How to ask for soft, comfortable t-shirt material?
October 5, 2018 4:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm in charge of our branded company t-shirts this year. In the past they've always been extremely scratchy and uncomfortable (in my opinion). But I'm told we've always ordered the most expensive kind. (From Fruit of the Loom.) What should I look or ask for, to get a t-shirt that's a pleasure to wear? I'm willing to consider a different manufacturer (we're UK-based).

I've looked at the label on some of my t-shirts that I love. They're all 100% cotton. Is that all that matters? Or are there other properties to look for? Unfortunately I don't have an example of our old company t-shirts to compare, as I've gotten rid of them. T-shirts I love just feel really soft, whether the fabric is thick or thin. I prefer thick fabric, but thin is OK too. How do I find out if a custom t-shirt manufacturer can supply a shirt that'll feel comfortable?
posted by snarfois to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I’ve got two! American Apparel Ringspun is a super-soft thin shirt. Gilden Hammer is a super-soft thick shirt.
posted by stinkfoot at 4:46 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not sure about UK availability but all of my favorite t-shirts are 100% cotton from Comfort Colors. I have no association with them but probably 10 of their t-shirts.
posted by spynotebook at 5:17 AM on October 5, 2018

The American Apparel 25/25/50 blend has been the comfiest, softest, and most flatteringly ...draping of all the shirts I’ve encountered.
posted by schadenfrau at 5:34 AM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh! Per a stylist I once knew: the dye matters. The same item in different colors can feel and fit different.
posted by schadenfrau at 5:34 AM on October 5, 2018

@schadenfrau: You mean the colour of the fabric, rather than the print on top of it? Is there any way of knowing which colours to avoid? (The previous shirts we had, that were uncomfortable, were dark grey / black.)
posted by snarfois at 5:45 AM on October 5, 2018

FYI I believe Comfort Colors is now owned by Gildan. Gildan still makes that type of shirt. The industry term is "garment dyed", and there are other brands as well, but CC/Gildan is the most prominent. These are shirts that are generally marketed as "broken in": the color is kind of faded and the fabric, while thick, is slouchy and unstructured. They seemed to be super popular in the 90s, but you still see them most commonly in beach shops. They're generally pretty baggy.

The American Apparel tri-blend is the vintage-style shirt that became popular in the past decade. It is extremely soft, although not 100% cotton. In addition to the more traditional cotton and polyester, they include 25% rayon, which seems to be the key. There are a bunch of brands that now offer a tri-blend knockoff; look for the 25% rayon. American Apparel also offers 100% cotton options, which are also soft, and there are some other brands too. I have a few shirts from Gildan's SoftStyle line that are my softest shirts, and another from a company called Next Level Apparel. In general, these tend to have a slimmer fit, which I, as a guy on the huskier side, don't really like.

Fruit of the Loom is probably my least favorite shirt. I wouldn't call them scratchy, but they're not soft by any means. Hanes is similar.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:03 AM on October 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Yep, tri-blend. They are awesome.
posted by bananacabana at 6:07 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I hate to admit it, but American Apparel t-shirts are really comfortable. I’ve got a lot of Gildan t-shirts (probably of a different grade than is mentioned upthread) and they are notably scratchy.
posted by adamrice at 6:08 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Bella+Canvas makes most of my favorite concert T-shirts and they're available in the UK. The all cotton and the cotton blend are both super comfortable and soft.
posted by ftm at 6:10 AM on October 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Oh my gosh! Finally! This is something I actually know a bit about!

Let me first say that schadenfrau is right on the money about the dye of the shirt fabric itself. It's not that there's a massive difference between one color and another, but if you really think about it with that fact in mind, you'd perceive a slightly different feel. I wouldn't worry very much about this if you're getting a quality shirt.

I don't know who's pricing you out on the work, but if you're getting Fruit of the Loom shirts as your most expensive options, I'd HATE to see the ones that come out to be less. We had to pull our Fruit of the Loom stock for a few YEARS because they were so widely disliked for being scratchy, easily torn, and shrinking like crazy. I would say of all the shirts we stocked, that was one of the three lowest-tiered shirts we have. Other brands to avoid are Gildan and Hanes, for the most part.

