The softest ink you can put on a T-shirt is Water-Based Ink. The best fabrics to showcase its softness are triblend and poly-cotton blend shirts because they’re the softest. With all the hype around 100% cotton shirts, it’s easy to overlook these higher end fabrics. Why are they the softest kind of T-shirts available? Let me give you some science by looking at each under magnification.
First, some good examples of these shirts are Canvas’s Unisex Triblend Short Sleeve Tee (3413) or their Unisex Poly-Cotton Short Sleeve Tee (3650).
Blended fabrics have a softer hand than 100% cotton due to the synthetic fibers being smoother and more pliant than natural cotton fibers. Because of this, the surface they create in a weave is more uniform. Synthetic blends drape more closely to the body, giving them a luxurious feel.
If you look at the individual fibers of these fabrics under a microscope, the reason for their behavior becomes apparent.
Cotton fibers are natural and each one is a single elongated plant cell. They are flat and twisted like a ribbon. They form a hollow, kidney-shaped cross-section. Imagine super tiny cinnamon sticks and you’ll have the right idea. This structure gives cotton fabrics an open, slightly puffy, and semi-rough texture. This is why cotton feels less soft than synthetic fabrics.
Because of the organic, non-uniform structure of the fibers there are lots of open spaces between the fibers. This is why cotton is one of the most breathable fabrics you can wear. This breathability allows heat to leave your body easily which makes 100% cotton a popular choice for hot environments along with fabrics like linen.
When water comes in contact with cotton, it fills the inside fold of its ribbon structure and stays there. This is why cotton is such an absorbent material and can feel heavy with perspiration. As soon as you start to sweat, that breathability goes away.
Cotton moves air well, but not moisture.
Polyester fibers, on the other hand, are synthetic, smooth, solid, straight, have a round cross-section, and are narrower than cotton fibers.
This structure gives polyester fabrics a slick and smooth texture. Since the fibers have a uniform shape, there’s less texture touching your skin and they have a superior drape. These properties give the fabric an overall softer feel.
The uniform design has a tighter structure and easily passes moisture. This property will transport sweat away from the skin to the outer surface of the garment where it can evaporate. This is why many wick away performance fabrics, like rashguards, are made of either 100% polyester or a poly-nylon blend. However, this same fiber structure does not pass air well.
Polyester moves moisture well, but not air.
Triblends, which are a mix of cotton, polyester, and rayon, are the manufacturers’ attempt at giving you the best of both worlds: the breathability of cotton combined with the soft, pliable structure of synthetics.
When it comes to comfort, moving moisture away from your skin is a higher priority than moving air. If know you’re going to sweat or if you just really like soft fabrics, like we do, go with a blend.
If you have any blended T-shirts in your closet, you’ll probably find yourself consistently choosing them over other shirts because of how fantastically soft and easy they feel on your skin.
Co-founder of Danger Press in 2004, J’s background is in corporate identity design, photography, calligraphy, illustration and marketing. He enjoys solving problems, negative space, brevity, black cats, and the color gray.