Bison's Snuggly Side, Cowboys & Indians, February/March 2017

Bison1American bison produce some of the world’s softest, warmest wool. Brian Linton wants to win it the appreciation it deserves — and clothe legions of converts besides.

Brian Linton barely breathed as he watched a white-coated lab technician place a swatch of bison batting into an instrument that measures insulation value. Linton suspected the stuff would be warm. After all, bison’s shaggy fur helps these creatures survive the plains’ brutal minus-20-degree cold snaps, and Linton’s aim is to make bison-filled outerwear that can help people stay cozy, too.

Linton pioneered a way to turn bison fur into batting that looks like wall insulation — and according to the lab results, it’s just as heat-trapping: The instrument registered a clo rating of 4.51. Linton grinned. That insulation value puts his bison batting on par with heavy polar equipment. But he doesn’t plan on outfitting Arctic explorers. Rather, it’s to make high-end apparel and home furnishings from the most sustainable, underutilized material he could find — which happens to be the same wool that Native Americans exploited centuries ago.

“My goal is to create bison fiber products that are sustainable both for the environment and the industry that is bringing back a native species to the grasslands of North America,” says Linton, a Philadelphian who launched the fashion label United By Blue in 2013.     Sustainability has always been the company’s core value. For every product it sells, it removes a pound of trash from oceans and waterways (such as Utah’s Jordan River and Lake Merced in San Francisco). And its line of tees, button-down shirts, gloves, and twill pants feature natural materials like cotton and wool. “Natural fibers are the most sustainable way to make anything,” explains Linton, who evaluated alpaca, yak, and other alternative fibers that could expand United By Blue’s sustainability story.

Then a friend mailed Linton a wad of bison hair he’d collected from a Montana ranch in the spring, when the animals were shedding their winter coats. “It felt incredibly soft and had great springiness and loft,” says Linton, who was both intrigued and surprised. “The American bison looks like such a gruff, dangerous beast,” he says. But it’s got a tender side: Beneath their unkempt outer fur, bison produce a superfine downy undercoat that’s as soft as cashmere. Those layers of hair trap in body heat so effectively that in winter, snow collects on the animals’ shaggy backs.

“Seeing that, you understand how bison can live in minus-30- degree temperatures for weeks on end,” says Tess Leach of Ranchlands, the company that manages Zapata Ranch (a bison and guest ranch in south-central Colorado). Each winter, when the hides are thickest, Zapata Ranch harvests about 20 bison, which are sold for meat. Then, it buys back as many as 10 hides from the slaughterhouse and turns them into chaps, beer koozies, and pillows. “They’re softer than wool, and they make great conversation pieces,” Leach says.

Bison2Ranchlands produces only a handful of such products each year, and while Linton would like to work directly with small, independent ranches like Zapata, few can match his large-scale vision. There’s no shortage of fur — demand for lean grass-raised bison meat has never been higher — but as a byproduct of that meat industry, bison’s wooly coats have always been discarded. Unlike the Merino market, no infrastructure exists to shear, clean, comb, and return a finished bison fiber for the textile trade.

In the absence of an existing one, Linton’s creating a bison-fiber supply chain, forging relationships with slaughterhouses and larger ranchers to collect the wool off animals being harvested for their meat. He started small and has been steadily ramping up. The first United By Blue product to feature bison wool was the Ultimate American sock, which debuted in fall 2014 and blends bison fibers with U.S.-sourced Rambouillet Merino.

But a single 1,000-pound bison produces just six ounces of soft, downy undercoat. So Linton pioneered a way to turn the coarser hairs into luxury items. His new lab-tested B100 Fill lends high-power warmth to the Ultimate American Jacket ($598) and Bison Snap Jacket ($275), which are entirely U.S.A.-made and hit market in September 2016. Preorders on Kickstarter quickly exceeded the company’s $50,000 goal, reaching $400,000 in six weeks.

“The jackets are functional, but also fashionable,” says Linton. Although it looks trim and sleek, the low-bulk bison insulation in the Snap Jacket keeps wearers warm in 25-degree temperatures. And thanks to its tough nylon shell fabric, the Ultimate American Jacket is rugged enough for work wear. “They go from the campsite to the coffee house,” says Linton. Even his forthcoming bison-wool blanket is designed to handle chilly nights on decks and patios — not just stylish living rooms.

That’s why United By Blue’s bison-wool products have appealed to ranchers as well as city dwellers who love the romance of the American West, says Linton, who makes several visits to bison ranches each year. “They’re niche products for now,” he says. But Linton wants United By Blue to develop the bison supply chain to the point that its wool becomes widely available and affordable. He admits that bison will never become as ubiquitous as sheep, which are raised in staggering numbers across the globe. The bison, meanwhile, is a North American native, and although efforts by Ted Turner and others to restore the species to its native habitats have resulted in widespread population increases for this once-beleaguered animal, bison is still unlikely to overtake good old sheep’s wool anytime soon.      

Still there’s room to grow, and Linton wants to be the one to do it. “Strengthening the supply chain for bison products would be good for rural economies,” he says. Turning an underutilized material into cozy socks and outerwear meets his criteria for sustainable production. Plus, says Linton, the species deserves special applause.  

While he’s banking on helping to grow an appreciation for bison among folks who have yet to experience their phenomenally warm, soft fur, Linton also wants people to appreciate the animal beyond its wool’s great thermal potential: “The bison is such an iconic American animal. Its survival story is epic, and an inspiration to me. It’s a majestic species that deserves respect.”