Ultimate Breakdown of T-Shirt Fabric Types

Ultimate Breakdown of T-Shirt Fabric Types

T-shirts are the bomb diggity of any wardrobe, and obviously the cornerstone of any screen print shop. With so many t-shirt fabric types out there, it’s tough to narrow down blanks that are just what you need to make a sustainable difference in production, while still churning out an incredible end product.

If you’re wondering what blanks we get behind every day of the week, check out our “Best T-Shirt Blanks for Sustainable Printing” blog. If you are ready to go into the reason those blanks work so well, and actually understand what difference the type of fabrics used in each blank make in the screen printing process, this article is for you.

Most people think t-shirt material starts out on spools and the only thing left to do is to cut and sew… but any good screen printer (and smart consumer) knows that A LOT more goes into getting fabric onto that spool and that not all processes tip their hat to mother earth, some give her the finger instead.

If you are on our site here at Superior Ink, we are confident you care about making a difference, so let’s get right into what makes a great fabric type, and why you would choose one over the other on your screen printing adventure.

Ultimate Breakdown of T-Shirt Fabric Types: Sustainability, Purpose, and Printability

1. Cotton

Cotton fabric is perhaps the most common used for t-shirts. It's soft, breathable, and generally affordable. However, not all cotton is created equal. Here are the different types of cotton fabric used in cotton t-shirts, and their unique abilities:

Upland Cotton:

  • Origin and Prevalence: Upland cotton originates from Central America and Mexico. It is the most commonly grown type of cotton, accounting for about 90% of global cotton production.
  • Quality and Comfort: A short to medium staple length, which is typically less soft and luxurious than longer staple cotton varieties. However, it's still versatile and comfortable, widely used in a variety of textiles.
  • Durability: Upland cotton is fairly durable due to its medium staple length and is suitable for everyday wear.
  • Cost: Typically more affordable than long-staple cotton varieties due to its widespread cultivation and shorter staple length.

Egyptian Cotton:

  • Origin and Prevalence: Egyptian cotton is grown in the Nile River Valley, known for its high-quality long-staple fibers.
  • Quality and Comfort: Because of its long-staple length, Egyptian cotton is soft, smooth, and luxurious. It's highly breathable and has a high luster.
  • Durability: Egyptian cotton is known for its strength and durability. Long-staple fibers create stronger and more durable yarns that resist pilling, ensuring a longer lifespan for the finished product.
  • Cost: Due to its high quality, Egyptian cotton is more expensive than many other cotton varieties.

Pima Cotton:

  • Origin and Prevalence: Primarily grown in the United States, Australia, and Peru, Pima cotton is another long-staple cotton variety. Supima® is a trademarked name for the highest quality Pima cotton.
  • Quality and Comfort: Like Egyptian cotton, Pima cotton is soft, smooth, and luxurious due to its long-staple length. It's also highly breathable.
  • Durability: Pima cotton is strong, durable, and resists pilling, making it ideal for products that endure regular washing and wear.
  • Cost: Pima cotton, especially Supima®, is often priced higher than many other cotton types due to its superior quality.

Sea Island Cotton:

  • Origin and Prevalence: Grown on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, this is high-quality long-staple cotton.
  • Quality and Comfort: Known for its extraordinary length, fineness, and strength, Sea Island cotton is among the softest and most luxurious of cotton varieties.
  • Durability: Its long-staple fibers produce strong and durable yarns that resist wear and tear exceptionally well.
  • Cost: Due to its exceptional quality and limited production, Sea Island cotton is one of the most expensive cotton types.

Asiatic Cotton:

  • Origin and Prevalence: These are old-world cotton species, first cultivated in India and Pakistan.
  • Quality and Comfort: These types produce short-staple cotton, which is less soft and smooth compared to long-staple cotton varieties.
  • Durability: Shortstaple cotton like Asiatic cotton tends to be less durable than longstaple varieties.
  • Cost: Asiatic cotton is generally cheaper than long-staple cotton due to its lower quality.

Organic Cotton:

  • Origin and Prevalence: Organic cotton is not a specific species of cotton but refers to any cotton grown without synthetic agricultural chemicals / pesticides or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
  • Quality and Comfort: The quality and comfort of organic cotton can vary widely depending on the variety of cotton used. However, many people find organic cotton to be softer and more comfortable than conventionally grown cotton.
  • Durability: Organic cotton's durability depends on the specific variety of cotton used, but it's often made to higher quality standards.
  • Cost: Organic cotton is typically more expensive than conventionally grown cotton due to the increased costs of organic farming.

