By: Jerry, firstname.lastname@example.org
almost 2 years
T-shirts aren’t rocket science, but there is a wide array of options available on the market, and anyone who has spent a minute looking at a screen printer’s catalog knows how overwhelming it can be. Fortunately, knowing a few key attributes can help determine whether your next one finds its way into the Goodwill bin or the bottom of the laundry basket. This post will focus on fabric weight and fiber (the material that makes up the threads). Odds are, you already have a favorite weight and fiber determining which shirts you reach for in the morning, even if you don’t know it!
Fabric weight is measured in ounces per square yard (in the US, anyway). In the old days, when the Baby Boomers were putting on their protest t-shirts, there was a close connection between weight and quality - heavy shirts were good, light shirts were cheap.
Heavier shirts (in the 5.5oz - 6.1oz range) are more durable and warmer - if that’s what you’re going for in a t-shirt. Some people would just as soon have a shirt that keeps them cool, and not everyone cares that their shirts be as resistant to snags or tears. If you’re in the latter camp, then you likely want a shirt in the 3oz - 5.4oz range. For example, I wear 6.1oz shirts beneath my sweaters in the winter, and 3.7oz blended tees throughout the summer - the same way you might alternate between boots and boat shoes.
Fiber / Material Type
Cotton is a natural fiber, grown all over the world. It is warm when dry. It can absorb and dissipate a moderate amount of moisture before becoming uncomfortable, but once really wet, it’s a problem. It comes in a few varieties (Pima and Egyptian cotton are noted for having soft, smooth hands), but the most important aspect of cotton is how it is processed. A normal cotton fiber is kind of gnarled and toothy under a microscope. If you turn it into yarn right from that, you wind up with a cheap but scratchier cotton. That’s what most of your freebie shirts / gym class t-shirts / or any other shirt that someone gave you at an event probably was. They aren’t unwearable or horribly uncomfortable by any means, but they do tend to be a little stiffer and scratchy after a few washings. These cheap shirts are made by all of the major t-shirt manufacturers - Gildan, Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, Anvil, etc. Most also make nicer cotton, but since the majority of custom t-shirt orders try to maximize budget for number of shirts, these are still the most common styles out there.
The bigger determinant of quality when it comes to a shirt of any weight is the fabric. Most shirts are made of either 100% cotton, 100% polyester, or a blend of the two (sometimes with rayon, viscose, spandex, or another third material worked in). Let’s explore these in reverse order:
Polyester fibers are actually a plastic, spun into thread. For this reason, they do not absorb water, and are great for sports. Any performance fabric / moisture wicking / drifit / whatever marketing slogan they use next fabric is most likely going to be polyester (maybe with some spandex added). The pros are that these garments really do keep you cool. They’re light, flowy, and they won’t collect sweat. The cons are that they generally tend to smell sooner than cotton (a washing will fix it), snag / tear easier than cotton, and tend to look a little out of place when not doing anything athletic.
Spandex / Lycra
Spandex is often added in small amounts (usually less than 5% of the fabric make-up) to impart a slight stretch to the fabric. This is typically in sports fabrics, and more common in women’s apparel. If you’ve ever noticed how some Nike or Under Armour shirts cling tightly to the body while others hang loose - even though both are performance / moisture wicking fabrics - it’s because the tight fitting ones have Spandex.
Rayon / Viscose
Rayon or viscose are commonly used in blends alongside cotton and polyester to give the shirt a soft, vintage feel. These fabrics are commonly called triblends, because they are cotton + polyester + the third material. These are almost always very lightweight fabrics, and most brands construct them in a more athletic cut shirt.
By contrast, nicer shirts tend to have ringspun, combed cotton. This means that before they turn the cotton into a yarn, it is combed and spun in a process that leaves the fibers smoother and softer. That’s why the more expensive shirts that you get at (most) retail have a noticeable softer hand. They can do this for heavy cotton shirts (like the 6.1oz Hanes Beefy T), or for lightweight ones (like American Apparel’s classic 2001 style.)
Blended shirts combine properties of various fabrics. A 50/50 (cotton/poly) blend is probably the most common. It’s neither as warm as 100% cotton or as moisture wicking as 100% polyester, but it will process more sweat without becoming an issue on a warm day, and keep you warmer than poly would on a chilly one, while resisting snags a little better and not stinking as quickly. Cotton and polyester are also combined for style reasons. Heather shirts achieve their mottled, contrasting internal colors by using cotton and polyester fibers together. As discussed above, rayon, viscose, or other third materials can also be added to blends to achieve different effects.
What’s the right shirt for you?
There are no hard rights and wrongs - just what you prefer. We’ve found, for example, that older men tend to prefer heavy cotton shirts while women gravitate toward lighter weights, while younger customers gravitate toward lightweight blends. Most of the shirts you’d see in Urban Outfitters, for example, are going to be lighter weight triblends or 50/50s.
It also depends on what you’re wearing it for. If you’re going to be wearing your shirt while working as a carpenter, you probably want a heavier weight cotton that will resist tears better. Cops and athletes tend to prefer moisture wicking, while our military clients are usually prohibited from wearing it (even though it would be ideal from a performance standpoint), because of the risk of the plastic fibers melting to the skin in the event of an explosion. Want a shirt for running after work, but don’t like the feel of performance tees? Get yourself a nice 25% cotton triblend!
For most of us, though, it’s just about the feel. Ask yourself how heavy you like your shirts based on the first header above, and then determine what fabric probably suits you based on the second. There are a million options, and probably one just for you.
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