How To Choose The Best T-Shirt Fabric: Cotton vs Poly vs Blends
June 4, 2021
The humble T-shirt. So simple, so classic, and more popular than ever. Everyone is in search of the perfect T-shirt. The problem is there are a thousand different types to choose from (give or take a few). Between the dozens of major brands, hundreds of styles, a wide variety of fabric types, plus new blends coming out each year, it’s a lot to deal with.
How did the T-shirt become so complicated? And how to find the best one? I’m here to help. But even after 14 years in the business, I’m still surprised by how much I don’t know. So I spoke at length with the textile expert and all-around delightful person Andrea Routzahn from AlphaBroder (one of the leading blank apparel distributors in the country) to make sure I got everything right.
In this post, I’ll go through the different types of shirt fabrics, outlining their attributes, their pros, and cons, along with specific recommendations in each category. And coming right up I’ll give you the short answer to this burning question of which T-shirt fabric is best. But first, let’s go over the main types.
The top 3 T-shirt fabrics
Wait, there are only three? Granted, people have made T-shirts out of everything from alligator leather to human hair– but I’m guessing you’re not in the market for that. So here are the three main fabric types (or categories) you will need to know about to make an informed choice. I’ll give you a brief description of each and then we’ll get into the pros and cons, recommendations, and more.
By far the most common and popular fabric for T-shirts, cotton is a fluffy, natural vegetable fiber obtained from the seedpod of the cotton plant. The fiber is most often spun into yarn or thread and used to make the soft, breathable fabric everyone knows and loves. Most of your T-shirts are probably cotton or partially cotton. After all, it’s the fabric of our lives if you believe commercials. It also happens to be hypoallergenic, which is a huge plus for the itchy/rashy types. Cotton as a fabric dates back to prehistoric times. Caveman concert tees from 500 BC must be worth a fortune now.
Here are a few of our favorite cotton t-shirts:
Polyester is a durable, synthetic fabric with excellent resiliency. Low moisture absorbency allows the fabric to dry quickly, also known as “moisture-wicking”. It’s so scared of water they call it hydrophobic. This material always keeps its shape, so there’s almost zero shrinking or stretching, regardless of what kind of extreme wash and dry cycle you put it through. This dri fit fabric is a favorite of athletes and adventurous outdoor types who subject themselves to extreme conditions. And although a trip to your local gym might tell you otherwise, polyester is also somewhat odor-resistant, because the stinkies tend to depart with evaporating sweat. Plus it doesn’t stain as easily as other fabrics. There’s a lot to love with poly.
100% Polyester always keeps its shape, so there’s almost zero shrinking or stretching, regardless of what kind of extreme wash and dry cycle you put it through.
Check out some popular 100% polyester shirts:
A blend– as you might guess– is a yarn or fabric that is made up of more than one type of fiber. Blends are huge right now, making up a massive percentage of the T-shirt market, and for good reason. Blended fabrics can truly be the best of both worlds– or in the case of tri-blends, the best of all three worlds. There are three major categories of blends:
50/50 – Also known as cotton/poly, a 50/50 blend is half cotton, half polyester.
CVC – Chief Value Cotton: it’s a blend with the majority of it being cotton.
Tri-Blend – Typically made from cotton, polyester, and rayon.
Here are our favorite blended tees:
Which T-shirt material is best for you?
Like the answer to most questions in the custom apparel business, it depends. In this case, the answer depends on this combination of your particular requirements:
- The qualities you’re looking for: softness, breathability, structure, moisture-wicking, etc.
- The print method you want to use: direct-to-garment, screen printing, embroidery, etc.
- The price you’re willing to pay: maximum budget for the order or per item.
- The purpose of the shirt: family reunion, work uniform, sporting event, merchandise, etc.
- The person will be wearing it: age range, style, expectation.
Here’s a simple breakdown of the pros and cons:
What’s the right tee for you? The short answer:
Go with 100% cotton if you want shirts that are soft, comfortable, breathable, gentle on the skin, non-clingy, and can be customized with any method. Keep in mind: they may shrink a bit, can stain, wrinkle, and tend to absorb moisture and hold it, rather than allow it to evaporate quickly. Cotton tees are popular with just about everyone so it’s a safe bet.
