When the U.S. Olympic team paraded at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Games, a husband-and-wife duo from Southern California kept a close eye on the sweaters.
The controversial cardigans worn by Team USA — lauded by some as homespun Americana and derided by others as rejects from Grandpa’s closet — were produced in the City of Commerce factory owned by Elizabeth and Eddy Park.
The couple, who own the Ball of Cotton knitwear company, have been hard at work since retailer Ralph Lauren tapped them in 2012 to sew part of the U.S. Olympic uniform in Sochi. Their team of 60 workers ended up making the opening and closing ceremony sweaters for U.S. athletes.
“One sweater takes more than 12 hours,” said Elizabeth Park, 56. “Lots of hand whip-stitching, and it goes through many hands.”
The Parks took on the job at a time when Ralph Lauren was in a deep public relations pickle.
The Chinese-made uniforms it designed for the London Games spurred politicians from both sides of the aisle to denounce the use of foreign workers to outfit America’s top athletes. Many people bemoaned the effects of outsourcing.
Ralph Lauren quickly promised to make the uniforms for the Sochi Winter Games in America.
“I guess in searching for vendors, somehow they found us,” Elizabeth Park said. “We were so shocked.”
This time around, the uniforms toured 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.
There, industrial machines were used to make the 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,” Elizabeth Park said. “We had to put it together by hand.”
The Parks, immigrants from South Korea, say they are especially proud to be supporting the Olympic team of their adopted country.
The couple started Ball of Cotton in 1991 in a tiny Hollywood apartment lent by a friend, Eddy Park said. The company later operated out of downtown Los Angeles on Olive Street before moving to a 13,000-square-foot space in 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.”
Elizabeth Park said she was disappointed after reading that some people did not like the sweater designs.
“We love the design. It’s an American treasure,” she said. “It’s very American culture, and it’s memorable.”
No matter what the critics say, both styles are already sold out on the Ralph Lauren website.
As for the opening ceremony, the Parks said their viewing plans had been mapped out well in advance: They brought a big-screen TV to work from home, and ordered takeout from El Pollo Loco.