Pretty much every enviro-leaning friend I have brushes with Tom’s of Maine toothpaste — even after 86 percent of the company got sold by the grassroots eco-minded Tom and his wife Kate Chappell to Colagate for $100 million in 2006. And now, the Chappells have started another groundbreaking green business: An eco-thermal wear venture called Ramblers Way.

Earlier this week, I got to chat with Tom Chappell about his ultrasoft long Johns (and Janes), undershirts and more, made from wool grown from organically raised sheep at the Chappells' farm in Maine and like-minded farms in the West. We’re talking practical, sustainable basics that are comfortable and long-lasting too!

“Seventy percent of U.S.-grown wool is exported,” says Tom, who points out that all of Ramblers Way products are all U.S. grown and made. “We’ve lost our textile industry in this country except for a handful that remains. What I’m trying to do is rejuvenate the American textile industry with an interesting fine fiber wool, and producing it in this country. What we’ve done is we've created a line of next-to-the-skin undergarments. And we’ve achieved that without having to bring raw materials in from Australia or New Zealand or China. It’s all done domestically with domestic sheep.”

A new big green company wasn’t exactly what Tom originally had in mind, however. In fact, Tom says he wanted to start something relatively small-scale. “What I wanted to do was to get off the treadmill of running a company like Tom’s, which I built for 38 years, and be more in touch with the rhythms of nature,” says Tom. “Buying a farm and finding a way to create sustainability for the farm was the original idea.”

Those plans changed once the Chappells started looking more closely at the textile industry. “What happened is that we weren’t able to do what we wanted with the wool on a farm scale because the equipment doesn’t exist in the cottage industry size to make the kind of product of fine worsted wool undergarments that we wanted to make,” Tom says. “It required more sophisticated commercial-scale equipment — spinning equipment, primarily. So that took us up a notch and we decided to go ahead and build a business again. So we went from a lifestyle idea to a second business."

Now, Tom’s farm houses about 60 sheep, which after breeding for a season, will grow to about 100 — the sheep capacity for the farm. The Chappells bought a second farm in same community, which is now being prepped for sheep-raising. Both farms are approved for certified organic.

That said, Tom says the definition of organic’s a contentious issue when it comes to yarn. “There’s an unfortunate dilemma about the word organic in the wool industry in the country, so I have to differentiate to clarify and say very carefully that what we’ve been able to do is certify our farms, our land, our soils as organic,. But to certify the wool as organic is complicated with an international debate right now, and it’s hard to know whose standard you’re working with.”

“What I thought we should do as a business is simply operate with the strictest of standards as we did at Tom’s of Maine with the word ‘natural.’ We were very strict about what we meant with that, and we’re doing the same thing in wool. And basically, we’re doing what it take to create a sustainable herd and sustainble wool, a sustainable industry. So that means being very light on environment. We’re not bringing in wool from another country. We’re not treating the wool with chemicals.”

So Tom works with less-officially-certified, but more readily understandable standards when sourcing from other farms. “What we’ve decided to do is, rather than confuse the consumer with the debate over natural and organic, we tell people right on our website what we’re using for practices on our farm, what our farmers are using for practices. And it’s a pretty straightforward story of strict accountability to the environment and the animals.”

This, of course, means working closely with the other farmers that produce wool for Ramblers Way clothes. “We’ve been building relationships that raise Rambouillet — that’s the breed that we need, because it has the finest fibers of any breed in the country. They are people who work with appropriate practices of husbandry and ecology, so we’ve built relationships with probably 6 – 8 different ranchers in the west, and we buy their fine wool at shearing time in April.”

“When we buy the fine fiber, we’re talking about a grade called superfine fiber. A herd of about 10,000 sheep might produce 100,000 lbs of wool, but maybe only 15 — 20,000 of that is 18 micron superfine that we want to use in our products. They separate that out for us. and we’ve created a market for their superfine grade. Previously they were selling that to the commodity market.”

