Buying Casual Knit Shirts : Education Fact Sheet from Ohio State
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Buying Casual Knit Shirts


Joyce A. Smith,
Ph.D., Extension Specialist, Clothing

Bridgette Sloan,
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.

fabric Structure

round loops stretched loops

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 performs.

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 knits.

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 the garment.

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.

fiber Content

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 increases.

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
and ComforMax
. 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 winter. ComforMax
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
and ComforMax
are especially useful in knit shirts for activewear, they are likely to carry a higher price tag.

Garment Construction

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.


T-shirt Crew neck
Polo Henley

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

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 Styles

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

Scoop Turtleneck

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.

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