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T-shirt Geek’s Guide to Buying T-shirts

“You get what you pay for” goes the old adage, and there is truth in this when it comes to t-shirts. This is by far the most comprehensive t-shirt buying guide found online.

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T-SHIRT PRICE

There are many factors at play when a t-shirt is priced – one of the most important being the fabric from which it is made. This is usually one of cotton, polycotton (polyester/cottom mixes), triblend, modal and bamboo, but there are variations even within these categories that determine the shirt’s eventual cost. The price of a cotton product is, for example, dependent on whether the cotton itself is of a higher or lower grade (which is determined by the length of each individual baby fiber in the fabric, with longer fibers creating higher quality yarn), or if the cotton has undergone special processes like combing, which leads to a smoother finish, but with a greater cost.

Place of manufacture, too, can affect pricing, with mass-produced t-shirts made in Bangladesh or India being cheaper to make than if the same product was produced in the United States or Portugal. This is simply due to the lower labor costs often found in Asia; even with import duties and shipping costs, t-shirts made in the developing world will still have lower prices than domestically-produced garments.

Naturally, clothes made in Bangladesh bring to mind the appalling conditions and minimal wages of the sweatshops in which they were likely made, and so there is an ethical aspect in buying clothes with a higher price. In addition, cheap t-shirts are often made of inferior materials that are not as environmentally-friendly as their more expensive counterparts.

EXPERT TIP:
While a higher price does suggest higher quality, there are other ways to make sure that you’re getting a quality product. If the fabric is held up to the light, the yarn is smoother and more even in a higher-quality garment. It should also feel smoother to the touch than cheaper cloth. Please bear in mind that this doesn’t apply to “slub” fabrics which have a more uneven texture for aesthetic reasons.
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T-SHIRT FABRIC COMPOSITION

COTTON

LET’S START FROM THE BEGINNING

It remains unclear where cotton plants were first grown, with ancient cloth being discovered in areas as geographically diverse as Egypt, Mexico, and the Indian sub-continent. As a resource, it has shaped the course of many nations’ histories, and not just in its use for garments: demand for the crop drove the evils of the slave trade in the early years of the United States, and the eventual Civil War disrupted cotton exports to the outside world, causing an economic crisis in the British Empire and (indirectly) another war in East Africa.

Before the 19th century and the advent of machinery, cotton was picked entirely by hand, but technology allowed cotton-related revenue to grow at an unprecedented rate. After the introduction of the first cotton gins, the value of the early American cotton industry rose from $150,000 to $8 million – truly astronomical figures when one remembers this was in the early 19th century. Although the technology used in the textile industry has advanced considerably since the days of the cotton gin, its economic importance has remained unchanged; it is still used throughout the world more than any other fiber, and, on average, generates $120 billion for businesses in the United States alone.

HARVESTING

Cotton is grown only once per year, but every part of the cotton plant is useful: even the short fuzz on the seed, the linters, which are still attached to the seed after cotton has been ginned (the ginning process separates the leaves and seeds from the cotton fibers), are a source of cellulose for making plastic-based materials, as well as for the padding that goes into mattresses, chairs, and car seats.

PROCESSING

After the cottonseed has been crushed, its three components –oil, meal and hulls – are used for other purposes. Cottonseed oil is mostly used for cooking oil and salad dressing, while the meal and hulls that remain are used as feed for livestock, poultry and fish, or as fertilizer. The stalks and leaves of the cotton plant are plowed under to enrich the soil. In addition, cottonseed can also be used in making a protein-rich concentrate to be put into baked goods and other food products.

The most prominent part of the plant, however, is the fiber, or lint, which is used in the making of cotton cloth. Cotton is first made into yarn by being processed through a textile mill’s carding machine, which rearranges the fibers into a type of web. The web is then rearranged into a single strand of fiber which is then joined with other strands to give it durability and strength; the lint has now become yarn.

WEAVING

The yarn can then be either knitted or woven into shape. Weaving results in a cloth that can often only be stretched in only one direction, giving less elasticity compared to fabrics made from knitting; knitted threads, meanwhile, are thicker than their woven counterparts, making bulkier-looking fabrics compared to woven cloth, which appears to be lighter. After the weaving or knitting process is complete, the material is smoothed over so that it can receive any dye or chemical treatment that will be added afterwards.

