How a T-shirt Should Fit: The Ultimate Guide To Choosing the Right Style and Size
February 17, 2022
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Choosing the right T-shirt can be a challenge, and finding the perfect T-shirt is an ongoing mission, even for those of us in the industry. There are dozens of major brands, which combined add up to hundreds of styles. Choosing the right fabric is a big part of it, and I’ve covered that in-depth, but another big part is choosing the right fit. Because not all fits are created equal.
You’d think the fit of a humble T-shirt would be a simple affair, but there’s a lot that goes into it. In this post, I’ll go over the different terminology, the difference between side-seamed and tubular, the difference between fashion fit and standard fit, give you some principles of what makes a great fit for a T-shirt, and finally some recommendations for you.
This post will focus on men’s tees, which are also sometimes called unisex.
What is unisex style?
In the T-shirt world, when you see the word unisex, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was specially designed to fit both men and women. It can just mean that there is not a women’s (or ladies’) version of that particular garment. And if it doesn’t specify men’s or ladies’, then it’s a standalone style– aka unisex. Meaning a men’s cut that can also be worn by women.
Historically, T-shirts have been a garment for men. They first were used as underwear and distributed to members of the US Navy, with other branches of the military following suit. Movies in the 1950s popularized wearing the T-shirt by itself, with Marlon Brando and James Dean personifying this carefree and masculine look. These days, T-shirts are for everyone.
What about the fit of women’s styles?
While men’s and unisex tees only have a few different fits, women’s styles have a wide variety, with new styles coming out every year. The world of women’s tees is much more vast and complex, so I’ll be exploring that topic in a separate post.
The two main categories of T-shirt fit
When talking about different fits in the blank T-shirt market, the first thing to know is that different brands use different terms, and they don’t always line up with each other– that’s why we have an entire sales team devoted to helping our customers sort this stuff out every day. But overall, they can be divided into two broad categories: standard and fashion.
Standard fit (or classic fit) T-shirts
Standard fit gained popularity in the ’80s and ’90s, featuring a generic construction that tends to be more boxy and roomy, lacking the tailoring and tapering of their fashion fit counterparts. Standard fit tees are the safer way to go if you’re buying a bulk order that needs to work for a variety of body types. This style can be a more forgiving look for heavy-set people.
Fashion fit (or slim-fit) T-shirts
Also simply referred to as “fitted”, this cut has been designed to contour to the body more closely, with less bagginess and more form-fitting lines around the shoulders, arms, and torso. The arms have a snugger fit and the sleeve length tends to be shorter. This is also known as “retail fit” although it can fall somewhere in between standard and fashion.
How should a T-shirt fit?
The first and most important thing to getting the right fit is to choose the proper size. Most men tend to choose one size too big (or bigger) for reasons of comfort. But when it comes to looking your best in a T-shirt, it’s much more flattering to wear the size that fits best.
Here’s a sizing chart I made with photos of my co-worker James. Take a look at the differences and think about what qualities you should be looking for to determine your correct size.
For James, MEDIUM looks good, but as you can see, there is some bunching under the armpits. LARGE is the way to go, considering these shirts have not been washed yet. That should shrink it just enough to bring in the looseness around the waist and make the length come up an inch or two. Keep potential shrinkage in mind if you’re going with 100% cotton, but even polyester can shrink.
Below are the top six characteristics of a well-fitting T-shirt, followed by an infographic that you can use for future reference. Now, you might think this is a subjective judgment based on personal preference, but at this point, there is an established set of criteria to consider when you try on a tee. Established by who, you ask? Fashion people! Just go with it.
The shoulder seam should line up with the end of the shoulder bone, where it meets the top of the arm. If it droops over the edge, the shirt is probably too big. If the seam lands in the area before the curve of the shoulder starts, the tee is too small.
The hem of a sleeve should fall at the middle of the bicep, should hug the arm, without flaring out more than two inches. Standard or classic fit tees tend to have bigger armholes that flare out. Slightly longer sleeves can work for taller people.
A T-shirt should cover the waistline and fall at the hips, which is about halfway down the fly. This length can vary a few inches based on a person’s height, but it should never go past the top of the inseam, or it starts looking like a nightgown.
The neckline should sit flat, just above the collar bone, without being too loose or too light. Standard/classic-fit tees tend to have bigger, wider collars than fashion/slim fit. A V-neck can fall just below the clavicle. Men should avoid “deep” V-necks.
The chest area should be more form-fitting than the lower half, but there should be no stretching, or bunching under the armpit area. This is where the tapering construction of fashion fit tees do a great job of hugging the body better.
The torso should taper in slightly to contour to the body, rather than straight or bulking out. Side-seamed shirts provide this fitted look, while their standard/classic-fit counterparts tend to have a boxier, baggier shape around the torso.
Tubular T-shirts vs Side-Seamed
There are two main ways in which T-shirts are constructed, and can determine the way it fits. T-shirts were originally constructed with side seams until the tubular technique came along and took over the market with their efficiency, consistency, and lower manufacturing cost. Now side-seams are gaining back popularity. So which is better?
Many people will say that side-seamed construction is the way to go because of its superior fit, others say that tubular tees are totally fine. Both types of construction are widely available. Here’s a quick look at the differences between them.
What is a tubular T-shirt?