Go with 100% polyester if you want shirts that are lightweight, durable, silky smooth, and resistant to wrinkles, shrinking or fading, plus allow moisture to evaporates quickly. Keep in mind: Polyester is less breathable, clingy, irritate the skin, and restricted on print methods. The price can be higher than other garments, depending on the brand.
Go with a blend if you want the best of both worlds. The poly-cotton 50/50 was the first major blend, but now we have the increasingly popular tri-blend, which adds rayon for extra softness and drape. Then there is the CVC, which means a predominantly cotton blend. Tri-blends are my favorite. Keep in mind: They tend to be priced higher, but are still affordable.
What’s the softest T-shirt?
Tri-blends are head and shoulders above other T-shirts when it comes to softness. The combination of polyester, cotton, and rayon form a powerful alliance of super softness that will make you want to wear it every day. The combination of breathability, drape, and durability make it a winner in all categories. Believe it or not, this fabric type has been on the market for less than 15 years. In that short time, it’s become one of the most popular fabrics in the T-shirt business.
When people tell me about their favorite T-shirt, it tends to be a Tri-blend, and I tend to agree. There are very few downsides if any. But here’s just a couple things to keep in mind:
• They run slightly smaller than their counterparts. This is called “fashion fit” and it just means a little more snug. So if Uncle Bob normally wears a large, order him and extra-large.
• They are lightweight so it’s best not to print too much ink on them or it will weigh down the fabric. Use direct-to-garment printing (DTG), or water-based discharge, or regular screen printing but with no underbase to give it a soft hand.
There you have it. Now before I go deeper and get nerdy with some T-shirt fabric knowledge, let’s look at what we recommend, in each of four categories. I’ve provided options to fit in your particular budget. Click on your choice and it will take you to the product page where you can start designing.
|100% COTTON||100% POLYESTER|
Watch: The T-shirt Test
Still not sure which kind to get? Check out these videos my colleague Dan Leer and I made. We put four T-shirts to the test– one from each category of fabric type. We feel them, we wear them, we stretch them, wet them, wrinkle them, print on them, mess them, wash them, and damage them– all to see what happens. There’s even some axe throwing for some reason.
How to talk like an apparel expert
Now let’s go over a few terms that are used in the T-shirt business, but don’t necessarily end up in the product descriptions. Learn the meaning of these and you’ll be talking like an apparel pro in no time.
Technically, this refers to the movement of water vapor from one side of the fabric to the other. But generally speaking, it describes the porousness of the fabric. Another word for it would be airflow.
Most T-shirts will have some degree of breathability– just don’t get it confused with moisture wicking. Thinner, lighter fabrics will tend to have better breathability, but the knit is a major factor. Mesh is an example of fabric with very high breathability, and latex would be an example of the lowest. Is latex even a fabric? Or more like rubber? It’s… something.
A quality perceived by the sense of touch. Softness or firmness, smoothness or roughness– essentially, the feel of it. You won’t see this one as much in product descriptions, but it’s used throughout the industry. Sometimes it can refer to the print: if it’s described as “soft hand” it usually means less ink deposited or water-based ink such as discharge. So feel the shirt with your hand to get a sense of its hand.
If the hand is how it feels, the drape is how it moves and behaves. There are three levels of drape: fluid, moderate, and full-bodied or heavy. Most T-shirts are in the moderate category, although some of the more fashionable styles could be considered fluid, with the growing popularity of viscose (rayon).
How to understand a T-Shirt product description
So you’ve narrowed it down to picking a 100% cotton, poly or blend….but what about the rest of the information in the product description? Sometimes retailers will include terminology that is familiar to them, but foreign to us. Once you start picking up the lingo, you can become an even more informed t-shirt buyer.
I’m going to quickly go over some of the typical terms to describe the properties and characteristics of fabrics in the T-shirt business. If you’re familiar with these terms, you can skip this part. Otherwise, read and learn. These are important to know if you want to make an informed decision. And yes, there will be a quiz afterward.
This refers to the diameter of the yarn, which is determined by how many times that little fiber gets twisted. The higher the single (or the number of twists) the finer the yarn (and the softer the fabric). You can think of it like thread counts of sheets: higher thread count equals softer. Most budget shirts are made from 18 or 20 singles. This is fine, if you like a cardboard feel and a dodgy looking print. But for a softer feel and better-looking prints, go for 30 single or higher.
