EVERY WARDROBE is built on the ideal cotton T-shirt, a garment akin to olive oil—a base ingredient that’s absolutely essential but never the star flavor. Yet we often take this fundamental piece for granted or settle for feeble, subpar tees.
During isolation, T-shirts have become the heroes of our WFH uniforms. We Zoom in them. We sleep in them. We throw them on backward before dashing downstairs to meet the pizza delivery guy. Now, after months of unrelenting wear, it’s time to replace them. But when you’re restricted to online shopping—as so many of us are—and can’t touch-test the cotton contenders, how do you know if you’ll get a softly supple tee or a scratchy disaster destined to be sent back? “It pays to do the research and find one that works for you,” said London-based Olie Arnold, style director of e-commerce giant Mr Porter. Here, experts reveal exactly what to look for while clicking your way to that comfy dream tee.
Pay a Premium but Not More Than $100—Unless It’s Sea Island Cotton
“A T-shirt is something you think you can scrimp on,” said Lucinda Chambers, the British co-creative director of Milan-based brand Colville. But for a good fit and quality craftsmanship, “you have to spend money on something that looks very ordinary. The better the fabric, the better it will wash,” she said—and the longer it will look crisp. When you pay more, “you’re getting more research and development in terms of the way it’s constructed,” added Mr. Arnold. However, neither Mr. Arnold nor Ms. Chambers would spend over $100 on a plain white cotton T-shirt. “Unless it’s Sea Island cotton,” said Mr. Arnold. Grown in the Caribbean and handpicked, sumptuous Sea Island is “the rarest cotton in the world,” said David Telfer, head designer at Sunspel, a British brand that has been producing T-shirts for over 100 years. Sunspel sells tees woven out of this sought-after strain starting at $185. Sea Island has extra-long fibers, called “staples.” “The longer the staple, the softer the fabric,” said Mr. Telfer.
Ms. Chambers only needs to buy one T-shirt every five years—that’s largely because she sticks to tops made entirely of Pima cotton. Grown mainly in California, this beloved little plant spawns cloud-soft cotton that outlasts and holds color longer than lesser-quality, mass-produced competitors like upland cotton. Plus, due to its caliber, Pima is doesn’t wrinkle easily, not unlike the fancy Sea Island breed. Because Pima is more common than its luxurious, Caribbean-grown cousin, it’s more accessibly priced. Tees made from Supima—a type of Pima cotton—can range from around $15 at Uniqlo to $85 at James Perse.
Purchase ‘Made in Portugal’
For premium production, look to sunny Portugal, nestled on the Iberian Peninsula. “Portugal is renowned for its cotton-jersey,” said Mr. Arnold. When developing Mr Porter’s in-house label, Mr. P., he ensured its crisp white crewnecks were produced in the region from this fabric. “All the best mills are there,” he said. Producing in Portugal became popular once brands using traditional factories in Italy and France realized they could get similar quality garments made across the border for lower prices. Today, luxury brands such as Isabel Marant and Acne Studios, as well as cool basics labels like Bassike, produce their cotton wares there.
Consider a Natural Cotton Blend
It can take more than 700 gallons of water to make a single cotton T-shirt—that’s not fantastic for the environment. Christian Larson and Andreas Palm, co-founders of Swedish essentials brand CDLP, contend that making tees by blending cotton with less-thirsty fabrics might help reduce each shirt’s environmental impact. Messrs.
Larson and Palm spent years developing their blend of 33% Pima cotton and 67% Lyocell, a material derived from wood pulp. Of the mix, Mr. Larson said, “It’s silkier in texture but it’s super lightweight and breathable.” Lyocell also holds dyes easily—Mr. Palm wears black T-shirts as a uniform and insisted his Lyocell-blend styles fade more slowly than 100% cotton tees in the wash.
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