At the recent Uni Watch party in San Francisco, I met reader Al Cummings, who mentioned that his daughter works as a colorist for a major sportswear company. I said I’d be very interested in interviewing her, so he promised to point her in my direction. Sure enough, a few days later I got an e-mail from P.K. Cummings.
P.K. (which is what everyone calls her — it’s not an alias or anything like that) turned out to be quite a character. As you’ll see, she’s not exactly shy with her opinions. But you’ll also see that she’s a highly skilled professional with a lot of specialized technical expertise. That combination makes for a very, very good interview.
P.K. asked that I not name the company she works for, so the firm is referred to as “Company X” in the transcript that follows, even though it’s pretty obvious which company it is. Just keep that to yourself, OK? OK.
Uni Watch: How long have you worked at Company X, and what’s your title there?
P.K. Cummings: I’ve been there almost a year, and I’m a textile color specialist.
UW: How’d you end up with that job?
PKC: It was pretty serendipitous — it kinda fell into my lap. I’d worked in fashion and gone to school for textiles. I saw a post on Monster.com and responded.
UW: Where did you study textiles?
PKC: At the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, in Los Angeles. I studied textile design. We didn’t have any sports teams, so now, whenever we have “Wear Your School Day” at work, I just come in all black.
UW: What are favorite team uniforms, in terms of color?
PKC: I’m a fan of most throwbacks due to the simplicity. The old Celtics, when they wore satin shorts, are decent. And I have a locational and occupational bias towards the Raiders — silver and black always look good as clothing and face paint.
UW: Do you have a favorite color?
PKC: Green. Kelly green. Actually, there’s this gridiron green that we’re using now — it’s like a kelly, but not quite as springy. A bit olive.
UW: What about a least favorite color?
PKC: I don’t have one of those. [Switching to mock-flowery tone.] They’re all my favorites!
PKC: Except for Vegas gold, which is just fucking hideous.
UW: So many people seem to hate that color. Why is that?
PKC: It’s like what you look like after a night of gambling in Vegas — jaundiced, drunk. Plus it’s really hard to match, it’s hard for mills to get right.
UW: So what does your job actually entail? You just mentioned fabric mills…
PKC: I work with all our sourced mills — there are over 40 of them. We have a set of in-house color standards on little placards, so the mills send me little samples of what their huge production lot will be like…
UW: Like a swatch?
PKC: Yeah. They send that to me, and then I read it on a spectrophotometer, which reads pure light, so I can see where it is, numerically, compared to our standards.
UW: These placards of yours, they probably have to be replaced from time to time, because they fade, right?
PKC: We keep them in a controlled environment. Our lab is conditioned…
UW: What does that mean?
PKC [after long pause]: Sorry, I just looked at MySpace and saw a picture of my brother’s butt — ugh! Fuck him, y’know? Wait, where were we?
UW: What does “conditioned” mean?
PKC: It’s maintained at a stable temperature and humidity. We like to keep it between 68 and 72 degrees, and 21.3% humidity. That’s the optimum.
UW: What sorts of Company X products do you deal with?
PKC: Everything, from the Dri-Power to the AFL uniforms, to selecting the threads to match with it.
UW: Like, the threads for seam stitching and embroidery?
PKC: Yeah. I just had this super drama today with the Philadelphia Soul.
UW: Um, is that an AFL team?
PKC: Yeah. The coolest thing I’ve gotten to do for the AFL is that the color we’re using for the Philadelphia Soul jersey, I got to name it Jon Bon Jovi.
UW: That’s the name of the color?
PKC: Well, it’s officially Soul Blue, but we reference it internally by a three-letter code, so it’s going to be JB — wait a minute, “Jon Bon Jovi,” okay, so it’s JBJ.
UW: What other leagues do you work with?
PKC: We do Little League Baseball.
UW: So the Little League World Series uniforms..?
PKC: Yeah, we do those.
UW: Any other leagues?
PKC: Company X lost most of their league contracts over the past few years, but they’re hoping to get a lot of them back.
