BETWEEN ALL THE (mostly legitimate) griping about the Sochi Winter Olympics, the proceedings marked a significant bright spot for the American apparel industry. After having been called out for outsourced manufacturing of the USA's Olympic outfits in 2012, Ralph Lauren made a commitment to source every aspect of this year's versions domestically. And, by all accounts, they did, including the purchase of a large quantity of wool yarn from Eastern Oregon's Imperial Stock Ranch's Imperial Yarn division.
Imperial was already a presence on the fringes of the region's apparel design scene. Though it had seen steadily declining demand for its wool (the ranch also derives significant amounts of its income from beef, hay, and wheat production) since the early '80s—as domestic apparel manufacturers shuttered and business was moved to cheaper factories overseas—the ranch's Dan and Jeanne Carver worked hard to keep their wool production in the game. Part of that plan included a collaboration with Portland designer Anna Cohen, who was an early adopter of sustainable apparel design, with her own elegant eponymous line of womenswear. She eventually joined Imperial Yarn as designer of its knitwear patterns, samples of which were featured as a small collection in the 2009 edition of Portland Fashion Week.
On Friday, February 7, the day of the Olympics' opening ceremony, during which the sweaters made using Imperial's yarn made their debut, Carver was moved to tears long before the footage aired on her television. She'd been up since early that morning caring for her sheep, delivering newborn lambs that needed to be protected from the bitter cold. When she came inside and checked her email, she found a message from Ralph Lauren's design director, who'd sent her a handful of snapshots of the US team leaving the Olympic Village wearing the sweaters that had been made using Imperial's yarn.
Knowing that Imperial was just one of many small companies whose work went into being part of such a momentous global event touched her. "What an amazing thing for me, out here by myself in the desert, just fighting our daily battles, to see that... And all the other thousands of hands that worked on those uniforms. All of their family members and their communities now feel a connection to our Olympic team. It's been a great thing."
Though the Olympic contract was certainly headline grabbing, it's just one sign of American textile manufacturing sputtering back to life. Though she's not at liberty to discuss the details, Carver says she's in talks with over 15 companies motivated to work, once again, with American wool. With global economies evolving, domestic manufacturing appears to be slowly returning as an efficient, competitive, and attractive option, creating the possibility of eventual employment growth in what was once a booming industry. "It's a completely shifting situation," says Carver.
Meanwhile, Imperial itself is poised to launch the Imperial Collection, their first ready-to-wear line, designed by Cohen and scheduled to hit stores by September. Let's hope it's a harbinger of many more such stories to come.