June 8, 2013

A Complete Guide to Figure Skating Tights

Today I made a little graphic for the FigureSkatingAdvice Facebook page, having been inspired by my many hours traipsing through thousands of posts on Tumblr, and seeing many cute little graphics that had been handmade with free graphics software, simply displaying pretty typefaces, quotes, and wise words. My creation was based around a few of the things I used to do in the month of June, as the season pulls to an end and skaters across the world take stock, analyse how things are going, and where they want to be headed next season.

The summertime is the ideal opportunity for skaters to start concocting new programs, listening out for new pieces of music, and when the time is right, to start those important costume sketches. If you follow my blog, you'll know I have written quite extensively on the subject of costume design, and if you want to view some of my most-read materials on the subject, click here for a list of posts.

Although I've looked at the subject of skating dress and men's costume design many times, I realise that another hugely important accessory which should not be neglected and can contribute strongly to the over-all skater's look was as yet left neglected: tights. If you want to find out all about figure skating tights, then follow me! *jumps out of chair* (OK so when I say "follow me", I mean click the "keep reading" button...)

What Are Tights, Anyhow?
Well if you're reading this post, I'm guessing you know that tights are the accessory worn on the legs for a number of reasons, including: to protect against the cold air, to protect against the ice in case of falls, making the legs look more seemly, making the legs uniform in colour, and of course just for good ol' decency! But do you know what tights are made of?

Skating (and dance) tights are mainly made up of two components: nylon, and elastane. I'm sure you're familiar that the word "nylons" used to be used (and still is, in some places) inter-changeably with tights, or pantyhose, and it's no mystery why: this is what tights are made of! Nylon is a type of polymer (a type of molecule with a repeating unit) which belongs to a family of molecules called polyamides, because it is made up of repeating units of amide molecules. These can occur naturally (e.g. silk) or be produced industrially. Nylon was first introduced as a garment fabric in the 1930s, engineered by DuPont, also famous for Lycra, and Kevlar.

June activities for figure skaters!

Elastane is what gives the tights their stretch, making sure the garment hugs the skaters legs but also affords them comfortable motion, stretching with every movement of the athlete. The elastane content of the fabric can vary (this also holds true for fabrics used to make skating dresses and men's costumes, for more on this check out this post on making your own figure skating costumes), and this directly impacts the amount of stretch the tights will have. As the elastane (also often seen as spandex, and Lycra elastane on the back of packets) content varies, so too will the nylon content, quite logically.

In addition to these two main components, some cotton will usually also be present. This is usually in the form of the gusset at the area where the two legs meet, and also as a cotton waistband which should provide a soft contact to the skin of the skater wearing them.

Textures & Finishes
Skating tights come in a few standard finishes, and textures. Typically used for training purposes, there are the thickest tights which exhibit a furry texture, and are usually matte in finish. These are some of the thickest tights you can buy, and may be a good option for those girls and women who like to train in dresses, affording them maximum protection against the cold air, and ice. Many people feel these types of tights make the legs look slightly bigger and bulkier, and they are generally avoided for special events.

Next are the smoother types, which are seen on thinner tights, and are perfect for competition and testing. Smooth textures allow for a flat contour of the leg, and no "fuzz" can be seen. Smooth tights are used in competition and testing, and for all the other important skating events in a skater's life. 

Smooth tights can come in matte, semi-sheen, or high shine finishes. The super shiny finishes are often found on tights with a more orange hue, and although they were the object of choice in the 80s and 90s, preference has now shifted to tights which have less shine. Matte finishes look flat and feel smooth to the touch. Some matte tights have a microfibre finish (like the little pieces of cloth you would use to clean a pair of reading or sun-glasses), adding to their smoothness.

Shapes & Designs
There are 4 standard shapes of tights in skating: footed, foot-less, stirrup, and over-the-boot. 

File:2012-12 Final Grand Prix 3d 342 Ashley Wagner.JPG
Ashley Wagner of the USA wearing footed matte tights.
Footed tights simply have a foot, just like regular ladies' pantyhose. This means the boot will be showing. This style has become more popular in recent years, with many skaters preferring over-the-boot over the past 10-15 years. Personally I prefer footed tights and to see the boot. It looks classy, and well, if it's good enough for Michelle Kwan... (there's actually a pretty funny anecdote of how Frank Carroll ran around looking for white boot paint at nationals one of Michelle's debut years, having been horrified at the colour of her boots she had failed to clean, but that's for another time!).

Some people say that footed tights shortens the leg line, and that over-the-boots do the contrary: they give the illusion of a longer leg. I was always a gangly skater, so I certainly didn't need my legs to look long still, but I guess I can see the attraction for some people. Still, the big clumpy boot at the end of the leg, enrobed in the same colour as the leg just doesn't look natural to me. 

File:Sasha Cohen.jpg
Sasha Cohen of the USA wearing over-the-boot tights.
Over-the-boot tights do have the advantage of protecting the boot, and are therefore a valuable tool in training to try and guard against nicks and scratches in your boot's upper. This can however be avoided using tape in any case (click here for a post which details how to do this!). These tights fasten under the skate using either Velcro tabs, or hooks-and-eyes. Velcro tabs are bulkier and may make the skate look bigger, a look you might want to avoid for competition in favour of the daintier hooks-and-eyes method.

