Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Best Fabric for Sewing a T-Shirt

best fabric for sewing a tshirt

If you have to pick one sewing project that is worth perfecting, I think you would have to pick the t-shirt. And like all projects, the t-shirt lives and dies with fabric choice. So, which fabric is best for your basic, boring, staple shirt? Lucky for you, I've made the same pattern over and over and over in many different fabrics, making it quite easy to compare them and see how they perform over time. I'm demonstrating with the Hey June Union St. Tee, but you can sub in any loose fitting knit tee pattern (note: I am NOT talking about close-fitting patterns that require spandex!). Let's get started!

Cotton Jersey

The most basic of all knits: cotton jersey. And it's actually kind of hard to find! I'm not sure why, I love a good cotton jersey. Of all the fabrics I'm evaluating today, I will say that it has the least fluid drape. Without spandex, it can have a poor recovery, meaning you should tread carefully applying the neckband (put it in flat if at all possible so you can control the stretch). That said, you can't beat the breathability and easy-to-care-for cotton t-shirt! If wrinkles bother you, pull it out of the dryer right away and you'll be fine.

Merino Jersey

This one made it onto the list by accident! Ages ago, I ordered a rayon jersey from The Fabric Store Online and was accidentally sent one of their lightweight merino jerseys. The shirt I made with it has become, no exaggeration, my favorite shirt of all time. The drape is beautiful, better than cotton but not as clingy as rayon. The recovery (I don't know if it has spandex or not but I think not) is great. I machine wash on delicate and lay flat to dry. It never bags out, is naturally anti-bacterial, and always looks great. Worth mentioning, I have a few tees in merino/spandex jersey and I don't like them as much. They seem to shrink more with the same laundering process.

Rayon Jersey

Forgive me for putting a dress on here, but this is just a hacked longer version of the same t-shirt pattern. I wanted to show a rayon jersey that did not contain spandex. Lightweight, drapey, okay recovery but sags with wear. Fewer wrinkles than the cotton jersey, but still wrinkled. Lighter than a rayon knit with spandex. Not my favorite, but not my least favorite either.

Rayon/spandex Jersey

The biggest strength of rayon/spandex jersey is its comfort. Soft, liquid drape, it's very wearable. Its big weakness is that it is heavy, and over time grows and grows and grows. It's not unusual for me to take a year old t-shirt made with rayon/spandex and cut it down almost a full size. I used this fabric a lot when I started making shirts, but over time I haven't been pleased with the longevity. If you look closely on the one above, you can also see how it has pilled, a common trait of rayon jersey.

Modal/Cotton/Spandex Jersey

Now that we've dipped our toes into the rayon knits, let's look at a blend. Modal is one of many names for a cellulose (plant) based fiber made from trees, bamboo, etc. (see Tencel and Lyocell below for the same sort of fiber). Fabric I've purchased with the brand name modal tends to be a higher quality than something generically named rayon. In particular, I love modal when it's combined with cotton and spandex. The addition of cotton makes the t-shirt less prone to pilling and sagging, and makes it lighter weight. This shirt is one of my faves and has not grown over time like the green one above. In taking these photos I noticed that it has mayyyybe just the start of some pilling, but I have worn and washed it a LOT for even that to happen.

Tri-blend Jersey

Now we've arrived at one of the only times I allow polyester into my wardrobe. Many shops sell something vaguely called "tri-blend" as shorthand for a fabric with three fibers. Typically these will be cotton, polyester, and spandex. These are kind of hard to find (I got mine from Sly Fox) but they are great! The polyester means they're a touch less breathable than a fabric containing only natural fibers, however that is made up for in their longevity. I've worn the crap out of my tri-blend tees and they just keep coming out of the wash looking the same. No sagging! If you sneak a peek at your favorite ready-to-wear tee, I'd bet money it is made from a tri-blend.

Tencell Lyocell/Spandex Jersey

I'm still on the fence about this particular shirt. It has the softness of rayon/spandex, but I haven't had it long enough to see if it sags over time. I miscalculated the neckband (it needed to be shorter) and so I'm not crazy about how that part looks. It does seem to wash well. I wanted to include it because it was overstock from a high-end designer, so it must have some value! 

I probably have even more blends and weights hanging around, but I think these are the ones you will find most often shopping online. The only ones I don't have to show are a polyester knit, and a linen knit. I avoid polyester as much as possible, but it would typically behave like a slinky rayon jersey. All the linen knits I've encountered tend to be sheer, expensive, and not always with great recovery. They would behave a lot like cotton jersey.

So which is my favorite? Hands down, no question, merino jersey! Second would be a tri-blend cotton/poly/spandex or a cotton/rayon/spandex. My favorite source for merino jersey is The Fabric Store Online, and as mentioned above you can sometimes find tri-blend at Sly Fox, or The Fabric Snob. Ready to sew your own t-shirts? Grab the Union St. Tee pattern here to get started on your own closet full of tees!

Is there a fabric I left off that you want to know about? Leave a comment below!

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