Why don't my 100% cotton shirts all feel the same?
May 20, 2013 7:42 AM   Subscribe

I've a variety of 100% cotton shirts in my closet with a variety of different feelings and textures! How can this be? Some of them are rough and stiff feeling while others are light and soft. I've seen terms such as "thread count", "knit", and "weight" but I don't know how they relate to what I'm wearing. Also those variables don't appear to be listed on the shirt tag anywhere! I often shop online and it'd be nice if I could have some idea of what any given shirt is going to feel like before I order it.
posted by TheGuyWhoSucks to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
And aside from the terms you mention, the length of the cotton fiber varies depending on the type, and how and where it was grown. The length of the fiber affects the amount of twist that a thread needs to be held together, and the amount of twist in the thread will have a huge effect on the way a fabric feels and wears, even when all other factors are identical. (I spin fiber into yarn for a hobby and have messed around with all of those factors.) Those are descriptors that I've never ever seen on clothing.

I'm not even getting into thread count and weight, which are in a general way related to the thickness/stiffness of the fabric, but which can be cheated or modified in a bunch of different ways.

Even shops that cater to fiber nerds don't usually have tons of the types of details you're looking for. The only thing I can recommend for you is to buy from companies you trust with a good return policy. This is the cost of living in a highly-mechanized society, for better or worse; you'll never know exactly what you're buying.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:57 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is a glossary of cotton fabrics. This should help!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:57 AM on May 20, 2013

Best answer: Does this page on Dress Shirt Fabrics help?
posted by Comrade_robot at 7:58 AM on May 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

so thread count, knit, and weight are all terms to describe what and how the individual cotton threads are and how they're woven together. It's easy to look at any shirt and see the tiny tiny threads that make it up.

The more threads there are, or the more cotton in each thread (weight), the thicker the resulting fabric. More threads tend to mean a tighter weave (knit) and a tighter weave means a stiffer fabric.
posted by royalsong at 7:58 AM on May 20, 2013

There isn't a whole lot of standardization out there, but I think there are three essential parts to this.

The first is thread count, which breaks down to: higher thread count = thinner threads = softer, more pliant fabric. You usually won't see this called out unless you're shopping at nicer places with high thread counts, though it's much more common in suiting fabrics.

The second is the type of weave. Oxford cloth, for example, is basketweave; there are so, so many out there. In shopping, I think it's more rare to see a descriptor of this unless the shirt is Oxford cloth, which is usually specifically called out (and then by type: Royal, pinpoint, or straight Oxford). Sometimes I see pique or broadcloth called out, too, but they're the exception rather than the rule where I shop.

The third is if the fabric has been treated to be wrinkle-resistant or -free. So-treated fabrics tend to be, in my opinion, stiff, plastic-y, and less breathable. Avoid, and buy a nice iron for yourself.
posted by The Michael The at 7:59 AM on May 20, 2013

Re. various fabric treatments inflicted on cotton by manufacturers: as is done to the brand new "100% cotton" bath towel that will not absorb water until it's been through the washer several times.
posted by jfuller at 8:26 AM on May 20, 2013

Are these button-down shirts or t-shirts? If you're talking about t-shirts (if you're looking at knits I think you might be), there's a noticeable difference in weight and feel between brands: here's a comparison of three. Heavyweight shirts like the Hanes Beefy T tend to feel rough to me; lighter ones are often softer.

If you buy printed t-shirts, websites usually mention the brand and style of shirt they use, or with sites like Zazzle you can choose from several.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:28 AM on May 20, 2013

Response by poster: Metroid Baby: I am talking about button-down shirts.
posted by TheGuyWhoSucks at 8:30 AM on May 20, 2013

Textile manufacturers treat fabrics with a number of different chemicals collectively called 'sizing', usually to make the fabric easier to manufacture. Sizing can change the texture and moisture absorbancy of a fabric, which affect the way it feels.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:36 AM on May 20, 2013

And to complicate matters further, even the color can make a difference. You can have 3 identical shirts made of otherwise identical cotton, and the white one will feel different from the blue one which will feel different from the red one. Several times I've rejoiced to find the perfect shirt, bought it in several colors, and found that they don't feel the same.
posted by Corvid at 1:08 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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