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Technical clothing. Concert t-shirts. Statement wardrobe. Fan apparel. Comfy pajama tops.
T-shirts are everywhere.
They can be used as casual clothing, comfortable companions, and classy accompaniments to blazers and suit jackets. Plus, they’re incredibly useful when layering — but, all of this flexibility also means that t-shirts come into direct contact with your skin.
And that’s where the discomfort begins.
A piece of clothing that’s supposed to be easy, casual, and multi-purpose can suddenly become an irritating nuisance. It’s either too stiff and boxy or it’s scratchy and unstructured. And even if a new t-shirt somehow manages to be soft, it’s usually because the material is too thin.
One wash later and it’s ready to retire.
As it turns out, there are multiple ways to soften your shirt so it has that vintage feel of a beloved, well-worn t-shirt without you having to literally wear it in.
The best part is that these are all DIY hacks you can try at home using only a few household ingredients and techniques. Keep in mind though, the fabric of your t-shirt affect which method will work best.
To kick things off, let’s take a look at common t-shirt fabric types that you may end up wanting to soften.
Before you can soften your shirt you need to know the different kind of t-shirt blends you may have. Because there are multiple methods for softening a shirt, not all techniques are optimal for all blends.
Some techniques could even damage the fabric blend instead of softening it, which is definitely not what you’re going for.
So first — read the tag on your t-shirt and understand which blend type you’re working with. Aside from innovative and performance fabrics like dri-fit, t-shirts are typically a combination of these common fabric types:
The most common fabric for t-shirts is cotton. But as you’ll soon learn, not all cotton is created equally, and much of the quality depends on the crop harvest and the manufacturing and production process.
Still, combed cotton is a superior form of cotton and its main feature is that it has longer, straighter strands, which result in stronger, softer, and smoother weaves on your t-shirt.
Next comes polyester, which is also very common t-shirt fabrication. Because this fabric maintains its shape and resists shrinking and wrinkling, you’ll often find it mixed with some percentage of cotton — so a wearer can experience the benefits of both!
Polyester is a synthetic fiber and a by-product of petroleum and a few other compounds. The result? Impressive. This blend is usually both water- and wind-resistant, which makes it the perfect fabric for performance and outdoor clothing, including parkas and jackets.
When blended with cotton, polyester helps reinforce cotton’s natural properties while making the end result a multi-functional fabrication that’s easy to wash and wear.
Also synthetically crafted, jersey material is soft, fluid, cool to the touch, and flexible.
It’s made from cotton and is quite comfortable, so you’ll often find jersey blends featured in cardigans, knit dresses, beanies, sweaters, and t-shirts. Clothing crafted from jersey is lightweight and breathable.
Jersey blends hold their shape well even after several washes, but is prone to shrinking. Cotton jerseys can withstand ironing heat, unlike polyester, but require a cold wash cycle so they don’t bleed or shrink.
This is pretty much the highest quality of cotton you can find. Also known as “supima” cotton, pima cotton is an extra-long fiber cotton grown in the U.S., Australia, and South America.
These fibers also happen to be superior in strength and durability, a notable difference from Egyptian cotton. Clothing from pima cotton lasts longer and is well worth the price tag.
If you’ve ever worn soft, silky scarves or beautiful, flowing shirts, the fabric is most likely rayon. This is a natural fabric that feels more like nylon, but can also imitate the properties of silk.
See how beautifully this fabric hangs and drapes without looking too baggy?
T-shirts that are of “modal” fabric are essentially a variant of rayon, but are specifically made using the pulp of beechwood trees. That’s why this fabric drapes so well and resists shrinking. However, as a delicate fabric, rayon is prone to pilling so all fabrics should be naturally air-dried.
Now that you know more about the fabric types you typically see in t-shirts, let’s boil everything down into an easy-to-recall checklist.
Remember: just because a t-shirt is soft to the touch doesn’t make it high-quality. There are plenty of t-shirts that feel soft at first because the retailer has added lots of starch. Run it through a couple of washes, and it's true quality reveals itself as the t-shirt loses its softness and starts to feel rough.
With that in mind, here’s a handy checklist to use when trying to find out if your t-shirt is high-quality or not:
Touch: Does your t-shirt feel natural or does it feel sort of like plastic? Trust the touch as a first checkpoint because this can tell you a lot
Label check: This is useful for learning more about blend type. Additionally, some manufacturers may also include thread count
Wrinkle test: Natural, high-quality fabrics should not maintain a wrinkle when dry. If you crumple a part of the t-shirt in your hand and the fabric retains the wrinkle, it’s probably lower quality. However, a t-shirt with no wrinkles will be mostly all synthetic so try to find a balance between the two
Transparency: Yes, you want lightweight and soft fabrics but not see-through ones, right? That’s an indicator of low-grade construction made using cheap materials. Hold your t-shirt up to the light — if it’s too transparent, that means the weave is not dense enough and is likely to quickly lose shape.
