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Bryce Oakes models one of two Rick Santorum sweaters being produced by the Bemidji Woolen Mills while store owner Bill Batchelder holds the other sweater. The sweaters are professionally knit in the warehouse, hand sewn, steamed and then shipped from the Bemidji business. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer
Bryce Oakes models one of two Rick Santorum sweaters being produced by the Bemidji Woolen Mills while store owner Bill Batchelder holds the other sweater. The sweaters are professionally knit in the warehouse, hand sewn, steamed and then shipped from the Bemidji business. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

'Made in Bemidji': Santorum campaign has local touch

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news Bemidji, 56619

Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

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.

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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.

Thursday the first batch of 25 special edition grey Santorum sweater vests were shipped to the candidate in South Carolina from the Bemidji Woolen Mills, which next week will start production on another 1,000 sweater vests - a backlog a previous company couldn't fulfill.

"There's some 900-plus sweater vests they are unable to fulfill, we're going to start fulfilling them early next week," Bill Batchelder, fourth-generation owner of Bemidji Woolen Mills, said Thursday. "We're not exactly sure what our daily capacity is, but all hands are on deck. Our employees are extremely excited to be a part of this."

Batchelder said it's the first time that the Woolen Mills has made 100 percent cotton sweaters, usually making a wool and acrylic mix. As such, 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 embroider the campaign logo on the sweaters. "Gary's just two blocks down the street," Batchelder said, adding that the vests will carry the traditional Bemidji Woolen Mills label.

Eight of the 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, adding that the mills 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, retired vice president of Woolrich Knitting Mills. He recommended the 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, he said. Machines were recalibrated and the archives seared for sweater vest patterns. 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 Saturday'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 Batchelder's political leanings when negotiations were held. He said the Woolen Mills is getting "fair wholesale price" for the vests, a cost still cheaper than having them made overseas.

While still not decided on a Republican presidential candidate, Batchelder said he is impressed with Santorum. "I've read his platform and I really, really like what he says about Main Street America, and the heart and soul of communities - the downtown. If the downtown is strong, then the rest of it takes care of itself."

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

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