Finding Sportswear's Soul
Can sportswear have a soul? Now we're wowed by innovation, but everything's an improvement of an existing improvement. Like a calm corner in a market that's over-saturated though movements that immediately supersede what went before, shining fabrics, concealed seams and clinically rendered branding won't be around in a decade's time, let alone a century. Seattle's Ebbets Field Flannels were resurrecting sports apparel in 1988 — long before "throwback" entered the conversation — and through obsession and licensing limitations, lost leagues got their uniforms back.
This site might be about the new, but some things can't be bettered. Bringing a sporting obsession for trivia to an ever increasing crowd preoccupied with stitches, finishes and a garment's history, there's a lot of truth in Ebbets' founder Jerry Cohen's vision of a world where synthetic fabrics barely belong. Ebbets runs deeper than just one game, with some proto technologies in the fabrics and the best baseball cap shapes on the market. Created to order, it's all one big glorious sporting research project to match Setsumasa Kobayashi’s multiple self-imposed assignments.
Gary Warnett: I read the ‘Sports Illustrated’ feature from July 1990 about Ebbets that changed everything for the brand...
Jerry Cohen: Right — that was the first thing that anybody saw. I used to have the whole company in the dining room of my apartment when that came out.
GW: You'd been going for 2 years when that came out, right? It seemed perfect for the ‘Sports Illustrated’ audience. When Ebbets came out, it must have been like nothing else — from my recollections, fits were like these odd late 1980s "jock” fits and fabrics were synthetic.
JC: Baseball jerseys were polyester. They went to polyester in 1971. When they made that change - which was a massive change because before that, 8 decades was of wool and a baggy look that I consider classic. So when they changed, they threw out the baby with the bathwater because sporting goods companies didn't think like fashion companies. They thought, "This is our market and our market now wants this and they don't want that any more" and not only did styles change, but they threw out machines — machines that I need now!
GW: You use vintage machines for the hockey shirts, right?
JC: That's the hardest thing. That's a circular knit machine — there's only a few of them and they're in California. We're completely at the mercy of this knitter and they'll call us up one day and say, "Sorry — no more wool yarn."
GW: And there's nothing you can do about it.
JC: Right. And I found myself in Bradford, England this week trying to buy vintage cotton backed satin that used to be run-of-the-mill in the US in the 1950s.
GW: It's like a fossil fuel. Back in 1990 when you were using vintage fabric, you must have been on borrowed time.
JC: At that time I was. Because we had a little bit of success we were able to go to the woolen mills and have them make that fabric again. But the problem was that the woolen mills started to go out of business. I mean, in the US there's probably only 2 compared to when we started. We have to have a custom build and we have to buy — it's funny because sometimes a customer will email and say, "I want to make a custom baseball jersey with a black pinstripe" and I say, "Well, you can start by buying 1000 yards of black pinstripe fabric."
GW: It makes my mind boggle that you build to order.
JC: Unfortunately we're in the age of instant gratification and people assume — and I don't blame them — that because they can order something from Amazon and get it in 3-4 days, a company like us, who offer over 450 wool baseball shirts, will have their shirt on the shelf in medium. The one thing we have to give up to do what we do is expediency or free shipping. We say it takes 6 weeks to get a baseball shirt and somebody might order on Wednesday and call us on Monday like, "I haven't got my baseball shirt yet!”
GW: Do you think sportswear lost its soul? With flannel, it breathes, ages and works with the wearer.
JC: We claim timelessness and if someone buys a jacket from us which is from 1935, we want them to be able to take that jacket out in 10 years and enjoy it the same way. It's not made to be disposed of. Sports graphics now is a giant industry with a planned obsolescence to rejuvenate sales that throws out the thing you bought.
GW: It isn't future proofed.
JC: That's right. The way you designed something in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s was that a team needed uniforms and let's get some graphics — “What have we go round the back?” There's a serendipity and an elegance to it. That's been lost. Even when they try to recapture that, they can't because they're on Adobe Illustrator.
GW: I love the logos.
JC: We actually have the old catalogues with the fonts that were used. They were not type fonts that were purchasable. They were separate fonts that they had to punch out. Graphically they're different to anything you'd find in a letterpress and even when we design a custom order we refer to those fonts. What people see in our product is that.
GW: This feels like a research venture.
JC: That's it for me. It's the most important and pleasurable part of this — it's the discovery.
GW: It also seems that you keep a lot of teams alive. There must be former players for these teams with no idea that you're making these things.
