers in Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming, although the factory obtains fibers from elsewhere if they're not available locally.

It was definitely worth taking a slight detour and also getting lost for a while in order to find the Brown Sheep factory. Next time I'll plan ahead and arrange to have a tour.


I'm going to give an update soon on my progress with the sweater called Vivian, designed by Ysolda. I'm making it with Brown Sheep Lanaloft (the singles, worsted-weight, 100% wool yarn).


11 thoughts on “Road Trip: Brown Sheep Wool Company”

  1. I’ve wanted to get out to the Brown Sheep factory and store for years now, but it always seems like a long ways away (or out of the way, etc.) Thanks for sharing your experience and your haul!

  2. Thanks so much for giving us a vicarious trip! I’ve always wondered about their factory. I’m weaving these days with a big bag of their mill end rovings so it’s nice to know the yarns are available too on occasion. 🙂

  3. Oops, I meant the mill end/seconds yarns being available. Of course the regular yarns are available–I have plenty in my stash! (too tired to be posting, I think…)

  4. Brown Sheep is a bit remote (public transportation isn't anywhere near an option, and biking there is only for truly dedicated and in-shape cyclists). Which is part of how they can have their yarns be such good quality for reasonable prices–low overhead. The location also probably means they can have a top-notch crew working there, folks who value the place and appreciate the ability to work in a non-urban location.

    Linda, Nebraska is a beautiful state, east or west, with unique landscapes. I drove across the sandhills going in both directions–I usually change routes for the return, but didn't this time because they're lovely. You'd need a car to get to Brown Sheep no matter where you were in Nebraska! So pick your residency by where you want to be and make a day trip (or day-and-a-half) out of Brown Sheep. If you're in the east, you can check out the sandhills en route.

    If anyone is ever in Valentine, Nebraska, and in need of a place to sleep (upper central part of the state), the Trade Winds Motel is great. Less expensive than the low-price chains and very, very nice. Simple, clean, large room with free wireless internet, fridge and microwave, better-than-average motel breakfast, and nice people running it. It's near the eastern intersection of highways 83 and 20 (there is a farther west intersection of the two highways as well).

  5. When you go back, I’m hitching a ride! I dearly love outlet/seconds/ offbeat/unique stuff, so I’m starting a cookie jar for my next indulgent trip….

  6. Kris, you could hitch a ride. You'd have a really good time at this particular location. You'd be set to knit for a grandkid for quite a while. GREAT colors, of course! A very wide range of them in the standard yarns. I realized when I got back that I'd selected multiple skeins of single colors, but then I have a selection of single skeins at home for colorwork.

  7. Oh, brings back memories! I did a day trip out there for my birthday three years ago. I drove on the Oregon Trail, I walked on it, I wandered around Scott’s Bluff, I drove 10 miles past Brown Sheep, I bought enormous $13 skeins of Wildfoote that I doubt I’ll ever manage to use up… LOL
    (And thanks for the warning on Vivian – I’d be knitting the 38 most likely if I made it.)

  8. Ooh, BIG skeins of Wildfoote? Sounds great.

    On Vivian: I’ll have the modifications for you. It’s a great knit. It’s just got a few sizing/pattern coordination issues. Getting it tech edited to all those sizes with all the bits in the right places would have been cost-prohibitive.

  9. Thanks for the post – I’ll definitely call ahead for a tour too. Am hoping to make it this summer still.

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