Interview with Tom Chappell, Founder of Tom's of Maine and Rambler's Way

TH: Can you tell us about the farms in the American West where the wool is sourced? Where are they located?

TC: Montana, Nevada, Texas, South Dakota, and right now our biggest supplier is in Dillon, Montana with a family who has been in the business for years. They have about 10,000 Rambouillet sheep. The family name is Halle. Their Rambouillet sheep are on their own land or they lease land from near by. The sheep are in groups of about 1,600-1,800 and--this is common--will have dogs and shepherds. The Basque--a region near Spain and France--people are known for their shepherding and are employed by these farmers. So we have a shepherd, probably two or three dogs, and some might have lamas--basically to protect them--there on an open range.

In our case at home we don't have dogs or shepherd because we have secure fencing. It is both fine enough to keep predators out and we bring our sheep in to an enclosure every night. We don't have trouble with predators but when you're working with that scale of a farm you are constantly looking out to protect the sheep. That is what you have to do, sheep are vulnerable they do not know how to take care of themselves.

TH: You are working with Clean Air Cool Planet to measure your carbon footprint, where do you expect they will find it the heaviest?

TC: I think it's going to be heaviest in terms of where we deliver it from our fulfillment center to the consumer. And we are going to measure that. Our footprint compared to Asian sheep is minimal, and our processing is minimal. We are going from North Carolina to South Carolina to Pennsylvania, and that is as much transportation as there is. Our fulfillment center is in Pennsylvania. So when it comes to shipping two or three pieces out by UPS. That is the part I want to know more about. We are having it all analyzed, it will all be measured by stage.

TH: And also the wool to raw wool from the farm to the scouring plane in South Carolina.

TC: Yes, the raw wool from our various ranches. We probably have about six and right now we try to combine shipments, fill up the trucks, and not ship partial shipments. And we try to deal with ranches that have good sized quantities, from the Halle people we probably bought 30,000-40,000 pounds of refined micron fiber. Micron is the way you grade a fiber you can have an 18-23; socks are usually 27 or28. Our garments are 17-18 1/2, the finest you can buy.

Yes we have to be concerned about the transportation from our ranches to our scouring plant in South Carolina. Part of the reason why we are doing it is to see if we can be carbon neutral. We are doing it on a personal level with heating, transportation. My goal is to see if we can't achieve it as a business, American-made.

I left Tom's of Maine with the idea that sustainability is probably the most important issue of our times.

And that if we did not take sustainability seriously we were headed for trouble a lot sooner than we could do anything to change course. So American-made wasn't a slogan for me it was a necessity and I even wanted it to be Maine made. And that wasn't possible because there isn't machinery in Maine that would make this type of garment possible. In business you have to be thinking about what the consumer wants, needs, and considers to be valuable, and we found that with this particular light weight, warm, comfortable garment. Then finding the sources here in the state was what the quest was all about.

Tom Shows us How to Produce Ethical Wool Undergarments on his Farm in Maine, below.

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