COMFORT

An exceptionally comfortable material, cotton is suitable for all types of clothing, but its softness make it ideal for underwear and T-shirts. Comfort, however, is not the only reason why cotton is one of the best fabric choices: the material is highly durable and is less likely to rip or tear compared to other fabrics. Its strength also lends itself to absorbing moisture, with cotton becoming 30% stronger when wet, as well as being able to retain a dry feel even after absorbing 20% of its weight in water. In addition, cotton will only start to drip when more than 65% of the garment is wet. Cotton’s unique relationship with water makes it a good choice for making comfortable weather-resistant clothing, and also allows it to effectively withstand long-term washing.

INSULATION

Perhaps most importantly from the point of the consumer is the fact that cotton is a natural insulator – it is able to keep a wearer cool in the summer and moderately warm in the winter. This is because cotton fabric traps air between the fabric fibers, and the cotton fibers in garments hold the fabric away from the skin. Cotton’s liquid absorbent properties are also as useful with internal, as well as external, moisture: cotton fabric’s breathable nature is due to the removal of moisture away from the body, drying the skin like a towel. This prevents a buildup of moisture between the skin and the clothing.

GOOD FOR SENSITIVE SKIN

Cotton is also a hypoallergenic material, meaning that it very rarely causes any allergic reactions, even for people with skin allergies. For this reason it is also often used in medical products such as bandages, as well as for clothing made for babies and infants.

OVERVIEW:
Cotton can be expensive compared to cheaper fabrics, although this is hardly surprising when one considers its many positive qualities. Higher prices of cotton goods and the cotton plant’s annual growing cycle have resulted in the creation of materials made from a mix of cotton and synthetic materials, principally polycotton and tri-blend. At ALLRIOT, we don’t recommend buying polycotton or triblend t-shirts because of their impact on the environment.

POLY COTTON

This material is a blend of natural cotton and synthetic polyester, usually with a mix ratio of 65% cotton and 35% polyester, or a 50/50 split between the two. Poly cotton is a popular material because it is – like cotton – strong, easy to customize, and quick to dry faster, but unlike cotton it can be more versatile due to the infusion of polyester. Unlike polyester, poly cotton doesn’t stick to the skin the way that synthetic materials like pure polyester can.

However, while it is cheaper to produce than pure cotton (and, by association, cheaper to buy), it does not have the same look, and like pure polyester it can be associated with lower-quality products. In addition, it can be harmful for the environment if not recycled and disposed of correctly.

EXPERT TIP:
Polyester and polycotton fabrics are not suitable for those of us who have sensitive skin. They might feel soft to the touch to begin with, but polyester fibres tend to harden after being washed multiple times. Also, polyester fibres in light colours like white, ecru, and pastels tend to darken over time because polyester fibres expand in the washing machine and become more susceptible to absorbing dark pigments.

TRI BLEND

THE TRUTH ABOUT TRI BLEND FABRICS

As the name suggests, tri-blend is made of three different fabrics, being 50% polyester, 25% cotton, and 25% Reyon. This gives the material a softer touch than poly cotton, and allows the cloth to stretch a little more. It also gives off a slightly different appearance, with colors being more subtle compared with other fabrics – this is more of a ‘vintage look’, and one of the reasons for tri-blend’s recent surge in popularity. However, as with poly cotton, tri-blend is not an environmentally-friendly material: due to the fact that it is composed of some non-biodegradable components, it can be damaging to the environment if not disposed of properly through recycling.

GREENWASHING ALERT!

Despite the fact that tri-blend and recycled polyester are often marketed as sustainable eco-friendly options, the truth is rather different. Polyester is not a sustainable textile option, since it is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the world’s most common type of plastic. Recycled polyester is produced by melting existing plastic and then re-grafting it into polyester fiber which is then used to make clothes; five soda bottles produce enough polyester to make one T-shirt.

EXPERT TIP:

Tri blend t-shirts using recycled polyester this seem like a commendable and environmentally-conscious idea, until you realise that plastics can only be recycled once. By buying garments made from recycled polyester, you’re just putting harmful plastics back into the environment.

Also, most clothes are not solely made of polyester: they are mixed with other materials, and this makes recycling far more difficult. In addition, research has found that when clothes made of polyester composites are put through a washing machine, they release microplastics; one garment alone can release 700,000 plastic fibers into the environment.

