Eye On Apparel: Custom To A 'Tee'
The promotional products industry has grown by leaps and bounds since 1914, when the first promotional products trade show was held and featured just 32 exhibitors, according to PPAI at 100. Today’s seemingly limitless product selection spans the latest in tech gadgets, multiuse home and outdoor tools, and wearables designed for all the elements, from poolside to mountainside. But when it comes to a favorite item to receive, there’s hardly a more beloved, classic and easy-wear option than the basic tee.
Embodying self-expression, t-shirts grew popular as a marketing strategy in the late 1960s, when companies started selling and giving away tees adorned with logos to advertise brands. Also during this time, gift shops and go-to destinations began selling t-shirts as souvenirs, and activists started sporting t-shirts to support their stance on causes. The popularity of t-shirts as promotional tools really took off in 1969 when the late Max R. Scharf, CAS, founder of Incentives Corp.—and a 2011 PPAI Hall of Fame inductee—purchased silk-screening company K-Studio and introduced custom apparel to the promotional products industry. And the rest is history.
The first t-shirts began as undergarments, akin to long johns and known as “union suits,” which emerged in Utica, New York, in 1868. Tees first took to market in 1904, when they were sold by the Cooper Underwear Company, now Jockey International, Inc., as “bachelor undershirts,” describing the garments as underwear for bachelors who couldn’t sew, but unlike today’s t-shirts, they were marketed as something that couldn’t be worn on their own. In 1913, t-shirts became part of the U.S. Navy’s uniform, and were adopted by the U.S. Army during World War I. From these origins and through the 1930s, t-shirts were called something different—“skivvies” or “jimshirts”—though the term “t-shirt” was added to Merriam Webster Dictionaries in the 1920s referring to the “T” shape of the garment. The first promotional t-shirt was sold in 1939 to promote The Wizard of Oz.
Today, promotional t-shirts are used to not only support any cause imaginable, but to also express brand and wearer individuality and showcase one-of-a-kind designs. And when t-shirts are too old to wear, many are recycled and remade into something new.
But not everyone wants to get rid of their old tees. In a 2009, nationwide survey of 1,000 adults conducted by Synovate to determine the fate of t-shirts created to promote groups and other activities, nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) of respondents said they were still holding onto an old t-shirt, with the largest percentage (93 percent) among those ages 18-24 and the second largest (70 percent) among those ages 65 and older. James Wallman, author of Stuffocation: Living More With Less and Time and How To Spend It, offered this possible explanation in the digital lifestyle publication Fatherly, “We hold onto old t-shirts because they evoke memories and connect us to earlier versions of ourselves, giving us a sense of enduring identity.”
All the charms of a classic tee may be the reason why custom t-shirt printing is projected to nearly double in size by 2027, growing from a $3.64 billion to a $6.9 billion-dollar market, according to market research firm Grand View Research, Inc., noting the marked increase in companies, specifically startups and those in the entertainment space, that are selling promotional tees. Thanks to the entirely customizable aspect of tees, from their cut, color, embroidery, printing options and more, it looks like they’re here to stay, and stay for a while. Read on for popular t-shirt styles and fabrics to consider for your clients’ next campaigns.
Create eye-catching t-shirt design by incorporating the top colors in fashion for this coming fall and winter. Forecasted by The Pantone Color Institute, we can expect to see these 10 strong, bold hues and four neutrals:
PANTONE 18-4434: Mykonos Blue
PANTONE 13-0647: Illuminating
PANTONE 18-6022: Leprechaun
PANTONE 18-2330: Fuchsia Fedora
PANTONE 13-1716: Pale Rosette
PANTONE 17-1350: Adobe
PANTONE 18-1453: Fire Whirl
PANTONE 19-3838: Rhodonite
PANTONE 18-4221: Spring Lake
PANTONE 19-1228: Root Beer
PANTONE 11-1007: Coconut Cream
PANTONE 17-5104: Ultimate Gray
PANTONE 13-0919: Soybean
PANTONE 18-0527: Olive Branch
Since their earliest beginnings, the most common material used for t-shirts is cotton, which has been grown by humans for more than 7,000 years. But with experimentation in production and the availability of other materials, there are many other fabrication options to choose from. Today, a t-shirt material can also serve as a way to convey a brand’s message or stance on environmental issues. The importance lies in explaining the difference and benefits of fabric composition to clients.
