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So You Think You Know T-Shirts?
The Counselor
Tonia Cook Kimbrough
August 2002

You don't have to be in our industry long to believe you've got a pretty good handle on T-shirts, given the fact that they're everywhere. I know I felt that way. until recently. As "Wearables Watch" editor, I've seen endless styles of tees over the past few years; at least one-third of the press releases I receive have to do with this classic promotional garment.

By following retail news, I've also learned of consumer trends in the T-shirt genre. Only recently, during the 2001/2002 seasons, did I finally realize the tried-and-true tee still has the ability to surprise. Given recent innovations, I think we've only begun to scratch the surface of this seemingly simple yet amazingly resilient and ubiquitous garment. A few examples:

. Just yesterday I read of a U.S. apparel company's solution to "plumber's butt." Duluth Trading has come up with a long-tailed version of the T-shirt to hang far enough down to cover workmen's backsides.

. Earlier this year, we reported on Japan's Ascorbic-acid impregnated tees that yield the same amount of Vitamin C as two oranges.

. Released this spring in the United Kingdom, super-stretchy tees no bigger than the palm of one's hand can fit anyone, from a small child to a person with a size-18 frame.

These innovations tend toward the dramatic, but they clearly make the point: T-shirts are incredibly diverse and always evolving. We see this in our own industry. Performance fabrics, new cuts and special construction techniques have made for an exciting array of choices in promotional T-shirts. Price points and levels of quality vary widely too.

Not Just For Underwear Anymore
The range of options speaks directly to the variety of uses (and users) of tees. "It used to be that T-shirts were just underwear," recalls David Stacks, marketing director at Augusta Sportswear. "Nowadays, my two sons wear T-shirts as part of their public-school uniforms. They risk their principal's wrath if they wear anything else." His point: "Today's tees are specifically designed to fit consumers' varying needs. A tee that's made for a building subcontractor's summertime outdoor work is made from a lighter-weight fabric than the tee made for a wintertime skier who layers-up his clothing when dressing for the slopes."

Consequently, there are many factors to consider when selecting T-shirts for client promotions and other purposes. Weight, construction, color and style, just to name a few. "In terms of recommending a T-shirt, it's important to consider the softness of the hand, the quality of the stitching, the richness of the color and the overall weight of the shirt," explains Mike Reed, director of marketing for Hanes Printables. We'll examine each of these things and more — and along the way learn about some of the advances and trends that make a T-shirt much more than just a T-shirt.

Weight Watching
T-shirt weights range from the very light (5.3-oz) to a more standard (5.5-oz) on up to the perceived value of a heavier (6.1-oz or even 7.1-oz) shirt. The weight you and your client choose may depend on any number of factors:

. Use (Is the shirt for warm weather or cool?)

. Geography (Will it be worn in the hot, humid South or the chilly, dry North?)

. Budget (Large or small?)

. Wear and tear (Will it be worn by ladies who lunch or an athletic team?)

Delta Apparel has found distributors and their clients are leaning toward heavier tees. "Clients are definitely trading up in weight, with the 6.1-oz. category leading the way," says Mary Bostwick, Delta's TK. A heavier weight does have its advantages, for one it's considered more durable, meaning it will hold its shape and substance under repeated wearings and washings.

Still other suppliers — particularly those designing for a fitted, feminine form — cater to a rising demand for lighter versions. "As far as fabric innovation, lightweight is the focus, making a T-shirt vastly more comfortable and providing a much cleaner fit," says Jennifer Adams, marketing coordinator for American Apparel. But there's more involved than just weight; also consider weave. "Fabrics that offer a tighter weave can provide durability with a great print surface," Adams continues. How is this achieved? American Apparel, for example, uses a 30 single-needle yarn, in contrast to the more common 18 single-needle yarn. That means, "more cotton threads per yarn, producing a finer, softer feel and touch," she explains.

Fabric Fundamentals
Fabric content will affect the feel of a T-shirt as well. Like other features and factors, there are increasing options here for distributors and clients. Traditionally, the most daunting question concerning T-shirts was "100% cotton or poly/cotton blend?" "Cotton tees are usually associated with sports. That's because they hold up well through dozens of washings," Stacks notes. "And cotton tees are comparatively simple to decorate by screen printing, embroidery or heat transfer." Add to that a perception that all-natural cotton is somehow more desirable, driven by its prevalence at trendy retailers, and you have a pretty convincing argument.

But poly/cotton blends have also long been popular for their durability, stain- and fade-resistance. And they've traditionally been available in more colors than cotton — though that too is changing. If your client wants to take advantage of an industry innovation — the compressed T-shirt — then 100% cotton is your only choice. "After compression, the wrinkles would never come out of a poly/cotton T-shirt," explains Brad White, vice president of Addventure Products, which first introduced the compressed T-shirt in 1989.