UW: You mentioned to me in an e-mail yesterday that you hate how the gold on the Saints’ helmet doesn’t match the gold on their collar trim.
PKC: Oh, I hate that. I would be, like, fired if I did that. The closest thing we’ve had to that was a mismatch with Washington State — the silver on their pants didn’t match the silver on the helmet. So I had to read the helmet [on the spectrophotometer], redo everything, and then they actually ended up putting these horrible jerseys on the field. It was the saddest thing ever. It wasn’t my fault!
UW: Isn’t it hard matching fabric to plastic, though?
PKC: It can be, yeah. You just have work with the best dye materials. A lot of mills are pretty hesitant to spend the money on something they’re only gonna use once.
UW: Are you aware that the Cowboys have two different blues, and three different silvers?
PKC: Yes. It makes me crazy.
UW: If you could talk to the management of these teams, what would you say to them?
PKC: Look at the jerseys before you put them on the field! Or at least have a woman look at them.
UW: I’ve been told Jerry Jones, who owns the Cowboys, is actually colorblind.
PKC: Well, one of every 12 males is.
UW: What about women?
PKC: I think we’re up in the 200s.
UW: Wouldn’t life be easier, in some ways, if we were all colorblind?
PKC: I suppose, yeah.
UW: But you’d be out of a job.
PKC: Yeah, that would be a bummer. What would I do with my more-than-perfect vision?
UW: Your vision is better than perfect?
UW: What is it, like, 20/15?
UW: That’s pretty good.
PKC: I know.
UW: But wait a minute, you just sent me a photo of yourself wearing glasses.
PKC: I have a slight astigmatism, and my glasses have a glare reducer for the friggin’ computer screen and night driving. That and I take them off to emphasize a point every once in a while.
UW: When you’re dealing with mills and dye manufacturers and such, do you actually travel to the factories?
PKC: I do a little bit of traveling, but not too much. Mostly I work in-house.
UW: Do you communicate directly with any of the teams or leagues?
PKC: Personally? No. But I hear John Elway really liked one of the colors I worked on.
UW: Is he the owner of one of the teams?
PKC: I think he’s involved with the Philly Soul — I think it’s Jon Bon Jovi, Horse Teeth, and someone else. [Actually, Elway is part-owner of the Colorado Crush. — PL]
UW: Do you use Pantone samples?
PKC: We try not to. It’s really hard to get super-accurate color readings, because the piece of fabric is mounted on a white backing, and that makes it hard to get the density of the color. Also, there are optical brighteners in the glue, which can affect the purity of the color.
UW: So do you use something else, instead of Pantone?
PKC: CSI — Color Solutions International. They’re another widely accepted standard within the industry. They work mostly with fabric — they have this color wall that’s, like, the Wonka-land for color. God, it’s amazing.
UW: Where are they headquartered?
PKC: North Carolina.
UW: Have you been there?
PKC: Mmmmm — I can picture it. But I haven’t been.
UW: You fantasize about it!
PKC: I do — it’s really lame. You know, I was e-mailing with my dad about a CD that he invested for me, and I wrote, “Yeah, just let it accrue a little.” But instead of “accrue,” I wrote “ecru,” the color. I didn’t even realize I did it, but he wrote back, “I can tell you’re a colorist.” And I’m like, aw jeez…
UW: You’re a color geek! That’s cool. Do you use one of those special viewing boxes with the special industry-standard lighting?
PKC: Yeah. UV 65 is the industry-wide standard, and then cool-white is another, because that’s similar to retail lighting. So yeah, we all have our light boxes, and our lab coats…
UW: You wear a lab coat?
PKC: Yes, I do. I look very official.
UW: Is it white?
PKC: No, it’s gray. White would reflect and then adulterate your viewing of the color. So it’s a very mellow gray. Our whole lab — everything in it is gray.
UW: Does your lab coat have a little name patch on it?
PKC: No, nothing cool like that.
UW [terribly disappointed]: So it’s sort of a uniform, but it’s not a cool uniform.
PKC: It’s just a boring lab coat, like your science teacher would wear.
