One of the most common questions people ask us is "What kind of fabric is this?" Let’s take a look at how far sport fabrics have come since the days of cotton.
Fabrics for athletic uniforms have evolved over the past 30 years as technology has advanced. In the early days, uniforms were wool, cotton or flannel. Those materials don't breathe well, lock in heat and retain moisture, so the garment becomes heavy when soaked with sweat. Fabric made with natural fibers also tends to fade over time, stain easily and shrink.
The first major breakthrough came in the 1970s and 80s. Man-made polyester fibers were used to make double-knit fabric, which is shrink and stain resistant, color fast and durable. But it is very uncomfortable to wear - especially during physical activity - given its heavy weight and limited breathability.
Later, nylon and polyester mesh fabrics were introduced. They are more breathable because the fabric is perforated for ventilation, they neither fade nor shrink, and they are stain-resistant. But the garment is full of holes (remember those awful mesh midriff shirts football players wore in the 80s?).
Moisture-Wicking Performance Fabric
Most modern athletics clothing is 100% polyester. These fabrics are engineered to draw the moisture away from your skin so fabric doesn’t cling to your skin and the moisture evaporates easily. They are breathable and quick-drying - without the holes. You’ll hear these called "moisture-wicking performance fabric," "moisture-management fabric," or just "performance fabric."
This class of fabric also includes "technical" fabric, which means the fabric was designed specifically for highly active use.
From the start, many textile makers branded their fabrics.
The first developer of a technical fabric was DuPont Textiles, now called Invista. CoolMax®, developed in 1986 as the first moisture-management fabric, was revolutionary. The fabric consisted of two polyester layers fused together. As you perspire, the moisture is "wicked" from the inner layer to the outer layer, where it evaporates more quickly than in any other fabric at the time.
"Dri-Fit" was Nike’s entrant into the performance fabric market. They were one of the first, and as a result of their innovation and marketing, “Dri-Fit” has become a generic term for performance fabric, just as Kleenex is to facial tissue.
Nike first introduced Dri-Fit in the early 1990s to replace cotton t-shirts worn under basketball uniforms. By the early 2000s, Nike was using Dri-Fit for the uniforms themselves, phasing out nylon mesh and dazzle materials.
Today, every manufacturer has some version of this class of fabric. And every manufacturer calls it something different.
How do I choose the right performance fabric for my uniforms?
All performance fabrics have the properties necessary in athletic uniforms: they are lightweight, breathable, moisture-wicking, stain-, fade- and shrink resistant.
Within performance fabrics, there are variations which are engineered for different applications.
You will still see the term "mesh" in some performance fabrics, but that doesn't mean it’s a throwback to having holes in the material. "Flat-back mesh," for example, is a two-ply fabric consisting of a thin mesh layer fused with a woven polyester layer so there are no visible holes.
Other fabrics are built to maximize their stretch, such as form-fitting apparel like cycling jerseys, compression garments, football pants and jerseys, wrestling singlets and ladies long-sleeve volleyball jerseys.
These fabrics are a combination of polyester with Spandex or Elastane woven into the fabric to provide superior stretch and elasticity.
All brands of uniforms that we carry offer performance fabric. AK calls it Dry-Flex (lighter), Prowick (heavier), PolySpan (stretch) or UltraFlex (heavy stretch), Dynamic calls it Dyna-Dry, Flex-Dry (two-way stretch) or Aerofiber (four-way stretch), A4 calls it polyester Interlock, Admiral Soccer calls it VaporDraw or VaporLite, Teamwork Athletic calls it Cool Mesh, Performance Tech and Stadium-Core Mesh. The variations are either the weight of the fabric, the amount of stretch, or both.
Mesh fabric: Still has its place (but without the retro)
Mesh fabric is knitted or woven in a way that creates perforations or small holes in the fabric to maximize ventilation. The predecessor to modern performance fabric, the only real advantage for mesh fabrics against their competitors is the lower cost. For situations like youth sports organizations or camps where the garment will not be worn for more than a season or two, it is a good choice because it is very durable at a lower cost.
One exception is pro-style football jerseys. Mesh fabric is exceptionally durable and strong, without having much stretch (unless it’s stretch mesh). That makes it suitable for aggressive contact sports (the kind with collisions and tackling), where the garment is stressed and pulled.
AK Durastar pro game mesh, A4 Pro-Brite Game mesh and 4-Way Stretch mesh are examples of fabrics used in football jerseys. Tricot mesh and Polymesh are lighter weight options used for baseball, basketball and general athletics when a lightweight and low-cost jersey or short is desired.
Polyester Doubleknit (PDK): Now we can throwback
Polyester doubleknit is a heavyweight, tightly woven fabric with a smooth finish. You may hear it called “heavy polyester.” Very strong, dense and durable, the main drawback is limited breathability. It is used primarily for baseball and softball pants or "throwback" style uniforms when a vintage fabric is desired and the garment will not be worn for game play.
Polyester Warp Knit
Similar to PDK in weight and characteristics, warp knit differs from doubleknit in that each needle loops its own thread. The needles produce parallel rows of loops simultaneously that are interlocked in a zigzag pattern. You’ll find it primarily in pinstripe fabric for baseball jerseys to knit the pinstripes into the fabric.
AK Knit "Airknit" Fabric
Another predecessor to performance fabric, AK Knit is heavyweight textured polyester fabric with tiny pinholes to provide breathability. Technically not a performance fabric and not a mesh, it does provide breathability and durability along with stain- and shrink resistance.
Airknit is used primarily for hockey, baseball and lacrosse jerseys. All AK brand Pro Series NHL hockey jerseys and Select Series hockey jerseys use this fabric, called "AK Knit" because AK manufactures the fabric themselves.
A synthetic stretch fiber known for its excellent stretch and durability, spandex is used for form-fitting garments such as football pants, side inserts on football jerseys and sublimated hockey socks. The fabric is too heavy and not breathable enough to use for jerseys, so we have a number of fabrics that are a polyester/spandex blend which provide light weight, mechanical stretch and performance properties.
A 100% polyester smooth woven fabric which is shiny used primarily as inserts or accents on jerseys, the yoke (shoulder & sleeves) on football jerseys and some basketball uniforms. No performance properties, not breathable and tends to stick to your skin when sweating.
Polyester Twill fabric with adhesive backing used in garment decoration for sewn-on numbers, team names, player names and embroidered patches.
So in summary, all fabrics used in athletic uniforms fall into one of the categories shown above, although the terminology may differ from brand to brand. The variations come down to the weight of the fabric, the amount of stretch, or both. Many times, you’ll decide based on feel, which is one reason we always provide you with a mock-up of your design before we start the full production run.
You can see pictures and specifications for each fabric in our Fabric Guide. Hopefully this information will help you to determine which garment is best for your needs. As always, you can ask us for a recommendation if you are not sure. If you are going to purchase custom made uniforms we will always recommend the proper fabric for your specific needs.
Our goal is to make sure you get the proper fabric for your team’s needs (and then to make it look perfect).