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Made In Charlotte: A New Kind Of Suit For U.S. Olympic Rowing

When U.S. Olympic rowers hit the water in Brazil for practice, they'll be wearing cutting-edge uniforms made in Charlotte. The seamless technology is a combination of Italian machinery and American expertise. It even offers some protection from high-levels of bacteria found in the Olympic waterways of Rio de Janeiro.

The textile industry has come a long way since Keith Sherrill was a kid in Hickory. 

“My dad owned a hosiery mill,” he says. “When I was a kid, I used to go through the mill and pick the socks up and put them in the bags and tie the yarn on the machine, so I've technically been in this all my life.”

Compared to the machines back then, the one he uses now is practically magic.

Step one is flipping on an air compressor at Speizman International Seamless Development Lab in north Charlotte.

“Plug the vacuum in here,” Sherrill says as he turns on two vacuums attached to the Italian machine. 

It's called a Santoni, and the lower part looks like a large green tool chest. Above that are a dizzying variety of hoses, pipes, circular racks and spools of yarn.

“It's fully programmable with a computer,” he says. “I build a program here. I send the program over via cable. It goes into the machine, and then I run whatever I programmed it to run. There's very little hands on as far as me touching the machine.”

It has a cylinder with more than 1,300 needles in it, rotating at high speed, stitching the material together. 

“It goes down through the machine, through this tube,” he says as he flips open a tube. “Then it comes out the side in single-piece ejection.”

It takes eight minutes and 10 seconds for the machine to spit out a U.S. Olympic Rowing suit.

The outfitter of U.S. Rowing, Boathouse Sports, wanted to try a uniform that has no seams. Boathouse CEO John Strotbeck won’t say what it cost. He says it's a brand new technology the Charlotte lab excels at. 

“They're top of the line,” Strotbeck says. “We didn't have the skill, and these guys really do have the skill to understand what you're trying to achieve and how to engineer it.”

It's really just one guy: Keith Sherrill. He developed the expertise with more than 30 trips to Italy while working for Santoni and its distributor. And then he perfected his skills through projects with Calvin Klein, Gortex, Adidas and others. Now, he and two part-timers are all the Charlotte lab needs. 

The Olympic suits aren't quite a finished product when the machine spits them out. A manufacturer in Asheboro puts the finishing touches on the openings to make it look like a tank top with shorts.

“We also used an antimicrobial,” Sherrill says. “The U.S. Olympic team didn't ask for it, but we thought it would be a little extra value on the product because the waters in Rio that they're going to be rowing in are less than pristine.”

That's a generous way to put it. It’s well documented the Olympic waterways are teeming with viruses and bacteria. The antimicrobial finish will kill those in the suit and ensure none are leftover the next day. 

U.S. Olympic rower Mathew Miller is careful not to overhype it.

“The uni-suit covers probably half or less than half of our body anyway when we're rowing," he says, "so that's a benefit but I wouldn't say that's like a game changer.”

The suit wasn't approved in time by the International Olympic Committee, so the rowers will just wear them in practice. Miller points out the bulk of their time in the water is practice, so they're maximizing the benefit.  

He says he and most of his teammates love the new suit.

“It's much more stretchy than our traditional uni-suits,” he says. “When it's not on your body, it looks very small, like there's no way I could possibly fit into this. But it stretches without a lot of resistance. I think for that reason, you're able to move in it more easily.”

“It feels seamless I guess on your body, to use the word that they use for the material, too” Miller says with a chuckle.

If the higher-ups at U.S. Rowing hear a lot of that feedback, the Charlotte product may become the standard Olympic suit going forward.