On the hook: Koprens produce socks from family sheep
for Tri-State Livestock News
Wade and Jenny Kopren, Bison South Dakota, are taking their wool a step further by marketing socks make from the fleeces of their sheep. The Fishhook Sock Company, co-owned by Wade and Jenny and Wade’s parents, Willis and Cindy Kopren, is off to a running start with their inaugural batch of 100% wool socks.
“The idea originally started when we were sitting around the table complaining about low wool prices,” Wade said. “I have a friend in Montana, John Helle, who is doing the same thing but on a larger scale.”
Helle’s Duckworth Clothing Company offers sweatshirts, long johns, t-shirts and other styles of clothing. Kopren had sheared Helle’s flock of sheep for years, and has watched them grow their business for the last several years.
“We had an idea of who to talk to and the process involved,” Wade said. “They had investors and partners, but we wanted to do it on our own. I wanted to start with a small lot and test it out.”
For their first batch of Fishhook socks, Koprens started out with about 2,500 pounds of grease wool from their registered Targhee ewes and their son Braden’s registered Rambouliet ewes. The fleeces weighed ten plus pounds apiece. After shearing, the wool was taken to Mountain Meadow Wools in Buffalo, Wyoming, where it was scoured, washed, and made into ‘top,’ simply a long rope with all the fibers going in the same direction. Koprens wool graded at 20.7 microns. They have put many years into selection for balancing both fine wool and growthy lambs in their flock.
“From there we shipped it to Crescent Wool in Jamestown, South Carolina, where they ran the top through a super-wash machine,” Wade said. “This descales the wool, takes the itch out and makes it so it won’t shrink. The super-wash machine is the greatest invention. It has done wonders for all socks, but especially for our military clothing.”
The next stop for Koprens wool was Mayford, North Carolina and Burlington Wool Company, the biggest wool buyer, spinner and weaver in the United States.
“Burlington makes all the fabric for the U.S. Military uniforms,” Wade said.
Here the top was spun into yarn. The yarn was then shipped to Crescent Sock Company in Niota, Tennessee.
“Crescent is the oldest hosiery company in the United States,” Wade said. “It is a unique business. Practically the whole town works there; they know everybody by name. I got to be pretty good friends with the plant manager and the CEO of the company. There’s actually a photo of us hanging on the wall at Crescent of me showing him how to shear, and it gets joked around—‘what a person won’t do for a pair of socks!’”
Wade custom designed the socks himself. After wearing wool socks exclusively for the last fifteen years he had in mind just what he wanted.
“I don’t even own a cotton sock,” he said. “Wool has special characteristics. It wicks away moisture so your feet don’t stink. Wool is durable, so wool socks last probably fifteen times longer than socks made of other materials. Wool socks never get hard like cotton socks eventually do. I didn’t want to make a run of the mill standard sock. We designed them with extra padding in the heels and the balls of the feet for cushion. We made a lightweight sock, suitable for both summer and winter, so you have the warmth and all the benefits of wool without the bulk of a heavier sock.”
Crescent made about 5,500 pairs of socks using Koprens’ wool. Fishhook socks became a reality in men’s medium and large and women’s medium and large crew and ankle socks.
“You have to get 1250 pairs per style per color,” Wade said. “We just had them made in the natural off-white color of the wool.”
Koprens plan to retail this first batch of socks themselves, but hope to move to wholesale customers in the future.
“We want to keep our story,” Wade said. “Our biggest push is to take it all the way back to the sheep it came from.”
Wade’s great-grandfather, Louis Kopren, homesteaded in Perkins County in 1907 just a few miles south of where Wade’s family lives. Louis’ Fishhook brand has been passed down through the family. Wade’s grandmother, Jean (John) Kopren, brought sheep to the family when she married Wade’s grandfather, Merle. Wade’s parents, Willis and Cindy, now live on Merle’s place. Wade credits Merle with the genetic selection that laid the foundation for the quality of their flock.
Wade spent twenty-five years shearing, starting when he was still in High School. He started running his own crew in 2002 and built up to running five crews in six states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Minnesota, shearing over 350,000 head per year. He retired from shearing six years ago but continues to teach shearing schools, something he has done since 1998.
Jenny helped Wade work the wool for several years so she knows her way around the skirting table. Their son Braden sheared most of the wool that went into this first batch of socks.
“I told Braden that if you can shear sheep you’ll never be broke,” Wade said.
Wade won many speed shearing contests and even set the United States shearing record, shearing eight hundred seventy head in eight hours with partner Matt Smith of New Zealand.
“We did it for charity,” Wade said. “We gave the money we won to the Shriners’ Hospital.”
Koprens shear their registered ewes in December and lamb them in January. Their commercial ewes will be shorn mid-April and lamb in May. Wade is planning to have two years’ worth of wool from both flocks, roughly 25,000 pounds, to supply his next run of socks. If the demand grows beyond what Koprens sheep produce Wade says he would try to buy wool from customers who purchase their rams, so that the wool for Fishhook socks is all source verified and has its roots in their ranch.
For more information or to order Fishhook socks, go to https://fishhooksocks.com/