Before bringing your t-shirt designs to life, it’s crucial to pick the right fabric to print on. But you probably have some questions. Does fabric weight matter? Do customers want a silky drape or a tight fit? Should you choose DTF printing, DTG printing, or embroidery?
In this ultimate t-shirt fabric guide, we’ll discuss the most popular fabrics, different printing methods, and which fabric types work best for each. Plus, we’ll show you how to choose t-shirt materials that’ll exceed your customers’ expectations.
Amazing designs alone won’t make your custom t-shirts sell. Your customers are looking for specific fabric qualities for various occasions. For example, heavyweight fabric is great for streetwear brands, while athletic wear should be moisture-wicking and lightweight.
Your target audience may also be interested in how the t-shirt fabric is sourced. In this case, it’s important to think about the production of the materials and environmental impact.
Let’s dive deeper into the most popular materials, starting with an all-time favorite—cotton.
Cotton has been around for thousands of years, and conventional cotton is the most popular fabric in the textile industry. In textile manufacturing, cotton is made from natural fibers spun into yarn. So it seems like it’s sustainable, right? Well, yes and no (more on that later).
Cotton is soft, breathable, biodegradable, absorbent, durable, and affordable. Plus, dyes cling to cotton fibers like bees to honey, making them one of the best materials for t-shirt printing. No wonder it’s our customers’ favorite t-shirt fabric from our catalog.
As mentioned earlier, cotton is breathable. It also has impressive moisture-absorbing abilities. This makes it the best t-shirt fabric for hot and humid weather. When you perspire, cotton soaks up that sweat and allows it to evaporate, leaving you feeling fresh as a summer breeze.
Plus, nothing compares to cotton’s softness and versatility. This uber-comfortable material is suitable for any occasion. You can wear a cotton t-shirt under a vest to dress it up, layer it under a wool sweater to avoid itchiness, or rock it on its own.
Cotton is also hypoallergenic, just like silk, bamboo, and eucalyptus. This makes it a great option for children’s clothing, or for anyone with sensitive skin.
On the flip side, I wouldn’t recommend wearing pure cotton in winter, especially if you plan on sweating. It’s not fun to be stuck in the cold with a wet shirt. But blended fabrics including cotton can keep you warm (more on that later).
Cotton t-shirts also wrinkle easily, and the fabric is more prone to wear and tear than other synthetic blends. Cotton fabric is also sensitive to color fading. But with proper love and care you can significantly extend its lifespan.
It’s important to note that cotton clothing can shrink when washed, so make sure to follow the instructions on the fabric label. Pre-shrunk cotton won’t shrink as much.
Check out our Guide to Cotton, Polyester, and Blended Fabrics for a complete cotton vs. polyester comparison.
First, let’s discuss which customization methods you can use for cotton t-shirts. Then, we’ll tackle the different types of cotton (yes, not all cotton is made equal).
Direct-to-garment printing, or DTG printing, is a technique where the ink is sprayed directly onto the garment. This allows for high-quality, full-color prints that are soft, breathable, and exceptionally durable. It’s great for printing colorful designs, graphics, text, and more. Take good care of your t-shirts and you’ll be surprised how long the designs can last.
DTG printing works best with cotton, bamboo, or other natural materials, thanks to their high absorption capabilities. However, since a lot of the ink gets absorbed by the fabric, prints may be less vibrant on black or colorful garments.
Direct-to-film printing, or DTF printing, is a relatively new printing technique that’s becoming really popular in the print-on-demand industry. DTF prints offer a gorgeously vibrant array of colors, low production costs, and the ability to print on dark or light garments.
Unlike DTG printing, DTF works on various types of materials, like polyester, nylon, fleece, cotton, and other fabrics. To make a custom t-shirt with DTF printing, the design is printed onto a special transfer film with water-based inks, coated with adhesive powder, and transferred onto the fabric using a heat press.
To find out more about these amazing printing methods, make sure to check out our complete guide on DTG vs. DTF printing.
Learn more: DTF vs. Screen Printing
Cotton t-shirts make an ideal canvas for custom embroidery designs thanks to their tightly woven fabric. It’s best to choose a moderately heavy cotton fabric so that it won’t snag around the embroidered design, or be so thick that it’s tough for the embroidery machines to stitch through.
