A Guide To Types of Shirt Material - Ninja Transfers

A Guide To Types of Shirt Material

Mar 11, 2024Tom Golubovich

The perfect t-shirt starts with the ideal fabric. It's the foundation that determines how a shirt feels against your skin, how it holds its shape over time, and even how well it showcases your custom designs. Yet, navigating the sea of t-shirt material options can be overwhelming – soft cotton, sleek polyester, luxurious blends, and more.

Understanding the distinct qualities of popular shirt fabrics unlocks a world of possibilities. It empowers you to make informed choices based on comfort, performance needs, budget, and your desired printing styles. Let's embark on a fabric exploration journey to help you create custom t-shirts that truly stand out.

Table of Contents

The 3 Main Categories of T-shirt Material

Choosing the right shirt fabric is essential in the custom t-shirt business. This choice influences customer satisfaction and how well your designs translate to the final product. That's why we'll start with the three foundational categories you'll encounter most often: cotton, polyester, and blends. Each offers a unique mix of feel, durability, and performance.

1. 100% Cotton

Cotton is a natural fiber derived from the cotton plant, renowned for its softness, breathability, and long-standing popularity in the t-shirt world. Let's explore its characteristics, making it an enduring favorite:

Types of Cotton:

  • Ringspun: The fibers are tightly twisted, giving them superior softness and creating a smoother surface for printing, which results in clearer, more defined designs.  
  • Combed: This additional step removes impurities and short fibers, making it noticeably softer and less prone to pilling, giving it a smoother hand and increased durability. 
  • Organic: Grown sustainably without pesticides or harmful chemicals, organic cotton is eco-conscious and can be a gentler choice for sensitive skin.
  • Pima (or Supima): These longer cotton fibers boast superior strength and softness, resulting in a luxuriously comfortable fabric that drapes beautifully and wears well over time.
  • Airlume Cotton:  This refers to a proprietary combed and ringspun cotton processing technique emphasizing the purity and consistency of fibers, resulting in exceptional softness and smoothness.

 Weaves:

  • Jersey Knit: The standard t-shirt knit provides a smooth, slightly stretchy fabric perfect for a close but comfortable fit, popular for its versatility and adaptability to printing.
  • Pique: Features a textured waffle-like pattern, allowing for breathability, often found in polo shirts and sportswear due to its moisture-wicking properties.  

Yarn Detail:

  • Singles: Single-spun yarns create a slightly textured and less uniform fabric with a less smooth surface, suitable for a vintage-style or rustic appearance.  
  • Carded open-ended (vs. combed/ringspun): Unprocessed cotton yarns can contain impurities and leave a rough, uneven surface unsuitable for quality printing; choosing combed or ringspun options ensures a smoother surface and higher quality t-shirt with greater longevity.

Cotton Pros and Cons:

  • Pros: Unmatched softness, breathable, hypoallergenic (excellent for those with sensitive skin), versatile, works well with a wide range of printing techniques, readily available.  
  • Cons: Susceptible to shrinkage if not pre-shrunk, with the potential to fade over time depending on dye quality, it can be less durable than certain cotton blends.

 

Cotton Print Considerations:

Cotton fabrics accept a wide range of inks and printing techniques. With techniques like DTF, screen printing, and heat transfer vinyl (HTV), it provides vivid color displays, good ink adhesion, and a long-lasting print.

Cotton Price Point:

Cotton t-shirts can range from low-budget to premium, depending on the quality of the material. The average tends to fall somewhere between polyester and blends.

 

2. 100% Polyester

Polyester is a synthetic fiber derived from petroleum products and is often used for performance apparel.  While known for its moisture-wicking properties and athleticwear focus, recent developments introduce a wider variety of textures and qualities within the world of polyester fabrics.

Moisture-Wicking:

The fibers don't absorb moisture; instead, they quickly pull sweat away from the skin, resulting in an ideal fabric for athletes or for use in hot climates.

Types of Polyester: 

  • Basic/standard: Affordable, common in athleticwear, can be slightly rough feeling but dries quickly.
  • Microfiber: Fine fibers create a super-soft hand, sometimes mimicking natural fabrics. 
  • Performance Blends: Combine moisture-wicking with other beneficial qualities like drape, snag resistance, and stretch.

Polyester Pros and Cons:

  • Pros: Extremely durable, resists wrinkles, retains its shape, vibrant colors that resist fading, quick-drying, cost-effective for everyday items.
  • Cons: Less breathable than natural fibers, may trap heat, can develop static cling, and the potential for pilling (especially with lower-grade polyester).

