RLWC2021: How the design of rugby kits has evolved over time

03 November 2022

Dr Tasneem Sabir explores how rugby kits have adapted to complement the game

By Dr Tasneem Sabir, Senior Lecturer in Textiles Technology at Manchester Fashion Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University

With the Rugby League World Cup now in full swing, sporting textiles and technology expert Dr Tasneem Sabir discusses the fabrication and design of rugby kits and how they have developed over the years to become a more performance-led garment.

Fast paced and full of action, rugby league is a full contact sport which requires a kit that is both functional and with a performance element to withstand the physical nature of the game.

The fabrication of rugby kits is crucial in how they perform on the pitch, and there are three main things to consider when thinking about their design.  

Firstly, are the requirements of the body - who will be wearing the kit, what size the garment needs to be, the movement of the body, and the temperature – either environmental or body.

Within this, it’s important to consider how the brand and team philosophy can be represented visually as part of the design.

The choice of colours usually represents the country, giving players a sense of pride when playing for their nation.

For example, England’s new kit this year, manufactured by Oxen, features a dark blue chevron and sleeves instead of their usual white and red design, which has divided opinion. However, the use of white and blue has been a favourite choice for England’s team in other sports, like football.

Secondly, it’s important to think about the requirements of the sport being played. For rugby, this includes the duration of the match, how long a player will be on the pitch for, and what kind of movement the player will be doing.

Thirdly, is the environment itself. Rugby is mostly played outdoors, with some training taking place indoors, so when thinking about what materials to use it’s vital to consider the functional performance for the environment they’re being worn in.

When design and technical teams come together to create rugby kits, it is essential that the materials selected can meet all these requirements to ensure the garment is fit for purpose and aesthetically pleasing.

Durable materials

When designing a rugby kit, one of the most crucial things to consider is the strength of the material used. With a contact sport like rugby, players are getting tackled and pulled throughout the game, so the strength and durability of the material really comes into play.

Textile materials used should have a high degree of durability and a high tear strength. The garment assembly is also important in contributing to stronger seams, especially around the arms, neck, and leg opening.

Rugby shirts were traditionally made using cottons and other manufactured materials, namely elastane. However, as synthetic materials have become commonplace in sportswear, we now see rugby jerseys made predominately from polyester materials. These are superior materials simply because they are lightweight, versatile, strong, and durable.

Rugby jerseys are commonly created using a weft knit structure, a method of fabric formation creating a double jersey structure to give extra strength in the garment.

Created with two sets of needles, the layers of fabric are knitted together as they are formed. The layer against the skin is open to allow the body to breathe, while the layer on the outside has a tighter structure to release any moisture into the atmosphere.

Synthetic materials like polyester are moisture resistant and are good at wicking away any moisture or sweat. They are also very good at retaining their shape and they don’t tear as much compared with cotton or natural materials.

With the removal of elastane from rugby shirts, polyester fibres have been cleverly engineered with a helix structure to give the material a slight stretch, enough to allow the player to take the garment off but not so much that it will stretch and become misshapen.

Seamless kits

Historically, rugby jerseys would have a separate collar and placket and the various panels would be put together in different constructions using many seams and materials.

However, given the fast-paced nature of the sport and the amount of contact and grabbing in the game, the construction of the kit had to adapt to produce a more performance-led garment.

The jersey’s neckline is an area that often gets grabbed, so the fabric choice and garment assembly especially for the neck construction is vitally important.

We now see the use of a looped collar, which is a continuous piece built into the jersey, seamlessly knitted together. A seamless garment is much more durable, meaning if there is an attempt to grab the jersey during the game, it will be strong enough to not come apart.

Materials for rugby shorts differs by using a Ripstop woven structure made from Nylon and elastane featuring water-repellent and stain repellent finishes. Players sometimes wear compression shorts as under garments which are base layers made of warp knit structures.

New developments

In recent years, we have seen advancements in wearable technology for rugby kits. One example we commonly see is the use of a small GPS tracking device added into the back of rugby jerseys at the neck.

Data from these devices offers invaluable performance insights unique to each player, including the total distance a player has covered, the speeds reached, accelerations and decelerations, and heart rate.

This data can be used by team coaches, medics, and players during and after the game, helping a to understand a player’s performance on the pitch.

Further research into wearable technology will explore discreetly integrating technology to monitor biometric data of players which will be useful for monitoring injuries and player movement.

So, it’s clear that there is much more to a rugby shirt than meets the eye.

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