Build Your Business:

Tees Still Trending

January 15, 2016

This much we know: The T-shirt is a fashion staple in virtually all closets across the country. The horizon looks strong and promising for this wardrobe basic, and colors and styles continue to evolve. While demand for the tried-and-true T-shirt may have remained constant, the quality and choice of fabrics and designs has been ramped up in recent years.

T-shirts are a walking billboard, and they are a great way to express yourself,” says Kristen Vincent, senior merchandising associate for Fruit of the Loom/JERZEES. “New innovation and technology allow you to do an unlimited world of techniques that can turn a basic T-shirt into a new and exciting product.”

One driver of the T-shirt market today is the “active lifestyle” arena (think yoga and activewear). Garments in this niche are versatile and adaptable, giving wearers the ability to transition from a piece worn while breaking a sweat during the day into a casual nighttime choice under a leather jacket.

Innovation in T-shirt fabrics is serious business. Soft knits, poly blends and vintage fabrics all have a place in the market. Mark Seymour, chief sales officer for Next Level Apparel, refers to his company’s super-soft, combed, ring-spun cotton jersey and CVC 60/40 cotton/poly blend fabrics as popular, trending items. He adds that silhouettes are going back to the vintage, “Americana” heritage look of the past.

“Fabrics like our tri-blend and poly/cotton blends have a beautiful heather hue, which has really made a positive impact on the fashion T-shirt offering,” he says.

In other words, the fabric selection is diverse and can have great influence over what a T-shirt can offer its wearers. Characteristics can include antimicrobial and moisture-wicking properties, breathability, quick-cooling capabilities and ultraviolet protection. Factor in the many textures, dye techniques and direct-to-garment printing, and the printwear market seems unstoppable.

“A majority of the innovations are driven by the major athletic and sportswear brands and lifestyle trends,” says Vince Winters, president of Elbowgrease Athletics/Jettco Intl. Inc. “It begins with fabrics. We scour the market for new fabric and T-shirt trends, and then we share this inspiration with our technicians and mills that knit our [garments] for review and a long list of end-use testing.”

Elbowgrease takes a private-label approach to developing fabrics that can be used within multiple categories. The company knits its own fabrics and, therefore, can control everything, from the small fiber level, through the dyeing, finishing and cutting-and-sewing process, into final silhouetting. Winters says Elbowgrease can provide quick-turn solutions to support introducing more novelty fabrics into the company’s collections. More control means more ability to react to market trends and develop potential opportunities for customers, he says.

The women’s and juniors’ markets still have a significant impact on the T-shirt business. It’s a market segment that will continue to respond well to fabric, fit and value, says Seymour.

“I don’t believe this is a short-lived development, and [these markets were] sadly overlooked for too long,” he says. “Many fashion blank companies made a shirt that was too small and not properly graded. We offer a lot of choice in T-shirt necklines and fabric choices in multiple tank-top silhouettes.”

Light and bright colors are key, appearing in the sports and athletic T-shirt sectors, while pastels also have held their own, particularly along the East Coast.

“The Hanes Beefy-T T-shirt will include a new Coastal Colors collection, offering four new, on-trend colors — clean mint, candy orange, charisma coral and blue horizon — combined with four popular existing colors — lavender, daffodil yellow, pale pink and light blue,” says Rachel Newman, director of marketing for Hanes Branded Printwear.

Retail brands such as Guy Harvey, Vineyard Vines and Southern Tide continue to fuel the popularity of this coastal-inspired look, she says, adding that vintage colors still are popular, especially with millennials.

“Athleisure” is a term that describes a strong fashion trend that will dictate sportier fabrics such as nylon and mesh. End users also are embracing the 1970s and 1980s “active” trend and its retro influences of conversational and slogan T-shirts as a form of self-expression, says Vincent.

Winters agrees: “We figured out how to make polyester comfortable, durable, athletic and casual with performance features. There is more upside to the developmental process within polyester fabrics than cotton, so at
Elbowgrease, we will continue to push the envelope and develop new and unique polyester fabrics for T-shirts into 2016 and beyond.”

While graphic tees also are important, it’s worth noting the garment’s layering ability, which can be seen on fashion runways and in high school hallways.

“Whether it is fabric weight, stretch or more modern cuts, fashion is definitely stretching our industry to stay current with what is happening on the runway and at retail,” Newman says.

In the near future, look for tank tops in both the men’s and women’s markets, and add in a shift from crew-neck to V-neck styles, according to Seymour. Fabrics will be geared toward the activewear and yoga markets — where stretch and recovery is a crucial garment need — something that’s greatly impacting the imprintable sportswear industry.

“For 2016, we are seeing an influx of polyesters in cotton-hand finishes and a variety of textures and surface interests,” Winters says. “We are also taking a big leap to develop finer gauged micro-polys, and moving beyond space dye by mixing heathers with cloudy colors and monochromatic effects.”

Like many T-shirt manufacturers, Elbowgrease is in development for spring 2017 and is continuing to integrate stretch fibers into fabrics. But a new focus will be on integrating spandex into novelty fabrics, says Winters, in an effort to stay ahead of where the blank printable marketplace currently stands.

Jennifer A. Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jennifer at