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U.S. Olympians Wearing Northwest Wool For Opening Ceremony

When Team USA marches into the stadium for the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony Friday, they'll be swathed in the warmth of the Northwest, quite literally.

The wool to make the U.S. parade uniform sweaters came from a sheep ranch in rural Oregon.

The Team USA sweater is a colorful patchwork of patriotic symbols and Olympic rings. The symbolism runs deeper for Oregon rancher Jeanne Carver. Her Imperial Stock Ranch sold the 8,000 pounds of home-grown wool to garment maker Ralph Lauren Corp.

Carver chokes up as she recalls the teary eyes of attendees at a recent sheep industry convention where she first displayed the Made in America cardigan.

"I was very emotional," Carver says. "I have tears thinking about it now. For us, it represents years of work to overcome the loss of textile manufacturing in this country and the fact that most wool produced in this country ends up offshore."

This "in-sourcing" of the 2014 Olympic uniforms gives Carver hope that local wool production and processing can survive. Carver and her husband had to start their own yarn company to design and market fashions made from their ranch's wool.

She says it'll take sustained consumer demand to rebuild a domestic industry.

"When they put their dollar behind a product, then people listen," says Carver. "The consumer is very important to the future in terms of where things are made and how they come to market."

Carver says she plans to gather her ranch family around the TV to watch the parade of nations in Sochi Friday night. But she expects to be interrupted because it's lambing season in the hills near Shaniko, Oregon.

Fashionistas and online commenters had a field day with the 2014 Olympic uniform design when it was revealed last month. labeled the sweaters "hideously ugly" in a headline. In the online edition of The New Yorker, columnist Ian Crouch wrote, "This year, we have outfits made in America … by your well-meaning but hopeless great-aunt. But, thankfully for our athletes, like all those unfortunate handmade gifts of years past, these sweaters have to be worn only once."

U.S. Winter Olympian Holly Brooks was kinder. After reviewing her uniform, the cross country skier who was born and raised in Seattle tweeted, "Could anything be more patriotic than our sweaters for the Opening Ceremonies? Wow!"

Wool supplier Jeanne Carver had no input into the design, but her take is that "it is absolutely beautiful."

"This is a parade uniform," she says. "This isn't necessarily the sweater that you (grab) to wear down to the mall."

She has the added perspective of knowing the yarn's origin. "For me, when I look at this sweater, I just see American soil" and the grass that the sheep converted to natural fiber.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.