 

Polyester Print Considerations:

Printing on polyester presents unique challenges with some techniques; dye-sublimation is the most suitable option, creating durable prints with the dye embedded into the fabric fibers. DTF transfers work, but screen printing or DTG (direct-to-garment) is not recommended for polyester.

Polyester Price Point:

Polyester t-shirts generally fall into a budget-friendly category, though options for finer grades and higher-tech performance styles increase the cost.

3. Blends

Fabric blends combine two or more types of fibers, strategically utilizing the strengths of each component to create unique and versatile materials. They're a popular choice in the t-shirt market, striking a balance of affordability, comfort, and performance. Here's what you need to know about blended fabric shirts:

50/50 (Cotton/Polyester):

The classic blend is found in many standard t-shirts. This combination softens the feel of polyester while boosting durability and reducing shrinkage compared to 100% cotton. 

Tri-blends (Cotton/Polyester/Rayon): 

Introduces rayon into the mix, further enhancing the softness and smooth drape of the fabric and often provides a heathered appearance.     

CVC (Chief Value Cotton):

This particular blend is predominantly cotton (usually 80%) with a touch of polyester. It creates a subtly heathered effect while still preserving the majority of cotton's beloved qualities.

Other Common Blends: 

  • Cotton/Spandex: Adds stretch and recovery for fitted styles.
  • Polyester/Spandex: Maximizes performance with stretch and moisture-wicking.
  • Rayon/Viscose blends: Creates flowing fabrics with exceptional drape.

Blends Pros and Cons:

  • Pros: Versatility in softness, drape, and performance; more cost-effective than some pure natural fibers; reduces shrinkage and wrinkling; some blends have moisture-wicking capabilities.
  • Cons: Can be less breathable than 100% cotton; potential for pilling depending on the blend and fabric quality; not all blends are as eco-friendly as pure natural fibers.

 

Blends Print Considerations:

Blends are compatible with most printing techniques, making them a versatile choice for custom apparel. However, screen printing can have issues on blended fabrics, and DTG is generally not recommended due to dye migration and other problems. Using DTF transfers is an excellent choice.

Blends Price Point:

Blends offer a range of price points depending on the type of fibers used and the percentage of each. Premium tri-blends may be slightly more expensive, while the basic 50/50 is typically one of the most budget-friendly options.

Shirt Fabric Comparison Chart

100% Cotton 100% Polyester Blends

✅ Soft

✅ Comfortable

✅ Breathable

✅ Gentle on the skin

✅ Natural feel

✅ Non-clingy

✅ Easily customized

✅ Variety of options

✅ Highly popular

✅ Lightweight

✅ Super durable

✅ Shrink-resistant

✅ Wrinkle-resistant

✅ Odor-resistant

✅ Smooth drape

✅ Super quick-drying

✅ Lightweight

✅ Soft and comfortable

✅ More durable

✅ Better drape

✅ Less shrinkage

✅ Less wrinkling

✅ Quicker drying

❌ Generally heavier

❌ Prone to shrinkage & wrinkles

❌ Prone to damage and stains

❌ Slow to dry

❌ Less breathable

❌ Can be very clingy

❌ Synthetic feel

❌ Skin irritant

❌ Printing restrictions

❌ Some high price points

❌ Can get clingy

❌ Can irritate sensitive skin

❌ Some printing restrictions

❌ Higher price point

 

Which shirt material is best?

The truth is there's no single "best" t-shirt material across the board. The perfect fabric boils down to understanding your customers' needs and preferences. Here's a quick breakdown to help guide your fabric choices:

  • Prioritize comfort and versatility: 100% cotton remains the gold standard for its breathability, soft feel, and adaptability to everyday wear and nearly all printing methods.  Just watch for potential shrinkage and fading depending on the fabric quality.
  • Choose performance and durability: For activewear or hot climates, 100% polyester delivers moisture-wicking properties, holds its shape superbly, resists fading, and dries quickly. Keep in mind it offers less breathability compared to cotton and calls for specialized printing techniques for ideal results.
  • Find a balance with blends: Blends like 50/50 cotton/polyester provide a compromise in soft feel and longevity, offering a more budget-friendly and wrinkle-resistant solution. Tri-blends introduce a luxurious drape and exceptional softness, making them popular for trendy apparel.

 

Ultimately, the best t-shirt fabric is determined by how the shirt will be used and its target wearer's priorities. Experimentation is key. Offering several options caters to diverse customer preferences and allows you to showcase your ability to fulfill various t-shirt needs.

Learn more about choosing the right products for your t-shirt business.

What shirt material is the softest?

