MAUPIN, Ore. -- Wool yarn from Central Oregon sheep took center stage at the Opening Ceremonies for the winter Olympics on Friday night.
The yarn was woven to make the sweaters worn by American athletes on the world’s biggest stage.
The wool comes from sheep living on the Imperial Ranch, an historic homestead founded back in 1871. The ranch spreads over 50 square miles; it's located 120 miles from Portland, ten miles from the ghost town of Shaniko and 19 miles from Maupin.
On a sunny winter day, co-owner Jeanne Carver strolled through the scrub brush where the sheep graze. “They're loving this warmth and the melting of the frost on the grass,” she said. “They're just happy. They are happy!”
She believes the yarn spun from the wool of her sheep is the best in the world. It caught the attention of Ralph Lauren's designers who wove it into those classic U.S. sweaters.
“I'm really in awe of what Ralph Lauren did. To reach out a hand to so many small businesses across the country,” said Carver.
Lauren, stung by criticism in the last Olympics, vowed to make sweaters and uniforms with 100-percent American products and enlisted 40 companies including Imperial Ranch.
Fifteen years ago this moment hung in doubt. “It was pretty dire. My motto is: 'Everything has to pay or we don’t need it,'” said Jeanne’s husband and ranch co-owner, Dan Carver.
The sheep were not paying at one time. The American market for wool collapsed as garment companies turned to overseas suppliers in the 1990’s. “We had a poor price for lamb, could not sell the wool and predators were killing 40% of our lamb crop here,” said Jeanne.
But she’s not the type to give up. With a Masters Degree in Biomechanics and a past as an elite college athlete and coach, she knew how to focus and refused to quit on the sheep or the wool. “I just began to find a way to get it clean and to yarn and began selling it word-of-mouth,” she said.
Over time and with plenty of struggle, their wool yarn business took off, raising Imperial's brand to a level where Ralph Lauren's company and many others wanted the product. The basement of the historic ranch home that became Imperial’s office is now stacked high with boxes of yarn.
“Yes we are! We have a huge order we're working on right now,” said one employee as she moved boxes. Upstairs, other workers rushed to get the orders out. “We could work seven days a week and never catch up. That's how busy we are right now,” said a woman who prepared mailing labels for boxes.
Jeannie will always remember the unveiling of the Olympic sweaters on TV, made with wool yarn from her sheep on the Imperial Ranch.
Just like the Olympians, her success is the culmination of years of effort and focus.
“I have to admit, I cried. It seemed hard to believe," Jeanne said.