By Shan Li
6:00 AM PST, February 7, 2014
At the opening ceremony for the Sochi Olympics, U.S. athletes will walk out in bold patchwork sweaters that were knit, sewn and embroidered right here in Southern California.
Ball of Cotton, based in the City of Commerce, has been busy at work since retailer Ralph Lauren asked them to produce both the opening and closing ceremony sweaters for the American team, said Elizabeth Park, co-owner of the knitwear company with husband Eddy.
“One sweater takes more than 12 hours,” said Park, 56. “Lots of hand whip-stitching, and it goes through many hands.”
The husband-and-wife duo said they were first approached by Ralph Lauren in 2012.
Back then, the American sportswear giant was fending off howls of outrage over its uniforms for the London Games, which were made in China. Politicians from both sides of the aisle denounced the use of foreign workers to outfit America’s athletes, and some in the business community bemoaned the effects of outsourcing.
Ralph Lauren quickly promised to make the Team USA outfits for Sochi in America.
“I guess in searching for vendors, somehow they found us,” Elizabeth Park said. “We were so shocked.”
This time around, the uniforms did a tour of America before heading to Olympians in Sochi or to Ralph Lauren shoppers who bought the pieces online. Wool for the opening ceremony sweater, for example, came from a sheep farm in Oregon and was spun in Pennsylvania. The yarn was then dyed in North Carolina before landing in the Parks’ factory in the City of Commerce.
There, industrial machines wove fabric. Workers hand sewed many of the parts together, applied the USA patch and pressed the final garments.
“The opening ceremony sweater has 14 different pieces,” Park said. “We had to put it together by hand.”
The Parks, both immigrants from South Korea, say they are especially proud to be supporting the Olympic team for their adopted country.
The couple started Ball of Cotton in 1991 in a tiny Hollywood apartment and garage lent by a friend, Eddy Park said. The company later operated out of downtown Los Angeles on Olive Street for many years before moving to a 13,000-square-foot space in the City of Commerce in 2009.
The Parks say they are big believers in American manufacturing, and have never given serious thought to moving production to a low-cost country overseas.
“I live here and I give a lot of jobs. I have a lot of responsibilities for my employees,” said Eddy Park, 61. “That is very, very important.”
Although Ralph Lauren sidestepped a repeat of its public relations disaster in 2012, the Sochi uniforms have not been without controversy. Namely, the loudly designed cardigans for the opening ceremony.
The patchwork number has proved polarizing to seemingly anyone with an opinion on the world of fashion or sports. Fans say they are pure homespun Americana. Others mock them as rejects from grandpa’s closet. Meanwhile, the closing ceremony sweaters, a riff on the classic Fair Isle style with some reindeer thrown in, has elicited far less reaction.
Elizabeth Park said she likes the designs and considers their style “very American.”
“I read the reviews and I felt disappointed,” she admitted. “But it’s time to support our athletes.”
As for the opening ceremony, the couple said they have their viewing plans all mapped out.
“We brought a big 55-inch TV from home, and we will order El Pollo Loco chicken for lunch,” Elizabeth Park said. “We will watch while we work.”
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