In discussing school uniform and sportswear garments with schools all over the world, one of the early key topics is fabric; what is the garment made from and how will it perform in our climate?
There are a lot of very strongly held views on this topic, so we thought it may be of assistance to set out some basic facts of garment fabrics as they relate to school uniform and sportswear.
This is not intended as a definitive guide to fabrics; merely a 'rough guide' in the understanding of the likely performance and characteristics of a given school uniform or sportswear garment made in a given fabric.
Fabrics can be divided into three types;
1. Fabrics made from natural fibres
The most commonly used natural fibres in school uniform and sportswear are cotton and wool. These two fibres are very well known for their lovely soft 'handle', to wear very comfortably and they also address a big wish among many parents around the world; they are natural and therefore perceived to be 'better' - and kinder to the ecology of the world.
The drawbacks with natural fibres are largely the other side of their advantages; they crease easily, are much harder to keep, they lose their shape fairly readily, colours tend to fade with washing in modern washing detergents and they are more expensive than their manmade equivalents.
On the subject of 'better', it is worth noting that a natural fibre does not necessarily mean it has not been subject to severe chemical intervention during its production. Aspects such as the pesticides and fertilisers used in growing the original cotton, to the chemicals used in the production of the fabric, to treatments and coatings put on the finished fabric to address its downside characteristics will all affect the real 'naturalness' of the finished garment.
Organic and Fair Trade natural fabrics can begin to meet some of these reservations but the range of colours and sizes is very limited. They are also, of course, more expensive.
2. Fabrics made from manmade fibres
The most commonly used manmade fibres used in school uniform and sportswear are polyester, viscose and acrylic yarns. They all share the characteristics of being, compared to natural fibres, extremely predictable, stable and durable.
Polyester is best seen as a manmade alternative to cotton. It is a polymer made from a by-product of the petroleum industry and first developed in 1953 by DuPont in America. Unlike cotton, polyester has a strong resistance to creasing and modern formulations are the basis for the hi-tech fabrics used in professional sport; 'wicking' cloths which work to draw moisture away from the body and disperse it to the outside air, keeping the wearer cooler and drier in hot conditions. It is also relatively quick drying, light, resilient and it is cheaper than cotton.
Acrylic yarn is best seen as a manmade alternative to wool. It is also a by-product of the petrochemical industry (its name comes from its chemical name of polyacrylonitrile, if you must know!), developed in 1944 by DuPont and offers the light, soft handle of wool at a fraction of the cost. Unlike wool, though, it is famous for its tendency to attract static and the crackle of taking off an acrylic garment will be familiar to everyone!
The third main manmade fibre used in school uniform and sportswear is viscose which is technically a natural material because it is made from cellulose fibre recovered from, usually, wood pulp. In its most famous guise, viscose is known as rayon and was originally developed to be an alternative to silk, so offering a very soft handle and, unblended, a slight shine to the fabric. In school uniform, however, it is never used unblended.
3. Fabrics made from a mixture of the two
Blends of fibres in the manufacture of fabrics is, nowadays, the norm and this is done to deliver superior performance with excellent comfort. The most popular fabric blends in school uniform and sportswear are:
Polycotton. In various proportions, this mix of fibres offers superior practical performance over cotton alone. The 'cotton-rich' blends (that is, more than 50% cotton in the blend) offer more of the characteristics of cotton, of course. This is now the established norm for much school uniform, offering very good comfort for the wearer with good durability and relatively easy 'keep' (washing and ironing) for mums. Polycotton fabric is now used for most school uniform garments worn above the waist and directly against the skin such as polos shirts, shirts and blouses and sweatshirts. Modern 100% polyester fabrics are more usual for pure sports applications because of the outstanding performance of the new 'wicking' technology used in their manufacture.
Polyviscose. This is, in effect, a manmade equivalent of a cotton/silk mix and is used widely in school uniform trousers and skirts. It offers excellent performance and durability with an excellent handle but which is not heavy and hot although the mix and weight of the fibres in the fabric will affect its characteristics. In girls' trousers and skirts, which tend to be more tightly fashioned than boys trousers, a polyviscose fabric is often mixed with a little spandex (often identified by its trade name of 'Lycra') to give elasticity to the cloth which helps the fit of the garment. Boys' trouser fabric on the other hand is often coated with a stain resisting agent, such as 'Teflon', to its improve its performance in its context!
Acrylic cotton. While pure acrylic yarn is still widely used in school knitwear for its hard wear and excellent value, increasingly an acrylic cotton mix is taking over the market to offer a more comfortable, warm, and yet light garment.
Of course any basic fibre can be made into finished fabrics of very widely varying quality. Fabrics made for the schoolwear industry tend to be very well specified for performance and value compared to other fabrics used, for example, in the fashion industry where different characteristics are sought.
All the main manufacturers of school uniform have put many years into refining the characteristics - and the blends - of the fabrics they use to deliver ever better performance and value and it is these we most often specify - and for this reason.
At the end of it all, it is our direct experience that will lead us to the right garment in the right weight of the right fabric for your climate and at a quality which reflects the standards of the school with the easiest possible 'keep' for parents.
This is what guides every recommendation we may make to you because this is what delivers value to your parents and a smart, practical and convenient uniform for your school.
A few miscellaneous further notes on fabrics may assist:
1. Technology moves forward. These days, it is more or less unheard of for a professional sportsman or sportswoman to wear anything other than a hi-tech man made fabric and these fabrics are increasingly available outside professional sport, including school sportswear, not to say some school uniform daywear. The range of garments and colours is still relatively limited but these garments are very high performing. They are though still competitive on price with the pure, natural fabrics.
2. Eczema. Eczema is a general term applied to a wide variety of skin conditions which render the skin sensitive to irritation and among the causes can certainly be some of the chemicals used in the production of garment fabrics. But, while a natural fibre can help the condition, it is by no means certain that it will. It depends on the precise nature of the skin condition and the precise nature of the fibre and the processes through which it has been drawn during manufacture. We are, of course, always happy to try different garments to provide maximum comfort for any child with eczema.
3. Fabric Softeners - Almost all fabric softeners (sometimes called fabric conditioners) work by coating the fibres of a fabric with a waxy compound which has two main effects. The first effect is to reduce the static build up caused during the machine-drying process and the second is that the fabric feels softer to the touch. We generally DO NOT recommend the use of fabric softeners on any garments because, just as the wax creates a feeling of softness to the touch, it also allows the warp and weft of the thread to move and fabric loses its shape much more quickly with their use.
4. Pilling - This is the name given to the appearance of small balls of fibres or 'pills' on the surface of fabrics. It is a perfectly normal function of the fabric and is most common, of course, with 'hairy' fabrics such as fleece, sweat, acrylic and woollen fabrics. Pills of fibre form through mild abrasion in use and usually fall from the garment unobserved. Bad cases of pilling are usually caused by drying garments at too high a temperature and/or too violent a tumbling motion in the drier. In such cases, the pilling will be severe and abundant but there are mini fabric shavers that can be used to take the pills away and a smooth finish to the fabric is restored. Over time, of course, too much of such treatment literally wears the fibres away until the garment's performance will be impaired and the fabric is hard and rough to the touch.
Finally, every garment produced in, or for, the UK market contains a care label. Often it is to be found on the waist band of trousers and skirts and, for tops, half way up the inside of one of the side seams.
We advise very strongly that the directions shown there are followed closely and we always send a complete guide to the meanings of the various symbols on these labels with every despatch of garments, whether it is to parents or to the school shop. We are always happy to provide extra guides to have available for parents to take if making their purchases in a school shop.
Following these instructions will unquestionably increase the life and performance of the garment!