American Apparel makes a good shirt (I'm actually wearing one right now that I received as a fundraiser freebie!). They are very soft, tend to hold up well, and (as long as they are washed cold and tumbled/hung dry, they don't really shrink much. (If you're dealing with 100% shrinking is inevitable to some degree). But I have personal objections to AA's corporate culture under their old leadership and now that they're owned by Gildan, I have to believe that it sucks for poor working conditions. If that's not a speedbump for you, another issue you may run into with them is sizing. Those shirts tend to run a size to a half size small because they target a more fitted look. Of course, that's not a problem for some people, but what one person considers to fit well may feel huge/too small on another. There's so much to be said for personal preference, that even if a shirt "fits" someone by the manufacturer's standard, it may be not what they're used to. In my experience, most people wear a size shirt bigger than they actually are simply for their comfort.

Comfort Colors, mentioned above, is very popular right now! They were recently bought by Gildan in the last few year and I honestly can't tell a difference. They tend to run true-to-size to a little loose. They are extra popular with the sorority/fraternity set because of their "vintage" faded colors. They're maybe a little softer than standard cotton shirts, but I've never understood why everyone drools over them so much. Maybe because the looser fit makes it more breathable? They are SUPER TOUGH in the wash. I never heard a single complaint about one of those coming apart, ripping, or shrinking too much.

If you've got the budget for it, I'd say go for a Next Level or Canvas t-shirt. These are offered in a few different styles, so make sure you get what you're looking for. If you want 100% cotton, go with Next Level- a lighter shirt that's not too thin, wears well, and runs true-to-size or a little bit small. Has just enough structure without being tight. If you feel like you can do a blend (and I recommend it if these are a uniform that are going to be washed frequently and worn over a period of time) get the Next Level 60/40 (personal favorite). Or, if you can go for a tri-blend (cotton, poly, and rayon), that's going to be your softest option in the Canvas Tri-blend. It's amazing!
posted by Krazor at 6:16 AM on October 5, 2018 [17 favorites]

OH! Re: cotton- there are different kinds of 100% cotton. If a tag just says "100% cotton," that's open-ended cotton. It hasn't been refined very much. 100% ringspun cotton is the next step up. This what Comfort Colors uses and you'll notice the difference. Next, there's 100% combed, ringspun cotton. From what you describe, this is what you're looking for. This process combs most of the imperfections out of the fibers, leaving it remarkably softer.
posted by Krazor at 6:25 AM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Cotton’s scratchiness or lack thereof depends on the length of its staple (primarily). The shorter the staple, the more ends sticking out to poke you. There are many kinds of cotton. You want a brand that uses Egyptian or Pima/“Supima” cotton, which has a long staple.
posted by praemunire at 6:29 AM on October 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

The best option is to go with a local shop instead of ordering online. At least in my area, there are a number of custom print shops that do bulk runs, and they have samples of the shirts/hats/etc. you can check out.
posted by metasarah at 6:37 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Garment dyed has been handled more and seems to be softer. I hate poly-blend, over time it feels cheesy. Take nay new shirt, and wash and dry it several times, use hot water and strong detergent if you can The tumbling in the washer and dryer really helps, and gets rid of whatever sizing is in the shirt. Wash it with other clothes (or rocks, well, anything that will massage it, so maybe tennis balls) to soften it more.

That said, branded shirts - from rallies, work, races, etc., are kind of a pox. Unless people will really wear them, thy stack up in a drawer and end up in garbage or thrift shops, where they do not sell. They end up baled and shipped to rd world countries. Consider giving a prize to staff who wear a previous year's shirt or just give everybody a nice polo shirt in the company colors.
posted by theora55 at 6:50 AM on October 5, 2018

All of the online places I've ordered shirts from will send you (blank) samples so you can feel the fabric.
posted by beyond_pink at 7:00 AM on October 5, 2018

