Football manufacturing

Huge drums were used for tanning the hides. Photo courtesy of Pittards Leeds, UK
Huge drums were used for tanning the hides. Photo courtesy of Pittards Leeds, UK

How is a football manufactured?

Normally, a ball consists of several layers of material that are covered with a waterproof coating. The layers are printed and cut into panels of various shapes, usually pentagons or hexagons, though sometimes rectangles or other shapes, all of which are stitched together to form the ball.

Balls are traditionally finished by hand by skilled stitchers, though today more and more are also manufactured by machine. It takes over four hours to produce a handstitched ball with its 1,400 to 2,000 stitches. The ball is sewn together inside out. Before the last piece is stitched, the ball is turned the correct way round, then the rubber valve is inserted and the last stitch is sewn using a special curved tool. This allows the stitchers to pull the threads from inside the ball and ensure a perfect smooth finish.

Leather football manufacture in the twentieth century

Ball construction changed little in the middle half of the twentieth century. Leather was the only material used and balls were generally either of the 12-panel “box” construction or the 18-panel variety. Both worked on the same six-sided rounded cube pattern developed by Joseph Pracey. In the 12-panel version, the six sides of the cube are effectively split into two and, in the 18-panel version, they are split into three.

In the 1920s, manufacturers also started to use strong cloth to back the leather to prevent it from stretching or going out of shape. Improved water resistance was created by coating the leather with water-resistant materials or synthetic paint.

Until the 1930s, all of the leather panels had to be cut by hand so, however skilled the cutter, there was always margin for error. By the 1930s, however, manufacturers had developed machines with shaped cutting knives that sped up the cutting process and made for more uniformity. The panels were also plain so each stitcher had to punch his own stitching holes by hand with an awl.

The disadvantages of leather

Anyone who has played with a leather football would say that, at the time, there was nothing like the feel of a brand-new leather ball, but leather had its disadvantages. Firstly, one could never be sure how long that “perfect feel” would last. If the leather panels stretched, then the ball would soon become misshapen. But worse still was the problem of water absorption.

Although various coatings were tried out in the latter part of the 20th century, leather was quite water absorbent and by the end of a match in a downpour, a leather ball could weigh 25% more than when it started, which made for a less-controlled game and it was not at all pleasant for the players. To help the ball keep its shape and size, cloth linings were used to back the leather but often the linings were too strong, which made the ball feel hard and unresponsive.

Leather is also a natural material and, although it would be finished and shaved to an even thickness, imperfections could still occur. Indeed, post-war leather was of such poor quality that the ball burst in both the English FA Cup finals of 1946 and 1947!