The Imperial Stock Ranch has a long history of sheep production, and is specifically known for its Columbia heritage. During the 1880s, as the ranch was increasing its land holdings and quickly expanding its sheep operation, the sheep industry was rapidly increasing in importance in Oregon. Wool became one of the state’s leading exports and sources of revenue. The semiarid regions of Oregon’s interior were well suited to raising sheep, specifically fine wool sheep. Richard Hinton was carefully improving and expanding his flocks, importing breeding stock and cross-breeding meat and fine wool breeds which eventually led to the creation of the Columbia sheep — an entirely new breed. These sheep were ideally suited to the high desert terrain of the Columbia Plateau, yielding more pounds of lamb and excellent wool. Hinton’s efforts and the Columbia breed were heavily influenced by French Merino genetics, also known as Rambouillet. Merino sheep had been introduced in America as early as 1802, and historically, the first sheep in Oregon were Merino. The Imperial Stock Ranch has had a long history with Merino influence in its sheep production, helping shape its wool profile.
Descending from the original 1880s cross-breeding program – our sheep live in true harmony with nature. Grazing freely on the ranch’s healthy grasslands in a rotational grazing system, they efficiently convert nutrient-rich, sunlight-fed vegetation into things mankind has needed for thousands of years: food, clothing and shelter. They provide the lean delicious protein of lamb, high-quality wool, and skins from the market lambs. Just as with other grazing animals, sheep were intended to “bite” grasses, stimulating plant growth and root development, a vital role in keeping healthy stands of vegetation growing across the landscape. In turn, these plants hold the soil and protect from erosion aiding in cleaner streams, and in the riparian areas, helping to shade and cool water. Sheep eat a variety of plants, but prefer forbs. These are broad leaf plants other than grass, making them excellent at weeding the range lands. Mixed grazing practices of cattle and sheep can have very positive benefits to the landscape, as they choose to eat different types of plants. As they move across Imperial Stock Ranch range lands, the sheep experience a high quality of life, living free and clean, and grazing naturally as intended.
For approximately 130 years, the Imperial Stock Ranch sold its harvests, including wool, as commodities. But the 1990s witnessed dramatic shifts in the sheep industry. Industrialization and consolidation impacted the processing and pricing of lamb in the food sector. Offshoring and globalization shook up the markets for raw wool, as the textile processing and manufacturing infrastructure in America experienced a huge decline. Thousands of U. S. sheep producers went out of business at the end of the 1990s. By 1999, the Imperial Stock Ranch found itself unable to sell the raw wool harvest through traditional channels. The Carvers believed that even more important than the ranch heritage, or the heritage of the Columbia breed, was the fact that we are all called to honor the vital role sheep have played on the landscape and in the history of man. The Imperial Stock Ranch also happens to believe that sheep simply belong…grazing the landscape.
The Carvers set out to prove you don’t have to cross an ocean to make clothing. Similar to the farm-to-fork “slow food” movement that reconnects us to our food, the Carvers found themselves at the leading edge of a ranch-to-runway “slow wear” movement that reconnects us to the source of the fibers we wear and use, and the animals that provide it, tending and honoring the nature of sheep. The first step was to create and sell premium wool yarns. As a spinoff of the historic Imperial Stock Ranch, their yarn and textile business was born, beginning a journey which culminated in multiple market channels and the Olympic stage as part of Ralph Lauren’s Team USA uniform program.