MARL / MELANGE

This is not a mix of cotton and polyester in the same fashion as poly cotton or tri-blend; typically Marl (or sometimes called Melange) fabrics may only contain 10% of polyester in its composition. Marl & Melagne is, in fact, more of a color effect usually found in knitted fabrics in which two different colors appear blurred. The most recognizable example is grey marl sweatshirt fabric, which is made by combining two different colored yarns in the thread which is used to construct the fabric. The subtle blending of two colors leads to an understated, elegant effect – however, prices can be higher for products made this way.

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COTTON ORIGIN AS A MARKER OF QUALITY

MOST COTON COMES FROM JUST 6 COUNTRIES

The world’s largest producers of cotton are India (24%), China (22%), the United States (18%), Pakistan (7%), Brazil (6%), and Uzbekistan (3%), with the remaining 20% coming from such diverse source countries as Turkey, Australia and Turkmenistan.

EGYPTIAN COTTON

Cotton’s country of origin can affect its quality, especially in the case of Egypt. Although Egypt’s cotton exports are comparatively small when compared to those of other nations, its cotton has become justly famous for its high quality. Unlike cotton production in other countries, Egyptian cotton is still picked by hand: this puts less stress on the fibers, leaving them straight, intact, and long, which then create very fine yarns; Egyptian cotton’s finer threads make garments made of the material softer and more flexible. In addition, since its fibers have been put under less stress during the picking process than if they had been picked by machines, the cloth overall is more durable and resistant than its machine-processed counterparts. However, due to Egyptian cotton’s luxurious status, its price is correspondingly higher when compared with cotton from other countries.

PIMA COTTON

Another premiere cotton, Pima cotton, also commands a higher price. Like Egyptian cotton, Pima cotton has inherently longer fibers (typically 1.4 to 2 inches in length, compared with most cotton fibers’ average length of 1.1 inches) which – again like its Nile River Delta equivalent – lead to a softer but stronger fabric. Pima fibers, while longer than all other cottons, are still slightly shorter than those from Egypt.

Pima originated in Peru, and while it is still grown in its country of origin, it is now also produced in the southwestern region of the United States, and some parts of Australia (its name, meanwhile, comes from the Pima Indians, who worked to raise the cotton in North America).

EXPERT TIP:

Any product with either Egyptian or Pima cotton in its composition will indicate this in its label, although both luxury types of cotton fiber comprise only 10% of the total of cotton products; all other cotton products will simply read ‘100% cotton’.

OTHER COTTON QUALITY MARKERS

FIBRE & THREAD WIDTH

STAPLE LENGTH

The length of a cotton fiber is a key factor in determining its quality, since this affects how the product will feel after it is made, as well as its durability – hence why Egyptian and Pima cotton products, with their inherently longer fibers (and resulting softer feel), are considered luxury goods.

THREAD WIDTH

Thread width is used to describe how fine the thread of the cotton that was used is. Usually, a single-spy cotton threat is made up of 840 cotton thread yards, so if a pound takes approximately 20 spools, the thread will be described as being either 20s cotton or 20/1; if 30 spools comprise one pound, the thread will be dubbed 30s or 30/1, and so on. In essence, the higher the number the finer the thread – and therefore the finer, softer shirt.

FABRIC WEAVE

The greater number of cotton threads in a yarn results in a tighter weave, with 18-single, 30-single and 40-single yarns being the most common types. The tighter the weave, the higher the quality, with a 40-single yarn creating a smoother weave for a T-shirt than a yarn made up of fewer cotton threads.

MOST COMMON COTTON FINISHES

MERCERIZATION

This is a chemical process which makes use of sodium hydroxide to help make cotton fabric and yarn more able to be dyed. This further strengthens the fiber, gives the garment a shinier appearance than other methods, and allows the fabric to retain its dye longer. The method is named for its 19th century inventor, John Mercer.

After yarn has been mercerized, it can also be ‘gassed’ – that is, quickly passed through a hot flame in order to remove any excess thread in order to create a smoother look.

COMBED COTTON

This cotton is softer than its regular cousin due to the fact that any short, unnecessary extra threads are removed. The combing process – which involves very fine brushes straightening the fibers (and gives combed cotton its name) – also strengthens the cotton, since the straightened fibers join together more tightly. Due to the extra labor needed to make combed cotton (and the superior product it creates), it is more expensive than regular cotton.

