Why do my dress shirts keep ripping?
February 6, 2012 4:19 PM   Subscribe

Why do my dress shirts keep ripping, and how can I stop it?

I started a full-time office job in June of last year, and since then a large percentage of the shirts that I regularly wear have ripped at the elbow. I've ripped at least 6 shirts now. Here's a picture of the most recent casualty.

There doesn't seem to be any real correlation to any parameter I can think of. I've ripped shirts that I've had for years, shirts that I had for months, and shirts that had been washed maybe once or twice. I've ripped shirts that had very baggy sleeves and shirts that had tighter sleeves. I've ripped cheap shirts, and I've ripped nice, expensive shirts.

Because of some of the responses to this question, I tried not rolling my shirts up. I never rolled up the sleeves of the shirt above, which I've only had since Christmas and only washed two or three times. I often wore it with sweaters, and in fact it ripped while I was wearing a sweater.

I'm 6 feet tall and about 215 pounds, and I've recently tended to favor slightly slimmer-tailored shirts - not tight, but not super baggy "classic" fit shirts. That said, some of the shirts that have ripped were on the baggy side and some were on the tighter side. The lengths of the sleeves don't really seem to matter that much either: the one that ripped today was probably what I would call the perfect length. Should I buy looser shirts? Longer sleeve shirts?

If you have this problem, how do you deal with it? Are there things I can do or products I can buy to prevent this from happening?
posted by malthas to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are the arms long enough? You're probably resting the sleeves on a desk while typing more often than usual, if this is your first office job, and if the sleeves are a little too short for you, that might stress the elbow area.
posted by xingcat at 4:24 PM on February 6, 2012

Determining sleeve length. It's a little longer than you'd expect.
posted by xingcat at 4:26 PM on February 6, 2012

A co-worker had this problem and the desk contributed more to the ripping than the shirt, although if it rips while you are wearing a sweater the desk may not be the culprit.

A lot of desks have trim with a small gap and a wood or laminate surface. That gap and/or the very small area of trim or laminate can be surprisingly sharp. Try putting scotch tape over the gap and see if that helps.
posted by Frank Grimes at 4:26 PM on February 6, 2012

Dang, you and me both. I'm 6'3" and 190. This happens to me because I sit at a desk all day and type on a computer, often resting my elbow on the desk. I think it thins the cloth.

I've noticed that when this happens, it always happens to the thinner dress shirts I have and never to the thicker, Oxford cloth shirts. I think sleeve length also has something to do with it.
posted by resurrexit at 4:27 PM on February 6, 2012

trader's elbow. Shit just happens. 2-3 wears is weird. Do you sit at a desk oddly? My shirt guy patches them for me. But I usually get 50 wears out of a short before it happens - at least.
posted by JPD at 4:27 PM on February 6, 2012

In addition to checking your desk for sharp trim, look at your chair arms and see if they might be attacking your shirts.
posted by carmicha at 4:30 PM on February 6, 2012

I've never had anything like that happen to me and I sit at a desk most of the day too. Probably an environmental hazard as others have suggested.
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:30 PM on February 6, 2012

Are they all ripping on the left sleeve? Do you wear a watch on your left hand?

What I suspect is happening is that the shirt is too tight at the cuff, and the sleeves are too short. When you're bending your arm, you are pulling the fabric over your elbow and stressing it. Eventually, it breaks. This used to happen to me pretty frequently, and it was because my shirt cuff was catching on my watch, which I wear tightly enough so that it doesn't slide, and then the shirt would give way.

Longer sleeves or looser cuffs (so that when you bend your arm, the cuff can slide up your forearm) would probably prevent it from happening.

It can happen even if you aren't wearing a watch, but that's how I busted a few shirts.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:33 PM on February 6, 2012

It's your desk or arm rests. I had this problem for a while too--I never pinpointed the culprit, but the problem disappeared when I moved to a different desk. Just have a tailor patch up the elbow once it rips.
posted by mullacc at 4:33 PM on February 6, 2012

This happens to my husband, too, on the elbow of his mouse arm. Hazard of office work, I think.
posted by something something at 4:34 PM on February 6, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far. To answer some questions/comments: it's usually my left arm, which is not my mouse arm and is not the arm I wear my watch on. I'm left handed, FWIW. I sit at my desk most of the day working on the computer.

My chair arms were sharp and pointy (thanks to my office never buying new furniture, argh) but I covered them up. My shirts unfortunately continued to rip. There aren't any gaps or sharp bits that I can find on the desk that could be the culprit. The edge of the desk is rounded, too.

I kinda like the idea that the cuffs are too tight, but how do you control that? All the shirts I get seem to have about the same size cuff. Also I will be sure to re-measure my sleeve length before I go and buy a new batch of shirts.

JPD and mullacc, what are the patches from your tailors like? Are they big professorial-type elbow patches or do they just stitch up the rip?

Thanks again!
posted by malthas at 4:46 PM on February 6, 2012

I looked at the picture before I read the rest of your question and my first thought was, "I bet he's tall." You do need longer sleeves.

Invest in a few french cuff shirts (tend to be better made), in a heavy weight cotton (oxford).

I notice that when I wear a long sleeve shirt that doesn't fit well, I tend to spend all day flexing my arms, not on purpose, but instinctively trying to stretch things out into a better fit. If you are doing this too then that could explain the wear and tear.
posted by myselfasme at 5:10 PM on February 6, 2012

JPD and mullacc, what are the patches from your tailors like? Are they big professorial-type elbow patches or do they just stitch up the rip?

