At the helm of a century-old company that once was in bankruptcy status, Kraemer Textiles president David Schmidt received the phone call of a lifetime.
Luckily for Schmidt, a sheep ranch in Oregon is one of his biggest clients. For nearly six years, Kraemer Textiles of Nazareth has been spinning Imperial Stock Ranch’s wool into yarn, and last year the relationship grew to an even greater strength.
The ranch’s owner, Jeanne Carver, was chosen by Ralph Lauren to provide the wool for the 2014 Team USA opening ceremony cardigan sweaters, which would be worn in the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Without a second thought, Carver was on the phone with Schmidt to share the good news – and to tell him that she wanted Kraemer to spin her sheep’s wool into the yarn for the sweaters.
“At first, I didn’t believe it,” Schmidt said. “All of a sudden, we were matching colors and away it went.”
And now Kraemer’s golden moment is Friday night, when NBC televises the Olympic opening ceremonies. Kraemer is one of 40 U.S. manufacturers that helped to make the U.S. opening ceremony outfits; other companies made parts that include a turtleneck sweater, fleece pants, winter hat and leather boots.
Ralph Lauren went U.S.-only this Olympics after being criticized for having the 2012 U.S. Summer Olympics team outfits manufactured in China.
“You have to give Ralph Lauren a lot of credit,” Schmidt said. “There are not a lot of mills left in the country, but they were still able to find so many amazing manufacturers in the U.S. to make these outfits.”
About 650 sweaters were made. In addition to the more than 300 sweaters for the U.S. Olympic team, another 300 are being sold to the public – at nearly $600 apiece – with proceeds donated to the U.S. Olympic Committee.
A fourth generation yarn mill, Kraemer Textiles is both a commercial and retail manufacturer, spinning man-made and acrylic fibers into yarn for industrial apparel, carpet, crafts, home furnishings, hosiery and retail craft stores.
“What keeps me here is I love my job,” said Josephine Sherbotie, a mill worker at Kraemer for 58 years. “I love working with all of the different machines.”
In 1907, David Schmidt’s great uncle, Arthur Schmidt, bought Kraemer Hosiery Co. and manufactured women’s silk hosiery for about 40 years.
After the end of World War II in 1945, silk was no longer available, putting a halt to Kraemer’s business. Kraemer then tried producing nylon hosiery, but the industry did not fare well.
In the 1950s, the company switched gears and got a new name, installing spinning machinery at its mill and becoming Kraemer Textiles, one of only four mills in the nation spinning synthetic fibers for carpet and upholstery manufacturers. At the time, the mill was taking customer orders each averaging 2,000 pounds of fiber for home furnishings and upholstery mills.
Kraemer continued to expand through the next two decades, and in 1986 the company was at its peak when David Schmidt took over as its third generation president.
But rough patches were ahead. As the textile industry began to shift overseas in the early 1990s, Kraemer was forced into a reorganizational bankruptcy, considerably cutting its onetime staff of nearly 450 to 50.
“It was awful to watch an industry disappear,” Schmidt said. “Today, I don’t even think 10 percent of the mills are left in the United States.”
It was time for another makeover.
Once solely a commercial manufacturer, spinning high volumes of fiber into yarn at lower prices, Kraemer now considers itself a producer of fiber art, according to Schmidt, focusing on small niche specialty products, making lower volumes at higher prices.
“Fortunately we have been able to restructure our profit model. …,” Schmidt said. “If you have a business, there’s always a way to make it happen.”
In 2005, Kraemer Yarns was added – spinning fiber into hand-knitting yarn for retail stores. The hand-knitting section of the company is now 20-25 percent of Kraemer sales, and Schmidt hopes to increase that to 50 percent.
Today, Kraemer’s mill operates 24 hours a day, spinning a weekly average of 20,000 pounds of yarn. This equates to enough yarn to stretch around the Earth one and a half times each week, according to Victor Schmidt, David’s brother and the company’s corporate secretary.
The company has sales representatives around the nation that work out of their homes to acquire clients for Kraemer. Most of its customers are in the U.S., with some in Canada and London.
“It’s very gratifying to work for something that’s been in our family for 100 years,” Victor Schmidt said. “It’s been a fun ride.”
Kraemer also has a retail yarn shop in the front portion of the mill, where it sells its hand-knitting yarns. In the yarn shop, the company also holds knitting classes six days a week, available to the public.
“We have been through some terrible times, but I was too stubborn to give up,” David Schmidt said. “Sometimes, your biggest weakness can become your biggest strength.”