A surefire way to identify quality t-shirts that are both durable and – Timbre & Style LLC

A surefire way to identify quality t-shirts that are both durable and versatile

“Fast fashions are constructed so that they typically last no more than 10 wearings” and “on average, each American produces about 75 pounds of textile waste per year” writes Kendra Pierre-Louis for the New York Times, citing research from Harvard Business School and Glasgow Caledonian University. To make matters worse, less than 20% of textile waste is being recycled, approximately 66% goes to landfill, and the rest is incinerated, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Not only does this staggering amount of textile waste pose an environmental problem, it also means that on average we are spending hundreds of dollars a year, without getting much in return. And apart from feeling disappointed to be forced to toss a piece of clothing after only a few laundry cycles, disposing of these amounts of textiles also means we are losing valuable time. Under these considerations, inexpensive clothes are actually extremely costly.

The personal disappointment, the waste of time and money, and the negative environmental impact of textile garbage – all of it is actually entirely avoidable. But how can we identify clothes that we can wear frequently, and that will look good for a long time? Here is what to consider.

Recommendations to curb some of the waste

Seventy-five pounds of textile waste translates into $460 dollars per person every year, if we assume that each pound of the disposed textiles would only cost $6. If you are in a private place as you are reading this, take off your clothes, put them on a shipping scale, and you will see how conservative this estimate is: it means that you paid approximately $1.90 for the t-shirt you were wearing. 

In order to avoid wasting our time and money, and to stay clear of low quality clothing items, the New York Times article “How to Buy Clothes That Are Built to Last” makes the following recommendations:

  1. Do not buy clothes that are obviously made in the cheapest way possible: avoid t-shirts through which you can see your hand, for example.
  2. Look for other indicators of low-quality construction:
    • Do not buy clothes if patterns do not line up at the seams, as this indicates that the manufacturer prioritizes volume over quality.
    • Make sure the stiches are even and that they are not coming apart anywhere.
  3. Consider how much time you realistically want to spend on maintenance: fabrics like wool or silk require special care in forms of detergents, laundry bags, air drying, or even dry cleaning.
  4. Make sure the item is comfortable and that it feels good to the touch.
  5. Choose durable fabrics made from long fibers such as Pima cotton. Cotton mixed with polyester can make the fabric stronger, too.
  6. Dare to re-wear your clothes. If it fits well, and it’s of good quality, try to resist internal and external pressures which may suggest you cannot wear an item anymore, because you’ve already worn it on a different occasion.

Following these guidelines is a great way to get a jump on making quality upgrades to one’s wardrobe. At Timbre & Style, we take these recommendations one step further when we create high-quality graphic t-shirts. Here is a brief glance behind the scenes.

How we evaluate fabric quality and fit

First of all, we spend much more time with each material than anyone who is browsing through t-shirts in a brick-and-mortar or online store could ever afford to spend. We also evaluate a much larger number of different materials than what would be practical for any individual person. To give you an impression, here is a snapshot taken during one of our evaluation processes:

 

Figure 1 - Our t-shirt prototypes ranked by fabric quality 

We also make sure that the time we spend on quality analysis is spent effectively, and we rigorously rank the quality of each sample. Specifically, we look for: 

  1. Colors and print: nowadays, even the printed areas on a t-shirt should be soft to the touch and almost indistinguishable from non-printed fabric. Even after multiple wash and dry cycles, the print should also not get sticky, crack, or show signs of discoloration.
  2. Construction: at the very least, a t-shirt should not come apart at its seams, but also the neckband as well as the sleeve and waist hems should stay smooth and flat.
  3. Fabric shrinkage: this still happens with some cheaper t-shirts. Sometimes, a previously long, but somewhat fitted t-shirt may even turn into an impossibly wide crop top. This will not happen with high-quality fabrics, which are pre-shrunk and not artificially stretched.
  4. Ease of care: graphic tees are really casual pieces of clothing, so how much sense does it make to have to iron them? Having to iron them is as annoying as rhetorical questions, and that is why t-shirts should come out of the dryer pretty smooth and virtually free of wrinkles.
  5. Comfortable feel while wearing: For the most part, our hands can detect the smallest unevenness or roughness. Depending on our work or our hobbies, however, we can also desensitize them, and we can develop calluses that make it more enjoyable to play an instrument or to lift weights, for example. Consequently, what may seem “good enough” to the touch, may start to feel scratchy or even like you are getting exfoliated with sandpaper after wearing it on your back for a while. The fabric of a quality t-shirt has to be comfortable on the skin, soft, and a medium weight, non-see-through fabric will work for most of the year, almost everywhere.
  6. Size and fit: “A wrongly made t-shirt can distort your shape – it will hang down your body in all the wrong ways” writes Sewguide.com in their graphic t-shirt buying guide. At the very least, we do not want to look like a sausage that’s about to burst, or like we have stolen the shirt from a much bigger person. More importantly, however, we want to be perceived as a mature-enough person, who is able to put on their own clothes, and who can look reasonably well put together. The perfect shape of a high-quality t-shirt is slightly form fitting. Just snug enough to make us look at least as fit as we are, but maybe with a slight margin for “error”. Just in case we had a heavy meal … or two.
  7. Durability: apart from losing shape, shrinking, or coming undone at the seams, another untimely death for clothes is pilling. Fabric pilling is caused by small, lose fibers and friction. Friction from doing laundry or simply wearing the t-shirt, may twist the lose fibers together, and cause little, unsightly balls to form on the surface. This can cause any clothing item to look old, and in case of excessive pilling, holes in the fabric can even develop. Garments that are supposed to last, must be very, very slow to develop pilling. 

