ELLSWORTH — In a room full of jerseys, pants, singlets and more, there’s one item in the uniform closet at Ellsworth High School that sticks out.
The closet, which contains Ellsworth’s uniforms dating back nearly 30 years, has one particular jersey top with letters and numbers screen printed onto the maroon material. Unlike the countless other maroon uniforms, though, the letters and numbers on this one are bright gold, a color that doesn’t fit with the school’s maroon, gray and white color scheme.
“I don’t even know where the gold would’ve come from,” Ellsworth Athletic Director Josh Frost said. “We’ve been keeping a bunch of really old ones back there for a while to maybe have a yard sale or something like that, and that one’s always confused me.”
Perhaps the gold coloring on the uniform, which was last worn in the late 1980s, was a lucky color at the time. Or maybe it was supposed to be white and was instead printed in the wrong color. Regardless, the condition and nature of this jersey and every other in the closet tell stories of different times in the school’s history.
As sports and the schools that play them evolve over the years, so do uniform styles and materials. In a world in which athletes of all sizes add wear and tear to those uniforms every year, maintaining a quality supply of them as times change is a task of utmost importance in the lives of athletic directors everywhere.
“It’s definitely one of the main things we do,” Frost said. “You have to be up to date on all the styles and know what your coaches and athletes need, and that’s something that’s changing all the time these days.”
Whereas many uniforms in the past were made at home, most schools in eastern Maine today go through either Wight’s Sporting Goods or Turner Sporting Goods, both of which are located in Hampden. Those two companies provide uniforms from Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and other athletic apparel companies ranging from some of the world’s largest to smaller, regionally made ones.
Russell Athletic used to be on that list as well. That all changed Sept. 29 when the Kentucky-based company made the surprising announcement that it would “transition away from the team uniform business to allow greater emphasis on the consumer retail market.”
As for Russell, the company has promised to fulfill uniform orders that had been made prior to last month’s announcement. In an email sent to athletic directors throughout Maine earlier this month, Wight’s Sporting Goods owner Andy Nickerson added that the company has agreed to take custom orders for fill-in needs until December.
Locally, that change affected Sumner and Mount Desert Island. The latter used Russell for its football, baseball and softball uniforms but will have to get ones made by a different company when the time comes to make the next order.
“It was really too bad because Russell always put out high-quality uniforms you could rely on to last a long time,” MDI Athletic Director Bunky Dow said. “Fortunately, the relationships most schools here have with Wight’s means it won’t be too hard to make a change.”
Ellsworth, MDI, George Stevens Academy and Sumner order uniforms made by different companies on a sport-by-sport basis. Ellsworth, for example, uses Under Armour uniforms for football, Adidas for soccer and boys’ basketball and Nike for baseball, softball and girls’ basketball, just to name a few.
The specific company, Frost said, doesn’t matter as much as the quality of the uniform in question. He consults with coaches on their specific needs when it comes to jerseys, pants or singlets and makes a determination on material and brand based on their recommendations.
“Each sport has different requirements and different components, and that’s something you have to take into consideration in regards to brand and style,” Frost said. “What works for you in softball isn’t necessarily going to work for you in basketball.”
Bucksport and Deer Isle-Stonington, on the other hand, have slightly different arrangements. Bucksport, which ordered new football uniforms this fall, has an agreement with Adidas that provides the Golden Bucks with Adidas uniforms across all sports. When the school surpasses a certain threshold of uniforms ordered, it receives a variety of incentives.
Deer Isle-Stonington, on the other hand, stays close to home for its uniform production. The school uses Maine Camp Outfitters, a family-owned company in Deer Isle that specializes in camping gear but has branched out to provide the Mariners with screen-printed uniforms.
“It’s a cheaper alternative for us, and it helps us support a local business,” said Ed Hatch, who was the Bucksport athletic director for six years before taking the same position at Deer Isle-Stonington in the spring. “I don’t even have to order them myself because our booster club does all the fundraising and takes care of everything.”
The future of high school sports uniforms, Frost, Dow and Hatch all agreed, is a process known as “sublimation.” Rather than applying names, numbers or scripts to uniforms through traditional methods such as tackle twill or screen printing, sublimation involves those details being dyed directly into the uniforms.
Although specific patterns can be a bit difficult to create using sublimation, the process avoids the peeling that comes with screen-printed jerseys and the tears in stitching that can occur with tackle twill. The cost can vary in comparison to other methods, but sublimated uniforms are still gaining popularity relative to the other styles in existence.
“It’s just much easier because you don’t have to worry about the ripping and tearing on the numbers,” Frost said. “You know you’re going to get a uniform that’s going to stay in one piece for years.”
Old uniforms, though, don’t go away once a new order is placed. MDI and Ellsworth, for example, use five-year cycles to determine when they need new uniforms for each varsity sport. When the new varsity uniforms arrive, old uniforms are passed down to the junior varsity team, whose uniforms then get passed down to the freshman team.
“You don’t want to have jerseys that are older than 10-15 years or so because the quality deteriorates and the elastic will snap and not go back into shape,” Frost said. “It’s important to keep the cycle going so that everybody at every grade level has the right uniform.”
As years go by, those uniforms will also become vestiges of the past. Schools that win championships will continue to hang them in closets next to trophies, plaques and team photos, and the fonts, materials and patterns from years gone by and years yet to come will bring them to life.
“For athletes, that uniform means everything to you,” Dow said. “You’re representing your town and your school when you wear it. We want the uniforms our athletes wear when they represent us to be the very best.”