Pittsburgh jersey company's got players' backs

Chris Togneri
| Friday, May 9, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Evgeni Malkin's sweater will be impeccable.

When the puck drops on Friday night at Consol Energy Center for Game 5 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers, Malkin's sleeves will not ride up his arms, a National Hockey League dress-code violation. The stitching will be perfect, and his jersey tail will be long enough to prevent it from accidentally tucking into his pants — another no-no, which in a November game cost the Pens a 2-minute penalty.

Win or lose, Malkin and his teammates will look the part, thanks to a small, behind-the-scenes Pittsburgh institution that handles jersey work for every major professional sports team in town.

“When I watch the games — ask my husband — within the first 10 to 15 minutes, I'm making some kind of comment about the uniforms,” said Lauren Feeney of Pro Knitwear sportswear manufacturing in Brookline. “I'll notice if a logo is crooked, if there's something about the tailoring, whether the color's off a bit. Random stuff.”

Though the city's identity is indelibly linked to its sports teams, few fans realize that the company most responsible for how the players look was founded in 1953 and sits in a nondescript brick building on Brookline Boulevard.

“Everything is offshore now; very rarely do you walk into a company where everything happens under one roof. But all of it is done here,” said sales representative John Young, motioning to the 35 employees, many of them hunched over sewing machines. In the early days, Pro Knitwear represented jersey manufacturers but did not make uniforms. When owner Tim Feeney took over from his father and uncle in the early 1980s, local manufacturers shut down, Feeney said. So Pro Knitwear expanded.

“I'm very proud of the fact that we're manufacturing in Pittsburgh, Pa.,” Feeney said on Thursday. “Those (employees) go in every day and make it happen.”

About a quarter of Pro Knitwear's business is from professional sports teams. Employees stitch logos, names and numbers for teams including the Steelers, Pens, Pirates and Power. Teams provide blank jerseys made by national giants such as Nike and Reebok.

Sportswear manufacturing is an unpredictable business with tight deadlines, company officials said.

When a team brings in a new player, via trade or the farm system, a team official zips out to Brookline with a blank jersey and alteration instructions. In most cases, employees have hours, not days, to get it done.

“The Pens might say, ‘Hey John, we're bringing (Jayson) Megna back soon,' ” Young said. “Or if a player tears his jersey, I'll get a text right away.”

Many players specify odd alteration requests.

Ben Roethlisberger likes loose sleeves, Lauren Feeney said. Former Steelers lineman Casey Hampton insisted that his jersey be skin-tight, despite his rather meaty physique.

“Linemen don't want anybody to be able to grab hold of their jerseys,” said Lauren Feeney, the owner's daughter. “Casey Hampton would make his jersey so tight it's amazing he could get it on. But nobody could ever grab him.”

Pro Knitwear makes jerseys and uniforms for local colleges, high schools, Little League teams and recreational leagues.

It'll take on pretty much anything.

“A couple years back, we were manufacturing these cloth bags filled with vermiculite,” an insulating agent, Lauren Feeney said. “They wrap the bags around (bottled) hazardous waste. If the bottle broke, the vermiculite would soak it up. ... I'm not sure where my dad found that contract.”

He found Young, who handles two of his biggest clients in the Pens and Steelers, more than two decades ago on a busy street corner.

“I was 18 years old, selling flowers on the street,” said Young, who was born in Ireland. “I told him that I'd been looking for a job. He said, ‘Well, you didn't look very hard, because I need workers.' ”

Soon after, Young started at Pro Knitwear, cleaning toilets and doing odd jobs. He climbed the company ladder and speaks fondly of the family atmosphere.

“When you hire new people, they get excited — ‘I'm touching the actual jersey for Sidney Crosby!' ” Lauren Feeney said. “For me, though, being able to employ these people, being a Pittsburgh company, forming these personal relationships ... we're doing it right.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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