Why are so many white shirts see-through?

A sheer white shirt with a star print.
Sheer white shirt from Equipment. Image from Bloomingdale’s

When I googled this question to see if any answers were out there, I found no answers. Instead I got results like:

– How to find a non-see-through white shirt

– What to wear under a white shirt; and even

– How to wear a sheer shirt, advising you wear a contrasting colored bra under a sheer white shirt.

I guess this is the reason I once saw a woman in a professional office wearing a white t-shirt over a bright purple bra :/

But what about the actual question–why are white shirts so sheer? Why is it so dang hard to find white shirts that aren’t see-through? Especially when the white shirt is mentioned on every style essential list out there.

There’s actually a pretty simple reason why most white shirts are so sheer, even if the exact same style of the shirt in a different color is opaque. To learn why, let’s quickly go over how fabric is made and dyed for a shirt.

How is fabric made for a shirt?

Fabric is made by knitting or weaving individual strands of thread into a fabric. The resulting fabric is usually an off-white color, which is then bleached and dyed various colors, ranging from dark to light, per the styles desired. This is what a knit fabric might look like when first made.

Fabric dye works by coating the individual strands of thread that make up the fabric. The coat of dye physically thickens the individual strands of thread that make up the fabric, so that there are smaller spaces between each strand of thread on the fabric. More dye is necessary for darker colors, which means there is a thicker layer of dye on the strands of a fabric dyed a darker color. The darker the color, the thicker the coat of dye.

Diagram of fabrics dyed black and white. The black fabric ends up with thicker strands of thread because of the thicker coat of dye.
A batch of fabric dyed dark ends up with a thicker coat of dye, resulting in smaller gaps between individual threads compared to fabric dyed white.

So even when the exact same off-white fabric is used for all colors of a style of shirt, after the dyeing process is complete, dark fabrics end up with smaller gaps between the thread strands. These smaller gaps allow less penetration of light through the fabric, and let less skin show, resulting in a more opaque fabric.As a sidenote, this is also the reason that an article of clothing has a heavier weight in a darker color than the same style in a lighter color, and also why the darker fabric often feels rougher and less soft. (I discussed why lighter, more airy fabrics feel so soft in a previous post about tissue tees).

Most manufacturers use this process to make shirts–using the same fabric for both white and dark shirts, which gets us white fabric that can be very see through. And this is why we end up with so many sheer white shirts on the market.

White shirts need their own fabric

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to make opaque white shirts. It doesn’t happen often, likely because most manufacturers and others involved in garment making don’t know about this. Or avoid it because it takes more time and money.

In order to make a proper, non-sheer white shirt, we have to use a separate batch of fabric produced just for the white shirts. While the same material thread can be used, the fabric for a white shirt must be knit or woven tighter, so there are smaller spaces between the thread strands that make up the fabric.

This results in a more dense and opaque fabric. And even with the thinner coat of dye on white fabric, the spaces between the individual threads are closer in size for white and darker fabrics.

Here’s how it would look, compared to what we saw earlier.

Left is white fabric made with the same fabric as the dark one. The right is a more densely knit fabric that should be used for white shirts. Since there is more thread in the same area, the spaces are smaller and allow less light through.

 

The white fabric is now opaque and does not let as much light through. Besides being visually more appealing, this is also good because it allows less sunlight to penetrate the fabric, with better sun protection for the skin.As mentioned before, this is not done very often–it’s just not very common knowledge among garment makers. It’s not that difficult to do with knits, because it’s easy to make small batches of fabric in knits.

For woven fabrics, it’s not as easy to make small batches because of the nature of woven fabric production. But there is so much demand for white shirts (like your standard collared white shirt) that it shouldn’t be a problem to make separate orders for white woven fabric.

How to find a good opaque white shirt, then?

Ask yourself if it’s something you really want to wear, since it’s such a challenge to find.
I personally never understood the love for white shirts. Pure white is unflattering on most skin tones, only looking good if you have either very pale or very dark skin. I hear this is why most wedding dresses aren’t pure white, either, because the color isn’t flattering on most brides. It’s also hard to wear and take care of, since it gets dirty easily, stains don’t come out readily, and you can get yellow sweat stains.

But if you really like them and want to get some, make sure the fabric is a thicker one in a heavier gauge, which will be less sheer. I saw some options at Gap that look promising, and there are some Uniqlo rib knit shirts are nice and thick–I don’t own any in white myself, but might be worth a shot.

Like I mentioned in the previous tissue tee post, the men’s section might be a place worth taking a trip into. Most men’s shirts will still be a little sheer in white, but it’ll probably be thicker. Just make sure if you’re buying a t-shirt that it’s not an undershirt, though. I’ve seen a woman pair what looked like a boys’ Hanes shirt with a pencil skirt before, and it’s really obvious that it’s a cheap white tee.

And for god’s sake don’t wear a purple bra under it unless you’re going to Coachella.

 

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7 thoughts on “Why are so many white shirts see-through?

  1. Really great post. Thank you! I recently found a white t-shirt at Uniqlo that is the thickest and most opaque white t shirt I’ve ever seen. It’s called “the U crewneck short sleeve t shirt” if you’re curious. It’s thicker and warmer than the average t shirt though, so they’re not good for the peak summer temps we’ve had lately.

    • Thanks Michelle! I think I’ve seen that shirt too–it almost seemed more like a thin sweatshirt than a t-shirt, but it does seem thick and sturdy. Hopefully the temps cool off so you can enjoy the shirt!

  2. Thanks for this post too! I’ve ALWAYS hated this — I’ve wanted white shirts to have in my wardrobe (though now I’m questioning it… haha) and hated that you had to layer under or over it because I’m not a purple-bra-at-work type of girl, lol.

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