When the U.S. Olympic rowers put on their training suits next month in Rio de Janeiro, it will represent their dedication to a sport that requires near-perfect synchrony of movement and form.
But for Keith Sherrill, it will be a sigh of relief after working to develop and produce the suits for over a year and a half at the Speizman International Seamless Development Lab in Charlotte.
Sherrill, the company’s director of product development, said the rowers’ suits, made from polyester and nylon, fit like a “second skin” and will be much lighter than in years past thanks to the use of the Development Lab’s seamless technology. They’re also designed to protect rowers from Rio’s polluted waterways.
Sherill, 50, is responsible for producing 290 U.S. Olympic rower suits, known as unisuits, that the team will wear during training exercises, as well as five unisuits for a rower on the Nigerian Olympic team.
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During an interview last week, he still had 80 left to make.
“The gentleman from the Olympic Committee said there is no backup plan,” Sherrill said. “So if I don’t get these 80 suits out you will be watching rowers in Rio with no suits.”
The seamless technology means that the knitting process will be streamlined by a circular electronic knitting machine made by an Italian company called Santoni, which reduces the number of seams in garments.
After producing the suits through the Santoni machine, Asheboro-based Wells Hosiery and Apparel puts on the finishing touches before they are shipped to Rio.
“The athletes are really pleased with the new technology and seamless design,” said Allison Frederick Müller, communications director for the U.S. Rowing Association. “We are excited to travel to Rio in less than a week, and put them to use at the Olympic venue.”
Sherrill says the technology will make the unisuits more comfortable, and a closer fit. The suits will also be water-repellent and have an antimicrobial finish to offer some protection against bacteria.
“It kills bacteria and as you know, odor comes from bacteria,” Sherrill said. “I mean literally a lot of your socks are antimicrobial because you wear them and they don’t smell.”
Sherrill said the antimicrobial and water-repellent features will be a first for the team.
“It was an added advantage to be antimicrobial,” Sherrill said. “The antimicrobial was our idea just to give it extra value.”
N.C.’s textile, apparel resurgence
The unisuits are also a sign of how textile and apparel companies in North Carolina are becoming more specialized to compete with companies overseas.
Mark Speizman, the president of the Development Lab, says his family has been in the textile machinery business in Charlotte for more than 120 years.
His grandfather Morris Speizman was a textile magnate who founded Speizman Industries and was a prolific donor to philanthropic organizations in Charlotte.
But Mark Speizman, 45, decided to break away from the family business a few years ago and start his own company, Speizman International LLC, which specifically focuses on seamless products.
He recently acquired the American Seamless Knitting Laboratory where Sherrill had been working and renamed it the Speizman International Seamless Development Lab.
It’s not a big company: In addition to Sherrill and Speizman, Sara Pedrotti handles marketing and business development. Because it’s a private company, the firm doesn’t disclose financials.
While the rest of the textile and apparel industry in the United States was beginning to outsource, Speizman says he saw an opportunity in seamless knitting.
“The development of seamless apparel is probably one of the fastest-growing segments of the garment industry because it reduces some labor in making the products,” Speizman said.
Sherrill says the Development Lab also found a niche in the market because the lab largely does research and development to make prototypes for both large and small apparel companies.
“A lot of people have an idea, they say I want to do this, but when they go to a large manufacturer, the large manufacturer says get out of here,” said Sherrill. “That’s our niche.”
At one time, textile and apparel manufacturing accounted for 40 percent of jobs in North Carolina in the 1940s, but in 2013, the industries made up only 1.1 percent of North Carolina’s jobs, according to a Pew Charitable Trust article.
Ted Abernathy, a managing partner of Economic Leadership LLC, a consulting firm, says the textile industry is returning to the U.S. because of “automation and also innovation.”
“We are seeing textiles are coming back because they are changing,” Abernathy said.
A number of apparel companies that do cutting and sewing have left the U.S. because of labor costs, said Blanton Godfrey, a professor of textile and apparel technology and management at North Carolina State University.
But others are returning because new technology reduces the number of steps needed to create a product, and there is increasing demand for higher-quality products made in the U.S., Godfrey said.
“Some of the companies are getting a little more sophisticated and are doing the math,” Godfrey said. “And when you put together all the numbers they are saying, ‘Why did we move out of the U.S.?’”
It also means that the U.S. Olympic rowing team will have lighter, closer-fitting suits to gain a slight advantage in its quest for gold.