Embroidered t-shirt designs are super versatile, making them a fantastic idea for your t-shirt business and a great way to reach multiple target audiences. If you’re looking for some inspiration, check out our Step-By-Step Guide to Embroidery Designs.
If you pay attention to fabric labels, you may have noticed that not all cotton t-shirts feel the same. Some cotton shirts may be soft and light, while others are heavier and have a more textured weave. The reason behind this is the production process. This best t-shirt material can be classified into four main categories:
When t-shirts or other cotton fabrics simply say 100% cotton, it means they’re made with regular cotton, also referred to as carded open-end or COE cotton. Carded open-end refers to the manufacturing process for spinning raw cotton into the yarn used for making t-shirts and other garments.
A regular cotton t-shirt is thicker, heavier, and not as soft as its finer cousins. This makes it the right t-shirt material for casual wear or streetwear, and it’s an awesome option for DTG prints or embroidered designs. It’s also the cheapest type of cotton because the production costs are the lowest.
Traditionally, ring-spun cotton is produced by wrapping cotton bundles around a spindle and tying them tightly. By aligning and binding the fibers together, this method produces a softer, smoother t-shirt fabric than COE cotton. It’s only slightly more expensive, and the softness and quality upgrade is worth the investment.
The fine fibers allow prints to stick onto the fabric more evenly, leaving you with a beautiful design. It’s also about the same weight as regular cotton, so you’re getting more softness with the same insulation.
Up until ring-spun, the process is the same. What makes combed cotton so special is that after “carding,” the cotton is literally combed for impurities, removing any short fibers that stick out of the yarn, making it silky soft on the skin. This process results in the highest quality cotton—and the most expensive.
The only thing to consider in terms of sustainability is that some of the “impure” cotton fibers get discarded during the combing process. This means less of the final product and more waste. But because of the high-quality yarn this process produces, garments tend to last longer.
Since there are fewer impurities, combed ring-spun cotton offers the smoothest surface to print on. It’s the best option when your t-shirt brand stands for quality and luxury.
If you and your customers care about sustainability and ethical farming, organic cotton is the way to go. The crops aren’t genetically modified, and there are no pesticides or chemicals that can harm the environment and cause hazardous working conditions.
The great news is, organic cotton can also be ring-spun and combed. So, you don’t have to sacrifice comfort and quality when choosing more ethical cotton t-shirts.
When it comes to sustainability, cotton can be controversial. On the plus side, farmers purpose the entire cotton plant—the seeds transform into oil that can be used in food and cosmetics, while the fibers are used for textiles or coffee filters.
However, conventional cotton cultivation requires a high amount of water and pesticides that can be not only harmful to the environment but also create unethical working conditions. Check out our Sustainable Fabrics Guide for a list of alternatives to conventional cotton.
Polyester, shortened from its technical name, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is the most popular synthetic fabric in the world. It’s a kind of plastic made out of petroleum—a natural, non-renewable resource. The good news is that polyester fabric can be made from recycled plastic too.
Polyester is lightweight, extremely durable, and won’t fade or shrink over time if you take good care of it. It’s not elastic in and of itself, but when mixed with other materials like elastane, it can create that perfect stretch. Polyester is still breathable, just not as much as cotton.
The number one reason I love polyester is because it’s wrinkle-resistant. Let’s be real, who really enjoys ironing t-shirts? No one. Choosing polyester is a sneaky, convenient way to avoid it.
Another awesome feature is how fast polyester dries. If made with high-quality thread, the fabric won’t wear or tear over time either. This makes polyester t-shirts super easy to care for, and a great option for athletic wear.
Its moisture-wicking properties also make it ideal for sports. Polyester clothing traps sweat against the skin and allows it to evaporate instead of absorbing it into the fabric. This means you stay dry and comfortable during physical activity. As a result, polyester shirts are great for both warmer or cooler days.
Of course, polyester also has its flaws. For one, it’s non-biodegradable which means that your polyester t-shirt can take up to 200 years to break down (unless you recycle it).
Also, polyester manufacturing relies on fossil fuels and requires a lot of chemicals in the process. But recycled polyester is made by melting old plastic and spinning it into new polyester fiber. It takes five plastic bottles (that would otherwise end up in a landfill) to make one t-shirt.
