Cut from the right cloth

Tuesday 10 November 2020 10:06

Though it might not be as iconic as the crest or as obvious as a sponsor’s logo, the fabric used to make Manchester United’s shirts continues to evolve as the years go by. The textiles used by manufacturers show us what is valued in football and how technology has been embraced to meet these demands.

In the early years of the club, players wore fabrics that were cheap and easy to come by, leading to a reliance on natural materials such as cotton and wool. Originally thin and often undervalued and overused, it can be difficult to find examples of these early shirts today.
Star striker, Sandy Turnbull’s shirt from the 1909 FA Cup final shows the wear and tear experienced by flimsy Edwardian shirts.
These natural materials remained popular in football for over a century, though not without developments. During the 1930s, Umbro debuted a bespoke material named ‘Tangeru’. Made from Peruvian Pima cotton, the long, silky fibres created luxuriously soft and durable football jerseys. They were colour-fast (handy for a team playing in bright red) and claimed to be quick drying.

During this time, clubs did not deal directly with manufacturers, instead relying on local retailers, such as Alec Watson & Son. These local stores stocked a small number of designs in different fabrics, and the top of the line ‘Tangeru’ shirts were soon favoured by United.
The supplier's label from inside Duncan Edwards’s 1957 FA Cup Final shirt. Durable and quick drying, Umbro ‘Tangeru’ shirts first became United’s favourite during the 1930s.
In the meantime, our goalkeepers weren’t quite so lucky. Although Ray Wood’s 1957 FA Cup final kit was made of the comfortable, moisture-wicking ‘Tangeru’, there was a desire to keep goalies warm.  Knitted jumpers remained a normal sight on the football pitch; a material which would have been absorbent and heavy in Manchester’s notorious drizzle. By the 1960s these had been abandoned for the cotton shirts we associate with the period.
Knitted jumpers remained a normal sight on United goalkeepers in the 1950s; a material which would have been absorbent and heavy in Manchester’s notorious drizzle.
Despite rumours of ‘reflective’ shirts for use under floodlights, and a brief flirtation with Aertex during the 1972/73 season, United remained faithful to cotton until the 1980s, when synthetic fabrics became popular. These polyester kits were lightweight and less absorbent, whilst allowing manufacturers to test out new printing techniques to create innovative detail on the shirts. 
Adidas, our supplier at the time, were at the forefront of these developments; first adding jacquards into the fabric itself, and then using sublimation printing to add their iconic geometric designs. These were particularly noticeable on our goalkeeper shirts. Notoriously broad Peter Schmeichel was made to look gigantic by crazy ‘90s prints and by the padding added to goalkeeper shirts to protect players as they lunged for the ball.

These wild designs were popular with United throughout the 1990s, but in the early 2000s the club negotiated exclusive rights to a textile developed in Australia. A hybrid fabric made from wool and polyester, Sportwool was designed to create a microclimate for players, and to neutralise the odours caused by sweating. Why this was considered an important attribute of this new fabric is anybody’s guess, but the textile wasn’t popular with players, who disliked the itchy texture created by the mix.

‘Intelligent’ fabrics such as Sportwool remain popular in football, with manufacturers trying to find new ways to improve player performance. However, as important as technology is to keeping players cool and fresh, another development takes into account a global issue. In 2018 Manchester United and adidas teamed up with Parley for the Oceans to create a moisture-wicking, performance-enhancing kit made from recycled ocean plastic.

With recycled fabrics becoming the norm for United, and technology improving all the time, we in the Museum can’t wait to find out what’s coming next for United’s kits.