Buying Casual Knit Shirts
Joyce A. Smith,
Ph.D., Extension Specialist, Clothing
Extension Associate, Consumer and Textile Sciences
Whether your needs are for comfort clothes to wear at home or business
casual for school or the office, knit shirts find their way into most
wardrobes. They are comfortable, usually easy care, and come in a variety of
styles. In both warm and cool weather choices, quality knit shirts are
available at affordable prices. Whether you shop in traditional retail
stores, from catalogues or on the web, consider the many features below
before making your selection.
Knit shirts come in a variety of knit structures. Some offer a smooth
finish which may appear a bit dressier while others have some texture. The
structure may be for design interest, but could affect how the fabric
You will want a knit shirt that keeps its shape after laundering. Three
key properties that affect stability of knits are (1) loop structure of the
knit, (2) grain of the garment, and (3) fiber content (see Fiber Content
section below). Look for shirts with firm, even stitches. The knitted loops
should be round, rather than elongated or long as if they are being
stretched. Often, knit fabrics are stretched during processing. Remember,
the rounder the loop, the less shrinkage should occur.
Also, check the grain of the garment. Usually the fabric is knit first
then the garment pieces are cut out. Some shirts are circular knit. The body
of the garment forms a tube and there are no seams. With either type of
construction, the vertical rows of loops in a knit shirt should be at right
angles to the hem. The side seams should fall below the underarm. If side
seams or vertical rows of loops twist around the body, the problem will only
get worse after washing. Look carefully at the rows of loops.
Knit shirts come in several types of knits. They include jersey or single
knit, interlock, double knit, rib, waffle, pointelle, and pique. Other
speciality knits include jacquard with knitted in designs and knits that
look like corduroy (vertical ridges) and ottoman (crosswise ridges).
The most common knits in shirts are interlock and jersey. Both are
usually smooth with interlock knits having a bit more body. The weight can
be varied by using heavier yarns. Sometimes surface yarns are brushed for a
softer finish and additional warmth to trap body heat and act as an
insulator. Double knits look very similar to interlock knits but are heavier
and more stable. Rib knits are very stretchy and form fitting. They have
lengthwise ridges throughout the fabric.
Popular for cold weather knit shirts is a waffle stitch. This stitch can
be identified by a "square waffle" design in the fabric. These shirts can be
very dense which traps body heat and makes a warmer garment. Thermal shirts
will often use this knit structure especially combined with a brushed
surface next to the skin for additional warmth. The waffle stitch in heavier
weights can be less drapable, since it usually compacts during laundering.
Corduroy and ottoman knits will tend to be heavier and more compact. More
yarn is knitted into these fabrics to form the ridges, giving a thicker
fabric overall. Expect to see these fabric structures in winter weight
shirts rather than those designed for summer use.
Pique, mesh, gauze, and pointelle knit stitches are frequently used in
summer weight garments, but in fabric structures that are less dense and
more open. Pique stitches usually have a honey comb or diamond shape. Mesh
and gauze are open structures and may vary in shape. Pointelle has a pinhole
appearance, makes a garment with a soft hand and is commonly found in
children's clothing, although it may be used for adult wear. Air can
circulate easily making the shirts more comfortable to wear in hot weather
than traditional jersey or interlock stitches. Lighter weight yarns are used
in fabrics for warm weather. Generally, pique, mesh, and gauze knits are
more stable and do not shrink as readily as interlock, pointelle, and jersey
Jacquard knits feature designs knitted into the fabrics. These designs
are part of the fabric and will not wash away or rub off with wear, which
can occur with printed designs applied to the surface. If you turn a
jacquard knit to the wrong side, you will see the surface design in reverse.
Companies also add more interest to fabrics by combining fibers of different
colors when spinning the yarn. A heather effect results in the fabric.
Because of the additional processing and planning, both jacquard knits and
basic knits in heathered colors often cost slightly more than the same item
in a solid color. When selecting a shirt with horizontal stripes, make sure
the stripes match at side seams and across the chest at the sleeve seams.
Matched stripes indicate better quality, but also improve the appearance of
Many catalogues and some garment labels in stores identify the weight of
the yarn or fabric used in garments. For example, you might see in
catalogues "Fabric weight 6 oz. per square yard." The higher the number, the
heavier the fabric. For outdoor winter activities, a ten ounce per square
yard fabric weight may be a good choice, while a five to six ounce fabric
weight would be better for at home or to wear under sweaters. Note
references to multiple ply yarns, such as a two ply yarn versus a single ply
yarn. More plies will give a heavier yarn which results in more stability,
but also greater strength and warmth in the fabric.