Theoretically, any combination of these quality characteristics is conceivable. In practice, however, a t-shirt that fits perfectly, is of little use if it feels scratchy and uncomfortable. In order to turn this unordered collection of quality characteristics into a grading scale, we look at them as “quality levels”: a t-shirt on the lowest level will exhibit none of them. On the next level are graphic t-shirts with a colorfast and soft print. On this low level, however, there are no guarantees with respect to the quality, i.e. t-shirts of this type may not stay in shape or fall apart pretty easily. On the highest level are t-shirts that look great, that are durable, and that exhibits all seven quality characteristics from above. This approach leads to the following quality scale:

 

Quality index

No pilling

Nice fit

Soft fabric

Basically non-iron

Stays in shape

Seams stay intact

Print is soft and colorfast

1

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

2

-

-

-

-

-

-

Yes

3

-

-

-

-

-

Yes

Yes

4

-

-

-

-

Yes

Yes

Yes

5

-

-

-

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

6

-

-

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

7

-

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

8

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Table 1 - T-shirt quality grading scale by Timbre & Style

You may have noticed that some quality attributes are harder to gauge than others: just by looking at a piece of fabric, we may not be able to tell with certainty whether or not it will look wrinkled as heck when we take it out of the dryer, or whether pilling will start to build up after several laundry cycles. For this reason, we continuously put our large collection of t-shirts through the wringer to make sure we keep working with the best quality fabrics available anywhere.

Combining t-shirt designs we enjoy with quality we love

You may recall from our post on design versatility, that the type of design on a graphic t-shirt determines how generally wearable a t-shirt is in a variety of situations. In order to be able to make good use of a t-shirt, we have to enjoy wearing it, and it cannot fall apart after 10 laundry cycles or less, of course. But let’s be honest: if the right situation to wear our graphic tee almost never arises, it will simply stay in our dressers and closets until it’s time for “spring cleaning” one day.

Any clothes that we would like to wear frequently, will not just be durable, but also versatile enough so that they can be worn on an almost daily basis. Sounds straight-forward and obvious, doesn’t it? Let’s get a little bit more technical and apply these concepts to 7 distinct types of design and 8 different levels of quality simultaneously in the diagram below.

 

Figure 2 - T-shirt Quality vs. Design Versatility

The diagram visualizes this intersection of fabric quality and design versatility. The different types of designs are on the x-axis, and the y-axis is the quality level. A more detailed explanation why non-obvious, non-objective, and abstract designs are more generally wearable than other designs can be found here, but for now let’s just focus on the highest quality t-shirts that can also be worn frequently. Consequently, four broader categories emerge in this diagram: A, B, C, and D. Let’s look at them in more detail:

A. Segment ‘A’ contains t-shirts we wish could last longer, because the design is cool, but disappointingly, the quality of the fabric cannot keep up with frequent use.

B. This is the largest segment containing all “fast fashion”-t-shirts with design ranging from anything suitable only for a white elephant gift, to designs which may look strange, stock, or out of place in a number of situations.

C. Segment ‘C’ contains t-shirts that are of great quality and fit, but they can also not be worn too frequently. As an example, t-shirts a company may give to their employees can at times be durable and well-fitting, but if we always wore t-shirts with the company logo, we might send the subconscious message that we can’t ever be off duty.

D. Finally, this is the small segment of high-quality t-shirts with cool, versatile designs that one can wear wherever, that’s exactly the category we target with our line of graphic tees, because we want you to enjoy our t-shirts for as long as possible.

Due to their short lifespan, “fast fashion” clothes can end up costing a lot more than better quality garments that may have a higher sticker price. When taken together, guidelines to identify lower quality garments with the naked eye, as well as the insight into the quality rating process at Timbre & Style can help reduce wasting time and money on clothes that would likely end up in a landfill after a short pitstop in our closets. We hope this has been fun and informative. Please let us know what is most important to you when you’re shopping for casual apparel. You can either hit us up through our contact page or by dropping us a message on Instagram.