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What Is Heather Fabric?

Tom Gloubovich

When you're shopping for t-shirts and other apparel, you've probably come across the term "heather" - but what exactly does it mean? Is it a color? A texture? A type of fabric? The answer is yes. Heather can refer to all of those things, depending on the context.

In a nutshell, heather fabric is made from a yarn that contains different colored fibers blended together, creating a unique mottled or speckled appearance. The result is a softer, more visually interesting texture than solid-colored fabrics. The classic gym gray and the vintage tee look are both heather fabric.

Whether you're just curious about the terminology or actively deciding if heather is the right choice for your custom apparel project, join us as we spin a yarn to unspool the mysteries of this popular t-shirt fabric.

Table Of Contents

  • What is Heather?
  • Heather Fabric in Apparel
    • Types of Heather Fabric
    • Cotton-Poly Blends
    • Tri-Blends
    • CVC Blends
    • Price of Heather Apparel
    • Why Choose Heather?
  • What Color is Heather?
    • Athletic Heather (aka Sport Gray)
    • Heather Gray Colors
    • Dark Gray Heather Colors
    • Colored Heather
    • Natural Heather
    • Upscale Heather Texture Effects
  • Designing for Heather Fabrics
  • Printing on Heather Fabrics
  • Conclusion

collage of models wearing various heathered items: t-shirts, hoodies, long sleeves, tanks etc

What is heather?

In the textile industry, heather refers to a fabric made from yarns that contain a blend of different colored fibers or types of material-from cotton and polyester to recycled materials-creating a distinctive, mottled appearance. But who is Heather, and did she invent it?

The term "heather" originated from the Scottish word haethr, which refers to Calluna, the small shrubs of the Ericaceae family, commonly known as heather plants. These plants are known for muted, earthy tones, which are somehow similar to the colors often seen in heather fabrics. Go figure.

Heather yarn

Heathered yarn is created by blending pre-dyed fibers before the spinning process. Unlike solid-colored yarns, where the dyeing is done after the yarn is spun, heather yarn starts with a mix of different colored fibers.

These fibers are carefully blended in varying proportions to achieve the desired color palette. The blended fibers are then spun into a single yarn, creating a unique, multi-colored thread that creates the signature heathered look when woven or knitted into fabric.

The heathered fabric look has evolved from its origin as a low-cost athletic fabric to everyday casual wear, becoming a desirable choice in fashion apparel. The subtle, textured appearance of heather fabrics adds visual interest and depth to garments, making them more appealing and versatile.

simple infographic, or closeup of heather yarn being spun

Heather fabric in apparel

Heather fabrics are like the mutts of the textile world. They come in various blends, each offering unique characteristics and benefits. The most common heather fabric blend combines cotton and polyester, with the ratios varying depending on the desired properties. Many t-shirt styles have heather color options, and each color can have its own unique recipe and ratio of fibers.

For example, "ash" colored fabrics can be made with a 99% cotton and 1% polyester blend, while classic "heather gray" or "sport gray" can be a 50/50 or 65/35 blend of cotton and polyester. "Antique" colors and are usually made with a 90% cotton and 10% polyester blend. It varies by brand.

Heather fabrics also include tri-blends, typically consisting of cotton, polyester, and rayon, resulting in a soft, durable fabric with a comfortable and flattering fit. Some heather blends may include performance materials like spandex or viscose. These variations in fiber content contribute to each heather fabric's distinct appearance and feel.

But-perhaps surprisingly-heathered fabric doesn't necessarily have to be a blend. The distinctive mottled texture can also be found in 100% cotton and 100% polyester shirts. More on that below.

Types of heather apparel

Cotton-poly blends

One of the most popular types of heather apparel is the cotton-poly blend, typically in a 50/50 ratio. This blend combines cotton's softness and breathability with polyester's durability and wrinkle resistance. The result is a fabric that is comfortable to wear, easy to care for, and long-lasting. 50/50 cotton-poly heather fabrics are popular for t-shirts, sweatshirts, and other casual apparel items.