Check the garment label or hang tag for fiber content information. Most
shirts are made from cotton, polyester, or a blend of the two. Occasionally
silk is used in knit shirts, as well as rayon or lyocell, both manufactured
cellulosic fibers that add softness and luster. Small amounts of nylon offer
strength, and spandex contributes good stretch and recovery. In fact,
spandex in the neck, sleeve, and hem ribbing is desirable and may account
for a slight increase in price. The ribbing on these garments will usually
not sag or stretch out easily.
Check the percentage of each fiber in a garment, since the amount
contributes to fabric performance and fabric characteristics. The quality of
cotton will also affect quality of the garment and price. Long staple, high
quality cotton fibers are usually very smooth and found in better garments.
Look for the terms "long staple cotton," "Pima cotton," "Combed cotton" and
"Cotton Lisle." Pima is a very high-grade of cotton grown in the
southwestern United States. Combed cotton undergoes extra processing for
smoothness and to retain only the longest and best quality fibers. Lisle is
a jersey fabric made from two ply combed cotton yarns forming a fabric that
is usually very soft, smooth, and of improved quality.
Cotton, rayon, and lyocell are absorbent, breathable, and very
comfortable against the skin. However, these fibers do tend to shrink more
in knit fabrics. Polyester, a synthetic, is not breathable or absorbent. In
knit shirts, it gives stability and reduces shrinkage. A blend of cotton and
polyester will shrink less than a knit of 100 percent cotton. Generally, the
greater the percent of polyester, the less comfortable the garment will be,
but also less shrinkage can be expected. Fabrics high in polyester will dry
more quickly than cotton, rayon, or lyocell knits. Polyester has a tendency
to pill with the problem increasing as the percent of polyester in the knit
Because silk is a natural fiber, it breathes, is absorbent, and is
comfortable. Silk knit shirts will be somewhat lustrous and might look a bit
dressier. Perspiration stains can damage and deteriorate silk more than
cotton or polyester. Also, check care requirements. Some silk knits may
require hand washing rather than machine washing.
"High tech" fibers and fabrics can be found in casual knit shirts. Two
products of interest are CoolMax
is a specialty
fiber by Dupont. It is engineered to have 20 percent more surface area than
regular fibers which allows body moisture to evaporate more quickly.
Garments made from CoolMax
keep the body cooler in summer and warmer in
is an olefin fiber by Dupont that is being used in high
performance knit shirts. It wicks moisture away from the body quickly,
keeping the body more comfortable, but also features good wind-resistance
with breathability. Olefin naturally dries quickly and resists shrinkage,
two desirable properties. Although CoolMax
useful in knit shirts for activewear, they are likely to carry a higher
Look for quality construction in a knit garment. Check for overall
smoothness, flat construction, even stitches, an absence of needle holes,
broken stitches, or loose threads. The garment should be cut on grain (see
Fabric Structure) to avoid twisting of seams after washing. Quality seams
are serged or finished, lie flat, do not draw up, yet have some give or
stretch to allow for dressing. Double needle stitching at armhole and
neckline seams makes these areas more secure.
Because knits stretch, shoulder seams and neck bands are often taped for
reinforcement. Some garments even feature a second layer of fabric or wide
tape at the collar stand or neck back to retain shape in the area.
Occasionally, turtleneck shirts feature a seamless neckline, which is a more
expensive construction. This approach is designed to hug the neck, lie
flatter, and be more comfortable for the wearer.
Look at other garment details. Collars, pockets, and zippers should be
smoothly applied. Look at buttonholes. Will they stretch out of shape during
use? Are pockets reinforced so that the stitching will not come out with
repeated use? Note trims as well. Are the stitches secure or will they pull
out easily? Also, does the trim or decoration inhibit stretch in the fabric
to the extent that it might affect comfort or appearance?
When shopping on the web or from catalogues it is not possible to
actually examine and handle the fabric. Some companies provide very complete
descriptions. Look for specific mention of reinforced seams, taped
shoulders, double stitching, or other references to quality construction.
These are cues for the shopper. How well a garment is made affects both
durability as well as appearance over the life of the garment.
Style features and other detailing of knit shirts may influence your
choice. Consider styling features and how they relate to the wearer's needs
when selecting knit shirts.