CARDED COTTON

Carded cotton, or uncombed cotton, is spun by the carded spinning technique, which means a wrapped fiber runs perpendicular to the bundle of yarn instead of being aligned in the same direction. Although this process results in a coarser, bulkier or more uneven final product, garments made with the carding are cheaper to produce than other methods.

RING SPUN COTTON

‘Ring spun’ refers to the fact that yarn goes through a spinning process intended to make each fiber straighter and softer; this naturally results in a garment that feels softer than those made with other methods.

SLUB COTTON

Although deliberately created with imperfections, lumps, and a generally rough feel, slub cotton has become popular with fashion designers because it does not cling to the body, still feels light to wear, and does not need to be ironed due to its natural texture. Slub cotton is made by irregular patterns of twists that are put into the cotton before it is weaved.

EXPERT TIP:

When buying cotton t-shirts, you can’t go wrong with combed ringspun cotton. Mercerized t-shirts can look very shiny, and carded cotton doesn’t feel as nice as combed cotton.

T-SHIRT WEIGHTS

OZ AND GSM EXPLAINED

Of course, the weight of a t-shirt affects how it feels to the wearer – a lightweight shirt will feel airy and move freely, while a heavyweight will be warmer and more durable, although at the expense of the wearer being very conscious of wearing it. Yet weight is also able to affect the price, especially if the shirt is being imported.

The weight of t-shirts usually ranges between 3 oz at their lightest, to standard weights of 4.5 to 5 oz, to heavier weights of 6 oz or more. Shirts under 3 oz may not be very durable, and so are not as common as those of higher weights.

This does not, of course, mean that the shirts themselves weigh three ounces or six ounces – the weight refers to much a square yard of fabric weighs. Sometimes the weight is listed as ‘GSM’ – grams to square meter. GSM to oz can conversions can be done by dividing the GSM by 33.906.

EXPERT TIP:

Some people prefer lighter weight t-shirts, whereas others prefer heavier weight tees. It’s down to your personal preference. We suggest finding out the GSM or OZ value most commonly used by your favourite brand and using it as a guide.

ALLRIOT unisex tees are 180 GSM in the UK, which is a bi on he heavyweight t-shirt side. Because we use combed ringspun cotton, they have a really nice handfeel and don’t feel to heavy at all.

In the States and Canada, we use a slightly lighter t-shirt which comes to about 4.3 OZ / 150 GSM.

T-SHIRT CONSTRUCTION

TUBULAR VS SIDE SEAMED CONSTRUCTION

There are two general types of T-shirt construction: tubular and side seamed. Taking its name from its shape, the tubular design is cheaper and requires less sewing: a slice is made into the tube to make a circular piece of fabric, after which the arms and neck are sewn on.

Side seamed shirts follow the contours of the body more flatteringly as – like the name suggests – the seam of the shirt follows the side of the torso, but the front, back and sleeves are all also individually cut. This design is generally considered to be a better alternative (and more popular) than its tubular counterparts, although it depends on cotton quality. Have you ever noticed that the seams on some of your t-shirts twist around the body in a really funny way? This is due to either low cotton quality, or pattern pieces cut incorrectly (i.e. off-grain). We use a mix of tubular and side seamed construction in our tees.

EXPERT TIP:

Some people prefer lighter weight t-shirts, whereas others prefer heavier weight tees. It’s down to your personal preference. We suggest finding out the GSM or OZ value most commonly used by your favourite brand and using it as a guide.

ALLRIOT unisex tees are 180 GSM in the UK, which is a bi on he heavyweight t-shirt side. Because we use combed ringspun cotton, they have a really nice handfeel and don’t feel to heavy at all.

In the States and Canada, we use a slightly lighter t-shirt which comes to about 4.3 OZ / 150 GSM.

COMMON T-SHIRT CONSTRUCTION TERMS

1×1 RIB

This type of stitched fabric is commonly used for T-shirt sleeves and neckbands since it is very elastic while retaining its original shape.

TWIN NEEDLE STITCH

This entails parallel stitching that is mainly used for bottom and sleeve hems, which increases the durability of the shirt and creates a more elegant look.

TAPED NECK AND SHOULDERS