Tubular tees are made with a tube of fabric that becomes the torso of the shirt, with the neck and arms sewn in. This style tends to be cheaper than side-seamed because there is less sewing involved and it’s easier to produce. The trade-off is a generic, inferior fit– because the human body is not shaped like a tube. At least I don’t know anyone shaped like a tube.
Another big issue besides fit is something called “torquing” which is the garment starting to twist, particularly after washing and drying. Because it doesn’t have the side seams to support the structure of the garment, it can make any custom print look misplaced and have you walking around with a lop-sided look. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s not the best look.
One benefit of no seams (other than the cheaper price point) is you can use the side as a print area since there is no seam there. Side seams make side prints almost impossible because of the ink deposit that happens at the seam. Also not a good look. So if you’re looking for a unique print location on the side of your tee, there’s only one way to go: totally tubular.
What is a side-seamed T-shirt?
Side-seamed tees are exactly what you would think: they are constructed with seams that run down the underside of the sleeves and down the torso of the shirt. They take longer to manufacture than tubular shirts and so the price point is slightly higher. Most T-shirts were produced this way until the technique of using tubular sheets of fabric came along.
The fit is superior to tubular and allows for a “fashion fit”, essentially allowing for contoured tailoring that hugs the body better. Side seams also make it easier for printers, because the seams can be used as guidelines when lining up the tees on a palate, leading to more consistent print placements through the course of a run. So it’s a win/win. So much winning.
Side seams came back with the rise of American Apparel in the ’90s when the innovative and infamous company pioneered the “fashion fit” look. Their tees were more tailored and flattering than the competition, and soon American Apparel had set a new standard in T-shirt construction, with competing brands following their lead and many going side-seamed.
Still, side-seamed T-shirts are the minority compared to tubular (also called circular) construction, especially in the custom printed world. Generally speaking, when shopping for your own order of T-shirts to get printed, look for the words “side-seamed” in the product description. If it doesn’t say those words, chances are it’s a tubular construction. But not always.
Choosing the right T-shirt can be a daunting task with so many brands and styles to choose from, so I’m going to narrow it down to three recommendations (good, better, best) in each of three categories: standard fit tubular, fashion fit tubular, and fashion fit side-seamed. If you still can’t decide, call us and one of our product experts can guide you to the right choice.
Standard fit tubular tees
Good: Gildan UltraCotton® (G200)
One of our best-selling T-shirts, the Gildan G200 is the go-to choice for those who want a durable tee with a great print surface and an affordable price point. It’s 6.1 oz, 100% cotton and comes in a wide variety of colors.
Better: Fruit of The Loom HD Cotton® (3930)
Another favorite, the FOTL 3930 is 100% cotton and slightly lighter than the Gildan at 5 oz. It has something called “high-density” fabric for exceptional print quality, plus a tear-away tag and an assortment of color choices.
Best: Hanes Beefy-T® (5180)
One of the standard tees of the industry, the Hanes Beefy-T lives up to its name with 6.1 oz 100% cotton and high-quality construction, a tear-away tag, shoulder-to-shoulder taping, a lay-flat collar, and all the colors.
Fashion fit tubular tees
Good: Gildan Softstyle® (G640)
Mega-company Gildan has put their industry experience into making their own “semi-fitted” T-shirt. It’s 4.5 oz, 100% ringspun cotton for an excellent print surface, with rolled shoulders and a 3/4″ neck.
Better: RushOrderTees Classic Tee
This one has become the RushOrderTees standard, and customers are loving them. Also 4.5 oz ringspun cotton for great prints and a “contemporary” fit with a narrow collar, slightly rolled shoulders, and tear-away tag.
Best: American Apparel® Fine Jersey Tee (2001)
The pioneer of fashion fit tees with a tubular version of their insanely popular item. At 4.3 oz it’s the lightest of the bunch, with combed ringspun cotton, 30 singles, shoulder-to-shoulder taping and a satin tag.
Fashion fit side-seamed tees
Good: Next Level (3600)
An outstanding and well-made shirt, this is one of my favorites and one of our in-house go-to’s. 4.3 oz 100% combed ringspun cotton, 32 singles, pre-laundered, tearaway tag, tons of colors.
Better: BELLA+CANVAS® Unisex Jersey Short Sleeve Tee (3001)
Hands down one of the best companies making T-shirts today and this one is top of the line. 4.2 oz 100% Airlume combed and ringspun cotton, shoulder taping, tearaway tag, and all the colors.
Best: American Apparel USA Made Short-Sleeve Track T-Shirt (TR401)
Throwing a tri-bend into the mix here. Great fit, super soft and lightweight at 3.7 oz w/ 50% cotton, 25% polyester, and 25% rayon, and made in the USA. Colors are limited and mostly heathered.
If you’re still not clear on side-seamed vs tubular, here’s a great little video from our friends at Bella+Canvas to help break it down. They love side-seams so much it’s all they do. We’re making our own video about it, so look for that soon.
If you have any T-shirts that don’t fit anymore or never fit right in the first place, it’s time to get some new tees! And don’t throw away the old ones, there are plenty of other things you can do with your old clothing. Need to create a design for your order? Use our Design Studio to get started now!
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 20 years of graphic design and color separations experience in the screen printing industry.