Early 1800's - The t-shirt actually started out as a single piece of clothing complete with bottoms and worn as underwear.
Early 1900's - The US Navy starts issuing t-shirts to sailors and makes them regulation uniform pieces.
Early 1950's - T-shirts became very popular as an outer garment with the influence of stars like James Dean and Elvis Presley leading the trend.
Late 1960's - This was a pivotal decade for t-shirts as the civil rights movement and political campaigns turned the tee into a crucial promotional canvas. Peace signs and election messages were emblazoned on t-shirts across the country.
The 1970's - T-shirts become trendy in pop culture with the popularity of such iconic tees like the Rolling Stones logo shirt, the I ♥ NY tee and the yellow smiley face tee.
The 1980's - The world was forever changed when introduced to hypercolour tees that changed colors when subjected to heat. By forever changed....I mean for just a few years before they disappeared in obscurity.
The 2000's - T-shirts have become more accessible and popular than ever with the growth of the interwebs.
There are six stages in the manufacturing of t-shirts:
Cotton grows best in a hot, dry environment with long summers and plenty of sunshine. The crop is by far the most popular for use in natural fibers and it accounts for a huge proportion of the world’s annual pesticide usage. Once the cotton reaches maturity the entire cotton ball of the plant is removed by spindle pickers or stripper harvesters. The cotton ball can then be cleaned by hand or run through a cotton gin.
The cotton gin greatly increases the speed and efficiency of cotton cleaning removing the seeds and debris such as dirt, stems, and leaves. Thank you Eli Whitney. The remaining fibers are known as “lint” and are then pressed together into bales. The commercial cotton is classified based on the length of its staples. The longest is Egyptian Cotton, then American Cotton, and then Indian Cotton.
After the cotton has been harvested and ginned it is then sent to the cotton mills where it receives further processing. It arrives at the mill in heavy bales, about 500 pounds each, and the first step it undergoes is a process called "opening". This is where the bale is broken up using a machine with large spikes. Next the cotton goes through a machine called a "picker" which fluffs the cotton back up and removes undesired matter from it. The cotton comes out of the picker in long sheets known as laps.
The laps then undergo a process called "scutching" which further removes impurities, after which it goes through the "carding" machine which assembles the cotton into loose slivers making it easier to work with. Next the slivers are combed to remove the shorter strands and increase strength, then the slivers are drawn together and separated into "rovings" which are used for the spinning process.
Most modern spinning employs a method called break or open-end spinning. In this technique the staples are blown into a rotating drum. Inside the drum they then attach themselves to the tail of the yarn as it is being drawn out of the chamber in a continuous manner. Other methods of break spinning employ needles or electrostatic forces to accomplish the same process. The yarn is then wound onto a bobbin.
Next the yarn bobbins are rewound to form an even tighter bobbin. This is called "checking" After checking is complete, the yarn is then twisted together with yarn from other bobbins in the opposite direction from which it was spun. For a higher weight the yarn may also be plied and the number of strands twisted together varies. After the folding and twisting is completed, the fabric may or may not undergo a process called "gassing". Gassing involves passing the yarn very quickly through a Bunsen gas flame to make the thread brighter and smoother. Typically only higher quality yarns are gassed.
Weaving involves the use of a loom which may vary quite a bit from type to type. The lengthwise threads used on a loom are known as "warps" and the crosswise threads are known as "wefts". The efficiency and quality of the loom has evolved quite a bit with the process of textile manufacturing. In the early days of weaving a skilled weaver could at most handle three looms simultaneously. By 1925 with the "Lancashire Looms" a worker could handle up to six looms. As the technology improved the looms became more and more automated and would stop automatically when something went wrong. Modern looms run faster and vary in type from the air jet loom to the water loom and rapier loom.
Once the cotton has been weaved there are still a number of finishing processes which it might undergo depending on its intended future use. For example it may undergo a process called "desizing" to break down its size, "scouring" to remove natural waxes and any remaining impurities, "bleaching" to whiten the fabric, "mercerising" to improve its strength and appearance. Those are all chemical finishing processes.
There are also several non-chemical processes the cotton might undergo such as "singeing" to increase smoothness, "raising" to increase warmth and softness, "calendering" to produce a polished effect, and "shrinking" which involves forcing the cotton to shrink so that it will not shrink later after being laundered. In addition to these processes, the cotton may be dyed specific colors.
The marketing phase of the process involves pushing the finished product to different places and for different purposes. This is the stage when the brand becomes important as well as the style and overall intended use. Marketing can account for a huge portion of the time and cost associated with selling the end product.
Many products are manufactured overseas and then marketed to customers in different countries. Naturally this will result in the finished product needed to be shipped to the new destination. Exporting and importing finished textile goods can be just as important as the production of the t-shirts. There are many regulations and obstacles a t-shirt can face to make it from a cotton seed on a farm to a sales rack in a retail store.