The company uses either 5.5-oz or 6-oz 100%-cotton tees, imprints them with a special ink that can't be damaged in the compression process and then compresses them into shapes ranging from light bulbs to soda cans to cars to corporate logos. When opened and washed, the tee expands to a standard size and the wrinkles come out. If you're in the market for an all-cotton tee, there's also a distinction in the cotton itself. "The vast majority of T-shirts are made with open-end cotton, which offers an excellent value for the price-sensitive customer," Reeds explains, adding, "the softness of ring-spun cotton, especially after wash, is unbeatable."

Today's T-shirts go beyond simple cotton vs. poly/cotton, however. Many tees are now specially fabricated to meet the demands of active lifestyles. For example, Augusta offers a T-shirt made from Dupont CoolmaxT Alta fabric, a high-performance polyester microfiber that quickly wicks away moisture from the body. "Softness" and "luxury" are buzzwords of note in the T-shirt world. This year Hanes introduced the Beefy Silver tee, made from a patent-pending blend of cotton and Nativa rayon. The result? Softness, improved drape, fabric luster and a sophisticated color palette — all meant to satisfy demand for a casual staple with a higher-end appeal, particularly appropriate for resortwear. Stretch is also desirable, and thus you'll find numerous Lycra-blended tees in today's promotional marketplace.

Construction Concerns
Just as fabric affects the quality and wearabilty of a T-shirt, so too does its construction. "There are technical differences between tees made for sports and for casualwear," explains Stacks. "Augusta's CoolmaxT T-shirt, as an example, has set-in sleeves so there's no seam or stitching across the shoulders. It also has double-needle topstitching . these kinds of features make casual tees more pricey than sports tees."

Indeed higher-end tees will likely have the added strength of double-needle stitching and be taped shoulder-to-shoulder, for example. They may also be quarter-turned, meaning the fabric "tube" that creates the body of the tee was turned one-quarter of the way around before the shirt was cut in the manufacturing process. This eliminates a crease down the front of the shirt, which can interfere with imprinting and cause the shirt to hang funny.

Savvy On Style
Of course, recipients are ultimately most concerned with the look or style of a T-shirt — focusing more on fashion than function. That's good, because there's never been a wider a selection than what's available today.

"Consumers want more personality in a T-shirt, not a boxy, unisex garment," says Adams. And they also want age-specific designs. "More manufacturers are noticing a shift in the demographics and are scrambling to add styles that appeal to the nearly 140 million Americans under age 35."

What styles might the under-35 crowd prefer? According to Adams, the 2x1 tank is hot for women. "They're like the typical men's undershirt tank, commonly referred to as a "wife beater," but our tank (the "boy beater") is all about outerwear designed to fit the curves of any lady. Another hot item is the cap-sleeve baseball raglan. A twist on the traditional long-sleeve raglan, this style is cute and sexy." Bright color combinations also tip the trend-scale of these popular styles.

Still, demand for the basic tee remains strong, according to Bostwick. And there's also a significant interest in classics such as ringer tees and baseball tees. Youth has its preferences as well. "For the kids, oversized and baggy are still the trends, as well as tees with piping and stripes," he says. Texture and color are big too. "Ribs are becoming more and more important, along with over-dyed heathers," Bostwick continues. Another trend to watch: pigment-dyed tees, which fade slightly over time, giving them a "vintage" or washed-out look.

Male vs. Female
Like every other apparel product in the promotional industry, T-shirts have branched out from unisex to different cuts for men and women. "Men are still wanting the comfortable, loose-fit vs. women who are looking more and more to the form-fitting jersey knit and rib-knit tees," Bostwick explains. "A woman's shirt needs to be designed with the curves of the female form in mind," says Adams. "Shoulders should be smaller, armholes should be fitted, waist should taper into a soft V and fabric doesn't need to be a bulky, heavyweight jersey. Also, different styles should be considered. Boatneck shirts can be very appealing for corporate wear; a scoop or U-neck can also provide a flattering fit."

Imprinting Ideas
One fairly new direction in printing techniques is sublimation transfer printing, something a few distributors are even bringing in-house to do themselves. There are T-shirts on the market such as the Hanes Soft L'ink line featuring a micro-polyester exterior with a 100%-cotton interior, specifically fabricated to meet the technical demands of sublimation printing.

And there are many flashier alternatives available in decoration. "Do something that will get noticed," advises Adams. "You see a lot of cool decorating techniques. Metallic screen prints or appliqués like tiny rhinestones or beads can really jazz up a T-shirt and are a popular choice lately. If you approach the imprint with the vision that the T-shirt is a walking billboard to advertise a brand, you can be more open to the non-traditional yet eye-catching ideas."

Non-traditional, eye-catching — with or without the imprint — that can be said of many of today's innovative T-shirts in the promotional marketplace. Add the right imprint, and your clients surely will be pleasantly surprised as they realize they really didn't know the true variety and power of the T-shirt after all.

Credit: Tonia Cook Kimbrough is a contributing editor to The Counselor and editor of the monthly "Wearables Watch" supplement.