Recycled Cotton:

  • Origin and Prevalence: Recycled cotton, also known as reclaimed or shoddy cotton, is derived from cotton waste and scraps.
  • Quality and Comfort: The quality and comfort of recycled cotton can vary significantly depending on the original cotton's quality and the recycling process.
  • Durability: Recycled cotton tends to be less durable than new cotton because the recycling process can shorten the cotton fibers.
  • Cost: The cost of recycled cotton can vary, but it is often more affordable than new cotton. However, it's also often blended with new cotton or other fibers to improve its properties. We’ll get into blends soon!
Processing Cotton

Methods Of Processing Cotton Fibers:

Ringspun cotton is a method that involves continuously twisting and thinning the cotton strands, creating a very fine, strong, and soft rope of cotton fibers. The process of ring spinning makes the yarn more durable and soft, making it ideal for high-quality fabrics. This also contributes to a longer lifespan.

Carded cotton is a method of preparing cotton fibers for making yarn. The fibers are aligned to make manufacturing easier. However, this process might leave impurities and result in a coarser yarn. It could also mean the fibers aren't as strong, so the garment may not last as long.

Benefits:

  • Comfort: Cotton is renowned for its softness and comfort.
  • Breathability: It is excellent at absorbing moisture, making it ideal for hot weather or heavy physical activities.

Drawbacks:

  • Durability: Cotton may not be the most durable fabric, as it tends to shrink and could lose shape over time.

Sustainability:

Renewable and versatile, cotton is a truly sustainable resource. Its seasonal growth and ability to be replanted annually make it a renewable source of fabric. Thriving in sunny regions with moderate rainfall, cotton is adaptable to various climates. Thanks to advancements in agricultural techniques and technology, cotton production has become more efficient and environmentally friendly. Pest-resistant varieties and precision farming methods minimize the use of water and harmful chemicals, reducing the environmental impact. Source: U.S. COTTON A GLOBAL LEADER IN SUSTAINABILITY

Cotton also plays a crucial role in crop rotation systems, helping to break disease and pest cycles. What's more, every part of the cotton plant is utilized, leaving no waste. The fibers are transformed into textiles, the seeds are used for cottonseed oil and livestock feed, and the stalks and leaves are returned to the soil as organic matter.

Although there are some environmental challenges associated with cotton production, the potential for improvements in farming techniques makes cotton a sustainable choice.

Even when disposed of, cotton quickly decomposes in landfills. In addition, its absorbent qualities make it suitable for repurposing in various household uses, giving it a whole new life.

Printability Rating:

Cotton, including Pima and organic, is the best substrate to print on, particularly for water-based and discharge inks due to its superior reaction to the discharge agent, allowing pigment replacement with ink pigment. Pima cotton gives better print results due to its higher caliber and longer strands when woven, providing more surface space.

Organic cotton has similar printability to conventional cotton. The difference is more about sustainability than printing.

Fabrics with 40 knit singles and above offer superior print due to a more robust surface area for the ink to sit on. The tighter the weave and better the cotton, the better the print result.

Printability Rating

2. Polyester

Polyester is a manmade, synthetic fabric known for its durability and resilience. Because of its versatility polyester fabric comes in many forms:

Microfiber Polyester

  • Origin and Prevalence: Developed in Japan in the late 20th century. Widely used in sportswear, cleaning products, and bedding.
  • Quality and Comfort: Soft and comfortable, with excellent wicking properties.
  • Durability: Highly durable, resistant to wrinkles and shrinkage.
  • Cost: Generally moderate pricing.

Polyester Fleece

  • Origin and prevalence: Developed by Malden Mills Industries (now Polartec, LLC.) in the late 20th century. Widely used in jackets, hats, sweaters, and blankets.
  • Quality and Comfort: Exceptionally warm and breathable for synthetic fabric.
  • Durability: Resistant to moisture and retains heat, but can pill over time.
  • Cost: Prices vary widely depending on the product and quality.

Polyester Knits

  • Origin and Prevalence: Developed in the mid 20th century. Commonly used in T-shirts, dresses, and activewear.
  • Quality and Comfort: Soft and comfortable, with varying amounts of stretch.
  • Durability: Resistant to wrinkles and shrinkage, but can be prone to pilling.
  • Cost: Generally affordable.

Polyester Tricot

  • Origin and Prevalence: Developed in the mid-20th century. Common in lingerie and athletic wear.
  • Quality and Comfort: Known for its smooth texture and stretch.
  • Durability: Resistant to runs, but can be prone to pilling.
  • Cost: Typically moderately priced.