Tri-blends are renowned as the softest t-shirt fabrics due to their unique combination of cotton, polyester, and rayon fibers. This synergistic blend creates exceptional softness, smooth drape, and a luxurious feel against the skin. Blends incorporating other fibers like combed cotton, bamboo viscose, or modal can also provide incredible softness and are worth exploring for exceptional comfort.

Specialty Fabrics

While cotton, polyester, and their blends dominate the world of t-shirts, an enticing array of specialty fabrics is rising in popularity. These unique materials offer distinctive textures, sustainability options, and enhanced performance to create stand-out garments.  Let's take a brief look at a few noteworthy examples:

Rayon/Bamboo Viscose

Derived from plant-based materials,  viscose fabrics are luxuriously soft and possess an elegant drape.  They're known for their breathability and potential eco-friendliness, which appeals to many customers.  

Linen

Composed of natural flax fibers, linen offers a textured weave and breathability, which makes it a favorite for warm-weather garments. Linen has a timeless,  sophisticated appeal and a distinct hand feel.

Specialty Blends

Manufacturers offer a wide range of unique blends featuring recycled or upcycled content for sustainability emphasis and blends designed for exceptional moisture-wicking, stretch, or wrinkle-resistance, providing high-performance apparel options.

Fabric Weight

In the realm of blank apparel, 'fabric weight' refers to the weight of the fabric per square yard or meter. This measurement indicates the fabric's thickness and density, but it's important to note that weight does not directly equate to durability.

A lightweight fabric can be just as durable as a heavyweight one, depending on the quality of the material and the garment's construction. Fabric weight is a crucial factor to consider when selecting apparel, as it affects the feel, drape, and suitability of a garment for different purposes and environments. Here are the standard weight categories:

Lightweight (3-4 oz)

Lightweight fabrics, typically ranging from 3 to 4 ounces per square yard, often include blends like tri-blend or 50/50, though some 100% cotton can also be lightweight. These materials are generally used for more fitted or fashion-forward styles. The lighter weight makes them ideal for comfort and breathability, especially in warmer climates or layering.

Standard (4-5 oz)

The standard weight category, falling between 4 and 5 ounces, encompasses the majority of t-shirts available in the market. This weight balances durability, comfort, and versatility, making it suitable for a wide range of uses, from casual wear to promotional items.

Heavyweight (6-7 oz+)

Heavyweight fabrics are typically 6 to 7 ounces or more and are usually made from cotton, although some blends, such as fleece sweatshirts, also fall into this category. These fabrics are thicker and more substantial, offering increased durability and warmth. Heavyweight garments are often preferred for cooler weather or workwear where additional sturdiness is needed.

Considerations

  • Intended use: Choose lighter fabrics for summery shirts or workout attire, standard weights for everyday t-shirts, and heavier weights for hoodies, sweatshirts, or workwear needing extra durability.
  • Print method: Depending on the kind of design you are printing (especially the size of it), lighter-weight fabrics may not be the best bet. Large, solid designs can feel heavy on a lightweight shirt. Learn more about choosing the right print method.
  • Layering: Lightweight fabrics excel under other garments, while heavyweight styles are cozy when worn as the outer layer.
  • Style preferences: Drape and structure affect a garment's look – lighter weights create a slimmer silhouette, while heavyweight fabrics hold their shape with a boxier, less forgiving cut. 
  • Seasonality: Customers typically reach for lightweight shirts in warmer climates and favor the added warmth of heavyweights in colder months.  

 

Shirt Color Dyeing

Fabric choice profoundly impacts your shirt's vibrancy and final  "hand"; how the fabric ultimately feels. Different dyeing methods have nuanced but important effects on color and overall tactile quality. Here's what you need to know:

Traditional Dyeing

The fabric is dyed prior to the garment being cut and sewn.  This approach results in uniform color saturation and is frequently associated with bolder colors and crisp prints than pre-dyed garment methods. 

Garment Dyed

In this method, garments are sewn first and then fully immersed in the dye bath.  This allows for unique color variations and a soft, slightly lived-in feel. It can be a great choice for those seeking a casual or worn-in appearance.

Pigment Dyed

Pigment dyes adhere to the fabric on the surface, producing faded, vintage-inspired hues compared to the bold color saturation of traditional dyes. Pigment-dyed t-shirts have a characteristic broken-in softness from the outset.

Tie-Dyeing

This DIY-favorite fabric decorating technique often requires specialized reactive dyes (sometimes found in kits) that bond directly to natural fibers like cotton. Tie-dye shirts provide endless opportunities for self-expression and unique, one-of-a-kind design results. 

Pre-Shrunk Fabrics

Often associated with pigment-dyed styles, expect less drastic shrinking after the initial wash compared to traditional non-pre-shrunk garments.  This helps achieve a more predictable overall garment fit. Learn more about how to wash graphic tees.