In my experience, the tailor goes over the rip a bunch of times with a thread that matches the shirt. Sometimes they'll add a small piece of cloth to the inside of the shirt, but that seems more common with pants or other heavier pieces.
posted by mullacc at 6:47 PM on February 6, 2012

I'm betting your sleeves are too short. If your cuffs are too tight, you can move the button a bit to make them fit better. (Yes, sewing. If you can't do it, perhaps you can find a laundry that can.)
posted by BlueHorse at 6:55 PM on February 6, 2012

This is just how shirts wear out, in my opinion. It's analogous to the way that jeans wear out in predictable patterns: the knees fade and tear, the crotch blows out, your wallet rubs a hole in the back pocket. However, because I'm a little obsessive about caring for my things--the feeling that I could never afford to replace them is a powerful motivator--I have a few ideas about this:

1. Unless they're tight, or you're wearing a jacket, roll your sleeves up above the elbow. For me, that's three folds. Incidentally, I don't buy the theory that rolling your sleeves leads them to wear faster, unless you're folding the cuffs over once or twice and putting extra strain on the fabric at the elbow. If they're tight, yeah, they will probably wear out faster.

1a. As noted above, make sure you're buying shirts that fit properly.

2. Only wear work shirts at work. Take them off and put on "home clothing" when you get home. Even better, only put your shirt on when you get to work, and take it off before you leave--don't even wear it in your car/the train. I bike to work almost every day so this is non-optional for me, and it's not that weird once you get used to it, though I work in a huge building and it's easy to slip into a restroom to change before I actually see anyone.

3. Consider the fabric that your shirts are cut from. More substantial fabrics with thicker threads (as in oxford cloth, which is essentially bulletproof) or more of them (as in a "2 ply" fabric) will probably wear harder. Thinner fabrics, like chambray or broadcloth--your picture looks like broadcloth--will probably not last as long. I hate to recommend more expensive clothing, as price is not well-correlated with durability, but it's also possible that fabric made from longer cotton fibers (that is, fibers with a longer "staple") will be more durable. However, the clothing industry is apt to ride any marketing term right into the ground so I would exercise caution when making purchasing decisions on this basis. These fibers usually have a proper name, like Pima or Sea Island or some other toponym.

4. Do your elbows need to be moisturized?

Everything south of here addresses laundry habits. I know you're seeing this happen to both new and old shirts, but I'm convinced that how I launder my clothing is the single largest contributor to their longevity, and weaker fabric is more apt to fail at wear points.

5. If you have your shirts commercially cleaned, stop. If you wash them at home, wash them in cold water and hang them to dry, or only tumble them for a few minutes to shake out the wrinkles before hanging them. Never dry a shirt to complete "hot" dryness in the dryer, as this damages the fabric. Consider using the delicate cycle. Machine washing and drying clothing--especially drying--causes a huge amount of wear. Ideally, you would wash each shirt once by hand for every two or three times you wear it. I just hang mine back up with the sleeves still rolled, which airs them out while keeping them visually distinct from the clean shirts. Combining this with #2 makes it easier, because your shirts probably don't actually get very dirty over an eight-to-ten hour workday.

5a. Bleach should be the nuclear option for stain removal. If you habitually add a little bleach to each load, stop. If you have to treat a stain, try an oxygen bleach (sodium percarbonate) product or some Fels-Naptha on a toothbrush before you escalate to bleach.

5b. If you starch your shirts, or have them starched, stop. It seems to accelerate wear.

5c. If there is a reason that you need to launder your shirts every time you wear them, or use bleach or hot water, see if you can eliminate the source of the soil; i.e. switch up deodorants to find one that doesn't leave a residue, etc.
posted by pullayup at 7:11 PM on February 6, 2012

I kinda like the idea that the cuffs are too tight, but how do you control that? All the shirts I get seem to have about the same size cuff. Also I will be sure to re-measure my sleeve length before I go and buy a new batch of shirts.

You can adjust the tightness of your cuffs by removing and repositioning the button, but I think this will only put strain on the elbow if your sleeves are too short.
posted by pullayup at 7:15 PM on February 6, 2012

I would encourage you to let an expert measure your sleeve length. Most menswear places will have someone whacko this and it will increase the likelihood of a good fit.

Also, you can try on clothes in stores. Even if they are folded and pinned up. Shocking, but true. :)
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 7:35 PM on February 6, 2012

the cuffs are too tight, but how do you control that? All the shirts I get seem to have about the same size cuff.

I have narrow wrists. The dress shirts I buy always have two buttons on each cuff. But they're wrong -- the far button is too loose, and the near button is too tight. So before wearing a new shirt, I always remove those four buttons and then sew one onto each cuff between where the original two were.

Can't imagine how this would solve your problem, however -- my cuffs wear out at their leading edge, not the wrists.
posted by Rash at 9:08 AM on February 7, 2012

I kinda like the idea that the cuffs are too tight, but how do you control that?

You have a tailor move the button closer to the edge of the cuff. Or you can do it yourself. You don't want to move them so far that the old button location is exposed, though. But you can typically get 1/4 or 1/2 inch pretty easily.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:39 PM on February 7, 2012

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