“You get what you pay for” goes the old adage, and there is truth in this when it comes to the price of T-shirts. 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, polyester/cotton mixes, or Triblend, 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. 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 Vietnam, India and 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.
Organic cotton, while commanding a higher price tag than polyester or synthetic materials, does not have the damaging effects on the ecosystem as its cheaper counterparts.
Yet while a higher price does suggest higher quality, there are ways to check. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cotton can, however, be expensive – 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 poly cotton and tri-blend.
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.
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.
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.
Of course, this seems like a commendable and environmentally-conscious idea. 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; Marl & Melange 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.
Where cotton comes from today
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.
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.
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).
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’.
Staple (fiber) 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.
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.
Thread width – 20s, 20/1, 20s Single
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
Construction and Fit
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.
– Double/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.
– 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.
– Taped neck and shoulders
This is a fabric sewn to cover the edge of the sewing construction that closes the front and rear of a shirt’s shoulder section, in order to provide better comfort and durability.
– Drop tail
This is a type of shirt with an extra-long tail that hangs lower than other types of shirt.
– Crew neck
This is a type of shirt that has a rounded neckline and no collar.
– V neck
As the name suggests, the neckline is in the shape of a V. Like the crew neck, it does not have a collar.
– Scoop neck
This collarless shirt has a neckline significantly lower cut neckline than other types of shirt.
– Set-in sleeves
This is when sleeves are connected to the torso of a garment at the shoulder, which then continues along the armhole.
– Raglan sleeves
These sleeves extended in one piece to the collar and do not have a shoulder seam; these sleeves are often said to give off a more casual appearance than their set-in equivalents.
Well-fitted, quality T-shirts should not suffer from major shrinkage or substantially change their shape even after many washes: this is the most definite way to tell the difference between a cheaper product and a quality product.
Shrinkage is one of the few disadvantages cotton has when compared with its synethic-infused counterparts. Since cotton is a natural fiber, it shrinks because of the tension that is applied to its yarn and fabrics during its production. This tension is then released by heat from the washer, dryer, steam, or even sunlight, which causes the fabric to be reduced to its natural size. This is why most cotton clothing will shrink during its first washing. This can be avoided by hand-washing the clothes, or by using cold water and the most delicate cycle of a washing machine. The drying machine should also not be used; instead, leave cotton clothes to dry on washing lines or racks; if you must use a dryer, set it to the lowest heat setting possible. It is also worth investigating whether the cotton used in the shirt has been preshrunk: this is, however, often true for most standard, 100% cotton T-shirts.
This is the allowable limit of variation in a shirt measurement. With an accepted tolerance of one inch, there can be a deviation of plus or minus one inch from the size listed on the size chart.
After parting with hard-earned cash, naturally you’ll want to have made an investment in a shirt that will retain its quality for as long a time as possible. There are a number of factors to consider in determining a shirt’s true quality listed below; unfortunately, not all can be taken into account at first glance.
Garments made from long fibers are typically of a higher quality due to the fact that they are composed of finer yarn, which creates a stronger fabric (hence the price of Egyptian and Pima cotton).
There are several things to look out for in a shirt’s sewing. The cloth around the seams of the shirt should be smooth and not ruffled or puckered, nor should edges be frayed, or the colors of the sleeves different from the rest of the shirt. A ‘wave’ of fabric splayed across the upper chest of the shirt and cheap graphics for the design are also indicators of a low quality garment.
Pills can be seen on shirts when clusters of short or damaged fibers on the surface of the shirt are forced together, making knots or balls appear in the cloth. These usually appear as a result of normal wear and use.
Over time, colors should look fresh rather than fade; faded colors after years of use are glaring hints to low quality.
Natural drapes are essential for the design of elegant clothing; it is a bad sign if a shirt does not have any natural draping when worn.
An obvious point to look for in a shirt, but at least one can ascertain comfort before parting with any money. The cloth must feel comfortable when worn – short fibers in the fabric can create scratchiness or itchiness, since unlike long fibers they are not woven evenly into the cloth.
This can also be seen at first glance: beware any garment with uneven patterns.
Air pockets between individual threads can cause thermal insulation, which reduces the breathability of the cloth and results in sweating. When finely combed cotton is woven tightly, the skin will be able to breathe within the shirt more easily.
All one should see when closely examining a shirt is a regular pattern of rows; any inconsistencies in the individual threads are an effective warning sign.