JC: There are. And that's the fascinating thing for me — not the top level of the game but all of the dozens of 100s of teams that small towns had. US professional baseball used to go down to a D league. You had AA, A, B, C and D and a small mining town might have a team.
GW: Colours for teams like that must be very difficult. Going back to 1906, you must hit a point where there's no photography.
JC: Or there's photography but it's all black and white. I'll confess that in the early days I wasn't afraid to make mistakes — there's a certain amount of guesswork and it's an art, not a science. We don’t have a machine that can take black and white photography and spit it out at the other end as colour. I wish that existed. I would read newspaper accounts and hope that the writer would refer to the colours. Very often you’ll see things on auction from a team, but you have to wonder — all those years earlier, was it the same?
GW: Does wool lose its colour?
JC: That’s an interesting thing too. One story I like to tell is that when the National Hockey League were doing their so-called heritage program, they went to the Hockey Hall of Fame to do research and looked at the original hockey sweaters. Well, any team with green, they made an official spec of a mint green — a very light green — and years before I worked with them to do a collection and my Toronto St. Pats was a kelly green! They’d gone and looked at faded sweaters and based a Pantone colour on it. Dark blue wool fades to violet. The dye in the wool fades. There’s a lot of tricks you need to know.
GW: Do you still use the same dyes?
JC: It's close enough. But there are some things that are near enough impossible because those things don't exist.
GW: One thing that intrigued me was the baseball undershirts with a Merino and nylon mix. That was a proto technical fabric — now we get Dri-FIT and things like that, but this was back in the day.
JC: Yeah. It had an aerated cotton on the inside and a Merino wool on the outside. It was introduced in the ‘40s.
GW: Between that and say, Ventile, a lot of ground was covered a long time ago in terms of performance and technical fabric.
JC: This thing about performance fabric being new is really a myth. In those days they did some stuff — they really worked on these things at a time when people assume they didn't do anything.
GW: The notion is of a quaint kind of dark age.
JC: Like, for example, even the wool they used for basketball or football was very, very fine. —not a blanket fabric. They started blending synthetics after World War II. The wool we use for our baseball jerseys is not the 1910 wool really — it's a 1950s one that's lighter, it washes and is a better garment.
GW: Then there was this switch in the ‘70s to a polyester.
JC: The myth is that wool was hotter to wear than polyester. If you've ever worn a polyester top on a hot day, it's about as hot as it gets because it doesn't breathe. The reason they changed was because of care for the garment — woven fabric would rip and I've got all these old jerseys with stitching on. It wasn't as washable. They thought, "This polyester's a miracle fabric — we can throw it in the wash and throw it in the dryer!" Owners loved that. It had nothing to do with comfort.
GW: You have the same 16oz fabric for the hockey and football jerseys.
JC: Yes. That knit, which then changed to a Rayon with a cotton backing, which had a trade name of Durene and that's not so easy to find nowadays. It's technically possible to make. But like I said, what's not technically possible to make is fabric with stripes. People sometimes ask for say, a 1965 era football jersey, and it's not possible to make it because the machines don't exist.
GW: With the throwback thing, Starter and New Era got on it and so did Mitchell & Ness. Did you see any of that early ‘00s boom for throwback jerseys and hats? You seemed to be way ahead if the curve with the Negro League repros.
JC: We had a different consumer. In a way it hurt us — we were first. Some of the stuff was a direct knock off of what we were doing. I would do my research pre-internet, but as soon as you publish that it's open season. It's difficult to police or enforce our creative ideas.
GW: And if you're reproducing it gets very complex legally.
GW: The hat side fascinates me.
JC: Originally they used horse hair which we can periodically get, so we use goat hair and then satin. (holding a hat up) This is an ugly hat in a lot of ways — it was for the Dublin Irish — that's Dublin in Georgia. They had the name so they decided they'd be the Irish and the font is very blockish and not particularly elegant. That's what I like about it though.
GW: We're used to seeing a wool mix thing with a huge front panel.
JC: Yeah, like a helmet. We don't do that. Sometimes people say to us, "I like your hats but can your crown like New Era?" and we say, "No, we won't do that — go to New Era then."
GW: There's a lot of variations on a hat.
JC: If you look at the Spalding books from the turn of the last century, there was always a page of the latest hat styles and they were named after cities, so there was a Boston style and a Philadelphia style and a Brooklyn style and a Chicago style. That denoted different bills, visor lengths and shapes.
GW: Now that city difference is just a colour. Philly is a city with a real character too.
JC: And interestingly, Philadelphia used to be a manufacturing hub for this stuff — the sports clothing industry. They're all gone now, but when I started, some of them were around. In fact, the man who owned one of the last factories died just a few days ago — he was a friend and real mentor to me.
GW: Do a lot of the guys who impart knowledge pass away?
JC: Yeah. They die out — literally.
GW: In terms of audience, there seems to be a new wave who want well made goods.
JC: Yes, and that's been good for us because before we were up against people who had things that were cheaper and their pursuit was more fashionable.
GW: The prices of Ebbets are pretty reasonable though.
JC: We're under a lot of pressure in our industry because the price of wool has gone way up. We had to raise the prices a little bit.
GW: So your baseball collection runs until the 1970s, but why does football and hockey only run to the 1960s?
JC: Yeah, because again, they went to polyester around the same time.
GW: And Ebbets Park closed in the late 1950s?
JC: Yeah, '57.
GW: Do you feel that was the end of an era?
JC: Yeah, because of the different fabrics and because of the elegance of a design.
GW: As a business do you feel something was lost in the sports themselves then?
JC: Yes, I do. If you look at sport in 1975 or so there's a distinct look.
GW: It's all very lurid and shiny — was that for TV cameras?
JC: Yeah, television became important and licensing became very important. That put pressure to "update" their looks all the time. That disposability didn't seem to exist before 1960.
GW: Have you shown anybody these and reunited them with a flannel they wore?
JC: A fellow who wrote the book named 'Ball Four' named Jim Bouton — which was the first expose from the player side to expose the game and took the hero worship out — which I read when I was a kid. It was the first time I saw the f-word and found out players liked to chase women. He blew the lid off that. He played for the Yankees and he played for Amarillo in the minor leagues. I talked to him the other day and I sent him the cap he wore for the Amarillo Gold Sox he wore in 1961. He was thrilled and had no idea anybody would do that.
GW: What's the strangest request you've had?
JC: They want pants sometimes and we tell them that we're not costumers. We have a fella that wants to dress like Babe Ruth and does talks so he had us making an entire Babe Ruth uniform.
GW: How have fits changed? Flannels seemed to fit big.
JC: They are big. Ironically, the fashion thing is pushing us to do some slimmer fits. The market here and Japan prefers a narrower fit instead of a bulkier one. But Americans have become so much bigger.
GW: Players seem a lot bigger now.
JC: That's right. Also, a lot of the modern exercise machines they use make a difference. If you look at Mickey Mantle's actual baseball uniform, he was the biggest homerun hitter in baseball of all time, it's like a men's medium. They were ordinary looking guys.
GW: I can't imagine much nostalgia for the new skintight kind of shirt in certain sports. With regards to Major League Baseball spurning you because of license costs back in the day, did that adversity help you?
JC: That adversity was really a godsend because it allowed us to tell stories than nobody had done. To this day, we're still first, because of our research. They still deny us a license to this day.
GW: Would you like one?
JC: Only because people ask us for those teams and Mitchell & Ness, who hold the license, only make certain ones from certain eras. It's not worth them making 300 of something and of course, Reebok owns them. If someone wants one 1935 Boston Braves shirt, there's no place for them to get it. We don't have the right to do it and we've contacted them about doing it for them, but as of yet they haven't seen the wisdom in doing it.
GW: On the jackets, is there a difference between baseball jackets and the more commonplace varsity jacket?
JC: Absolutely. Nobody asks me that because they assume they're the same. The big difference is length. Varsity jackets went up on the waist but baseball jackets went longer. They were meant to be worn to warm up in, so the shoulders were cut different too. They used to make them tailored and varsity jackets were more bulky — Wilson made the best ones and I have a few originals.
GW: Is that the 1950s?
JC: Yep, the 1950s. The Wilson jackets were beautiful, with a zipper or buttoned front and they just had a certain drape to them that was just gorgeous. That's what we try to replicate. The wool isn't as heavy. A varsity jacket used a Melton wool , but baseball jackets used an 18 or 19oz wool rather than the 24oz.
GW: Are you looking to make reproduction fleece-wear?
JC: It's something we're looking into.
GW: It's something that got bastardized.
JC: I know, that's why we haven't done it yet. There's little that we can do that's different. And we want to do vintage satin. But basketball and American soccer are other things we want to do.
GW: When we talk about soccer in America, I think of that late ‘70s superstar era.
JC: I know, but we're talking 1920s soccer when working men played in the shipyard and everything. For a brief period the professional level was very successful on the east side. Workers from England and Scotland would be lured to the yards in the US and of course they formed football clubs. They were successful and then they'd lure people to work with them, but really it was to play for the club. There was a league called the American Soccer League that was very successful — what killed it was the depression.