Color Variety

Different dyeing techniques may influence the available color range. Traditional dye methods can produce various colors, whereas pigment dyeing creates a distinctive selection within a more muted palette.  

Considerations

  • Colorfastness: Consider how readily a dye resists fading due to washing and UV  exposure. Certain dyeing methods might lead to greater variations in colorfastness within a style.  
  • Hand-feel: As noted, dyeing methods noticeably affect how soft or crisp a fabric feels, adding another dimension to customer decisions. 
  • Desired Aesthetic: Match the color and vibrancy level to the intended look and feel. Whether you want bold, saturated, soft, lived-in, or something in between, the dyeing method should complement the desired appeal.

 

Sourcing and Sustainability

The rising public interest in ethically made and environmentally friendly apparel extends to t-shirt fabrics. Consumers want to know how their shirts are made and understand the potential impact of their choices. Let's touch on aspects relevant to sourcing and sustainability:

Organic Cotton

Grown without pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers, organic cotton production reduces the environmental impact compared to conventional cotton. Many certifications exist (like GOTS) that provide verification of this status.  

Recycled Polyester

Derived from recycled plastic bottles or other post-consumer polyester sources, using recycled polyester lessens our reliance on new petroleum-based production.  Look for companies offering blank shirts with a high percentage of recycled materials. 

Domestic vs Global

Domestic materials can offer reduced shipping distances and potentially different labor and environmental regulations, while materials sourced globally sometimes present cost advantages or specializations.

Glossary of Terms

  • Knit: Refers to the interwoven yarn structure that creates a t-shirt fabric.  Common T-shirt knits include jersey (smooth, slightly stretchy), pique (textured), and rib (stretchy ribbed pattern).
  • Drape: Describes how the fabric flows and shapes when hanging. Drape ranges from fluid (think silky viscose blends) to full-bodied (like a heavyweight cotton sweatshirt). T-shirts often have a moderate drape, providing a balance of structure and comfort.
  • Yarn Singles: Determines the yarn's thickness and, therefore, its softness. Higher singles indicate finer, softer yarns (ex: 30 singles). Lower singles (ex: 18 singles) may be less expensive but result in a slightly more textured fabric. 
  • Ringspun: A processing method where fibers are continuously twisted for a stronger and noticeably smoother yarn than simple "singles." This produces garments with superior softness and better suitability for printing.  
  • Combed Cotton: This process removes short fibers and impurities, resulting in even greater softness, durability, and printability. Combed cotton t-shirts offer a noticeably higher quality feel than uncombed open-ended options.
  • Carded Open-Ended: Unprocessed cotton yarn – lower cost, but more prone to pilling and uneven texture, not ideal for premium garments or crisp prints. 
  • Moisture-wicking: Fabric's ability to pull sweat away from the skin and dry quickly for more comfortable, active wear.  Often, a feature of polyester fabrics is engineered for performance.
  • Snag-Resistant:  Fabric construction or a finish designed to minimize susceptibility to snagging or pulls. Particularly relevant in some performance fabrics designed for rough or outdoor activities. 
  • Stain-resistant: Fabric has a treatment or special finish that helps to repel liquids and prevent stains, facilitating easier cleanup. Useful for shirts worn around spills or messy environments. 
  • Performance: Often used to describe fabrics engineered with specialized qualities like moisture-wicking, quick-drying capabilities, or enhanced stretch and recovery. Performance fabrics are typically designed for athletic or active pursuits. 
  • Eco-friendly: A broad term generally indicates that a fabric, production method, or company actively seeks to minimize environmental impact.  Can encompass organic materials, recycled materials, or reduced water/energy usage within manufacturing. 
  • Recycled: Typically applies to the material itself, most commonly recycled polyester derived from existing waste materials like plastic bottles,  reducing the production of new fibers. Used in fabrics aimed at reducing environmental impact. 
  • Fleece: A  soft, brushed fabric traditionally made from cotton but commonly from a polyester blend. Provides warmth, texture, and a cozy feel and is ideal for sweatshirts and warmer layers. 

 

Create Shirts Your Customers Will Love

Selecting the perfect shirt fabric involves juggling priorities like comfort, performance, durability, printability,  and even sustainability. Understanding the unique qualities of each fabric opens a world of customizable t-shirt possibilities. Exploring different material blends and weights gives you the knowledge to match your customers' specific needs.

Ready to make shirts people will love? Partner with Ninja Blanks to source all your apparel essentials and harness the power of versatile DTF transfers for stunning designs on virtually any fabric. Or use our complete customization service and leave it to the pros.

Start expressing your creativity on quality shirts today!



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