Lastly, polyester isn’t great for sensitive skin as it can cause irritation. But most people don’t have an issue with it.
The biggest distinction in terms of t-shirt designs is that polyester, or polyester mixed with other synthetic fibers, is the only fabric that works with sublimation, or all-over printing.
Sublimation is a rather new printing technique that allows you to print your design all over a garment. The ink used in sublimation doesn’t bond with natural fibers like cotton. So, if you want to start a print-on-demand business that sells t-shirt designs with eye-catching all-over prints, polyester is your best friend.
To find out more, check out our complete guide on What Is Sublimation Printing and How Does it Work?
Here’s another helpful resource: a Step-by-Step Guide on How to Create Sublimation Designs.
From an environmentally-friendly perspective, polyester clothing lasts a very long time and requires little water, energy, and heat to clean. However, the fabric can also take up to 200 years to decompose.
But, because garments can last that long, they don’t have to be thrown out. You can repurpose polyester t-shirts by adding cool prints, sewing them into new styles, or simply donating them to a thrift store.
If you’re looking for a more sustainable option, go for polyester fabric that’s made from recycled plastic.
Blending multiple fabrics together is an awesome way to create a new type of textile with unique properties. Most clothing nowadays is made from a combination of different fabrics. So no t-shirt fabric guide would be complete without mentioning the most common blends.
Textile scientists started blending fabrics on a large scale in the 1980s. Their goal was to produce the most comfortable material for every occasion. Blending fabrics can improve their texture and durability, and create the perfect canvas for one-of-a-kind prints.
The pros of blending synthetic material with natural fibers include more breathability, fewer wrinkles, better insulation, and reduced costs. Blends also dry quicker than pure cotton t-shirts.
As mentioned above, combining multiple fabrics can also improve their texture. For example, blending rayon with cotton improves its softness and luster, which enhances its appearance and feel.
When it comes to print designs, blended fabrics can yield interesting cross-dye effects. One material may absorb the dye vibrantly, while the other fabric retains its natural color. This can be a plus or a minus, depending on your artistic vision.
Blending fabrics can increase the durability of an individual fabric. But, you could also just choose the more durable fabric to begin with. It all depends on what properties you want your t-shirt to have.
Adding synthetic fiber to natural materials will reduce their natural properties, like being hypoallergenic. Especially since some synthetic materials can cause allergic reactions.
It’s also important to note that blending fabrics can add complexity to their maintenance and washing. So if you have a print-on-demand store, it’s crucial to inform your customers about the specific care requirements for each garment.
While sublimation will only work on 100% polyester or polyester and spandex blends, DTG or DTF printing, and even embroidery, works on t-shirts with multiple fabrics.
Blended fabrics usually contain two or three different fibers (the latter are called tri-blend fabrics). The amount of each fabric also comes in varying ratios—the most common composition for polyester and cotton blends is 65% to 35%, respectively.
Our most common tri-blend is a polyester-cotton-rayon blend (50/25/25). We’ve already discussed cotton, polyester, and their properties, but what about rayon?
Rayon is a semi-synthetic fiber made from natural sources of regenerated cellulose, like wood. It’s also called viscose, and depending on the grade, can resemble natural fibers like silk, cotton, wool, and linen. That’s why it’s sometimes called artificial silk.
Our famous tri-blend is ideal for easy-fitting apparel and is loved for its cozy feel. Thanks to the loose weave and combination of fibers, it’s perfect for creating DTG prints with a vintage vibe.
If you’ve taken a good look at our catalog, you’ll notice we don’t offer many 100% polyester t-shirts. The reason is that polyester doesn’t have any natural stretch.
However, spandex, also called elastane or lycra, is a synthetic fiber famous for its elasticity. Adding a bit of spandex to polyester helps create silky smooth, durable t-shirts that are also movement-friendly and stretch resistant. It’s a great mix for activewear.
Cotton polyester blend and others
Ever wonder why gray clothes are more comfortable? If you look closely, gray fabric is usually a mixture of different fibers with varying color grades. This is called melange, or heather fabric, and it gives a shimmering, mottled color effect.
