Not all shirt fabrics are created equal.
There are so many fabrics to choose from and within each type there is a subset consisting of different weaves and textures, ply, yarn counts, weights and finishes. All these variables play a part in the price and how the fabric performs and feels to the touch.
Shirts are made with lots of different fabrics including cotton, linen, silk, wool, polyester, modal, even cashmere. For the purpose of this post, we will focus on the three major fabric options – cotton, linen and polyester. We will do a separate post on the most popular weaves of cotton.
Cotton – the most popular textile fiber in the world
An extremely versatile fiber, cotton offers a huge range of options. Everything from your evening dress shirt to your underwear to your denim jeans may be made with cotton.
Price: low to high depending on the characteristics listed above
Performance: it is soft and comfortable and is naturally hypoallergenic. It breathes well and does not irritate sensitive skin. Cotton is perfect for wearing in the summer, as it easily absorbs body moisture and helps keep you cool and dry.
Durability + Care: it is strong and durable. All-cotton garments are machine washable. They also dye very well offering a myriad palette of colors.
Shrinkage + Wrinkles: it is prone to shrinking after laundering and wrinkles easily. Heat is the enemy of all natural fibers and it is important to use the lowest heat setting possible when drying cotton garments.
Damage: since cotton is a natural fiber it risks damage from mildew. It is also not color-fast, which means over time clothes made with cotton can fade in the washer and dryer.
Pro Tip – to help keep colors looking bright, turn your garments inside out before laundering and use the shortest cycle possible.
Linen – one of the oldest known textile fibers
The Egyptians wrapped mummies in it. The ancient Romans had a poetic name for linen, textus ventilus, meaning “woven wind.” Linen is made from the flax plant, which looks like a cross between a cornflower and a lavender plant (shown above).
Price: mid to high depending on the characteristics defined above
Performance: just like cotton, linen is extremely soft and comfortable. It breathes and wicks moisture really well and is ideal for hot and humid climates. It is a stiffer fabric and is less likely to cling to the skin. Its distinct texture adds a touch of interest to an outfit.
Durability + Care: it is about 3 times as strong as cotton. Linen garments are machine washable and they get softer with use. Linen’s fibers are smooth and longer than those of cotton, and it does not shed or pill like other fabrics. Linen is inherently anti-microbial and is even resistant to mildew.
Eco-friendly: linen is a green product. Flax plants do not require irrigation, need little or no pest control, require little energy in the processing and are not harmful to the environment.
Shrinkage + Wrinkles: like other natural fibers, linen is prone to shrinking after laundering. It also wrinkles easily since the flax fibers have low elasticity, and low resilience that means they do not spring back to their original shape after being compressed.
Polyester – probably the most recognizable man-made fiber
Polyester is a petroleum-based synthetic fiber that was created in the 1940's by British and American chemists.
Price: relatively inexpensive
Durability + Care: poly holds dyes really well and is a strong and flexible fabric. It is resistant to both heat and water and is machine washable. When blended with other fabrics it adds durability and smoothness.
Shrinkage + Wrinkles: it has high elasticity and resilience, which means it does not shrink and does not wrinkle easily. Some manufacturers offer additional finishes that virtually eliminate any wrinkling.
Performance: it has an unattractive cheap plasticky sheen. It does not breathe well and, in warmer temperatures, clings to the body creating an uncomfortable feeling of humidity.
Environmental Impact: it is not environmentally friendly since it is non-biodegradable. It requires large amounts of water, energy, and toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process. However, it can be recycled to make more garments and it is now possible to purchase garments made with 100% recycled polyester.
There are plenty of other options in pure and blended fabrics. They can provide characteristics missing from a pure fabric such as color fastness, less wrinkles, quick drying, more elasticity, breathability, and durability among others. Some of the common blends are cotton-polyester, cotton-linen and cotton-wool.