How to Choose Men's T-Shirt Fabric

Choosing the perfect fabric is the most difficult aspect of sewing a men's t-shirt!  This guide will help to demystify menswear appropriate knits so that you can start the sewing confident that you will end up with a classic and flattering T-shirt.

What makes a t-shirt knit masculine?

To many people, the answer to the above question would be easy - they would say that the knit must be 100% cotton and of medium weight.  As you may have already discovered, it can be very difficult to find such a fabric at your local fabric store!  I am here to argue that you can make a very manly t-shirt with all manner of knits.  Let me prove this to you by showing you some big brand store-bought examples ranging from basic cotton interlock to blended fabrics completely void of cotton!

Combed Cotton Interlock TShirt Fabric
100% Combed Cotton Interlock T-Shirt from Nordstrom - this is a classic choice of fabric that will create a great 'basic tee'.
Cotton Jersey TShirt Fabric
100% Washed/Broken-In Cotton Jersey T-Shirt from J. Crew - this is a very modern and comfortable choice of fabric that will result in a very casual, drapey t-shirt.
Cotton Poly TShirt Fabric
99% Cotton, 1% Polyester Jersey T-Shirt from H&M - polyester blends are very commonly found in graphic tees or event tees.  A blended fabric can include a far higher percentage of poly than this example but it is important to keep in mind that this will result in a 'sportier' shirt, sweat wicking shirt best suited for the gym.  A small polyester content will often result in a t-shirt that doesn't wrinkle when it comes out of the dryer or out of the dresser drawer!
Cotton Elastine TShirt Fabric
95% Cotton, 5% Spandex (i.e. Elastane) Jersey T-Shirt from H&M - a fabric with spandex content is best suited for tight fitting shirts that feature areas of negative ease (notice how the shoulders, chest and sleeves in the above example are skin tight).  Spandex content will often result in a heavier and more drapey fabric so it will cling to the body in an unflattering way if it is used with a loose fitting t-shirt design.
Viscose Wool Tshirt Fabric
85% Viscose (i.e. Rayon), 15% Wool Jersey T-Shirt from H&M - this example illustrates how fun it can be to experiment with fiber content when sewing t-shirts!  If you are into hiking and camping you might be interested to make a t-shirt 'base layer' out of Merino wool.  It isn't difficult to find Merino wool yardage and the resulting t-shirt will cost FAR less than fancy base layer garments from outdoor stores!
Slub Cotton Jersey TShirt Fabric
100% Slub Cotton Jersey T-shirt from J.Crew - It can be fund to experiment with textures when choosing t-shirt knits.  A slubbed knit can look very rugged and masculine.  I find that if a fabric is slubbed and heathered and fairly light weight, it will result in a t-shirt that looks attractively reminiscent of a cowboy's undershirt ;).
Linen Cotton TShirt Fabric
85% Cotton, 15% Linen Jersey T-Shirt from H&M - this is another great example of a creative blend of fibres.  You can also look for Cotton/Rayon knits (quite drapey) and Cotton/Bamboo knits (very soft and smooth) when choosing menswear t-shirt fabrics!

As you can see, most of these shirts feature medium weight fabrics with little drape and minimal stretch.  It is interesting to note that the only shirt containing spandex content features a much tighter fit than the other shirts.  Since spandex content is becoming an increasingly common element in knit fabrics, it is good to know that a masculine t-shirt can still be produced with the spandex-laden fabrics found all throughout fabric stores.

Aside from fabric content, it is important to note the style of knit.  An interlock knit is stiffer and has less drape than a jersey knit.  I find that if I am in doubt about the suitability of a fabric for menswear (especially if I am choosing a printed fabric), I will err on the side of caution by using an interlock rather than a jersey.

Check your closet!

So now that we've determined that there is a surprisingly large range of acceptable fabric types, we must narrow things down by keeping the prospective wearer's preferences in mind!  The easiest way to do this is to open up the recipient's closet and look at the t-shirts that are already there.  Are they mostly of medium weight?  What do the fabric content labels say?  Do many feature unusual textures and graphics?  Are there a broad selection of styles or does the person favor one type of fit?