Thanks for the advice so far! Is anyone able to actually link me to a UK supplier of custom t-shirts, which offer a shirt softer than Fruit of the Loom's? I've had recommendations for American Apparel, Comfort Colors, Next Level, Canvas, Bella+Canvas, and Gildan, but it's not obvious what online shop which can do custom printing to get any of these from. I've only found this one that lets me choose Gildan with custom printing, but that wasn't the strongest recommendation above. Sorry if I'm being slow.
posted by snarfois at 7:53 AM on October 5, 2018

Or, is the advice actually to buy the t-shirts first, then to take them to a custom printing shop?
posted by snarfois at 7:55 AM on October 5, 2018

It really depends upon what's available in your area, what size jobs they will take, etc.- lots of variables! Some local print shops make you purchase from their available stock and won't let you bring your own shirts at all, some will let you for a fee, some only do the printing and don't have shirts to begin with. You'll probably have to do some sleuthing to find out what the deal is with each supplier on a case-by-case basis.

I'm seeing a couple that have some of these in their catalog, but not one that has all of them: <>
But these are all online services. You may well be served by looking for smaller, mom & pop style shops that you can walk into, see samples, and discuss the specifics of your project as recommended above.

You may also want to ask for some local recommendations too. Since I'm in the US, I'm not familiar with some of the brands I'm seeing, and I can't speak to the reputation of any of these printers beyond the available online reviews.

Lastly, I want to add that you could do worse than the brand Anvil, which I see some of these printers stock. Light years better than a Fruit of the Loom or plain Gildan.
posted by Krazor at 8:27 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would suggest going to a local screenprinting shop and telling them you want a soft shirt and looking at samples, as Krazor says. Or, if you work with an online screenprinter, ask them for the same thing. I worked for AA long, long, ago (before they had stores, and when they only sold shirts to screenprinters, basically). The screenprinters can sell you the shirts.
posted by pinochiette at 8:36 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you need a physical sample. Any online shop should be able to provide you with samples by mailing you the actual shirts, like if they have misprints or something. The more you plan to spend, the more service you should expect before placing your order.
posted by soelo at 11:04 AM on October 5, 2018

Pretty much any online printer I've ever seen allows you to select your garment. The site you linked to carries AA Tri-Blend, Gildan SoftStyle, and some Bella + Canvas products. CafePress and CustomInk both carry AA, SoftStyle, Bella + Canvas, Next Level, and Comfort Colors. As others have said, nearly any printer, online or brick-and-mortar, will be happy to send you a sample. (Or you could just order one of each off Amazon and return them.) Most brick-and-mortar printers get their shirts from wholesalers who carry numerous brands, rather than dealing with Gildan or Fruit of the Loom or American Apparel directly, so it's easy for them to get your preferred garment as well. (Brick-and-mortar shops will also allow you to mix and match garments; theoretically, online shops could too, but the ordering interface usually guides you toward ordering all the same garment.)

In general, it's probably more cost-effective to buy your shirts from the printer. They get a volume discount from the wholesaler, and they can offer a lower markup because they're selling you services as well. But that's a rule of thumb, and you should shop around. There are as many ways to price out printed shirts as there are people printing shirts.

Some places don't like to print on customer-provided garments because of the liability. If you buy your shirts from them, and they mess up the print, they can order more and re-print it, and they'll eat the cost. If they mess up the print on shirts you brought in, though, you'll have to buy new ones. Even if they reimburse you, it's still an out-of-pocket expense, and regardless, it will extend your timeline. Nobody in any industry likes dependencies they can't control.

The other reason I'd recommend going to a brick-and-mortar printer is to actually inspect their printing. Just as there are varieties of shirts, there are varieties of ink, some of which are softer than others. For example, the Next Level shirt I have has really heavy ink and a thick underbase (a layer of white ink to help the print colors pop on darker fabrics), and it ends up feeling weird against the lightness and softness of the fabric. I don't know a lot about the actual printing; my experience is more with the garment side of the business, but any printer should be able to explain it to you.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:05 AM on October 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

As a heads up, Bella+Canvas seems to run very small. I should not reasonably be able to wear a men's large, and yet... (There are a couple of brands like this, but my employer keeps using Bella+Canvas. Basically, I've started always getting mediums for these sorts of shirts, even though I rarely buy medium shirts in a shop.)
posted by hoyland at 2:17 PM on October 5, 2018

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