Hemlines: When you inspect the quality of construction on a hemline, this will likely tell you what you need to know about the stitching and overall construction. To assess the hemlines, lay the t-shirt flat and look for any loose threads and areas where the stitching appears uneven. Pay particular attention to the collar, sleeves and lower hem
Patterns: If your t-shirt includes a graphic pattern on it, check to make sure that the pattern matches at the seams and has continuity. Oftentimes, low-quality t-shirts use alternate, mis-matching pieces or scraps along the seams.
Your best bet is to opt for a high-quality, soft shirt from the get-go, but what if you’ve already purchased the shirt and it’s far from soft? What’s causing all of the stiffness anyways?
Now that you know more about the fabrics you’re dealing with, let’s answer a burning question: why are some t-shirts so uncomfortable when you first purchase them?
Not all t-shirts are created alike. Just because a t-shirt says “100% cotton” (or is a traditionally softer fabric) doesn’t mean that it’s going to be soft — or that the quality of the shirt is as high as you might expect.
The process of manufacturing a t-shirt is often the culprit for scratchy, stiff t-shirts.
Here are 5 reasons why a t-shirt may not be high-quality and soft, despite first appearances:
Before a t-shirt becomes a t-shirt, the individual cotton fibers go through three processes: Carding, combing, blending.
Carding is a pretty standard process that must occur for the t-shirt fabric to be spun and then knit on a loom.
But not all bales of cotton are combed, as it’s a more labor-intensive and expensive process — and that’s where the difference starts.
Simply put, combed cotton is a process that softens naturally rough cotton fibers. If this doesn’t occur enough times, then the resulting t-shirt will be stiff and quite scratchy.
It works almost the same way hair is brushed and smoothed: Fine, combing brushes essentially straighten and smooth out the fibers while pulling out the shorter fibers — as well as any impurities nestled between.
Only the longest and straightest fibers make it through this process, and the result is a softer, smoother, higher-quality cotton fabric. It also leads to less overall fraying once the fabric is cut and sewn into a t-shirt.
These are the granular details that have a considerable impact on the final product.
Part of the manufacturing process for cotton involves dyeing and coloration. But if the dyes are not crafted from natural sources or include harsh chemicals, this affects the quality of fabric as it dries.
In most cases, if the dye is too strong it will permeate the fibers of the thread and cause them to stiffen. If this is the case, you’ll find that your t-shirt gets softer the more you wash it — and that’s no coincidence.
Because the dye is so saturated, there’s a significant chance it will leech out during the first couple of washes.
But this poses other problems — so getting a softer shirt in these situations isn’t always what you want. You lose color, and put other clothes in your wash at risk. If dye is the culprit, you probably should look for a new shirt.
Combed cotton is a superior form of cotton fiber.
However, t-shirt manufacturers will often include other fibers so that the fabric is a blend. These blends include fabrics like jersey, rayon, and polyester, which is an extremely popular blend with cotton.
If the fibers used to blend with cotton have not been well-treated or are low quality it will impact the quality of the blend of the t-shirt.
While the fibers used to blend with cotton are a big piece of the puzzle, the cotton in the blend makes a huge difference. If the original cotton plant is treated with fertilizers or pesticides, this greatly reduces the quality of the cotton crop, which thereby impacts the quality of the final product.
With that in mind, it’s a good idea to look for organic cotton when possible. While slightly more expensive, organic cotton has multiple benefits over conventional cotton:
Simply put, organic cotton is not highly treated and is naturally softer. So, try and find out if your blend includes high-quality, organic cotton. You’ll be happy you did!
Believe it or not, it’s not all about the treatment or the quality of the cotton crop and blend. Thread count can also play a role.
Thread count is the number of vertical and horizontal threads woven in a square inch and it makes a big difference in the softness of the final product.
But here’s the thing: just because a thread count is high, doesn’t mean that the quality of the fabric is automatically higher-quality too. Many manufacturers inflate their thread counts to 1000 or 1200 to persuade consumers of quality.
There are plenty of myths around thread counts because they’ve become such a marketing gimmick.
Thread count quality versus count maxes out at 500.
Anything higher has a trade-off: Manufacturers will use thinner strands of fabric (plies) twisted together in a “multi-ply” to make it seem as though the count is high.
Ironically, this high count of multi-ply thread results in a much coarser, rougher feel. Lower-grade, shorter-staple cotton fibers twisted together for a higher thread count causes more friction, and the fibers tend to poke out of the weave anyway.
Let’s say that, despite your best efforts to pick a high-quality t-shirt, for some reason, it’s boxy and stiff from being packed for so long.
You can soften your t-shirt — but it’s tricky. You’ve got to choose the right technique for your fabric blend. The last thing you want is your attempts to soften your t-shirt (basically improving your experience of wearing it) resulting in you completely ruining the color, print, or fit.