Tri-blends

Tri-blend heather fabrics have been steadily growing in popularity. They usually consist of 50% polyester, 25% cotton, and 25% rayon. These fabrics offer a super-soft, lightweight feel and a slightly vintage look. The addition of rayon provides a subtle sheen and drape to the fabric, making tri-blend heather apparel a comfortable and stylish choice for both men and women. Tri-blends are commonly used in premium t-shirts, tank tops, and fashionable athletic wear.

CVC blends

CVC, which stands for "Chief Value Cotton," refers to a blend of cotton and polyester, typically in ratios ranging from 60% cotton / 40% polyester to 90% cotton / 10% polyester. CVC heather fabrics are known for their softness, durability, and affordability. They balance the natural comfort of cotton and the strength and easy-care properties of polyester. CVC heather fabrics are often used in everyday casual wear, such as t-shirts, polo shirts, and hoodies.

100% cotton and 100% polyester heather

While most heather fabrics are blends, 100% cotton and 100% polyester options are also available. These fabrics achieve the heathered effect using different-colored heather yarn made from the same material. For example, a 100% polyester heather offers the moisture-wicking properties and durability of polyester, while a 100% cotton heather fabric provides the natural, hypoallergenic softness of cotton without any synthetic materials-perfect for those who want the look of heather but have specific material requirements.

For a more in-depth look at fabrics, read our recent article about the various types of t-shirt materials.

infographic showing 5 different types of t-shirts w/ blended/heather fabric, labeled w/ basic info

Price of heather apparel

Heather apparel is available at a wide range of price points, from budget-friendly options to premium, high-end styles. In fact, most t-shirt styles, regardless of price point, will offer at least one or two heathered options like "ash" or "sport gray," which are typically made with a higher cotton content and a smaller percentage of polyester.

Some budget-friendly tees, like the G500 from Gildan, provide a selection of heather colors, giving customers more options without breaking the bank. However, slightly more but still affordable standard options like Threadfast's Ultimate T-shirt have some nice heathered options in a quality 60/40 tee.

On the farther end of the spectrum, premium tri-blend heather tees like the AA1973 from Alternative Apparel have exceptional softness, unique textures, and eco-friendly production-but can cost up to three times more than a budget tee. These premium options are ideal for creating high-end, fashionable custom apparel that stands out from the crowd-and should be highlighted when marketing your t-shirt business.

Why choose heather fabric?

Someone might choose heather fabric for their custom apparel projects for several reasons. One popular use case is for gym and athletic wear, as heather fabrics offer a soft, comfortable feel that is perfect for working out or running errands. Many blended options are considered performance wear.

Heather fabrics also have a fashion-forward, retail-ready look that can elevate the perceived value of custom apparel for your t-shirt business. Heather fabrics, especially tri-blends, are an excellent choice for those who prioritize softness and drape. The unique texture and subtle color variations of heather fabrics can also provide a vintage or retro vibe, which is popular among many fashion-conscious consumers.

Additionally, some heather fabrics are made with recycled materials, making them an eco-friendly option for those who want to reduce their environmental impact. Brands like Alternative Apparel offer heather fabrics made with recycled polyester, allowing customers to create custom apparel that is both stylish and sustainable. This can be crucial when choosing the right products for a niche target market.

photos of models wearing customized heather apparel, for gym, fashion, and casual

What color is heather?

You often see heather as a color descriptor when shopping for blank apparel. Jade heather, navy heather, etc. Heather colors are created by simply blending different colored fibers together for the yarn, resulting in that mottled or speckled appearance, so just about anything goes.

Classic athletic heather (aka sport gray)

The most common and well-known heather color is "athletic heather" or "sport gray." This light-to-medium gray color is achieved by blending white and gray fibers, usually in a 90/10 cotton/polyester blend. When people say heather gray, they generally mean sport gray.

Heather gray colors

Several variations of heather gray can include everything from a lighter "ash gray" to "graphite heather." Ash gray is typically lighter (almost white), while graphite heather has a darker, more pronounced heather effect. Make sure to click the color icon in the product description to get a visual reference.

