Engineered Garments Varsity Jacket
Welcome back to "DEEP DIVE," where we look into the inspiration behind some of our favorite Engineered Garments pieces. This installment features the "Varsity Jacket," a quintessential symbol of traditional American style.
The varsity letter, an integral part of American culture, has symbolized athletic accomplishment for over a century. "Varsity" originates from the abbreviation of "university," reflecting its 17th-century pronunciation. In the 19th century, American students used "varsity" to denote their campus community, the birthplace of the varsity jacket.
Harvard's baseball team, known as the "Nine," pioneered affixing letters to their uniforms. They adorned grey flannel jerseys with an Old English "H." Access to this coveted letter was restricted by the team captain, allowing only those who played against Yale or Princeton (considered the most competitive games) to retain the garment at season's end. A decade later, Harvard's football team introduced a new system that bestowed letters only upon the elite players, known as "Lettermen," a practice that the school's other sports teams soon embraced.
Merely excelling in sports at prestigious schools wasn't sufficient for these athletes. In 1891, the Nine introduced black sweaters with a crimson "H" stitched onto the left breast. This tradition spread across the Ivy League, allowing top schools to distinguish their "Big Man on Campus." Letter Pullovers typically displayed a prominent letter on the front, while Letter Cardigans featured a letter on the left breast. Embellishments became more intricate, featuring stars around the collar to signify captains or stripes on the left arm to tally earned letters.
By 1930, the Letter Cardigan had evolved into the Varsity Jacket, characterized by a ribbed collar, leather sleeves, and a melton wool body, ensuring athletes could flaunt their pride in any weather.
The practice of awarding letters extended beyond top-tier universities. By the 1950s, nearly every American high school had varsity sports programs, issuing varsity jackets adorned with chenille letters. In keeping with the Harvard influence, schools adopted colors and designed letters in Old English or Block Letter typefaces. These jackets became a major fashion trend, paired with blue jeans or given as tokens of affection to girlfriends.
The surging demand for sportswear led to the emergence of numerous knitting factories across the United States, including Athletic Equipment Co. in Chicago, IL; Mac-Ben in Worcester, MA; Nelson Sportswear in Duluth, MN; Marshall Clothing Manufacturing Co. in Butler, Indiana; Sand Knitting Mills Corp. in Berlin, WS; Whiting in Los Angeles, CA; and Hatchers Mfg Inc. in Marblehead, MA.
The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the rise of mass production, resulting in the disappearance of most of these factories, with only a few remaining.
Among the survivors is Albion Knitting Mills Inc., which manufactures the Engineered Garments Varsity Jacket. Established in 1923, it operates from a small Los Angeles Arts District factory. Engineered Garments designer Daiki Suzuki's association with Albion dates back to the 1990s. He recalls Nancy, now running the business, as a young girl.
The Varsity Jacket holds deep personal significance for Daiki, who meticulously refined every detail to his satisfaction. The design adheres to tradition, featuring genuine leather sleeves, a ribbed collar and hem, and a melton body—a dense, felt-like fabric crafted from boiled wool. The Besom pockets feature a matching leather finishing. A quilted lining complements the heavyweight melton body, ensuring warmth for wearing in New York's unpredictable weather.
Rather than crafting an overtly fashion-centric product, such as an all-black version, Daiki opts for a tri-color design—a classic style and his favorite from his days as a buyer. The deliberate absence of patches or letters encourages customers to add unique designs.
While the heyday of American sportswear manufacturing has faded, the Engineered Garments Varsity Jacket offers a window into the nation's history while supporting one of the last remaining practitioners of this manufacturing style.
The Varsity Jacket is available in the following fabrics:
Grey Melton, Navy Melton, Olive Melton
Available in-store and online at nepenthesny.com