UW: Any other rules in terms of what you have to wear?
PKC: No. And we can wear Company X product. Like, you can be super scumbagged-out, but as long as you’re wearing Company X sweats, you’re good to go. So I stocked up on sweats.
UW: What if you show up wearing, say, Nike sweats?
PKC: Hmmm. If someone’s lame enough to say something, you just say you got it at a sample sale so you could knock it off.
UW: Researching the competition, right?
PKC: Exactly. I got a bunch of Quicksilver stuff from one of the women in the graphics department…
UW: What’s Quicksilver?
PKC: They do surfwear stuff. They’re just another company, but someone bought a bunch of their stuff to knock ’em off.
UW: We see sports design go through lots of color cycles. Like, purple and teal were really popular, and now red seems to be on the rise. How do these cycles come about? Do people like you sit around in a big room somewhere and decide all of this stuff?
PKC: Everything is pretty much decided two years in advance. There are trend operations that put out trend books.
UW: And do you participate in creating those trends, or do you just respond to them?
PKC: I respond to them, because I don’t have any say-so in the design process, as of yet.
UW: But it sounds like you have a world-domination scheme that will eventually call for you to make those decisions.
PKC: Yes, definitely.
UW: Do you belong any professional organizations?
PKC: I’m a member of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists. There’s also the CPMA — that’s the Color, uh, something or other. I don’t know, it came free with another membership. [She’s apparently referring to this. — PL]
UW: What do you think are the best and worst trends in sports color?
PKC: Hmmm. I think the yellows never work out. They don’t televise well.
UW: Is that something you’re always thinking about? Like, you have to consider how it’ll look at retail, and then on TV, and then in high-def.
PKC: I do, yeah.
UW: Do you videotape things and then see how they look on TV?
PKC: I’ll do that with my digital camera. I’ll take something outside, film it from different light sources, that sort of thing.
UW: What about good trends?
PKC: I don’t know. You know, I think football uniforms in general are kind of ridiculous. I don’t think they match the current needs of football. Back in the day, it was a sweater or a sweatshirt, but now it’s graduated to this insane microfiber — like, the pants we’re doing for the AFL, it’s crazy. It’s so tight, but it stretches. The designer picked it on purpose, ’cause she’s kind of a pervert.
UW: So it’ll show off the players’ butts, or outline their packages?
PKC: Yeah, that kind of thing. She was like, “Ooh, it’s gonna be so tight on them!”
UW: Any predictions for future trends?
PKC: Well, I know that throwbacks are so much more prevalent now, so people are going with the more standard looks. I think it’s gonna segue into different kind of cut-outs. I don’t think colors per se are gonna change much.
UW: What does the average sports fan not understand about color?
PKC: That there are actually people working to make it happen correctly. Things don’t just show up matching — there’s a lot of work to make it all go together, especially since the fabric that you use for the pants may be different than the fabric for the shirt. And the mesh inserts are different from the dazzle fabric. So there’s a lot that goes into making it a cohesive unit.
UW: It sounds like you’re an actual sports fan yourself.
PKC: I had no choice, really.
UW: You mean it was a prerequisite for the job?
PKC: No, I mean growing up with my father and brother.
UW: Oh! Well, is it a prerequisite for the job? Can you work for Company X if you’re not a sports fan?
PKC: Yeah, you can. We have a lot of overweight people who work there, too. I mean, come on, we make athletic apparel…
UW: How has the job affected how you watch sports?
PKC: I’m way more hyper-critical of what they look like. I’m always looking to see if the socks match, or making sure the numbers and trim match up.
UW: So it’s basically ruined your sports viewing experience?
PKC: No, after about two beers I’m able to put all that aside, and then I could care less.
UW: Do you prefer a team that has only two colors, like the Colts or the Red Wings or the Jets, or a team with a lot of colors?
PKC: Hmmm. [Long pause of consideration.] You know, it doesn’t really matter. I like both approaches. The multiple colors are fun, because it adds more variety to what you can paint your face with.
Well put. Über-thanks to P.K. for an interview as entertaining as it was informative.