The process in which designs or graphics are placed onto a T-shirt can drastically affect its look, from both an aesthetic and quality standpoint. The methods listed below indicate which processes are better for which types of design and graphics.
With this method, quality results come from use of a nylon mesh and a stencil or template. The nylon mesh holds the stencil in position, and a water-proof material blocks the negative space on which the design will be placed. Ink is then spread all over the screen, after which the screen is removed and the design is left to dry and cure. As a screen only supports one color, multiple screens are used in multi-colored designs. This method – one of the oldest but most effective ways of printing on T-shirt – creates long-lasting and high-quality designs. The durability of screen printed products slightly negates the fact that inks used in screen printing can be harmful to the environment.
Digital Printing (DTG)
Digital printing involves artwork being processed by a computer, and then printed directly onto the surface of your product. Digital printing is not a heat transfer since the ink is directly printed into the fabric of the shirt. The method is best used for items that require significant detail. The fact that the digital printer does not use screens allows for a photographic print, with much higher image quality than traditional screen printing. As the ink is applied more thinly, digital printing is best used on lighter colored shirts to allow the design to stand out. Ink used in this process is less thick than in screen printing, making the method more environmentally-friendly.
Sublimation printing is where the printer cleverly uses the sublimation process to dye a substrate (polyester fabrics or other items with a polymer coating or surface) by turning dyes from a solid into a gas and back into a solid again, while bonding with the polymer materials present in the substrate or product. Dye sublimation works by penetrating the surface of the substrate with ink, and creates attractive and permanent colors that are embedded in the fabric rather than printed on the surface; images on the fabric won’t fade or crack even after multiple times in the washer. The method is eco-friendly, especially when compared to screen printing with its heavy use of toxins or chemicals, but is only used for printing on nylon shirts; in addition, dye sublimation can only be effectively used for white or lightly-colored T-shirts.
After a design is created and printed on vinyl, a specially-made vinyl cutter is used to shape the design. The unneeded vinyl is then carefully removed, after which a heat press machine is used to print the design onto a shirt. Comfort depends upon the type of cloth it is printed upon, but since each shirt needs its own paper printed individually, it is not as suitable for bulk orders. The appearance is usually glossier in nature compared with shirt designs made from other methods.
Both 100% cotton and 50/50 blend T-shirts will work with this method, but with 50/50 blends the airbrush designs fades less over time and, of course, the shirt will shrink less (the look and feel of the shirt will naturally depend on what material is used). As with other methods, stencils are used for the design. The ‘painted’ look is unique to this process; however, the paint used in airbrushing makes this a less environmentally-friendly option.
This method is quite similar to screen printing, with the exception that rather than transferring the dye to screens, you transfer it to plastisol and finally to the T-shirt. A cost-effective method, it is also not as messy – and, by extension, not as environmentally harmful – as screen printing. However, this process does not create transfers which are as durable as those made by other methods.
Discharge printing is the process of using water-based inks to bleach the manufacturer’s dye out of a shirt and replacing it with another chosen color. This is achieved by using water-based inks that soak into the fabric instead of just sitting on top of it. Typically this is done with cotton shirts that are black, gray or darker in color. Use of this method results in a softer look and feel compared to plastisol ink, and also retain the detail of a design; the shirt will also have a more ‘vintage’ appearance. If eco-friendly inks are used, this method is also environmentally-friendly.
Puff screen printing follows the same processes as screen printing, but results in eye-catching, 3D effects being applied to the final design. The 3D or raised look can fully or partially comprise the shirt’s overall design. As with other methods, the ink used is Plastisol-based, but there is also a foaming agent that expands when it reacts to heat, causing the ink to example and thus giving it the recognizable 3D effect. One of the many advantages of the 3D effect is that it makes a design or logo stand out more than if it had been printed regularly. However, designs made with this method must be simple in nature – puff printing is not suitable for complex images or patterns.
Although the glitzy, pretty look of glitter can make a design stand out, glitter printing does not result in a durable product; in addition, the material will not be breathable. Worse, however, is its impact on the environment – glitter products are made from plastic, which contributes to the growing problem of microplastics in the environment; microplastics are consumed by plankton, fish, and birds, and have a detrimental impact. Animals often die because of the buildup in their systems.
It is important to make sure the design or graphic is positioned correctly: if it is too low or too high, this suggests an unprofessionally-produced product