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The Mystery of the Itchy Uniforms

Itchy Uniforms: The Reputation of Wool at Stake  

Itchy uniforms; it is a uniform designer’s worst nightmare! A client launches a lovely new wool uniform with a huge fanfare – then the staff wearing it come out in hives.

This is what American Airlines and their uniform suppliers are currently up against. With 1,600 staff complaining of headaches, rashes, itching, breathing problems – you name it – apparently as a result of their spanking new uniforms.

When we saw this story we were intrigued. We can safely say that nothing like this has ever happened to us, but we know that the road to a successful uniform programme has many underestimated technical obstacles to overcome, especially if you’re not an expert.

We’ve been around for long enough to have seen most things, so with our Dr Diagnosis hat on…

Could it be fabric choice?

The current theory is that it’s wool to blame. We’d like to champion the cause of wool as it is natural, sustainable, and biodegradable – all the things we love in a fabric. Allergic reaction to wool (usually to the lanolin in it) is extremely rare. Put it this way, we have only encountered it three times in 20-odd years of business producing more than 50,000 uniforms. That works out at 0.006% of our uniform wearers affected compared to 2.2% of alleged sufferers in American Airlines’ current uniform programme.

The finger of suspicion has been pointed at the jackets, trousers and dresses, but many of the staff are wearing shirts and blouses – reportedly 100% cotton – next to their skin. Cotton is even less likely to cause a reaction than wool, so could the culprit be…

The dyes and treatments of the fabrics?

All yarn undergoes some kind of treatment before it becomes fabric, and then the fabric itself will be treated before it is made into a garment as part of the finishing process (see how this works, courtesy of Clissold, one of the UK’s leading wool cloth makers).

There are plenty of nasties in fabrics out there, from formaldehyde to flame retardants, which can cause what is known as contact dermatitis (an itchy rash to you and me). American Airlines say they have done three rounds of testing to date, with another one scheduled, and found the fabric to be within the normal parameters.

The American Airlines project had a difficult birth: perhaps the signs were there that it wasn’t going well when the uniforms designed by Kaufman Franco didn’t make it past the wearer trials. We’re not wholly surprised by that: fashion designers can make uniforms look good, but uniforms have to fit real, working people and be functional too.

So we are interested to see what the testing reveals and how this mystery is solved. We’re guessing that wool may be innocent after all.

 

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