The Roughneck is singular in the Spectra Apparel lineup, they do not make another t-shirt quite like it. In fact, I’d take a guess that nobody does. This is a t-shirt which hearkens back through the murky history of t-shirt design’s roots; when a fledgling print and promotions industry was first finding its feet in America and the only thing you were likely to find printed on a t-shirt was a Budweiser logo. At first blush the roughneck seems to be one of those if-it-was-good-enough-for-grandad-then-its-good-enough-for-me items. It reeks of nostalgia, history, heritage. I am immediately concerned about where to place this in any critique of the SpectraUSA range. Is the Roughneck a yardstick? Possibly a gold-standard? Or is it just a nice-to-have, but not a have-to-have? Or maybe even a “special-duty” kind of garment?

 

The Roughneck: An excursion through early t-shirt history

To slip a 2001 Roughneck over your head is to take a long, slow cliff-dive into one’s own personal pool of t-shirt nostalgia. It reminds me of the first “cool” t-shirts I ever swiped from my father’s closet, or the first oversized printed tee I bought at a rock concert, as well as every damn t-shirt I ever loved that every damned girlfriend ever stole from my damned wardrobe. Ever. Damn. The heavy, textured 18 singles fabric of the Roughneck appeals to the practical part of oneself. I can almost hear the dialogue from the Russian Gangster, Boris “The Blade” Yurinov, pitching that massive handgun to a clueless Tommy in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, “Heavy is good, heavy is reliable… If it doesn’t work you can always hit them with it.” No really, it’s that kind of t-shirt. Artillery-grade. As ballsy as a bank robber. Bullet-proof vests put one of these on when they’re feeling insecure. I’ve heard an unsubstantiated rumor that Navy Seals hang 2001’s in their lockers to remind them what “tough” looks like. The Roughneck is a t-shirt with heritage and, you might say, more than a pair. (For more on t-shirt history follow our on-going series here).

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Jean Seberg’s legendary T-shirt from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, (follow the post-war development of the T-shirt here)

But it’s not all testosterone, beer and scar tissue. The minute I’ve got it over my head I’m thinking of Jean Seberg in Godard’s 1960s classic Breathless. With her impish haircut and (gent’s) t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up. However, the SpectraUSA Roughneck is a far more sophisticated beast than its ancient cousin from the days of Breathless. Gone is the blanket-thick double ply cotton knit that Seberg had to feminize with rolled up sleeves. Gone is the oversized 1960s collar which does double duty as a polar-neck, and gone is the 1960s sack-like formlessness–the very pinnacle of post-war t-shirt design and mass-production. Things weren’t meant to be pretty back then, so much as they were simply meant to be. Utilitarian is a word which describes this best. Sensible another. The roughneck harnesses this function-over-form aesthetic and adds to it with smart design touches and considered fabric selection to turn out a garment Seberg would have thrown the elbow to call her own.

The 2001 Roughneck may take its cue from early t-shirt history but it is a far more refined beast we are dealing with here. What you have in place of frumpy 60s t-shirt, is half a century of refinement in textile production and aesthetic design. This amounts to an 18 singles cotton knit which is not only more svelte than it’s older cousin, but is stronger and better spun. Open-end yarn spinning is a more sophisticated creature in the hands of modern technology, which means this garment could take a beating all day and come up smiling after a quick dip in the sink. One almost looks forward to punishing it in the washer and drier for years until it is worn smooth as a haiku pebble.

The SpectraUSA Roughneck in Fire Engine Red
The SpectraUSA Roughneck in Fire Engine Red

The Roughneck: Historically Rooted in Classic Design

As I’ve said, the Roughneck takes it’s cues from the roots of t-shirt history, where you will find it knee-deep in two simple Vitruvian design principles: Firmness, and Delight. The Firmness comes from the fact that there is a real sensation to wearing this shirt, you truly feel it, it is present with you and on you. It envelops your form and holds you close. Sliding the Roughneck on and stepping through the front door for the first time, one imagines that this is the way Superman must feel as he exits the phone booth, which would account for the ‘Delight’ part. This shirt feels “coiled,” ready for action. Sharp and contoured. T-shirts were originally items of underwear and the Roughneck is unapologetic about these origins. It is snug and sweet, tough and practical. Like a roll in the hay with the farmer’s daughter. No nonsense, strictly business, but jolly good fun all the same.

Now a word to the wise: If you have fallen into the bad habit of allowing your clothes to wear you, then this shirt is not for you–it will dominate you and send you home to mama with your tail between your legs. The 2001 is a shirt which pushes back. You might say that it doesn’t start fights, but it does know how to finish them. To be completely chauvinistic and un-politically correct about it, this is a man’s t-shirt (and for those women who don’t feel right without a bit of muck under the fingernails). This garment was made for grease, gristle, blood, sand, balls of all kinds and colorful language. However, pay close attention to the subtle taper to the torso shape, the painstakingly stitched shoulders, the neck tape and double-stitched hem lines suggest it is a carefully crafted and considered piece of design. The Roughneck is no mass-produced “stock” item mindlessly churned out of a t-shirt mill. No sir. It is a sleek and understated classic fashion element finished in tough 18 singles 100% cotton knit, built to be hard-wearing and without pretense. Grandad wishes he had had a few of these in the kit bag on that beach in Normandy; for both the battle, and for relaxing after.

 

The Roughneck: Functional and all Details

Beyond the little details the Roughneck 2001 fit is functional which really gives this garment its charm and classic sensibilities. The sleeve length falls a respectful and modest halfway down the upper arm. If you have spent the week in the gym polishing “the guns” to a giddy luster, there are few garments which will augment the well-honed bicep quite like a Roughneck. The tough cotton weave contrasts strongly against smooth skin and you can almost hear the all-cotton knit stretching to accommodate flexing muscle. The torso length is generous and falls a whisker longer than one would anticipate. Most modern shirts come up short at their base for only one reason-to account for manufacturer’s profit margins–and, after a few seasons in the drier, these same shirts are typically re-gifted as “cut-offs” or “shrank-offs” to girlfriends, but not the Roughneck. The length is practical but the feeling of it being just a little longer than most mass-produced promotional apparel affords it a little whimsy, and understated style. The collar fits beautifully and there is no chaffing or ‘riding up,’ it is as smooth and snug as the rest of the shirt. There is a shoulder-to-shoulder reinforcing neck-tape stitched into the underside of the garment’s neck and shoulder-line which gives it the feeling of being built like a tank. The 18 singles knit is a sensation, and just coarse enough to let you know you are wearing a classically styled t-shirt, but with modern taste, refinement and design sensibilities. The 2001 Roughneck is a very clever piece of kit.

 

The Roughneck: Conclusions

There are a lot of t-shirts out there which purport to be “modern,” try to claim “designer” status or worse, pretend to be a “high fashion” item. The Roughneck does not. What you have here is, by every definition, a practical, hard-wearing and deeply functional t-shirt, defined by the details and considered design behind it. When I think of the Roughneck 2001 I think of other classics of design like the paperclip, the q-tip, the Helvetica typeface, and the legendary shape of the Porsche automobile. These items haven’t changed much over the years because they are as refined as they are going to get. Every now and then we jazz them up a little but the basic styling and shape are unmistakable, timeless. This is equally true of the Roughneck, a garment embedded in pure simplicity and honesty of construction. A testament to great American design and raw function over frills. The Roughneck is easily one of my favorite SpectraUSA t-shirts, hands-down. If you are thrilled by the idea of a tough, hard wearing t-shirt, the Roughneck which will last forever and fit like a glove, then is the shirt for you my friend.

 

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