From Philly to Rio: 'Seamless' suit takes rowing apparel to new level

Mark Sunderland, a Philadelphia University textile engineer and professor, adjusts a prototype seamless suit for Chierika Ukogu, who is rowing for the Nigerian team at the Olympics. “I don’t feel constricted in any way,” she said. TOM AVRIL / Staff

Striding lightly through the halls of Boathouse Sports, Chierika Ukogu felt unencumbered by the stretchy fabric that hugged her muscular, 6-foot frame.

"It feels weightless," she said.

It practically was.

Ukogu, a member of the Nigerian Olympic rowing team, will be among the first to compete in the high-tech, seamless "unisuit," designed by Philadelphia University textile engineer Mark A. Sunderland.

The new suits also will be part of the apparel package this summer for the U.S. rowers, supplied by North Philadelphia-based Boathouse, though for now the team plans to use them in Rio de Janeiro only while training, not in competition.

The whisper-thin outfits will take up little room in rowers' suitcases; they could easily fit in a small pocket. Each one is custom-made of lightweight, high-tech fibers using an electronic knitting machine, a programmable device ordinarily used to make hosiery.

The suits are made to conform to each rower's exact measurements, and the seamless knitting process all but eliminates waste - no cutting and sewing from larger pieces of fabric. In addition, the garments are treated with both water-repellent and antimicrobial finishes, providing some degree of protection in Rio's less-than-pristine waters.

Sunderland said the suits weigh less than seven ounces, two-thirds the weight of a traditional cut-and-sew rowing suit, and they contain ultrafine fibers made from nylon, polyester, and Lycra.

The strands are so slender that the small spaces between them act like capillaries, wicking moisture away from the body, he said.

Sunderland, who has been teaching at Philadelphia University in various capacities since 2001, said he came up with the concept for the seamless suits about a year ago.

Once he felt confident that it would work, he took the idea to Boathouse founder and chief executive officer John M. Strotbeck, who rowed for the United States in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. Strotbeck was intrigued.

Boathouse already was the official outfitter for the U.S. rowing team, providing the athletes with suits made in a more traditional cut-and-sew process.

Those high-wicking, low-friction suits have been a coveted item on the international circuit, Strotbeck said. But he predicted that Sunderland's design will inspire renewed envy.

"The seamless takes it to a much deeper level," Strotbeck said. "There's nothing like it out there."

Technically, the suits have two small seams in the crotch area, but Strotbeck said it is fair to call them seamless in comparison with standard suits, which are commonly sewn together from more than a dozen pieces.

Boathouse, which also makes apparel for rugby, lacrosse, and track athletes, among others, plans to start selling the new suits this fall, for about $90. Sunderland said he has a business relationship with the company but declined to elaborate, saying his prime goal is to put new ideas into practice.

"My research needs to have a commercial application at the end," Sunderland said. "I'm always looking for new cases for innovation."

In a sense, he was born to it.

His father was president of Anderson-Little, a retail chain in Fall River, Mass. that made its own men's suits. Throughout high school and college, Sunderland worked in all aspects of the business: fabrics, cutting, sewing, inventory, merchandising, and distribution.

At his father's suggestion, he went to Philadelphia University, then called Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science. He graduated in 1984 and later came back for a master's degree in textile engineering.

There is a long history of elite athletes seeking an edge with high-tech apparel, such as swimsuits designed to glide more smoothly through the water.

Sunderland, who also designs mesh-like materials for medical implants, thought rowing apparel was ripe for innovation.

Among his quests: to eliminate the dreaded "trampoline" effect - where stretchy material is pulled taut over a gap formed by the body's curvature, such as in the small of the back.

Ukogu, upon trying the new suit earlier this month, pronounced that problem solved.

"It conforms to my body really well," said the rower, who was born in Philadelphia but will compete in the Olympics for her parents' native Nigeria. "I don't feel constricted in any way."

The lower half of Ukogu's 6-foot frame is narrow, so ordinarily she orders smaller rowing suits, which end up being too tight in the torso.

No need for that with the custom seamless. The version that Ukogu tried on was a prototype, and not exactly tailored to her measurements, but she said even that one had a great fit.

Sunderland said her custom version would take about eight minutes to knit - in the green hue found on Nigeria's flag, naturally.

Another plus: The suits are knitted with a second layer in the seat, so that rowers can get by without underwear. (Athletes in the sport are famously underwear-averse, both for the sake of appearance and comfort during all that back-and-forth movement.)

The knitting is done in North Carolina on a large, circular electronic knitting machine made by an Italian company called Santoni.

"It's all technology. It's not human," said Boathouse's Strotbeck, which keeps production costs low. Finishing touches are applied in Philadelphia.

Apparel has come a long way since Strotbeck's first Olympic competition.

"In '84 the shorts were cotton and nylon and about as formfitting as a trash bag," he said.

They didn't have an antimicrobial finish, either. Still, Sunderland cautioned against overestimating the new garment's level of protection.

"The suit is not a medical device," he said.

But it is a high-tech one, for sure.