Why are my t-shirts so sheer?

overly sheer t-shirt
A tissue tee, available for $62. Photo from Shopbop

I just had to throw out yet another t-shirt that I bought last summer. It had small holes in the sleeves and had lost its shape, especially in the collar. I didn’t think much about it when I bought it–it was $5 at a sample sale. I don’t think I even bothered trying it on.

It was a tissue tee.

Tissue tees, which have other names like slub-knit, are really common in the women’s apparel market today. You’ve probably seen them at retailers ranging from Old Navy to Neiman Marcus. They’re thin, flowy shirts with a loose shape that hang off your body a little.

Even though these tees come in every color, all of them tend to be pretty sheer–even in black. One of the other tees I got rid of, also purchased last year, is a dark grey. Somehow, even that shirt is sheer. I was frustrated and talked about this with my dad, who has worked as a vendor in the garment industry for 35 years.

Tissue fabric is not meant for clothing

My dad explained that this type of fabric has been around forever, but it wasn’t used for apparel until pretty recently. Originally, it was used for things like:

  • cheese cloths
  • gauze
  • reusable baby diapers (using layers)

and other non-apparel uses.

Because of the physical traits of tissue fabric, it makes sense for the above uses. It’s made by knitting thread very loosely together–much less dense than normal knits, like your average Hanes t-shirt. It has a much lower thread count per inch than usual for apparel.

This results in a very thin, airy fabric that has a lot of small holes between the individual threads. The holes easily allow liquids through, so you can strain watery foods. It’s breathable to allow wrapped skin and wounds to get air. It’s very soft for sensitive baby skin.

But this fabric is terrible for adult apparel purposes, including:

  • keeping adult bodies warm
  • protecting skin from UV rays
  • standing up against rubbing bag straps
  • not showing the shape and color of the wearer’s bra

It’s not supposed to be used for clothes! This fabric is totally impractical for clothing, which has a basic purpose to protect our bodies from our surroundings and the environment. This fabric can’t do that because of how it’s constructed. It’s too thin and full of holes.

So how did we end up here? Why is this fabric that’s entirely inappropriate for apparel being used for adult clothing?

 

Reasons t-shirts are made from tissue fabric

Softness

Tissue fabric is really soft. It’s smooth and feels good to touch, and that’s probably one big reason the trend started. Women are especially sensitive to how soft clothes are, and this type of fabric is very soft. Again, good for diapers.

But the only reason for its softness is because it is so thin and loosely knit. There’s less material to rub on your fingertips to cause friction. It doesn’t resist against your touch, because the fabric is mostly air. And, well, air has low resistance.

You could say the opposite of tissue fabric on the denseness spectrum is canvas, which is used for things like duffel bags and Carhartt pants. And as thick and sturdy as canvas is, tissue fabric is flimsier and more delicate.

So this fabric probably started being used for apparel partly because it feels nice. Which is fair enough, but the reason it continues to be used despite its impracticality is probably related to money.

Cutting costs

Using tissue fabric cuts costs. Thin, loosely knit fabric requires less material, since you can use less thread to make the fabric. Sometimes thinner-than-normal thread might be used in combination, requiring even less material. You end up getting more yards of fabric out of the same amount of material.

Money is probably a big reason for tissue tees being so common. You can still charge the same or more since a t-shirt is a t-shirt, we’re told. But it costs less to produce, ship, and store these shirts per item. It needs less material, it’s lighter so cheaper to ship, and it’s smaller, so needs less space for storage and display.

And this is getting into conspiracy theory territory, but maybe retailers think the thinness encourages us as consumers to buy more shirts or camisoles from the retailer, so we can layer. Most women wouldn’t wear a sheer shirt that clearly shows their bra outside during daytime. Or maybe it’s to encourage us to buy new shirt sooner when the shirt wears out faster than a thicker shirt would.

Whatever the reason, we’ve ended up with a market full of tissue tees that can’t be worn on their own–they need a camisole or another tissue tee underneath, and/or a carefully selected nude bra perfectly-matched to your skin tone. Sometimes they’re ridiculously expensive, too, like the above-pictured shirt that’s 100% cotton.

And because they’re so flimsy, they don’t last more than a year. Being so delicate, they can’t hold any shape for more than five minutes after you put it on. They get holes really easily, too, and don’t seem to do so well in a washing machine.

Sure, most of these are sold and can be replaced cheaply, but it still results in a lot of waste. With our increasing concern for the environmental impact of disposable clothing, we should do our best as a society to make and wear durable clothing.

And it’s not even that hard and it shouldn’t cost more. I already have other inexpensive tees I bought years ago, and they’re holding up just fine. Most of us do.

 

What should we do, then?

Stop buying these, so retailers stop marketing them. Buy women’s shirts in sturdier fabric when you can find them. If you can’t, buy men’s t-shirts.

There are still retailers that make women’s tees in non-tissue fabrics. You might need to shop the old fashioned way in person to find them, though, and not online. It’s hard to tell if a shirt is opaque from photos, because lighting and photos can be manipulated to make a shirt look less sheer.

This is especially important if you’re looking for lighter colors, which in the same material tend to be even more sheer (read more about that here).

Try out retailers that sell basics. I did just check Old Navy’s website and most of their shirts seem to be tissue tees, but Gap seems promising.

One thing I suggest is to try men’s t-shirts. They usually come in a sturdier fabric, certainly thicker than what’s used for tissue tees.

There’s a couple other good reasons to try men’s shirts outside avoiding sheer shirts.

While I don’t have particularly wide shoulders myself, many women’s shirts have shoulders cut slightly too narrow for me. Men’s shirts don’t have that problem.

And I don’t have super thin arms that look good in a cap sleeve, which many women’s t-shirt styles have. I find men’s x-small t-shirts have sleeves that go to about mid-bicep, which is flattering without being too long or bulky looking.

I like Uniqlo for basic tees, but you can get men’s tees anywhere. Just make sure they’re not undershirts! I once saw that paired with a pencil skirt for work. Not only are they clearly undershirts, they tend to be sheer, too.

If you have other suggestions on where to buy good opaque t-shirts, give me a shout in the comments!

 

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7 thoughts on “Why are my t-shirts so sheer?

  1. This makes SO MUCH SENSE. And I understand now why all of my tissue tees/tees don’t last! The necklines get all stretched out, they start to get really baggy and weird, it’s just not a good thing. I feel educated about this now — thank you!

  2. I agree with everything you said here. I’ve been so frustrated the last couple of years, because all the t-shirts I purchased got holes after a couple of wears/ washes.

    I just ordered one pair of Uniqlo’s women’s tee, and one pair of men’s to try both and hopefully their quality will hold up better.

    • It’s so difficult! And it’s not like the quality is good just b/c something is more expensive – like I said in another post, sometimes Old Navy can have better quality than designer brands… I hope your Uniqlo tees work out better!

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