This month, when Team U.S.A. walks into the 2014 Olympics closing ceremonies in Sochi, the athletes will be wearing a little piece of Northern Michigan: Ralph Lauren–designed Olympic sweaters and hats, knit entirely from yarn spun at Deb McDermott’s East Jordan fiber mill. The 15-year fiber-arts pro shares the story of how a chance visit from a random customer led to the opportunity of a lifetime. Interview conducted by Emily Bingham.
So, how did all this happen?
One day in late summer or early fall, 2012, a lady came in after seeing our sign on the side of M-32. She looked around the shop, picked up a skein of yarn and said, “I‘m a designer for a company in New York City. This is really nice yarn; I’m gonna take it back and use it for something.” And I said “Great!” And that was the last I heard. You know, people say things all the time. But then a couple months later I got a phone call from a gentleman who had a lot of questions and wanted me to send a color card and samples and all that. And then he gives me the address: Polo Ralph Lauren, Madison Avenue, New York, New York. I got off the phone and my jaw just dropped open. It was just totally out of the blue.4
Did the wool come from Michigan sheep?
No, the yarn was made from wool from all across America. It had to be U.S.-grown wool. We take the dyed wool and we “pin draft” it, which puts it through machines that have combs in it; then we spin it, and then it has to be plied. The majority of it went to Los Angeles to be knit into the sweaters, and the rest went to New York where they knit it into hats.
How much yarn did you end up supplying for the Olympic team gear?
It was a huge order, for sure. They had an order of 3,000 pounds, but with all the test samples that we sent it was probably closer to 4,000 pounds of finished yarn.
So, what is it about your yarn, specifically, that caught their eye?
It’s next-to-the-skin soft, which is what I think they liked about it. I’m very picky about the type of wool that I use.
What did you think when you saw the sweaters completed?
Well, I had to buy one. We actually bought three; they’re $400 apiece! We gave one last week to the governor. It’s beautiful. It’s a reindeer Nordic sweater, turtleneck.
We’re betting you’ll be tuning in to the Olympics this year, then.
Yes, we’ll definitely be watching this year! The athletes are going to wear them at the closing ceremony. But they’ve got a navy peacoat they’ll probably be wearing over top of the sweater, so I don’t know if you’ll see a whole lot of it. But it is there.
Think this is the beginning of a great relationship with Polo Ralph Lauren?
Well, I got a phone call just last week from someone else in the New York office who needed a couple pounds of white yarn because Ralph’s wife, Ricky, had to have a dog sweater in the same pattern. I said, “You know, I should know what kind of dog it is, because two pounds isn’t going to be enough if it’s a Great Dane.” The guy said, “No, it’s a Yorkie.” I said, “That’s good, then.”