Polyester Canvas

  • Origin and Prevalence: Canvas has been used for centuries in many applications. Polyester versions were developed in the mid-20th century. Used in items requiring durability such as tents, bags, and heavy-duty clothing.
  • Quality and Comfort: Very durable but not typically used in applications where comfort is paramount.
  • Durability: Exceptionally durable and water resistant.
  • Cost: Typically moderately priced, depending on the weight and quality.

Repreve® Polyester

  • Origin and Prevalence: Repreve® is a brand of recycled fiber that is made from recycled materials, including plastic bottles. Unifi, a global textile manufacturer, introduced Repreve®. Repreve® is increasingly popular in sustainable clothing, home goods, and automotive industries. Major brands like Patagonia® and North Face® use Repreve® in some of their products.
  • Quality and Comfort: As a polyester fiber, Repreve® has similar qualities to traditional polyester, being lightweight and durable. The comfort can vary depending on the final weave of the fabric.
  • Durability: Like traditional polyester, Repreve® is highly durable and resistant to wrinkles and shrinkage.
  • Cost: Repreve® can be more expensive than traditional polyester due to the process of recycling and transforming the materials into usable fiber. However, this cost can be offset by the environmental benefits and marketing value of using recycled materials.
  • It's worth mentioning that Repreve® has gained attention for helping brands meet their sustainability goals, as it offers a way to create new, high-quality products from recycled materials.
Repreve Polyester

Benefits

  • Durability: Polyester retains its shape and color, making it ideal for sports and heavy-duty use.
  • Wrinkle resistance: This material is less likely to wrinkle when compared to cotton.

Drawbacks

  • Breathability: Unlike cotton, polyester isn't as breathable and could lead to excessive sweating in warm weather.

Sustainability:

Polyester is essentially plastic, making it nonbiodegradable. However, recycled polyester is a more sustainable alternative because it saves plastic water bottles from the fate of a landfill.

Printability:

For garments with over 50% polyester, water-based printing doesn't yield great results. However, polyester fabrics can be printed with plastisol ink or HSA water-based ink. Printing on polyester requires careful temperature settings due to its plastic composition, which can cause production slowdowns. Not ideal for any company or brand looking for a truly sustainable option from fabric to ink.

Printibility

3. Fabric Blends

Blends combine the qualities of two or more materials.

The most common is the cotton/polyester blend, providing the softness of cotton and durability of polyester.

Poly-Cotton Blend (50/50)

  • Origin and Prevalence: This is a modern blend created to combine the best qualities of both fabrics. Commonly used in casual wear and uniforms.
  • Quality and Comfort: More comfortable than pure polyester due to the cotton content, but not quite as soft or breathable as 100% cotton.
  • Durability: More durable than cotton, less likely to shrink or wrinkle.
  • Cost: Generally slightly more expensive than 100% cotton or 100% polyester, due to the blending process.

Tri-blends (Cotton, Polyester, Rayon)

  • Origin and Prevalence: This is a modern blend designed to offer a balance between comfort, durability, and style. Common in fashion-forward or premium casual wear.
  • Quality and Comfort: Tri-blend T-shirts are incredibly soft, lightweight, and comfortable. They drape well on the body.
  • Durability: This blend is durable and holds its shape well, thanks to the polyester content.
  • Cost: Usually more expensive than 100% cotton, polyester, or poly-cotton blends due to the additional processing and materials involved.

Benefits

  • Versatility: Blends offer a balance of the best properties of each fabric.
  • Less wrinkling: They wrinkle less than 100% cotton.

Drawbacks

  • Breathability: Blended fabrics may not be as breathable as 100% natural fabrics.

Sustainability:

The sustainability of blended fabrics depends on the fabrics being combined. For example, a blend of organic cotton and recycled polyester would be more sustainable than a blend of conventional cotton and standard polyester.

Printability: Tri-blends (cotton, polyester, rayon) can be tricky to print on. They work well with HSA and plastisol ink but not with discharge inks. The percentage of cotton in the shirt often determines the opacity of the ink.

Modal is an alternative to rayon. It's a more sustainable option in a blend, but it's still not cotton, so printing could be challenging.

Sustainability

Decision Time!

Finding the perfect fabric for your t-shirt might seem complicated, but don't worry - we've got you covered! By understanding the characteristics, sustainability, cost, and printability of different materials, you can make an informed decision. Whether you value the breathability and comfort of cotton, the durability, and resilience of polyester, or the versatile qualities of fabric blends, each option has its own unique benefits.

Consider your needs and the strengths of each material, and remember that your choice doesn't just affect the final product, but also the environment. In today's ever-changing world, there's never been a better time to make a conscious choice, print effectively, and wear responsibly.

Happy fabric hunting, and if you need any assistance along the way, feel free to reach out to us here at anytime!

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