A 3 Step Guide To Understanding T-Shirt Quality

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A T-Shirt is a T-Shirt, right? Wrong. Tees can range from $5 to $50 with slight differences that can make a shirt “meh” or magnificent. Want to know what to look for? Follow this 3 step guide.

1)      Fabric and Fibers. When most people think of a t-shirt, they think of 100% cotton. While this is usually the case, not all cottons are created equal. If the cotton type is not specified, it isn’t special, but if it is noted as Pima, Organic, or Egyptian cotton, you can count on getting a super soft feel.

However, even regular cotton can be soft if it is treated the right way. When cotton is spun into fabric, it is generally “open ended” meaning the cotton fibers are going every which way when woven. The t-shirt will hold up just fine, but it might feel rough to the touch. A more expensive tee would have ring-spun or combed cotton.

Lower Quality, Open-Ended

High Quality, Ring Spun

Ring-spun cotton takes the same original fibers, but twists them into little ropes. The more times it is spun/twisted, the yarn becomes skinnier, softer, and stronger. These pieces of yarn are measured by their diameter and then are woven together to create the fabric. If your yarn is fatter, you don’t need as many of them to create the fabric, but if your yarn is super-spun and skinny, you may need double to create the fabric.  An inexpensive tee may be made with 16-18 singles, whereas a very fine knit tee would be made with 36 or more.

Beyond cotton, there are many other fabric blends that can make a fabulous shirt. Viscose will add a flowy and almost shiny finish to a tee, Spandex offers a comfortable stretchy rebound, polyester will keep bright colors bright (think neon!) and a bamboo tee will be as soft as a baby koala bear.

2)      Stitching and Seams. T-shirt makers can be confusing in the way they market the stitching of a shirt. Very basic t-shirts may be described as having “double needle” stitching on the collar and hem, which may make it seem like there is double the work and double the strength, but that isn’t totally true.

A double needle stitch shows two lines of dotted threads, which are sewn at the same time with twin needles. While this is a durable way of stitching, it can sometimes lead to puckering of fabric, which would be especially unfavorable on an expensive dress shirt.

Single needle stitching is much more sleek, and although it is just one line of thread, the machine goes over and back, which takes longer to ensure a durable stitch.

Seams are another way to determine the quality of a t-shirt, specifically a side seam.  A shirt without side seams is called “tubular” because it is a tube of fabric. These are inexpensive to produce, and sometimes lead to a poor fit or twisting of the tee. Shirts with side seams have a much more tailored fit that will wash and wear better for the life of the shirt.

3)      Special-Tee Effects. Sometimes it isn’t the t-shirt itself that creates a high price tag, but the finishing or printing effects the manufacturer uses to make it unique and more costly to produce.

Traditionally, t-shirts are decorated using screen printing and plastisol inks, which have a layer of ink you can feel on top of the fabric. More expensive prints may be done with discharge printing, which bleaches out the dye of the shirt, and sometimes a second layer of water-based inks.

Water-based inks are very thin and seep into the fibers of the shirt, creating a vintage faded look which is soft to the touch.

Another special touch may be a tagless tag, where the sizing and washing information is printed inside the shirt for added comfort.  

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