Dark heather colors

For a more dramatic look, "charcoal heather" and "black heather" offer deeper, richer tones. These colors are created by blending black and gray fibers, resulting in a dark, textured appearance, often with tiny specks of lighter color. Heather blacks, especially in tri-blends, are perfect for the vintage look.

Colored heather

Heather isn't limited to shades of gray. Many brands offer colored heather options, such as "heather red", "heather green," and even "heather neon." You can even get a tie-dyed tee made with heather fabric.

Natural heather

The color "natural" refers to unbleached cotton, which often has a light speckling effect due to the natural variations in the cotton fibers. This creates a subtle heather appearance without the use of additional dyes.

Upscale heather texture effects

Some premium heather fabrics feature additional texture effects, such as Fleck or Blizzard. These effects are achieved by adding small, contrasting colored fibers to the blend, creating a more pronounced and visually interesting texture.

infographic grid of closeup photos of different heather fabric color examples, labeled

Designing for heather fabrics

When creating designs for heather fabrics, there are a few key considerations to remember. First, try to reduce the surface area of your design. This will give the garment more flexibility and prevent a large print area from weighing down lighter-weight shirts. Heather fabrics, especially tri-blends, are often chosen for their softness and drape, so a smaller, well-placed design can help maintain those desirable qualities.

If you aim for a vintage or retro look, consider applying a "distressed" effect to your design. This can be achieved using various graphic design techniques, and many tutorials are available online to help you achieve the perfect distressed look. The distressed effect complements the textured appearance of heather fabrics, creating a cohesive, vintage-inspired aesthetic.

Pro tip: Heathered fabric will add a visual element to your overall design. The mottled appearance of heather fabrics can sometimes show through the print and affect the contrast of your design, so keep this in mind when choosing colors and creating your artwork. You may need to adjust the design's contrast or color scheme to ensure that it stands out and remains legible on the textured background. Use graphic design tools like Photoshop or Photopea to create a realistic mockup.

example of vintage look w/ distressed print on tri-blend tee

Printing on heather fabrics

For heather fabrics, some t-shirt print methods work better than others. Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, for example, is not recommended for heather fabrics. Because heather fabrics are typically blended with polyester, the print quality and durability of DTG prints may suffer. Similarly, sublimation printing won't work on heather fabrics at all, as it requires 100% polyester material.

Screen printing is a common choice for heather fabrics, but some challenges exist. Dye migration, where the fabric dye bleeds into the ink, can occur when screen printing on heather fabrics. The texture of the heathered fabric may also show through the printed design, affecting the overall appearance. Additionally, the screen printing ink may be too heavy for lightweight heather fabrics, like tri-blends, resulting in a stiff, uncomfortable feel.

The best option for printing on heather fabrics is DTF (direct-to-film) transfers. DTF transfers offer vibrant, durable prints that stretch with the fabric, making them ideal for blended fabrics like tri-blends. The transfers adhere well to the textured surface of heather fabrics, maintaining their quality and appearance over time. On top of that, they're super easy to apply.

Pro tip: Consider using water-based inks or discharge printing techniques for a truly vintage look. These methods can create a soft, muted appearance that complements the heathered texture of the fabric. However, these techniques may require more expertise and specialized equipment than standard screen printing or DTF transfers.

collage of various heathered products printed with the same branding

Exploring the versatility and style of heather for custom apparel

Heather fabrics offer a unique, versatile, and fashionable option for creating standout designs. From the budget-friendly cotton-poly blends to the super-soft, premium tri-blends, there's a heather fabric to suit every style and budget. Whether you want to create vintage-inspired tees, comfortable athletic wear, or eco-friendly apparel, heather fabrics provide the perfect canvas for your designs.

When it comes to printing on heather fabrics, DTF transfers from Ninja Transfers are the way to go. The vibrant, durable, and stretch-friendly transfers are ideal for heather fabrics. With the wide selection of heather apparel at Ninja Blanks, you'll have plenty of options for your custom printing needs.

If you want to leave the heavy lifting to the professionals, Ninja Printhouse has you covered. Our expert team can handle everything from design to printing to fulfillment. With the right blend, design, and printing method, you can create custom gear that looks great, feels amazing, and stands out from the crowd.

 

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