One of the most typical ways to classify t-shirts is based on the material that they are made out of. The most common types of materials are 100% cotton, organic/eco-friendly t-shirts, 50% cotton/50% polyester, and 100% polyester. While there are many different blends and materials that can be used to create a tee, we'll focus on these since they are the most popular.
The 100% cotton t-shirt is the definitive staple in the industry. It’s been around since the beginning of tees because of its comfort and durability. Cotton is also great at holding ink colors when being printed. One of the main concerns that people have with 100% cotton t-shirts is that they shrink when washed and dried. Fortunately, this problem has been solved by preshrinking the cotton before sending the shirt to market.
Cotton tees come in various weights, styles, and all colors. Even with the growing popularity of engineered synthetic fibers, cotton will always have its place in the textile industry.
An increased environmental awareness by consumers has brought about the production of t-shirts manufactured out of organically grown cotton. Organic cotton is grown without the use of insecticides and other toxic chemicals. The benefits of this approach include better groundwater quality, less risk of insect and disease proliferation, and the conservation of biodiversity. The downside to t-shirts made with organic cotton is the inherent higher cost ranging from $2-6 more per shirt depending on brand and style.
By the same token there is also what is known as ‘sustainable” or ‘eco friendly’ t-shirts. These shirts may not have been manufactured out of organically grown cotton but they have met sustainability standards to provide an environmentally friendly alternative to the standard tee. This can include recycled materials as well as production processes that have been certified to reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing.
Almost as prevalent as the 100% cotton t-shirts are the 50/50 blend t-shirts. The 50/50 blend is a mixture of half cotton and half polyester and was created with the intention of providing the benefits of both material. They are known for their durability, lightweight feel and resistance to wrinkling.
As far as pricing goes, the 50/50 fluctuates from cheaper to more expensive depending on market conditions when compared to the 100% cotton tee. It really comes down to personal preference and the intended usage of the t-shirt when deciding between a 50/50 and a 100% cotton tee. The 50/50 is the typical choice for laborers, the hospitality industry and other uniform situations.
A relative new comer on the t-shirt scene for the last decade is the 100% polyester wicking tee. This type of material is often used for athletic or sports style t-shirts. It is very popular for sports teams because it is designed to wick moisture away from the tee as opposed to holding it in and adding weight. For an athlete, this can make a big difference in both comfort and performance. Often the t-shirts are engineered with antimicrobial properties as well which can help combat odor and general uncleanliness.
If you are looking for a t-shirt for an athletic event, this is the one. Also if you are needing a low maintenance tee that doesn't wrinkle and doesn't hold moisture, you can't go wrong with the 100% polyester option.
Another way to classify shirts is by their weight. The weight is measured in ounces and varies from one t-shirt brand, style, and manufacturer to another. However, in broad terms the shirts can be classified as either lightweight, middleweight, or heavyweight. There are pros and cons to each and there is also a great deal of variation in terms of personal preference based on the intended use and need of the t-shirt.
A lightweight tee is typically around 4.5 ounces. As you might expect from a lightweight tee, they are typically thin. This makes them popular with people who want a t-shirt that isn’t too hot. However, many people who want to use the t-shirts for labor intensive work often steer away from them due to concern that they may tear or not hold up as well as a thicker tee.
Lightweight tees are often among the most trendy tees in the retail market. People buying them for more of a fashion purpose typically enjoy their thinner, lighter weight qualities. As such these tees are often found in organic or sustainable varieties and they are also very often designed to have a trendier ‘fashion fit’ style cut. This means that they are a little bit less boxy than the average tee and they will generally be a little bit more snug. For all these reasons it is very common for lightweight tees to range from the cheapest to the most expensive on the market.
A middleweight tee is generally around roughly 5.3 ounces. Naturally it is a little bit thicker and heavier than the lightweight tee, but it is of course not as heavy as the heavier weight ones. In many ways these are the ‘standard’ tees in the industry. They are generally the least expensive tees and by and large are also the most basic, typical style tee. Since they fall in between the two extremes in terms of weight they are very popular as a good middle choice for people who want a thicker, more durable tee, but don’t want a tee that will be too hot, heavy, or uncomfortable.
The heavyweight class of tees is generally around 6.1 ounces. These tees are of course the thickest and heaviest tees. They are very popular with people who plan to work out doors in their tees, although of course they can also get hot in warmer climates. They are generally more expensive than the middleweight range tees and may or may not be more expensive than the lightweight tees depending on the particular tees themselves.
Perhaps the most obvious way to classify t-shirts is based on the style of the t-shirt. After all this is the most visually obvious thing about the shirt and it is also typically one of the most important, if not the single most important, aspect of the t-shirts for most buyers. T-shirts come in a huge range of styles, but let’s take a look at some of the most common ones.
