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  • Writer's pictureJonn Langan

Putting the "Sport" back in Sportswear

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

This article was originally posted in Ssachs Magazine. This article expands and explores the points made to further explore the subject of designing sportswear for sporting activity.
Image Courtesy of Ryoji Iwata

By the nature of the term sportswear, it references its use: Sports. But this term has come to mean general casual clothing worn, primarily, to keep the wearer comfortable. In its inception sportswear came out of the need to create clothing which functioned for the activity (or sport).

Back in the late 1870’s a British tailor by the name of John Redfern started adapting clothing for ladies who rode, played tennis, went yachting and did archery. Originally termed activewear, these items were adapted to make them more comfortable. Traditional clothing at that time consisted of a lot of heavy layers encompassing the body from head to toe. Modesty was the word of the day and showing too much flesh was deemed inappropriate. So things like making skirts shorter, introducing more trouser styles, and using softer lighter materials, both increased mobility and flexibility but also enabled a more active lifestyle.

Before the industrial revolution having the time for “leisure activities” was unheard of for the masses and was deemed a luxury for all but the rich. As the industrial revolution changed the way everyone worked, the opportunity for the masses to explore leisure activities grew and both the need and desire for sportswear exploded.

These days the focus of designing for the activity is often lost, as this focus shifts more to aesthetic considerations as the primary filter. But when starting to design sports specific garments, should we go back to the roots of sportswear design and start with the functional needs?

Sounds simple, but starting with these needs can significantly help in designing and offering product that ultimately will work for the activity in mind. Furthermore, the goal of any piece of sportswear is to keep the user as comfortable as possible, so they can focus on the activity at hand.

Take a sport like running. What are the functional needs of a runner? In the simplest terms a runner moves their arms and legs to enable them to move quickly over ground. So how will this movement affect their body and how should a design take this into consideration.

Moving your arms and legs fast will create friction, which will in turn create heat, so a runner will get hot and sweaty. So the need to move moisture away is one important factor. This can be done by carefully considering the choice of the material used for a “next to skin” product. Choosing a material that effectively pulls moisture from the inside to the outside so that it can evaporate, is vital to staying comfortable whilst running.

Moving moisture

This movement of moisture can be done with various different technologies (depending on the material choice). For example, for a “next to skin” t-shirt you might want to use a yarn that has high absorbance properties. “Push / Pull” technologies are designed to quickly pull moisture from one side to another to enable quicker dispersant. But also thinking about details like surface area can benefit in aiding a faster transfer of moisture.

Generally the higher the surface area the more effective the moisture absorption, so bulk yarns (which have a larger surface area, due to the yarn construction having a multi faceted look) can offer substantially more effective absorption rates than a standard yarn.

The movement of moisture can be a little more complicated when you get to materials that have to both protect the user, but also release the heat and moisture created in the activity. This is most often associated with waterproof fabrics, which have a coating or membrane.

Now this is a minefield of a conversation to go into about waterproof verses breathability (which i may go into more specifically another time), but generally the principle of how waterproof fabrics work is:

The outer material is made from a woven (or sometimes knitted) material, which then has a membrane or coating printed or laminated on the rear face. The membrane then has a print or additional material layer added to the inside face of the membrane, which is there to protect the membrane from abrasion.

The micro moisture vapour particles created by the runner will be small enough to move through these layers, to outside of the material. Where as a water droplet is too large to pass through these layers, specifically the membrane, as it has microscope pores which create a barrier for the larger water droplets.

This highlights the importance of wearing complimentary technologies from base layer to outer shell. If these technologies do not work in a complimentary way then the user will start to feel hot and sweaty, and ultimately their performance may drop.

Cooling off

Cooling the body down is the another key factor that can help a runner stay more comfortable. So ventilation is important to keep airflow circulating over the skin, helping the additional heat and moisture to evaporate. This could be done again either through the material choice or through the design of the garment having constructed openings.

Using knitted fabrics is commonly used for “next to skin” garments and by the nature of the construction, knitted materials have small holes for moisture and heat to pass through. With clever knitting effects, structures can be made to increase or decrease the amount of small holes (and therefore moisture) in an area of a garment.

But when it comes to outerwear, coated or membrane materials will not be able to allow this kind of structural detail and having any additional layer in the construction of any material will trap a certain amount of heat and moisture, so often outerwear running clothing has additional ventilation options incorporated into the design.

Before modern laser cutting techniques were commonly available, sewn ventilation openings were added as constructions, but placing these constructions on the garment needs careful consideration, as they add additional bulk and potential for added friction points.

Laser cut ventilation is very effective at allowing moisture and heat to move out of the garment, but the techniques of laser cutting can be fraught with problems. There is a real chance that the edge of the laser cut detail could delaminate or fray which would totally compromise the integrity of the garment. Adding a heat transfer or print to the raw laser cut edge is sometimes used to reduce the chance of de-lamination, but again being clever with the placement of these details is important to reduce the chance of quality control issues.

Stop before you start

Maybe trying to stop the build up of the heat is a better way of keeping the runner more comfortable, so displacing seams away from areas of high abrasion can help reduce friction. Also using low profile constructions, like flat locking, merrow stitching, bonding or welding seams can be great options to eliminate abrasion where seams are necessary.

There are various advantages and disadvantages to these construction types. Some constructions are better at eliminating or reducing friction, whilst others may have better long term durability. All of them will have a cost implication which can also play into the choice of construction and there is even the chance that the factory you are using just doesn’t have the machines needed, therefore just choosing the construction can be full of decisions.

Having no seams would be the ultimate option to reduce friction, so technologies like seamless circular knitting both eliminates a lot of seams, but also offers the chance to add ventilation holes through the jacquarding technique.

Seamless technology has so many advantages for running (and other sports), as the combination of reducing seams with the ability to add custom placed ventilation, all with a a great moisture wicking yarn, seems like the ultimate combination. . . . . and it is, but at a cost. The minimum order quantities and set up of this type of machine is usually much higher than buying a fabric and sewing it together, so again its a choice to find the right fit for your design.

Cut for performance

The fit and cut of a garment can drastically change how a garment feels, so making sure the desired movement is not inhibited by the cut is important to get right. This can be done through the material having a stretch element to its composition or through pattern making techniques that help pre-shape the material around the body. The cut of the garment could be made to give freedom of movement and promote airflow around the body to keep the runner cool and comfortable, or it can be used to compress muscles and aim to aid the reduction in muscle fatigue on longer runs. So knowing what kind of running your consumer is doing and therefore what kind of demands they may have, will give the best insight into how to treat the combination of fit, fabric and construction.

These are just a few of the decisions that need to be made to make sure the design of a garment for running functions correctly. Obviously not all sports are the same, so thinking about each sport carefully to determine the users needs will enable better choices to be made.

Ultimately designing is a system of choices blended together to create an attractive product that will appeal to the desired consumer. Whilst the visual appeal will indeed attract people to pick up a product, the garment’s success in delivering the function effectively, while keeping the user comfortable, will keep them coming back for more.

For more on designing for activity and what are the important factors to pay attention too contact Jonn at

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