Rowers, design students fashion retro uniforms

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John Carberry
Kristen Morris
Doctoral student Kristen Morris sews the uniforms.
Concepts ranked from lowest (green) to highest.

In rowing, where losers traditionally hand over their shirts to victors, the crew treasures their race gear. Big Red men’s heavyweight rowers this spring are sporting some precious new swag after partnering with Cornell fiber science and apparel design graduate students and a New York City digital textile company to create retro practice uniforms.

“It’s a big deal in the rowing world to customize your own uniforms and show off your team pride,” said rower Theo Pritz ’15, who initiated the project. “We decided to take that to the next level and take advantage of resources at Cornell to make something that is professional quality and truly unique.”

Beginning last fall, Pritz and eight teammates participated in an activewear pilot study directed by Kristen Morris, a doctoral student in the field of apparel design. In sessions observed by Morris and led by Sandy Flint, a graduate student in the field of fiber science, crew members imagined looks, graphics and color schemes for new uniforms. The designers sketched them and put six ideas to a vote by more than 100 athletes and coaches on the men’s heavyweight and lightweight rowing teams.

Pritz preferred the Hawaiian print or camouflage patterns, which he said suggested fun and seriousness at the same time. Morris and Flint thought the team would dig the lime green “designer’s choice” they added to the slate. (It came in last.) In the end, tradition prevailed, and team members overwhelmingly chose a deep red and off-white singlet emblazoned with the Cornell seal across the chest, the university name on the flanks, and “BMA” – a time-honored Big Red rowing cheer – across the back.

“Rowing is so steeped in tradition, which is why I think they went for the throwback look,” Morris said. “The results also showed how easily designers can miss their users’ interests. We thought they would like the lime green since bold colors are trending in other sports right now.”

The final sketch.

After the voting, Morris and Flint worked with Pritz and eight teammates to refine the look and cut of the garments based on their insights. For one, Pritz said, “rowers like to show off our quads,” so the designers trimmed an inch off the singlet’s legs. And the designers learned to double-line shorts’ bottoms to prevent the fabric from wearing thin. “The guys brought up all these issues we would have never considered without talking to them,” Flint said.

Morris delivered the final designs to First2print, a digital textile design and printing company in New York City. The company, whose founders have two children at Cornell, offered to print the fabric at cost. Morris received the pieces during spring break and spent nearly one week sewing them.

“Kristen went above and beyond for us,” Pritz said. “She was so professional about everything, and the new uniforms are awesome. The whole process was a great team-building activity.”

As much as the team prizes the new gear, Morris values her dissertation data. She is investigating how athletic apparel companies incorporate user feedback into product design. In the next phase of her research, she plans to survey runners in Ithaca and other frigid climates to develop better cold-weather base layer shirts.

“Athletes are so passionate about their sports that they are highly willing to share ideas about what they need from their apparel in order to perform better,” Morris said. “Plus, there’s a great deal of creative energy that occurs when you open up the design process to them.”

Ted Boscia is director of communications and media for the College of Human Ecology

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