Whether you’re just starting your apparel brand or you’ve been selling t-shirts for a while, one of the biggest challenges is choosing the right type of shirts to have printed. Unless you’re already immersed in the industry and have wholesale accounts with garment manufacturers, it can be super difficult to figure out the right shirts for your brand. Maybe you’re even one of those freaky people who stops strangers on the street and asks to feel their shirt. Maybe that’s just me. In this post, I’ll try to make it easier for you and help you avoid any potential harassment issues.
For the purposes of this post, let’s assume you’re looking for t-shirts. I could write a lot more about tanks, crop tees, and hoodies, but right now let’s focus on t-shirts specifically.
How do you choose between 100% cotton, cotton/poly and tri-blends? Like a lot of things, it first comes down to personal preference. What do you like to wear? What are the go-to tees in your own drawer? Check out the labels and see how they’re made. Easy, right? You’ve also potentially solved the problem of what brand to buy, but we’ll discuss that later.
Since you’re having your shirts decorated, you should really understand how different fabrics stand up to printing. There’s a lot to learn, but hopefully I can share the juicy highlights without breaking your brain.
As a screen printer, 100% cotton is my all-time favorite fabric to screen print, heat press or do DTG (direct-to-garment). It’s also my favorite to wear. When you get the right cotton tee, it lays flat (good print surface), it holds up to heat (drying ink), and it’s better than polyester on a hot, sticky day. It also happens to be the least expensive blank you can buy. There’s a ton of value with cotton.
What to watch out for? Simple. Don’t buy cheap cotton! If you’re trying to sell tees these days, you cannot use anything less than cotton that is ringspun, preferably combed cotton. You might make some early sales with cheap-o stock and a great design, but eventually you’ll tank when customers end up using your shirts as polishing rags.
Cotton/polyester blends can be great, too. Try to stick to a higher cotton-to-poly ration like 80/20. Even a 60/40 can work well. The more poly you use, the more challenges you encounter. Such as:
- Pilling. The more poly fibers there are, the more they tend to pill up after washing and wearing. Eww, not a classy look.
- Heat. Polyester, rayon and spandex don’t like heat very much. So when your printer goes to dry the ink on your shirts, they’ll have to use extra care and sometimes special inks. That can cost more. Water-based inks also don’t play as well with some polyester blends.
- Dye migration. With excessive heat, the dyes in blended shirts can be released. That makes your print look faded, sometimes before your customer even wears it.
- Triblends and shirts heavy on poly fibers can sometimes be hot to wear, unless it’s a moisture-wicking weave. Cotton cools you down.
I don’t want to dissuade you from using poly blends. There are some great products out there that we love. Ask your printer about any special concerns when they print on your apparel of choice.
Fit is another area where personal preference comes into play. Now, just because you love super tight-fitted shirts that show off your boobs, your girlfriends may not. So your preferences are a good place to start, but consider what the market wants as well. It also depends largely on your intended audience. We work with a brand whose customer base really does want those booby shirts, so it works for them. You really should know your intended customer. If not, you’re doing a lot of guessing, which means a lot of expensive trial-and-error.
But let’s say you have a broad customer base because you sell beer and your customers all have different fit preferences. Until you’re selling tees well and you can afford to offer lots of specific types of apparel, go with a unisex fit. Our favorites are from Bella+Canvas, Alternative and Hanes (Nano). They fit all kinds of body shapes and they’re perfect for those customers who like to do fashion cuts on them.
Stay away from tube manufactured tees. Side-seamed tees are the way to go. Side seams mean that the shirt fits a little closer to the body, rather than falling straight down like a box (like those “Old Guys Rule” shirts).
This is super simple. Don’t shop on price. Not only do you “get what you pay for,” you’re not really going to save that much. Don’t be penny-cheap and pound stupid. If you find yourself trying to negotiate with your printer for 10 cents off each shirt, you really need to consider that you need a bigger budget.
Fun story time. We spent a lot of time quoting a new customer on shirts, getting them the best deal possible with the best value. They’re a non-profit so their budget was super low. It was a challenge but we did it. We aren’t usually the cheapest in town, but in this case we were right in line with everyone else. Suddenly, they got an offer from a friend to get the shirts for free. We didn’t even try to beat that price.
When their customers got their shirts, they complained. Scratchy. Bad print. Didn’t fit well. No one wears them and we still hear complaints about those shirts (small community). I think you can figure out the moral here.
Research and Trust
Don’t fumble around in the dark! The best thing you can do for your apparel brand is to find a great printer. They can help you figure out the best tee for your needs. That may sound self-serving coming from a screen printer. In the Holy Name of Transparency, I totally get that. But it is absolutely true. A great printer will:
- Listen to what you need
- Give you suggestions based on your specific goals
- Be 100% happy to answer all your questions, 100% of the time
Do your research and find an amazing printer, nothing less. Then trust them to help you get what you need.
As always, ask me any questions. I love answering them, even weird ones. Especially weird ones.
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Photo © Matthew Henry
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