Stirrup tights half cover the boot, and feature a Velcro fastening. These generally aren't seen in skating events any more. You can see an example of stirrup tights on the Mondor website here (model number 3374).

Finally, footless tights are just that. They can be placed over the ankle area of the boot, leaving the skater free to either go bare-foot in their skates, or wear regular socks. An example of these tights can be seen in this image, from the Mondor website.

It might sound obvious, but year after year we see skaters wearing tights which are clearly not a similar tone to their skin, and this really throws off the entire outfit. Most tights manufacturers offer their models in a variety of tints now, and it will really pull your costume together if you take the time to choose the right shade for your skin.

The knack is to match the tights to your arms, especially if they will be on display in anything other than a full length, completely opaque velvet dress. Slip the tight leg over your forearm, and check for similarities between your upper arm and the tights. Buying the tights closest to your natural colour will ensure you look even in colour, and won't detract attention away from your dress!

Big Names
There are a two main brand names you'll come across when shopping around for tights: Mondor, and Capezio. Below are links to their respective tight selection on their websites:
How To Find Cheaper Tights
Tights can be expensive, especially if you wear them in training. You never know when you'll burst a hole into a pair, and always need a back up pair (or two) when heading off to major events. Needless to say, tights can represent quite a budget, so cutting down on these costs is something all skaters can benefit from.

Buying online may save you the mark up prices of pro skating shops and high street dance shops which have overheads to pay. Obviously if you feel strongly about supporting your local skating and dance community then your buying tights and accessories in such stores will surely be appreciated, but for those months when you just need your money to go a little further, shopping online can be a very viable option.

Another great way to save money if you're looking for footed tights is to buy dance tights. They will exhibit soft matte microfibre finishes for the most part, and usually run at smaller prices than skating tights. I've bought Plume tights from DanceDirect for my important events in the past, and they worked a charm! Click here to go to DanceDirect's adult tight webpage, and here to see their children's selection.

Caring For Your Tights
I'm sure you'll have felt the frustration of snagging or ripping a pair of tights already, not to mention how to wash the things once they've been used and need freshening, or ridding of marks from falling in slushy ice.

The best way to wash your tights is by hand, using a gentle detergent such as wool and cashmere detergent. Warm water can be used but you should avoid placing your tights in hot washes as they can cause them to shrink! (as if they weren't hard enough to get on as it is, right?!).

If you feel so inclined you can add a little fabric softener to the washing water, which will avoid them going crisp upon drying.

Dry your tights near but not directly on a radiator, to avoid drying them out to a crisp. Placing them on the back of a chair facing a radiator is ideal, or even laying them out in the sunshine would work fine (if you're lucky enough to live somewhere that is actually viable! Skaters in Scotland don't get much of a chance to do that, ha ha!). 

Once you've washed your tights, make sure you stow them in your skate bag in an appropriate manner. Virtually any object that isn't another piece of fabric could end up damaging your precious pantyhose, so for safety place them in a simple sandwich bag in a side or interior pocket of your skate bag, away from blades, CD cases, guards, water bottles, zippers, and all other tight-damaging objects.

Emergency Measures
So you've got a hole in your tights, none spare, and you're skating in 30 mins? Fear not! One of the most versatile pieces of a kit a competitive skater can have in that skate bag is a bottle of clear nail varnish, and this will once again save the day in the laddered-tight department.

Apply a thin coat of clear varnish at the hole's origin, and repeat 2/3 times are necessary until you feel the hole has been secured with a crust of clear varnish. This will save the hole from progressing and turning into a full blow ladder. If the hole has already started to ladder, apply varnish both to the hole itself, and the top-most point of the ladder, to ensure it cannot progress further.

If you're using over-the-boot tights, always make sure you have a small pack of safety pins with you. If a Velcro tab comes loose (and I've had that happen a lot over the years) or a hook-and-eye pings off into the distance, you'll still be able to cover your boot and skate thanks to a savvy safety pin!

Well, I hope this guide to all things tights was useful to you, dear reader! Let me know if I missed out anything or if you're trying to find something out about tights, I'll be happy to do my best to help!

Until next time, happy skating!


Post cover image of Sasha Cohen by Rich Moffat under CC BY 2.0
Sasha Cohen wearing over-the-boot tights by Uwe Langer under CC 3.0

Ashley Wagner in footed tights by Luu under CC 3.0 
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  1. Thank you for your information. My little one is just starting out and I want to make sure she has the correct clothing.

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  2. This is so helpful, thank you so much! x

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  3. Bodywrappers makes skating tights too. Sometimes I have to re-sew the hook and eye but they are long lasting and readily available at many dance shops.

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  4. Great article myself am going to get the Mondor 3331 footed tights love the lurex mix of these.

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  5. I don't know what correct shade of tights I should get when buying online. Any tips?

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