The arrival of Spring has many people thinking of warmer temperatures, but Gary Thomas, the owner of High Plains Sheepskin in East Helena, is busy working on things we usually only think about when it’s winter.
For more than 40 years, Thomas has been turning sheepskin into a variety of types of clothing and outerwear.
It started when he worked at a tannery in Chicago next door to a company that produced sheepskin products. He eventually moved jobs and then went to work for himself.
"I basically kept doing it," he said. "I still like it. It's been over 40 years and every time a shipment comes in on the truck, I'm like a kid at Christmas, just opening boxes."
Those boxes contain the tanned sheepskin pelts. From there they are cut on the clicker press, depending on what Thomas is going to make - slippers, mittens or hats - and the size he needs.
"The pattern that we use I first made over 40 years ago,” says Thomas. “But we've had to tweak it over the years, you know, things change a little bit. The tanning technology has changed a little bit and that's actually improved considerably over the years."
The pieces go into the tumbler.
"It softens the leather and raises the nap on the leather and it cleans the wool," Thomas said.
And then onto the fur machine where they are sewn together, followed by binding the edges.
It's all done in-house, from his shop on Main Street in East Helena: “Sew, finish, box and ship,” said Thomas.
With more than 3,000 pairs of slippers alone produced every year.
"Every Christmas morning, thousands of pairs of slippers are discovered under trees," he said.
For Thomas, the material is the inspiration, providing unparalleled warmth and a job he's loved for more than four decades.
High Plains Sheepskin products are sold directly from his store, online, and phone orders.
From the company website:
HIGH PLAINS SHEEPSKIN was started in the cold, windy basins of southern Wyoming (hence the "HIGH PLAINS") in 1975. My first shop was in Laramie, Wyoming forty years ago. After 9 years there, we moved to Last Chance Gulch in Helena, Montana. In 1993 we moved a few miles down the road to a building in the one block long downtown of East Helena, formerly Prickly Pear Junction, a town that should brag about itself more that it does. It is a quiet spot in good country. We like the pace and way of life in this neck of the woods.