The weight of the fabric is measured by the square yard or meter. Typically the heavyweight shirts are the carded open-ended kind and the lighter weight shirts are the combed and ring-spun kind and will be around 5 to 6 oz. Tri-blends tend to be very lightweight, another reason they are a fan favorite. A typical lightweight shirt will be 3 to 4 oz.
This is yarn made by continuously twisting and thinning a rope of cotton fibers. The twisting makes the short hairs of cotton stand out, resulting in a stronger yarn with a significantly softer hand. Ring-spun cotton is all the rage and makes for a superior printing surface. The majority of higher-end T-shirts are made of ringspun cotton, as opposed to “carded open-end” which is generally lower quality and can result in fibrillation (fuzz) and less of a smooth, crisp print.
Ring-spun cotton is all the rage and makes for a superior printing surface.
A process by which the short fibers of yarn are removed and the remaining longer fibers are arranged in parallel order for a high-quality yarn with excellent strength, fineness, and uniformity. Ring-spun is good, combed ring-spun is even better. And your print will come out noticeably better. Here’s a great little comparison graphic from Bella+Canvas to illustrate the difference:
Most cotton tees these days are pre-shrunk, and this means what you probably think it means. But do they wash and dry it before selling it? Not really. What they do is manufacture the shirt in a way that pushes, or compacts the fibers tightly together, condensing the fabric by removing space. So it replicates the shrinking process. This doesn’t mean that your shirt won’t shrink at all, but it does prevent significant shrinkage, so your extra-large doesn’t become an extra medium.
Side-seamed vs tubular
Pretty straight-forward here: side-seamed has seams going up the sides to the armpit where the fabric is sewn together. It used to be that all T-shirts were totally tubular until American Apparel came along and changed the game with their fashion fit styles. The side seams produce a more tailored, fitted shirt.
By fit, I don’t mean sizes, but rather the way the T-shirt is constructed, or cut. For example, a “standard” fit is going to be somewhat boxy for some tastes, where a “fashion fit” or “retail fit” is more tailored. Examples of standard fit would be the Gildan Heavyweight Tee, or the Hanes Beefy T. Examples of fashion fit/retail fit would be the Bella+Canvas Jersey Tee or the Next Level Crew Neck. These distinctions are more of personal preference. I like the fashion fit shirts better and feel they are more flattering. But for bigger guys and gals, the boxy standard fit might be a better choice. If you do get the fashion fit for people who normally like standard, just go up one size and you should be good.
Sometimes referred to as Moisture Management, this is the fabric’s ability to “wick away” moisture from the body, allowing sweat to evaporate and the garment to dry quicker. The result is that you feel more comfortable because your body can regulate its temperature better and the fabric doesn’t have that sticky-icky feeling against your skin. The fabrics are almost always synthetic and there are various technologies that can accomplish this “capillary action,” from treatment at the yarn level (best) to topical treatment after fabrication (not so much).
Be careful with this one. You will see it fairly often but doesn’t mean much because it’s used so broadly. It can just mean sportswear that was intended for athletic activities. Or leisure. Or athleisure. It’s not really clear. Anyone can call anything a performance shirt. And it’s not necessarily moisture-wicking– even if it’s made of polyester. If you’re looking for moisture-wicking, always look for those exact words (or moisture management).
If we’re talking performance fabrics or “value-added textiles” (whatever that means) we’re getting into the latest technologies. You might hear them referred to as “smart fabrics” and “interactive textiles” by some marketing department. Many companies are jumping into this space, and there are lots of claims being thrown around. This shirt made of something called Cellient is supposed to improve blood flow with a “proprietary mineral matrix”. Sure, ok. My advice is to be skeptical, especially if the language gets needlessly complex. Sometimes it’s a legit breakthrough, sometimes it’s a way to charge more money.
That’s it for now. Look for an upcoming blog post that will go deeper into the different types of fabrics. And if you haven’t watched the video we made to go along with this post, what are you waiting for?
About the Author
A graduate of the Multimedia program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Imri Merritt is an industry veteran with over 10 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry.