History of Rugby Shirt


On August 30, 2003, in Marseille, England played France in a warm-up game prior to their successful Rugby World Cup campaign. I was there that day, enjoying the Old Town port overlooked by the famous Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. On a humid evening, it was a typical warm-up game, with both teams lacking cohesion. As the coaches tried various combinations ahead of the tournament. Although France won the game 17-16, ending England’s record of 14 straight victories. The most significant event was the introduction of England’s new figure-hugging shirts.

The Innovation in Rugby Shirts

The shirts, designed by Nike, were made from 87% Polyester and 13% Elastane. The tight fit made it more difficult for defenders to grab, while the lighter fabric retained less perspiration. These new style jerseys undoubtedly improved the performance of the athletes. However, it also marked a shift from traditional Cotton or Poly/Cotton jerseys to the new Polyester versions. While the need for players to wear performance apparel is understandable. I question the necessity for supporters’ styles to follow suit.

History of Rugby Shirt and Supporters’ Apparel

Although the switch for supporters didn’t happen immediately, polyester usage is now commonplace, particularly with replica jerseys. They are much cheaper and quicker to produce than 100% Cotton garments. The sublimation process allows for small production runs and more intricate designs. This shift raises the question: are Cotton or Polyester Rugby Shirts better for the environment?

Environmental Impact: Cotton vs. Polyester

In terms of sustainability, cotton is generally considered more environmentally friendly than polyester. Cotton is a natural fiber derived from the cotton plant’s seed fibers, making it biodegradable. When disposed of properly, cotton products can decompose and return nutrients to the soil. In comparison, 60% of clothes worldwide are made from polyester, usually derived from petroleum. PET, the same material used in drinking bottles, containers, and packaging, is not biodegradable and can take 200 years to decompose.

The Issue of Microplastics

Polyester also sheds microplastics every time we wash our clothes, which end up in the ocean. This is a huge environmental concern. Dame Ellen Macarthur DBE, Founder of the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, stated, “Every time we wash a synthetic garment, around 700,000 tiny plastic fibres are released into the water. Many of these fibres end up in the ocean, where they can be ingested by marine life and enter the food chain.”

Recycling and Sustainability Efforts

On the plus side, polyester can be recycled, but this doesn’t solve the microplastic problem. However, it does reuse the bottles and reduce the garment’s carbon footprint. Once plastic bottles are recycled into fabric, the blending of materials can make it challenging for the final product to be recycled again. Organic cotton uses regenerative methods and alternatives to pesticides and fertilizers, making it better for the planet, for the people wearing the fabric, and for those who work in the industry. Ellis Rugby has switched to using Organic Cotton, which is more expensive than conventional cotton.

The Evolution and Future of Rugby Shirts

Since 2003, dye-sublimation direct printing onto polyester or other synthetic fabrics has allowed rugby shirts to be customized with as many logos or images as desired. These designs don’t peel or fade and can be washed without damaging the quality of the image. However, the release of 700,000 tiny plastic fibers into the water remains a concern. While the England team of 2003 certainly benefited from the new tech shirts, perhaps our planet is one of the losers from this trend.

Interested in Ellis Rugby Fashion Design, then email Kevin at [email protected]