The most basic tee shirt of course is the regular, short sleeve t-shirt. This is probably the type of t-shirt that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘t-shirt.’ Though there are shirt styles with less material used in making them, this is also generally the most economically priced style of t-shirt. That is because it is the most common and is made in the highest quantities.
Another very common style of t-shirt is the long sleeve tee. Again of course as the name implies this is just a basic t-shirt which has long sleeves instead of short sleeves. The long sleeve t-shirt is generally more expensive than the short sleeve t-shirt and will almost always be more expensive than a short sleeve t-shirt that is completely comparable to it. Long sleeve t-shirts often have good availability in terms of colors and sizes made; however, they generally have fewer options than short sleeve t-shirts.
A very common modification to these two basic styles is the pocket tee. This is simply a t-shirt which has a pocket added to the front, left chest. Short sleeve t-shirts with pockets are definitely the most common although long sleeve pocket tees are also very available. As you might expect, since this is a slightly less common style than the non-pocket versions adding the pocket does raise the price as compared to non-pocket tees. In terms of availability of sizes and colors offered they also generally have slightly fewer colors than the non-pocket versions and may not offer the same range of sizes. It varies a good deal by manufacturer.
The tank top is also a very well-known, frequently seen type of t-shirt. The tank top of course features no sleeves which instead have a smaller strap or band in the sleeve area. These types of t-shirts are very popular for athletics and training since the lack of the sleeve offers increased range of motion. They are also very popular as a ladies’ style garment since they can offer a more provocative, sexy look. As a ladies’ style shirt in particular the tank top comes in a range of substyles. For example it may be the traditional style tank top, or it may have even thinner, spaghetti straps, or it may be a racerback tank, or a crossed back tank.
Perhaps because of its popularity in ladies’ styles many male athletes steer away from the tank top style t-shirt and instead opt for its close cousin the sleeveless tee. The sleeveless tee is very similar to the tank top; however, instead of having a more narrow band or strap at the arm it is the standard size and instead features missing sleeves. This type of t-shirt basically looks like a regular t-shirt that has simply had its sleeves cut-off and re-hemmed. This offers much of the same range of motion and comfort that the t-shirt does.
The V-neck style t-shirt is also very popular. This of course is a t-shirt which features a v-neck rather than the more common crew neck. This type of t-shirt is very popular for fashion reasons and some people also find them more comfortable. The depth of the v-neck can vary quite a bit. There are deep v-neck cuts as well as more shallow v-neck cuts. There are definitely more ladies’ style v-necks than men’s styles; however, the v-neck is very popular as a men’s or unisex style t-shirt as well and seems to be growing in popularity.
The ringer style tee is a very popular alternative to the common t-shirt. It is again a short sleeve style t-shirt, but it offers different colored rings around the cuffs of the sleeves and the neck of the t-shirt. For example the body of the t-shirt may be white, while the rings around the neck and sleeve are black. They come in a wide variety of different color combinations which varies by manufacturer. As you might expect ringer tees are more expensive than regular t-shirt, but many people like the additional style and character added by the different colored rings. They are also commonly perceived as a more athletic style shirt and frequently any printing done on the t-shirt will attempt to match the trim color of the rings.
Another popular style of t-shirt that adds the flare of another color and gives the shirt an athletic appearance, is the raglan style t-shirt. Rather than simply featuring small different colored bands around the sleeves and neck the entire sleeve and often also the upper portion of the shirt, usually in a diagonal pattern, is a different contrasting color. There are a variety of different raglan style t-shirts which may features sleeves of various lengths.
While the Raglan style t-shirt may come in a variety of sleeve lengths and styles the most common is by far the ¾’’ sleeve. In fact it is commonly called the baseball tee and is definitely associated with the sport. This type of shirt of course features the different colored sleeves and body and goes down about midway between the elbow and wrist.
In addition to all of these there is a growing trend toward performance styles shirts like the ones discussed above in the 100% polyester category. These types of shirts are of course great for moisture wicking and keeping cool and they are naturally a big seller in the athletic market. They come in a variety of different styles such as long or short sleeve and they often feature very interesting, unique colorings and markings. For example it is not uncommon for them to have sleeve or shoulder stripes or rings.
One final, logical way to classify t-shirts is based on their target demographic. As a general rule the men’s and unisex category are the same and then there is also ladies’ style t-shirts, and youth t-shirts for kids. Knowing the target demographic can go a long way toward then finding the particular style t-shirt that you want. It is also important to keep in mind such things as sizes and colors needed.
The unisex style shirt will typically have better size and color availability than the youth or ladies’ styles. Depending on the particular shirt in question there may be a directly comparable youth and ladies version in which case you may stand a better chance matching the color exactly. On the other hand often there is no comparable youth or ladies’ style and you will be forced to choose something in a different brand or style that is similar.