For example, our Women’s Relaxed T-Shirt | Bella + Canvas 6400 in white is 100% combed ring-spun cotton, but get it in Athletic Heather and it’ll be 90% combed ring-spun cotton and 10% polyester. Other heather colors are 52% combed and ring-spun cotton and 48% polyester.
Another blend we offer at Printful is 65% polyester and 35% viscose, like our Women's Embroidered Flowy Crop Tee | Bella + Canvas 8882. This blend creates super lightweight t-shirts with a relaxed, flowy fit that are fantastic for embroidery.
Spandex, or elastane, is petroleum-based, just like polyester. It’s not the most sustainable fabric, but the good news is that initiatives are underway to lessen its environmental impact.
On the plus side, elastane’s incredible stretch and ability to snap back make it a valuable addition to textile manufacturing. Apparel containing elastane is more resistant and movement-friendly, which means it won’t rip or tear. You can wear it forever.
Rayon, aka viscose, is produced from a renewable natural resource and it’s biodegradable. But, traditionally, manufacturers use a lot of toxic chemicals to transform cellulose into silky fabric. So it’s crucial to pay attention to whether the production process is ethical and closed-loop.
At Printful, we make sure the manufacturing process for our products is lawful, ethical, and safe for the workers and environment. Just like the rayon and polyester in our Women’s Flowy Crop Tee | Bella + Canvas 8882.
Fabric weight and yarn count are closely related, and they matter because the fabric’s quality and characteristics vary depending on the weight. Lighter fabrics like polyester or combed ring-spun cotton are finer than heavier ones like COE cotton or linen.
Lighter t-shirts are softer and more comfortable for everyday wear (especially in hot weather). They’re also perfect for traveling since they’ll take up less space in your luggage.
But how does fabric weight affect custom t-shirt designs? Your prints will be more textured on heavier fabrics and more detailed and smooth on lighter fabrics. There’s no good or bad, it all boils down to preference and needs.
So what is yarn count and how is it calculated? Yarn count defines the fineness of the thread. It’s usually calculated by how many 840 yards-long threads you’ll need to make one pound of yarn.
For example, a 30/s, 30 singles, or 30/1 yarn count means you need 30 threads of 840 yards to get one pound. Basically, the higher the yarn count, the lighter the fabric. An 18/1 yarn count indicates heavier fabric than 30/1. I know, my brain is bursting too.
Fabric weight references the finished product (the fabric spun from the yarn) and it’s calculated either by oz/yd² (ounce per square yard) or g/m² (gram per square meter/GMS). For example, our Women’s Basic Organic T-Shirt | SOL’S 02077 weighs 4.57 oz/yd² (155 g/m²). To get a better idea of a t-shirt’s drape and fit, check the fabric thickness to see where it falls on the scale of light to heavyweight.
Why do your customers care about fabric weight? Thinner t-shirts are light, flowy, and take up less space in a suitcase. But heavier t-shirts are thicker, so they’re great for layering and cooler weather. The bottom line? If you own an online clothing store, don’t forget to inform your customers so they can make educated choices.
Each fabric in this t-shirt material guide has its unique properties—some great, some less so. How you choose the right fabric for your t-shirt business depends on who your customers are and how they’re going to wear your t-shirts.
We’ve discussed multiple factors to help you choose the best t-shirt material for your prints. Remember to consider the fabric quality, feel, and thickness, and whether it’s wrinkle-resistant, movement-friendly, breathable, etc. Go for organic or recycled materials if you want to build a sustainable brand.
You’ll also want to consider what type of customization method you want for your designs. Cotton or poly-cotton blends with a high percentage of cotton work nicely with embroidery, and offer the highest color vibrancy for DTG or DTF printing.
Tri-blend fabrics are awesome for vintage-looking DTG prints, while polyester was born for sublimation printing. And don’t forget that DTF, DTG, and embroidery work on fabric blends as well.
I hope this t-shirt material guide left you equipped with all the knowledge you need to make the best choices for your online clothing store. Whatever the occasion, we’re here to help you find the most suitable t-shirt fabric for your prints.
Zoe Amora Iranzo-Lauriņa
Zoe is a creative writer, multilingual translator, and certified yoga instructor with a passion for learning, traveling, and global cuisine. When she's not typing away at her PC, you can find her teaching yoga in the park, reading on the couch with her cat, or plunging in the Mediterranean.