What's the Best Fabric For Your Shirt

  • May 10, 2014

Apparel is available these days in the widest range of choices ever. So the right one for your needs may be wildly different from someone else's. Before we even get into the style and color arena, let's start with just the fabric choices.

Fabrics can all be divided into two categories: natural or synthetic. Natural fibers come from plant or animal sources, while synthetics are manufactured from chemicals, plastics, petroleum, and more. Natural fibers have a long-standing reputation for being soft and luxurious, but that reputation is not always deserved. Manmade fibers are engineered for a specific property of function. They've come a long way since the scratchy, leisure-suit polyester of the 1970's. Today's synthetic fabrics can be every bit as soft as natural fibers.

Blends bring together the best features of different fabrics. The most common blend is cotton with polyester. You may want a resilient fabric with wrinkle resistence and stain protection, but still having absorbency and comfort. Polyester, due to its petroleum-based polymers, delivers the former, while cotton brings the latter. Percentages of each fabric in the blend can vary, depending on which factor is most important to the wearer.

Other popular blends include wool/polyester, for shape retention and drapability with wrinkle resistance, both desirable for uniforms. If strength and wind-resistance is important, consider a nylon/polyester blend. All-natural blends are found as well, along with tri-fiber blends for special needs.

A wide range of fabrics is available for branded shirts 

The next factor to consider is weight. The average T-shirt is 4-5 oz, but they range from a heavy 6 oz to super light weight 2.2 oz. Lighter weight fabrics are very popular, especially for trendy, clinging drape. Softness is derived from the diameter of the yarn, referred to as “singles”. Surprisingly, a higher number indicates a thinner yarn. A standard T-shirt might be 18 singles, while a 30 or 40 singles tee would be considered very soft and luxurious.

The feel of a garment is also affected by its weave, which influences its strength and stretchability. So 40 singles, ringspun cotton tee will be very soft, but will not stretch like an 18 singles open end cotton shirt. An even more important factor is woven-vs.-knitted. Knit fabrics (think polos as well as T-shirts) are created by looping a yarn through itself repeatedly, creating rows of “braids.” Thus the fabric can stretch in all directions. However, woven fabrics are created on large looms that interlace multiple threads at right angles to create a sort of basket effect. Woven fabrics typically do not stretch easily, unless a flexible fiber is included.

The term “performance fiber” generally implies moisture wicking, although there are other factors that are considered important. The earliest performance fabrics were microfibers — 3 times thinner than cotton, 8 times thinner than wool, and 100 times thinner than a human hair. Water resistance is often added by applying Teflon to the fabric. An interesting recent innovation is TempControl, based of the principal in polar bear fur. Each strand is actually hollow, with air trapped inside. In cold conditions, the air warms; in heat, the air cools. These threads provide insulation that is effective in both directions, resulting in a very comfortable shirt.

Four Popular Blends

  • Polyester and cotton: Polyester is crease-resistance; cotton isn't. A garment that blends the two may need little or no ironing, while retaining much of the comfort provided by cotton.
  • Linen and silk: Linen creases easily while silk doesn't. By adding silk to linen, a garment won't crease as readily and will drape better.
  • Spandex and cotton: Spandex is stretchy and durable, and cotton lets your skin breathe. The two make a perfect combination for sports clothing.
  • Cotton, polyester, and rayon: Cotton offers breathability, polyester strength, and rayon shininess. A fabric with all three offers durability, ultra-softness, and excellent resilience so, if wrinkled, the fabric bounces back.

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