Ladies’ style shirts are generally cut a little bit differently than unisex style shirts. They typically feature short sleeves and an overall more feminine cut. Often they are also a little bit shorter than a comparably sized unisex style shirt. There are many brands which focus solely or primarily on ladies’ style t-shirts and of course these may be the best brands to explore if you’re looking for a very specific, speciality style ladies’ t-shirt. Prices will vary widely for ladies’ style t-shirt, but one common misconception is that ladies’ style t-shirts cost less than a comparable men’s style t-shirt. In fact they usually cost more.
Just as some brands focus only or primarily on ladies’ t-shirts there are also brands that focus primarily on youth style t-shirts. There can be a big range of sizes available in this category. For example you may need a shirt as big as a youth large - which can often fit a smaller sized adult - or as tiny as a t-shirt designed for a six month old baby. Again prices vary a good deal between styles and brands. There are also some big brands which may offer a companion youth style in addition to their unisex or ladies’ style.
No t-shirt guide, especially one in the printing industry, would be complete without discussing the various types of customization processes available. This is no wonder since t-shirts make the perfect canvas for artwork, humor, advertising, or just general messages. Let’s take a look at some of the most common forms of t-shirt customization.
The first we’ll go over is screen printing. Screen printing is a high quality, permanent printing process which involves running the ink through screens and then curing it to the t-shirts. Screen printing is the printing method that is most commonly seen on retail shirts and it is one of the most high quality printing methods. Each ink color in the artwork corresponds to an individual screen. Thus the more ink colors used in the artwork the more screens needed to print the image and the higher the cost of printing.
By the same token each location will also add to the cost of printing since it will also require a new screen and a new run through the machinery. For example if you get white ink on the front and back of a t-shirt then that will require two separate screens and the shirts must be turned over in between to allow printing on the other side. The ink itself is run through a screen in the desired printing design and then the wet ink is run through a machine which dries or cures it onto the shirt ensuring that it won’t wash out.
Another common printing technique is called digital printing. Digital printing uses an ink jet printer to print the ink directly onto the t-shirts and does not involve the use of screens. The ink itself is also different. In many ways digital printing is similar to the way a computer printer would work. There are pros and cons to this type of printing as compared to screen printing.
One benefit is that the number of ink colors won’t impact the price and generally the number of t-shirts being run won’t impact the price either. This is because with screen printing the high cost of screens - which is higher the more ink colors and locations used - has to be divided across the total volume of shirts being ordered to make it cost effective. On the other hand with digital printing the cost of printing the t-shirts is going to remain fairly stable regardless of how many are being done or how many ink colors are in the design. That makes the process great for low quantity orders and/or designs with quite a few ink colors in them.
However, there are also drawbacks to digital printing. Even under its best conditions the quality of the print is not going to look as good as it does with screen printing. There are also limitations with regard to the t-shirts and ink colors used. For example the ink color should be darker than the t-shirt color to ensure good coverage and to ensure that the t-shirt color does not distort the design color. That makes it only practical to do on light colored t-shirts and it also means that light color inks aren’t generally an option on any colored t-shirt. As mentioned above the ink itself doesn’t bind as well to 50/50 blend t-shirts as it does to 100% cotton t-shirts which is another important factor to keep in mind.
Another type of t-shirt customization that a lot of people are familiar with is the Iron On method. This involves printing an image onto transfer paper and then literally ironing it onto the t-shirt, usually with a regular clothing iron. This technique is often used at home. There’s are of course pros and cons to it. Over time the image may begin to peel and there is also the challenge of getting everything lined up properly. It can also be labor intensive and time consuming. However, many people do enjoy it for the flexibility that it allows in doing jobs yourself at home.
A more advanced technique that is similar to the iron on is the Heat Press method. This involves sealing the image to the shirt using high heat, industrial machinery. Typically the t-shirt will pass through two plates which press together sealing the image on to the shirt and applying a high degree of heat and pressure. Since it can be a little bit more automated accuracy is often better; however the image can still degrade over time.
A final customization process that we’ll discuss is embroidery. Embroidery of course involves stitching actual threads into the t-shirt to form the design. Embroidery is more typically done on hats, polos, or other more professional style apparel; however, it is occasionally done on t-shirts as well. Many people like the way it feels and looks and there price is usually not impacted by the number of ink colors in the design since that doesn’t affect the cost of production.
One drawback to embroidery though is that it is typically only cost effective to do smaller designs or to print in smaller areas of the t-shirt. Since it is the thread count which impacts the price it is not feasible or realistic to do large, full front or high coverage style designs. Also, while some people enjoy the way the embroidery feels on a t-shirt many people do not like the extra weight and reduced flexibility that this causes the shirt to gain.