Sustainability takes many forms, few as comforting — in both a tactile and soulful way — as the Rhody Warm blankets pro- duced in Rhode Island. It started with sheep, as so many things in Rhode Island have over the centuries. Sheep have grazed its seaside meadows since the 1600s, on land graced by dry- laid stone walls that can still be seen today. Exports of wool, mutton, and cheese (yes, sheep cheese) formed the basis of the colony’s earliest
commerce and are said to have brought the state out of the economic
plight that followed the Revolutionary War.
So it rankled Polly Hopkins when in the 1980s and ’90s there was
so little demand for sheep’s wool that farmers were literally throwing
a cat snuggles on a Rhody Warm blanket (above) in the barn at
Historic New England’s Watson Farm in Jamestown. At the farm’s Sheep
Shearing Day last May (facing page, clockwise from top left),
Melissa Higgins handles a sheep; the 1796 farmhouse; Heather Minto
checks a fleece for matted areas immediately after one of the farm’s 50
sheep, which produce about 500 pounds of fleece per year, was shorn;
the animals return to the barn after the shearing.
it away. “We used it as mulch in our garden for a few years,” says
Hopkins, a third-generation sheep producer who is president of the
Rhode Island Sheep Cooperative, a group of farmers dedicated to finding markets for local sheep products.
As Hopkins and other Rhode Island farmers watched the demand
for wool decrease, partly due to the popularity of synthetics such as
Polarfleece, they did some brainstorming. They had some success selling yarn for hand-spinning and knitting, which were both experiencing
a resurgence, but found that the yarn took only a fraction of the hundreds of pounds of wool the Ocean State produced each year.
“We’re creative; we find other ways to sell wool,” says Don Minto,
a sheep producer who, with his wife, Heather, manages Watson Farm
in Jamestown, Rhode Island, a 265-acre property with a 1796 farmhouse owned by Historic New England. In 2006, Hopkins, the Mintos,
and other farmers collaborated on procuring a government grant to
finance the initial costs for producing an undyed soft wool blanket
made entirely from local fleece — and Rhody Warm was born.
It was an immediate success. The 2006 blanket featured a windowpane pattern in gray and off -white. “We placed an ad for it in the
local paper on a Thursday in mid-December,” recalls Don Minto,
“and the blankets sold out by Sunday!”