Saturday, August 12, 2000

High-tech swimsuits made in Ky.

Machines hum at small factory

By Steve Bailey
The Associated Press

        PARIS, Ky. — Swimmers at next month's Olympic Games might win their races only because Sheila Brady is winning hers.

[photo] These skintight, neck-to-ankle swimsuits, developed by Speedo and made of a high-tech material called Fastskin, are sewn in Paris, Ky.
(Associated Press photo)
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        Ms. Brady is one of almost two dozen seamstresses at Kentucky Textiles Inc. who have been putting in 75-hour weeks, stitching slippery panels of fabric into one of the most talked-about pieces of sports equipment to come along in decades.

        Last-minute approval of full-body swimsuits in Olympic competition has meant extra pressure, and special pride, at the family-owned plant tucked among the horse and cattle farms of Bourbon County. It has been the exclusive producer of Speedo's line of Olympic swimwear since 1972.

        “I've always watched the Olympics, but you can bet I won't miss a minute of the swimming events this year,” Ms. Brady said. “We've put a lot of time and effort into making these new swimsuits.”

        The skintight, neck-to-ankle suits, developed by Speedo and made of a high-tech material called Fastskin, were designed to imitate the sleek skin of a shark. The material is ridged to reduce drag in the water and is shaving seconds off some swimmers' times, sparking a heated debate on whether the suits should be allowed in competition.

        When officials reversed a ban on the suits in this year's Olympic swimming trials and approved them for use at both the trials and the upcoming Olympic Games, Speedo rushed into mass production.

        Many swimmers at the trials, now under way in Indianapolis, have used a version of the suit. Some use a full-body model, others an abbreviated version that exposes the arms and lower legs.

[photo] Seamstresses work speedily to produce Speedo's Fastskin suit for the Olympics.
(Associated Press photo)
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        “I'll be wearing it until I die,” said Tom Malchow, world record-holder in the 200-meter butterfly.

        The suits and the attention they have received are a big deal in Paris, population 9,000. Kentucky Textiles, in the same family for three generations, has remained strong financially while many other in-state textile producers, such as Fruit of the Loom, have laid off thousands of workers and moved their plants out of the country.

        “A small, family-owned plant like ours these days ... we're like a dinosaur when you really think about it,” said Paige Short, vice president for new product development and daughter of company chairman Wayne Shumate. She credited the company's success on “relationships we've developed and fostered over the years.”

        One line of 17 sewing machines emits a nonstop buzz as 20 of the company's most efficient seamstresses work on the full-body suits.

        At times, fluffy plumes of gray thread explode from the top of the machines like spider webs dancing in the wind as the women stitch their sections of black fabric and pass them down the line.

        Traditional Olympic suits con sist of only a handful of fabric panels and six to 36 inches of stitching. It takes 38 panels and almost 45 feet of stitching to put together a full-body Fastskin suit.

        “It's a lot more work and it's a lot more difficult because all the stitching has to match up so precisely,” said plant manager Inez Hines, 46. “But it's a pride thing with these women. They know that the entire world will be watching when the Olympic swimmers hit the water — and the medal stand.”

        “It's a lot of long, hard days, but it's really exciting,” said Sandy Linville, 42, a floor manager who has worked for the Shumate family since she was 17. “When I first saw the suit, I was like, "Whoa! This is going to be really complicated. We're never going to be able to produce all these suits so quickly.'

        “Everybody has really pulled together like a team — like a family, really,” she said.

        Kentucky Textiles has shipped almost 4,500 of the suits for use at the Olympic swimming trials and will provide several Speedo-affiliated teams — including the United States, Canada and Australia — with custom-made suits for their team's members following the trials.

        Speedo expects to begin selling suits to the general public in September, and foresees a big demand despite a $300 price tag.

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