Saturday, April 12, 2008

In search of the perfect T-shirt

It's a been a travel-and presentation-intensive month for the NWL, with a mountain of makeup work waiting when it was all over. Along the way, I did my biannual wardrobe shift, packing up the fall/winter duds and pulling out the spring/summer clothing. I realized while doing this that I am short on tops; many of the T-shirts I bought three years ago are looking really worn and faded. In my world, that means fine for home and bed, but not for work. T-shirts have been part of my slow fashion strategy since the 70s, when I first started including solid T's as a wardrobe staple -- always one white, one red and one black, which coordinate best with my professional wardrobe -- and a couple "fresh" colors to keep things interesting. This year, only the black on and one other was looking presentable enough for work, meetings and other "dressy" (for me) occasions.

So I started looking for replacements, hoping to apply some of the newer eco-fashion principles to the search. I shopped Greenloop but gagged at the outrageous prices (can I harvest my own bamboo and send it to them for fabrication?) and the proliferation of tops designed but the young and slim. (No cap sleeves, please!). The usual catalogs have arrived, full of T's in a lovely assortment of colors, but none of them in organic cotton or made in the U.S. I visited American Apparel downtown and liked some of what I saw, but their "fine jersey" strikes this over-educated consumer as lovely to look at and wear, but less durable than the heftier cotton I usually buy.

An aside -- this is the problem with cotton jersey T-shirts. Cotton IS absorbent and it holds up well to repeated washing. But T-shirt wearers have probably noticed how their favorite shirts (and jeans, for that mattter) get thinner, more faded and softer over time. That's why we love them so much and also why they need to be replaced more often than some other items in our wardrobe. Unless the fiber used is fairly long (for cotton, that means 2-2.5 inches), fibers tend to wash away over time. Flat jersey knits are also less durable than pique or rib knits. So the perfect T for durability would be made of long-staple fiber (Pima, Supima, Egyptian)  in a slightly heavier, textured knit fabric. I have noticed that my T's with a touch of Spandex seem to be holding their shape a color well, also.

So far I've made one purchase --  a stripe (heather blue and white) Liz Claiborne shirt in a medium-weight, tiny rib. Value Village, $1.95. They had scads of cotton T's, but they all looked like the ones I'll be sleeping in this summer.

1 comment:

Timo Rissanen said...

"...why they need to be replaced more often than some other items in our wardrobe"

I'll probably sound like an ogre but 'we want them replaced' is perhaps more accurate than 'they need to be replaced'. But, you've touched on an excellent point, namely laundering. With most clothes (well, tops, shirts, t-shirts in particular) laundering is what causes the biggest environmental impact in a garment's lifecycle. We wash too often, in water that's unnecessarily warm/hot, with too much detergent, with detergent that's unnecessarily toxic, we tumble-dry where a drying rack would do, etc. Wash less, and if you need to, whack the garment in the freezer: it really kills any smells. Click on 'denim' in the labels on my blog; a year ago I would have never thought I'd wear the same pair of jeans for six months without washing.

As for the (higher) prices of 'sustainable' clothes, at the moment organic cotton accounts for 1-2% of all cotton growing (though correct me if my memory fails me) and as conventional cotton and polyester dominate more than 80% of the fashion market, any other fibre tends to cost more. It's partly up to the consumers, too. And labour... What is essentially slave labour mainly in Asia has got us accustomed to disgustingly cheap clothes, and I think that's part of the reason we don't care for our clothes like people did a generation or two ago.

But, off my soapbox, and please, this is not meant to sound like an attack on you, but rather, make your readers think about the complexities of clothing and sustainability. Totally agree with you about cap sleeves and the fine jersey... And, your spandex argument is supported by countless friends, even if from an environmental point of view it's still iffy. But, please keep blogging, it's a delight to hear people out there thinking about these things!