Tom also pays close attention to the processing that goes into making the garments. “We have a patented enzyme, for instance, a process for making our garments machine washable. Most machine-washable processes use what’s called superwash, and superwash is a process of chlorination to denude the follicles of any nubs on the edges, to be followed by a spraying of liquid nylon. Those are two steps we won’t use in our product process, because we don’t think they’re sustainable. And we don’t want to work with non-renewable resources like nylon.”

So how does Ramblers Way keep its fabrics soft? “The yarn itself is a worsted yarn, as opposed to a wool yarn. What that means is it’s a special spinning process done with lining all the fibers in parallel to each other as they go into the process of turning into a yarn,” says Tom. “That’s different from a woolen yarn because woolen yarns are twisted and interlocked before they are spun into a yarn. The advantage of the worsted yarn is that you get a smoother surface, a tighter tensile strength, and a more durable fabric because you’re also working with very long fibers. All of these contribute to high durability. It’s the same yarn that would go into a very expensive worsted suit.” Having felt a sample of Rambler’s Way fabric, I can attest to the fact that the stuff’s soft, surprisingly thin, and durable.

Ramblers Way opened its store on Oct. 9 this year — which means that while holiday shoppers get to click away, some pricing kinks still need to be ironed out. For one, a pair of women’s underwear costs a whopping $47 — a price that Tom himself says he’s not happy with. “In [the garment makers'] defense, there’s a lot of labor and sewing involved — not much material, but a lot of labor. So there’s more labor going into a pair of underpants than there is sometimes in a T-shirt. But my aim is to get it down under $40, sooner than later.”

Still, Ramblers Way’s already forging its innovative ways. Smaller environmentalists, for example, benefit from Ramblers Way’s pricing strategy. Says Tom: “The ethics to me of pricing by size is that most manufacturers just average things into one price. And what that does is the smaller people on this earth are paying for the bigger people. But not in our case. We’re making big people pay their weight.”

While Ramblers Way currently brags about its web-only storefront, Tom says he’s open to retail sales too. “There’s a lot to be said, particularly for the environment, about trying to do as much as you can through one portal and one warehouse,” says Tom. “It’s a lot lighter impact for the environment. On the other hand, retailers play an important role of advocating a product and merchandising a product.”

“We’d like to find room for the independent stores. My daughter said the low rise long johns are perfect for women that want to wear jeans all year because they’re warm, and the low rise hides the underwear. So she said, you really ought to make this a point at specialty jeans shops. We’ve been working with one test case — a men’s independent clothing store in Portland, Maine. And it’s gone extremely well. I’m very very interested in make this product available to independent specialty shops.”

Ramblers Way likely won’t go the way of Tom’s of Maine, however. “I built my business in toothpaste with 40,000 stores, including all the major chains, and that’s not the direction I want to go with Ramblers Way,” says Tom. “Part of it is very selfish — This is a family owned business and I don’t want to build a national sales force. I want to keep it simple. But I do want to have national distribution.”

“So we’re looking into new ways we can merchandise without going the standard route of just trying to get our brand in all the stores. So part of the answer is strategic — I don’t want retailers to take control of the brand — and part of the reason is selfish — I don’t want to have that kind of business at this point in my life.”

How does Tom spend his days now? “I visit the farm frequently and I love being with the sheep and I like seeing what we’re doing. For instance, we’re converting all of our properties to geothermal heat and solar panels, so that we can become carbon neutral. That’s a lot of fun, and I love seeing the sheep on the hillside. But this is a business now of commercial scale. And it’s a learning experience for me to be bringing customers to an online store rather than to a physical store. So I’ve just had to be very much available to the choices that we need to make, the investments we need to make, to bring people to the website and find what we have to offer appealing enough to buy.”

Ramblers Way eco-wear costs $47 to $95 apiece, and is available now on the company’s web store. Stay warm by shopping there, or get inspired by Tom’s eco-entrepreneurial story by reading Eco-Barons, a book by Edward Humes that recaps the story of Tom’s of Maine.

Ramblers Way: Stay warm with U.S.-made eco thermal wear
The founder of Tom's of Maine finds new green inspiration in a line of U.S.-made eco wool undergarments.