100% Cotton. Cotton is warm, soft and breathable, and if you’re opting for 100-percent cotton, then you’re getting the full effect. A fabric favorite for tees, cotton is also hypoallergenic, and best of all, it can be customized using any method. However, 100-percent cotton holds a lot of water weight, meaning that it takes longer to dry. It’s also prone to shrinkage, stains and wrinkles, and it’s not likely to last as long as a 50/50-percent cotton and polyester blend.
100% Polyester. If you’re working with a company that embraces or supports eco-friendly causes or lifestyles, then polyester may be a good fit. Some polyester fibers are made from recycled plastic that has been re-spun into thread. Unlike cotton, which absorbs up to 27 times its weight in water, according to Sciencing.com, polyester is moisture-wicking and helps keep wearers cool, making it ideal for sports and performance wear, and there’s also minimal shrinkage, so it holds its shape. The downside? It's not breathable and it’s not the most odor‑resistant choice.
Blends. Blends bring together the qualities of multiple fabrics. One of the most common fabric blends is 50/50-percent cotton and polyester, which is suitable for day-to-day wear. This fabric blend may also be used to achieve a certain looks, such as a heathered effect. Other materials, such as viscose or rayon, may also be added to achieve certain effects. Blends allow for quicker drying and less wrinkling and shrinkage, but these garments often cost more.
Fabric weight. In the U.S., fabric weight, which pertains to whichever materials are used, is measured in ounces per square yard. T-shirts ranging from 5.5 ounces to 6.1 ounces are considered heavyweight, and are preferred when aiming to provide recipients with a durable product that’ll keep them warm. Fabrics ranging from three ounces to 5.4 ounces are lighter and more preferred for warmer months, though they’re less resistant to snags and overall wear.
Made for the soccer field and for cheering on the sidelines (or from the comfort of home), the Momentum Tee from Holloway is made from 100-percent polyester and features moisture-wicking and antimicrobial properties, keeping wearers dry and, most importantly, comfortable. Also featuring 30+ SPF, the crew neck tee has a tag-less label and set-in sleeves, is also made with color secure technology to keep colors bold and bright. Available in S-4XL in 23 colors, shown in cardinal.
Augusta Sportswear Brands / PPAI 187246, S5 / www.augustasportswear.com
Made from a blend of 50-percent cotton and 50-percent polyester, the Zen Jersey Short Sleeve T-Shirt is acid-washed with a silicone finish, conveying a unique effect. The lightweight, four-ounce burnout jersey features flatlock stitching throughout, a self-fabric color and a tearaway label. Available in S-3XL in cement, vintage navy, twisted black, twisted royal and dark smoke (shown).
J. America / PPAI 351669, S1 / www.jamericablanks.com
The 100-percent polyester Core 365 Adult Fusion ChromaSoft Performance T-Shirt is made from a cationic dyeing process designed to keep colors brighter for longer. A midweight option, the 4.5-ounce tee with an active fit boasts a soft, cotton-like feel, while offering moisture-wicking and antimicrobial properties. Available in XS-6XL in 16 colors, shown in classic navy.
alphabroder / PPAI 156993, S16 / www.alphabroder.com
For a more durable, heavyweight option, the six-ounce Authentic-T T-Shirt With Pocket is made with Hanes’ 100-percent ComfortSoft™ cotton, ensuring the upmost in softness and comfort. A good choice for those working in hands-on occupations, from manual labor to factory workers, details include double-needle sleeves and bottom hems, and a double-needle, cover-seamed neck with a lay-flat color and shoulder-to-shoulder taping. It also features a tearaway label and a five-point left chest pocket for easily storing writing tools or other small items. Available in S-3XL in 17 colors, shown in light steel.
Hanes / PPAI 191138, S10 / www.haneslocator.com
The Women’s X-TEMP® V-Neck T-Shirt, also available in a unisex option, is made with X-TEMP technology, which reacts to the wearer’s body temperature to help them keep warm or cool and comfortable throughout the day. Made from a blend of 60-percent ring-spun cotton and 40-percent polyester for a softer hand, this 4.5-ounce tee features a side-seamed, contoured cut for a flattering fit; a single-needle, edge-stitched V-neck collar, shoulder-to-shoulder taping, 40+ UPF protection and a tearaway label. Available in S-3XL in 12 colors, shown in neon lemon heather.