Sleeve styles range from sleeveless to long sleeve depending on the
season or use for which the shirt will be worn. Occasionally, some specialty
types can be found, such as muscle tees which feature sleeves that extend
past the shoulder, placing emphasis on the triceps. In any case, most
sleeves will feature ribbed or hemmed edges with the former often looking
more casual. Ribbed edges may be preferred by people with short arms. The
ribbing will hug the wrist and help keep the sleeve in place. Also, edges
can often be turned up to shorten the sleeve and still look appropriate.
Note, too, raglan versus set-in sleeves. Raglan sleeves will emphasize
rounded shoulders while set-in sleeves will emphasize square shoulders.
Neckline treatments offer much creativity. Consider seasonal and personal
needs in making selections.
Design detail for polo shirts may include chest pockets and zipper or
three-button tabbed closings. Most polo shirts feature rib knit collar and
cuffs, crew or v-neckline, side vents, and are hemmed or banded at the
bottom. Henley styling includes a two-button or three-button placket front
with stand-up collar and square bottom hem.
Turtlenecks, Scrunch Turtlenecks, and Mock Turtlenecks
Turtleneck collars are usually turned down and close-fitting. Scrunch
turtleneck collars feature the collar standing up and "scrunched" for a very
casual look. Mock turtleneck collars feature a standup collar that is not as
wide as a regular turtleneck and cannot be turned down. Depending on neck
length, people with shorter necks might look best in a mock style and people
with longer necks look best in a regular turtleneck or scrunch style.
Tank Tops and Camisoles
These close-fitting tops are featured in cotton or cotton/polyester
blends. Some include spandex for close fit. To ensure no gapping at neck and
armholes, many are featured with elastic lace trim at these areas. Camisoles
may feature adjustable straps made of elastic and satin to ensure close fit.
Tops are usually short or hip-length.
Shirt Lengths and Hem Treatment
Most knit shirts come in standard lengths, although a few fashion
versions can be found each season. These might include tunic and cropped
styles. Tunics are a longer length often falling over the hip area which
might be more flattering to some figures. Side vents will give added
comfort. Crop tops usually fall above the waistline, hence the name
"cropped." Design features may include lettuce edging to finish sleeve and
garment hems. Remember, too, that for shirts with regular styling,
differences in length will occur.
Within each of these shirt lengths, hem finishes will probably be ribbed,
hemmed, and sometimes feature a band with blouson styling. Make sure the
ribbed finish stretches adequately and comes back to shape. Also, try
different styles to determine which is most comfortable and looks best for
your body type.
Sizing and Fit
Most knit shirts come in sizes ranging from small or extra small to
extra, extra large rather than specific number sizes. Some companies offer
sizes for individuals with special fitting considerations. These might
include petite sizes, tall and plus sizes (1X-3X) for women and tall, big
regular, and big tall for men. The tall and extra long lengths may be
preferred by "regular sized" customers for the extra "tuck in" fabric,
particularly for people engaged in active sports. Some catalogues will
indicate finished garment measurement length to help in decision-making.
Consider garment style and fullness. Some shirts are body hugging,
usually rib knits, while others are looser and fit more like a sweater.
Sizing and amount of ease will also vary among brands. For example, a size
large in one brand may be smaller or larger in the body by four to five
inches or skimpier in the sleeve or armhole than other brands.
Given the potential variation in sizing, it is best to try on knit shirts
before purchase. If buying from a catalogue, check size charts and size
categories carefully. Remember that if the label on 100 percent cotton
shirts does not guarantee shrink resistance, buy a larger size.
Refer to the directions on the sewn-in care label to determine
recommended garment care. Hot temperatures and tumble drying, especially,
will increase shrinking in cotton knits. Usually, knit shirts made of cotton
or polyester/cotton blend can be machine washed in warm water and tumbled
dried. Others that include silk or lyocell in the blend may recommend dry
cleaning, handwashing, or special care, such as machine washing and line
drying or lying flat to dry. Removing knit shirts from the dryer when
slightly damp and stretching slightly will reduce overall shrinkage.
Shirts in rich, deep colors usually require washing separately in cool
water to reduce color loss. Decorative knit shirts with screen prints, heat
transfer prints or flocked designs may recommend special care, such as
turning the knit shirt wrong side out before laundering. Remember, to
maintain garment appearance, follow care recommendations. Consider the care
you are willing to give before buying a knit shirt.
When making that final purchase decision, consider the information that
affects quality and durability. Also, consider personal preferences and
tastes, and the amount of a time you have to provide proper care to keep
that garment looking like new longer.