Here are Matt's favorite t-shirts as an example along with why they are his favorite:

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (1 of 4)

He has had this free event t-shirt for MANY years and it is only just now beginning to show wear.  He loves that the hems do not fold up and wrinkle as many of his t-shirts with less polyester content tend to do.  The weight is quite heavy compared to some of his more 'fashionable' t-shirts but the polyester adds a bit of fluidity to the fabric so it doesn't look too crisp and so that it forms to his body just enough to be flattering.

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (3 of 4)

He wears these v-neck H&M t-shirts often because he likes the fit of the sleeves and the v-neck (and the selection of bright colors).  He wishes that the fabric were slightly heavier because they tend to show a bit of nipple!

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (2 of 4)

While he wears these Armani t-shirts often, their tendency to wrinkle bothers Matt.  The sleeves are always folding up and the narrow neck binding makes them look a bit misshapen.  These shirts were designed as undershirts rather than t-shirts and the fabric is even more light weight than the H&M t-shirts due to this.  Matt requires all of his clothes to be suitable for mulitple purposes so a thin t-shirt meant ONLY for use under button-ups does not suit his wardrobe.

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (4 of 4)

This is Matt's favorite Strath Tee!  It is made using a Girl Charlee knit that is no longer available.  I think it may be a blended cotton/poly knit.  It doesn't contain very much stretch and it is of light to medium weight (a touch heavier than the H&M tees).  Matt gets compliments on the print CONSTANTLY and he feels really confident in this shirt.  I shortened the sleeve length considerably to be the most flattering length for Matt (I will talk about this more in the next sew-along post!).  I think that the print suits the crew neck style and might be a touch more wild than Matt prefers if it were on a v-neck shirt.

How thick? How stretchy?

I like to err on the side of thick and not very stretchy but picking fabrics with different properties (thick and quite stretchy, thin and not very stretchy) is still a possibility as we saw in the ready to wear shirts above!  Here are the fabrics that I picked for the Strath Tee sew-along.  They include:

A 100% Cotton Interlock of medium weight with matching 1X1 ribbing...

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (1 of 7)

A 100% Cotton Interlock of medium weight without ribbing...

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (4 of 7)

A 100% Cotton Jersey of light weight (note that there is no spandex content so this fabric does not contain too much drape)...

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (2 of 7)

A cotton/bamboo blend jersey of light to medium weight (sorry, I don't know the percentages!)...

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (3 of 7)

You can sort of see their relative thicknesses here (the teal and white knits are the same fabric in different colours so I only photographed the white interlock):

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (6 of 7)

And here are their stretch capabilities:

Thread Theory Choosing Knits (7 of 7)

I have stretched each fabric as far as it will stretch without becoming misshapen.  None of them are able to stretch very far but I was surprised that the cotton/bamboo jersey stretched farther than the interlock!  The cotton jersey stretched least of all and bounced back to its original shape the slowest of the three fabrics.

Do I need ribbing?

As you may be able to tell in the photos of store bought t-shirts at the top of this post, most modern t-shirts do not feature heavy ribbing at the neck band.  1X1 ribbing is the most common choice for modern t-shirt neck bands.  2X1 ribbing used to be a fairly common choice for men's t-shirts in the past (these "Ringer Tees" would often feature ribbing at the sleeve hem as well) but this is no longer the case.  In fact, I have recently been noticing store bought men's t-shirts with self neck binding rather than ribbing!

Ribbing Choices - TShirt Sewing
The Ringer Tee: A light weight jersey t-shirt featuring heavy ribbed bands (from American Apparel).

The advantage of using ribbing to bind a t-shirt neckline is that your neckline will not be prone to stretching out.  Ribbed knits spring back into their original shape very quickly.  If you can't find matching or contrast ribbing, test your fabric's shape retention abilities by stretching it considerably and then releasing it.  Does it revert to it's original shape or does it look a bit saggy and stretched out?  If your fabric contains a small percentage of spandex, you will easily be able to skip purchasing ribbing because the spandex performs the same job as the rib knit.  If you are using a 100% Cotton knit that is quite crisp, you may find it keeps it's shape tolerably well.  If you are using a blended jersey with considerable drape, you will likely find that the fabric is prone to dragging and drooping once it is stretched - you can combat this by cutting your neck band shorter or by finding a ribbing fabric for your neck band.

