What is TPU?

Football shirts have remained broadly similar for a number of years, but one particular area which has seen rapid development is the crest.

Back in the day 90% of football shirts (this stat is not verified) had embroidered crests, and the expectation was for shirts of all kinds to have a crest stitched directly onto the shirt including the kits worn on the pitch by players.

Fast forward to 2021 and the landscape couldn’t be more different. Embroidered crests are still a core staple in the industry, but there are many more crest types now mixing it in with the old favourite. There’s even been a wave of crests that change colour in the light (see our recent article on iridescence).

Today I want to unpack some of the most popular crest types, most notably ‘TPU’ crests which have become quite fashionable over recent years. What does TPU stand for, and is it any better than a good old embroidered badge?

Types of football crests

Let’s start by identifying the main types of football crests you’ll see today.

First up we have embroidered, and this is the style most people will think of when picturing a crest. We’ll talk more specifically about what embroidering actually means later on.

Image via Providence City FC @providencecity_

The second is some sort of plastic crest, which is typically TPU or silicone. Again, we’ll drill down into what TPU actually is shortly, but many teams up and down the leagues are adopting plastic or TPU crests, something which used to be the choice of high-end player issue shirts.

Image via Providence City FC @providencecity_

Thirdly, we have what I usually call ‘patch’ crests, that is crests formed as a standalone badge and applied to the shirt through a variety of methods. Liverpool’s new third shirt makes use of this sort of crest. There’s a considerable level of overlap with this third category though, as the patch itself may be made out of embroidery, plastic or something else entirely.

Image via Nike

Next, you can have heat transfer crests. This could also be considered a subset of the second category, and this relatively cheap method is the bane of many shirt owners as it tends to be the least durable of the options. Heat transfers have been known to come off easily in the wash, something which doesn’t happen with an embroidered crest!

As we begin to wrap up we have fully sublimated crests. We discussed sublimation at length in a previous articles, but in short this is a crest which is part of the base of the shirt and not really a separate entity in any way, other than in design/aesthetic. This is even cheaper then the heat transfer method above, making it a widely used option particularly outside the big leagues.

Outside of these broad categories, you can also find hybrid crests which combine elements of any of the above. An example I like to use is this particular Providence City crest, which combined a woven fabric base with raised silicone elements.

What is TPU?

What exactly is TPU? You’ve seen it used a lot in regards to crests, but what does it actually consist of?

Thermoplastic polyurethane (to give it its formal name) isn’t so much a specific material but rather a category or class of plastics, specifically polyurethane plastics. Without wanting to turn this article into a chemistry lesson, TPU is what’s called a block copolymer, that means a substance or material consisting of alternating hard and soft segments at the molecular level.

My knowledge is already being stretched here, and if I go much further my plagiarism of Wikipedia will be reaching dangerous levels, but to try and condense things into a simple sentence we can say that TPU is a type of plastic.

A huge variety of different TPU can be produced, with everything from elasticity to transparency and grease resistance being possible. TPU can also be manufactured in a way that makes it very smooth to touch; a desirable trait in its many practical applications. This sort of flexibility has seen TPU employed in all manner of situations, including phone cases, large scale 3D printing projects and of course, football crests.

Are all plastic crests TPU?

As hinted at previously, though TPU crests are becoming increasingly popular it’s important to note that not all plastic crests are TPU.

Though similar in terms of end result, silicone is another popular form of plastic used on football crests. TPU has begun to supplant silicone because of its increased durability over time, and in the case of mobile phone cases the reported advantages of TPU over silicone in regards to its shock resistance.

I’m not aware of any notable benefits of silicone in regards to football crests, other than some reported environmental benefits which I haven’t verified personally.

What does embroidered mean?

Let’s not forget about the good old embroidered football crest. Embroidering simply refers to patterns or pictures that are sewn directly onto a piece of material. It’s a technique that’s centuries old, and indeed though the application of embroidery has developed over time the essential aesthetics of an embroidered crest aren’t a million miles away from what you can witness on something like the Bayeux Tapestry.

Embroidery usually refers to thread which has been added directly onto the material, but technically a patch of some sort (whether composed of thread, plastic etc.) can be considered embroidery if it is stitched onto the shirt. This somewhat contradicts my third category in the earlier section where I discussed types of crests, so make of that what you will.

Without wanting to complicate matters further, you can also technically embroider using plastic threads like polyester, but I would distinguish a plastic or TPU crest on the basis that it is a block of plastic rather than a series of threads, plastic or otherwise. I hope I haven’t lost you at this point!

Do player issue shirts have embroidered or TPU crests?

There’s significant diversity across player issue shirts when it comes to crest type. Across clubs of even the same brand you can find different materials for replica or player issues, meaning that you have to take things on a shirt-by-shirt basis.

Broadly speaking, you can expect most player issue shirts to have a plastic or TPU crest, with most replicas having an embroidered badge. This isn’t always the case, with Barcelona’s new away shirt being a good example of a shirt which has a plastic crest at both replica and player issue level, but usually there is a different for any particular team’s shirt in terms of crest material when moving from replica to player issue.

Image via Nike

Patch style crests as mentioned before are also now quite popular at player issue tier, and you can see everything from fabric designs to something more chunky that is then applied as a patch.

TPU vs embroidered

Finally, if I had to choose between TPU or embroidered crests I’d go TPU most of the time. The level of detail that can be achieved now with TPU is staggering, and from a tactile perspective few things beat the touch of a well designed TPU crest with all the raised trimmings.

Having said that, I understand the timeless appeal of embroidered, and I’d certainly take that over a simple heat transfer crest or a sublimated crest. A patch crest also sits somewhere around the embroidered level for me; there’s nothing I particularly dislike about patches, but they often lack the level of polish that a TPU crest can achieve.

I’d love to know what you think though, so let me know in the comments. Feel free to fire in any other crest-related questions whilst you’re there too, and I’ll be happy to assist!

Phil Delves

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