We admit it without shame: the first Rugby Shirts we sold at Lands’ End decades ago were not very good. The all cotton, heavy jersey fabric shrank up to 10%. Not acceptable. So we took them out of our catalogs.
It took a year of trial and error, but we developed a jersey fabric that reduced shrinkage from 10% to 3%. Along the way, it became beefier too: 10.5 ounces. versus the usual 5 to 9 ounces.
A friend of ours knew someone who played for the University of Chicago rugby club. We asked the team to give our new shirts a try.
Embarrassing. They tore out plackets, ripped off buttons – rugby, it’s no sissy game. Back to the drawing board.
Ex-Lands’ End merchant Rick Rusch picks up the story here: “The collar was a big area of failure, because guys would get grabbed there, and the opposing player would end up with half a shirt in his hand.” So we rein-forced the collar with tough twill tape. Developed a placket built of 4 layers of heavy twill tape, too – truly player proof. The rubber buttons got extra stitching, and the protection of a French flap. And we put gussets under the arms for extra freedom of movement.
How to give our new shirts the ultimate field test? We inked a deal to supply them to the America’s national team, the U.S. Eagles. Calling these guys brawny was an understatement – some of them were born with 5 o’clock shadow.
They took the field, and we held our breath. More disaster. Some of the shirts failed again. One Eagle walked off the field wearing nothing above the waist but a collar. We wanted to crawl under the bleachers.
“We were surprised,” recalls Rusch, “but we realized that this time, the failure was coming from the fabric itself. So we re-engineered it completely. Changed to stronger, longer-staple cotton yarns. Went to a different, more gentle detergent in the washing process, at a different temperature. All in all, we did several things to create fabric that was stronger and more resilient.”
This time the results were different. The new jerseys held up to every ruck, maul and scrum. After three years of trying, the Lands’ End rugby shirt was finally “tough as the game.”
In 1987, the U.S. Eagles wore our shirts at the very first Rugby World Cup, hosted by Australia and New Zealand. And not only our shirts.
“We outfitted them completely,” says Rusch. “Blazers, khakis, shoes, the works. It was no small task. Some of the guys were oddly shaped – almost as wide as they were tall. So we had to custom-make things.”
The Eagles defeated Japan 21-18 in their first-ever World Cup match, then lost their next two games, 47-12 to the mighty Australia Wallabies and 34-6 to England. But impressed everyone with both their sportsmanship and their fiercely competitive spirit.
Rugby players are known for their off-the-field antics and tireless revelry. But the Eagles turned out to be great, gracious ambassadors for Lands’ End. Rusch says, “For years afterwards, I’d get letters and phone calls from people who’d met them at the World Cup, who told me what gentlemen the Eagles were, and what nice things they said about their Lands’ End gear.”
Where are those “tough as the game” rugby shirts today? Not on the field.
As in so many other sports, cotton shirts have been replaced by new high-tech nylon or polyester ones that are not only stronger and lighter-weight, but have amazing wicking and anti-microbial properties.
But most Saturdays, we still wear our old Lands’ End shirt, and think about those glory days gone by, and all the lessons we learned the hard way.
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We still make a (say it five times fast!) rugged rubber-buttoned Rugby. It’s soft and civilized, more for strolling the mall than joining a rugby maul. But it remains so durable it’s Guaranteed. Period.®
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