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Brad Swenson, Special to Forum Communications Co., Published January 20 2012

Bemidji wool mill to make 1,000 sweater vests for Santorum's GOP bid

BEMIDJI, Minn. – Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s call for a return to “Made in America” production also includes “Made in Bemidji” as part of his campaign.

The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania donned a royal blue sweater vest during the Iowa caucus campaign. When he came in a close second to Mitt Romney – and now declared the winner Thursday in a final tally – Santorum adopted the sweater vest as a lucky charm. His staff thought so, too, and began offering a special Santorum-embroidered sweater vest to those who donate $100 or more to the campaign.

The first batch of 25 special-edition gray Santorum sweater vests were shipped Thursday to the candidate in South Carolina from Bemidji Woolen Mills, which next week will start producing another 1,000 sweater vests.

“We’re not exactly sure what our daily capacity is, but all hands are on deck,” said Bill Batchelder, fourth-generation owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills.

He said it’s the first time Woolen Mills has made 100 percent cotton sweaters. It usually makes a wool and acrylic mix. He said the cotton sweater panels are made about 25 percent larger than the specified size. They are then laundered to allow shrinkage before being sewed together.

The sweater vests are then “outsourced” to Cool Threads’ Gary Zerrot of Bemidji to have the campaign logo embroidered on the sweaters. The vests will carry the traditional Bemidji Woolen Mills label.

Eight of Woolen Mills’ 20 to 25 employees are tasked to the project, including Batchelder. The 998 sweaters yet to be made include 17 extra small, 47 small, 169 medium, 332 large, 285 extra-large, two 2XL, 41 3XL, one 4XL and four 5 XL. “There’s no size that Bemidji Woolen Mills cannot make,” he said. It once made a woolen stocking hat for the waterfront Paul Bunyan statue.

When Santorum asked his staff to find an American manufacturer to make the sweater vest, staffer Sara Holcombe Koutsiouroumbas asked her dad, Dick Holcombe. Holcombe, retired vice president of Woolrich Knitting Mills, recommended Bemidji Woolen Mills, which he had a professional relationship with for decades.

Batchelder got the call Jan. 12 and had a working model on Tuesday. Photos were taken of Bryce Oakes and Joe Welle modeling the vests, and the OK came. The 25 vests shipped Thursday will be personally given by Santorum to campaign supporters prior to today’s primary in South Carolina.

Santorum said he got power from wearing the distinct sweater vest, and Batchelder agrees there is unity in such an action.

“Bemidji full well knows the power of the vest,” he said. “When the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce started taking them down to the Capitol, they took the Capitol by storm.”

For years, a delegation of Bemidjians annually lobbies in St. Paul, wearing black-and-red plaid sweater vests for Bemidji Day at the Capitol.

Batchelder, a well-known local Republican, said the Santorum campaign didn’t know his political leanings when negotiations were held. He said Woolen Mills is getting “fair wholesale price” for the vests, a cost still cheaper than having them made overseas.

Brad Swenson is a retired Bemidji Pioneer political editor who can be reached at bswenson@paulbunyan.net.