So what’s a t-shirt lover to do? Now that you know the various blend types and what they’re most susceptible to, choose the best method that works for your t-shirt’s fabric. Here are the top five you should consider:
Vinegar is a household staple that we mostly associate it with cleaning, but it can help you soften your t-shirts too. This method is best for fabrics that are either 100% cotton/organic cotton, or a blend that is primarily cotton.
First off, you want to start with clear vinegar. Don’t use red wine or apple cider — these will stain your t-shirt. You’ll also need baking soda and a few measuring spoons and cups.
Take a very large bowl and add one tablespoon of baking soda. Then, slowly pour in one cup of vinegar so that the resulting fizz mostly remains in the bowl.
Once it’s stopped fizzing, give the solution a good stir to make sure all the baking soda has dissolved.
Next, pour your baking soda and vinegar solution into your washing machine along with your t-shirt and then give it a good normal rinse.
Again, make sure to run it through the right cycle for colors or temperature. Then dry as normal, and enjoy your softer t-shirt!
The saltwater solution is another easy DIY technique that you can create right at home. Just make sure you have a large enough pot like a Dutch oven or pasta pot.
Fill the pot with water and pour in one cup of salt. Stir it in to make sure it dissolves.
Hopefully your pot is already on the stove — but if not, put it there and turn up the heat to bring the water to a boil.
Next, wet your t-shirt under the sink and then submerge it into the solution — carefully. Make sure you don’t burn your hand on the hot water.
Once the shirt is situated, set your stove’s burner to “low” and let it sit for 30 to 45 minutes with the lid on. Then, take your shirt soup off the stove and drain in a colander.
Once the t-shirt has cooled, rinse it to remove the excess salt and then run it through a normal wash cycle. This method is fine for polyester blends and cotton but not for rayon, but it should leave your shirt much softer.
This is a pretty simple and ingenious technique. You already use pumice stones for your pedicures, so why can’t you use it for your rough or scratchy t-shirts?
Unlike the above methods, this one needs no liquids: Take a pumice stone and brush all over your t-shirt, including the sleeves and hemline. Then, soak the t-shirts in a solution of fabric softener and just a few teaspoons of water overnight.
Run it through a normal wash cycle the next morning, and there you have it!
Sometimes, your t-shirts are too stiff because you’ve been air drying them. For the most part, that’s a good thing. Not only is line- or rack-drying a far more eco-friendly solution, it preserves the quality of your t-shirts over time.
But there can be too much of a good thing. To soften up your stiff or scratchy t-shirts, run them through a normal wash cycle as you would, including fabric softener. Then, line dry them to about 60-70% dryness.
From there, put them into the dry on a low tumble dry setting. You can also choose to add a few tennis balls to work those fabric kinks out and give them a good “beating.”
This technique will soften your t-shirts without stretching them.
Pro-tip: If you’re allergic to soap, consider using this technique — run your stiff t-shirts through the washing machine on a warm wash/cold rinse setting. Then, use 1 cup of non-fat “dry” milk (evaporated) instead of your usual substitute. Tumble dry your clothes on delicate through the dryer!
This is a great method for t-shirts that have prints, letters, or designs on them. You don’t want to ruin the ink or make the pigment bleed, but at the same time you’re craving that soft-to-the-touch, vintage feel.
What’s a t-shirt lover to do?
Simple: Switch up your liquid detergent for just a cup of powder detergent or washing “soda.” Then, grab some salt and either a couple of heavy-duty scouring pads or some sandpaper.
Start by running your scouring pads (or sandpaper) all around the neckline, sleeves, and hemline. Do not scrub the rest of the t-shirt and avoid the printed area.
Then, combine one cup of salt with ¼ of a cup of washing soda. This will break down the fibers of the t-shirt.
Next, place your t-shirts in a cycle set to high heat and allow water to fill in. When the tub is almost full with its water, place the soap and salt mixture in. Close the machine once more and let it run through the cycle. Then dry them on high heat one more time.
This method is very effective, but you’ll need to do this at least 2-3 times to see good results. Just make sure not to scrub too hard with the pads as you can end up ripping the collar (unless grunge is what you’re going for).
These nifty techniques can save you lots of time and money.
Keep in mind, however, that you may need to run your t-shirts through some of these methods more than once.
In other words, don’t be discouraged or too quick to move on to a new method if your t-shirts don’t soften to the right degree, right away. Instead, pick just one of these methods and stick to it.
And remember that fabrics for athletic performance are not the right candidates for these methods. Synthetic materials are soft and flexible by their nature, so you’re unlikely to need any of these methods.
That’s why natural fibers like rayon and cotton are built for longevity and make such perfect t-shirts. The trade-off, of course, is that you may have to soften them first.
Using these tips, however, you’re likely to make a better buying decision on high-quality fabrics, the right softening technique, and what to look for when your buying your next t-shirt.