Hanes / PPAI 191138, S10 / www.haneslocator.com
The Women’s Custom-Dyed Signature V-Neck steps a little outside the realm of typical fabrication, because it’s made from a blend of 50-percent Supima cotton and 50-percent micromodal—Marine Layer’s signature fabric—the latter of which is derived from recycled beechwood, a natural and sustainable raw material. A great choice to promote an eco-friendly brand or cause, the tee, which is made in the USA, is also pre-washed and pre-shrunk to ensure a comfortable fit. Available in XS-XL in any color imaginable—yes, really.
Marine Layer, Inc. / PPAI 690355, S1 / www.marinelayer.com
The Adult ICONIC™ T-Shirt brings together comfort, a soft hand, a super smooth printing surface and a color palette of tinted neutrals. The 100-percent ring-spun cotton pre-shrunk jersey tee is lightweight (4.6 ounces) and includes details such as a seamless one-by-one inch ribbed collar with two-needle cover-stitching on the front neck, two-needle stitching on the bottom, shoulder-to-shoulder taping and a tearaway label. Also available in complementary styles, including a unisex long-sleeve t-shirt, in XS to 4XL, along with youth sizes, in 27 eye-catching hues, like candy hearts heather, scuba blue, mint to be heather and sunset coral (shown).
Fruit of the Loom / PPAI 133342, S5 / www.fruitactivewear.com
The District® Perfect Tri® DTG Tee features a heathered effect, and is made from a tri-blend of 50-percent polyester, 25-percent combined ring-spun cotton and 25-percent rayon. The five-ounce midweight tee is pre-treated and enhanced for direct-to-garment printing, and features a one-by-one-inch rib-knit neck and shoulder-to-shoulder taping. Available in XS-4XL in nine colors, shown in red frost.
SanMar / PPAI 110788, S16 / www.sanmar.com
To create a sporting or vintage feel, clients can opt for the Adult S/S Crew Neck Baseball Tee. Made in a raglan style with a heather gray body and contrasting sleeves and neck, the 100-percent polyester tee is also winkle-resistant and features Blue-X-Dri technology to aid in moisture wicking, ensuring wearers look their best while keeping dry. Available in a unisex fit in XXS-3XL in seven colors, shown in heather grey navy.
Blue Generation / PPAI 174655, S11 / www.bluegeneration.com
One of the more popular cuts in t-shirts, and one that’s worthy of mention, are crop styles, and the Women’s Ideal Crop Tee isn’t only inspired by the cool vibe of Southern California, but it’s part of a new price-conscious collection. A flattering silhouette, the tee features a modest cut and length, hitting just below the belly button, and with a finished hem and neck binding. Made from a blend of 60-percent combed and ring-spun cotton and 40-percent polyester, this pre-shrunk tee is a great choice for festival- and gym-goers alike, and for casual wear. Additional details include a one-by-one-inch baby rib set-in collar and cuffs, side seams and a tearaway label. Available in XS-3XL in nine colors, shown in antique gold.
Next Level Apparel / PPAI 272027, S3 / www.nextlevelapparel.com
With front hem details that create flattering pleats, the Women’s Twisted Tee offers a unique “twist” on the traditional tee. Made from a blend of 65-percent polyester and 35-percent rayon jersey, the 5.2-ounce tee is both light and soft. Conveying a lax, airy feel that’s perfect for everyday wear, the tee is available in S-2XL in nine colors, shown in white.
Boxercraft / PPAI 159420, S5 / www.boxercraft.com
Reach for the stars with the Code Five™ Men’s Combed Ringspun Cotton Five Star Crew Neck Tee. Featuring an all-over patterned star print over vintage fine jersey fabric, the 4.5-ounce tee is made from a blend of 60-percent combed and ring-spun cotton and 40-percent polyester—with the natural heather made from 100-percent combed and ring-spun cotton—it features a ribbed collar, self-fabric back neck tape, double-needle sleeves and bottom hem, side seam construction and a tearaway label. Perhaps best of all, two percent of sales of all Code Five products are donated to Children of Fallen Soldiers Relief Fund, Inc. and Fisher House. Available in unisex S-2XL in nine colors, shown in military green star. Bleed-resistant ink is recommended.
LAT Apparel / PPAI 254437, S4 / www.latapparel.com
Danielle Renda is associate editor of PPB.