Can I use prints?

When deciding on a fabric choice, you might be tempted to use crazy prints.  While many menswear enthusiasts will urge you away from all-over prints...I say go for it!  Here are my reasons why:

  • It is next to impossible to find a border style print that you can position just over the chest of the shirt to simulate the appearance of your average graphic tee - believe me, I've tried!  If you don't feel like getting crafty with fabric paint, spray paint or screen printing, an all over print might be your only choice.
  • It is fun to push boundaries while sewing!  A t-shirt doesn't take much fabric or time to create so this is the perfect canvas for edgy print choices.  If the recipient is overwhelmed by the print, the t-shirt can easily be made into a tunic dress or a women's t-shirt instead (speaking from experience here :P).
  • All over prints are becoming increasingly common in menswear.  Here is my favorite example from Canadian company Frank & Oak.  I like the idea of adding a solid pocket to the t-shirt to break up the print:

Printed Fabrics for Menswear Tees

Where to shop:

Since fabric stores are most often geared towards women's fashion, children's garments or quilting, it can be a little bit disheartening to sift through the knit section.  I often find myself grumpily pushing aside licensed cartoon French Terry, silky rayon knits, and endless bolts of pastel knits until I am left with only three or four suitable bolts of interlock or jersey to choose from!  Luckily, men's t-shirts can be easily personalized using contrast stitching, contrast neck binding or even a contrast pocket if you are faced with a limited selection of colors or prints at your local fabric store.

If you are very limited at your local fabric shop and would like to find better quality or selection online, here is my tried and true list of online knit fabric shops!  Each of these shops is a favorite of mine for a unique reason:

Organic Cotton Plus

The quality and selection of the organic knits in this shop are excellent.  You can sort the fabrics so that you are only looking at Interlocks or Jerseys and you can even sort so that you are choosing fabrics made within the US!  The solid colors available are generally quite earthy and manly but there is also a growing selection of intriguing geometric prints.

Simplifi Fabric

If you are in Canada, you might feel extra limited in regards to knit choices due to the current exchange rates - ordering internationally just doesn't make sense right now!  Fortunately, there is no need to look outside of Canada because Simplifi (based in Ontario) carries eco-friendly textiles of high quality.  Their knits section is quite large but you will have to sift through a large amount of prints designed for children's garments (which are SUPER cute!).  If you sort by fibre, you will find that they have a great base of solid knits including a comprehensive selection of bamboo knits - my favorite!

Girl Charlee

If you are looking for a huge selection of fun all-over prints, this is the place to look!  You might want to order swatches since Girl Charlee carries such a huge range of knit styles - it can be difficult to tell how drapey, stretchy, heavy, or good quality they are based on the descriptions alone.  Matt finds some of the Jersey Blend fabrics are just as comfortable and light weight and easy to wash (no wrinkles) as his favorite H&M t-shirts.

Gorgeous Fabrics

This is an excellent shop to peruse if you are hoping to create a high end t-shirt in an unusual material.  There are some beautiful heathered jerseys and even some merino wool knits.  Some of the knits are labelled "Tee-shirt weight" which is useful for our purposes!  By the way - knits are 20% off right now!  And there are some REALLY beautiful Italian sweater knits in stock; I am super tempted to make another Newcastle Cardigan!

Spoonflower

Aside from being able to design your own printed fabric at Spoonflower, you can also peruse the huge library of other people's designs.  Spoonflower can print on an Organic Cotton Interlock knit which would likely be very suitable for a t-shirt and also on a jersey.  I haven't ordered the swatch pack myself so don't rely on my suggestions about which fabric type to print on!  It is probably best to order a sample pack for yourself :).


 

I hope you are able to find the perfect knits for your sew-along Strath Tee!  Make sure to use #strathtee when sharing your t-shirt progress.