Flocking: How Champion Changed What We Wear

Man on stage wearing a Champion sweatshirt
Image credit: Harry Swales on Unsplash

A few days ago I wrote about the history of the crew neck sweatshirt. While it was invented by the athletic brand Russell, one of the most important innovations in the evolution of the sweatshirt — and a significant development for the future of fashion — was made by the sportswear manufacturer Champion

Champion store front
Image credit: Maksim Larin on Unsplash

Champion, initially called Knickerbocker Knitting Mills, had been founded by the Feinbloom family of Rochester, NY in 1919. A few years later, the Feinblooms filed a patent for a process called flocking, which would allow raised lettering to be printed directly onto fabric. Previously, similar designs would have needed to be, say, knit into the pattern of a sweater or sewn onto a jacket after the fact.

The recently-created sweatshirt proved a perfect canvas for this novel printing technique. Its cotton fabric was heavy and thick enough to make it ideal for Champion’s purposes. Their new sweatshirts, which could now be customised as never before, proved hugely popular among sports teams, with the Wentworth Military Academy leading the charge in the late 1920s as the first team supported by Champion. 

USA rowing eight in sweatshirts at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
The USA rowing eight in printed sweatshirts and ill-advisable headgear at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Image credit: Joe Haupt / CC BY-SA 2.0

Colleges soon followed. In 1934 the brand partnered with Moe’s Sport Shop in Ann Arbor. They introduced sweatshirts and tees featuring University of Michigan insignia, the striking aesthetic of which would set the template for collegiate apparel as we know it.

Close-up of flocking on a sweatshirt
The Champion / Moe’s Sport Shop collaboration birthed the collegiate merch aesthetic
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Flocking was a simple but revolutionary innovation. It transformed a purely functional garment like a sweat- or T-shirt into something that could be turned to seemingly endless purposes. Printed tops could now be used to signal membership, show allegiance, market products, display slogans, and much more. By the late ’30s Hanes had produced the first promotional T-shirt (for the release of The Wizzard of Oz in 1939) and within a generation such printed garments would become inextricable markers of youth culture.

Like the sweatshirt itself, flocking may have had a humble start in the realm of early twentieth-century sports, but it would go on to change the face of fashion forever, allowing clothing to communicate as never before.

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