Alright, I've seen dozens of these threads. Some shmoe off the street comes in here wanting "The BEST t-shirt in the world". Inevitably the response from a veteran is, "it depends on what you want", followed by recommendations like AA.
This is not going to be one of those threads.
I've been in the business for some time, and over the years I've made extra shirts to take home. I've washed, worn, used and abused more shirts than a Goodwill will accept in donation.
Since I opened my doors, I've been looking for a great shirt. You know, that one shirt you bought 20 years ago that still has managed to find it's way back into your closet through years of purges. It washes well, stays soft, refuses to get a hole, the neck line doesn't bacon, seems impervious to pilling. It's your favorite shirt.
I need recommendations from others in the business for wholesale blank shirts that range from standard to fashion cuts in a variety of weights that are the softest, shape holding-est, nicely fitting, longest lasting shirts you know of. Before you answer with AA, Next Level, Gildan Softstyle etc etc, I'll post my experiences with those and other shirt brands I've dealt with. Obscure brands are ok, price ranges are helpful.
As far as favorite shirts go, I have one such shirt. It was a hand me down I got in high school, already several years old at the time. I've had it for over 10 years. That would make it at least 14-15 years old. I'm wearing now in fact. This shirt looks a little faded, it has a taped neck that extends to the shoulders, no fraying on the ribbed crew neck, negligible fuzz and virtually no pilling, somewhere in the 5-6oz range at this point. This isn't a fashion tee but man it's great. I decided to look for a tag the other day. Under the Rebranded tag was a cloth Chouinard Comfort Colors Made in India tag. Apparently they wholesale at dyecolors, so I picked some up.
Chouinard Comfort Colors - Then and Now.
The first thing I noticed is that they are Made in Honduras now, and on the original shirt the tag was a natural color, the new shirts have dyed tags that match the dye on the shirt. Insignificant, but the new tag is both lighter (in weight) and the screen printed logo is faded/poorly printed. The original Indian made shirt has (after 15 years of washing) more heft and darker printed taggings.
My heart started sinking.
The neck taping still extends to the shoulders, and appears to be of the same material. A thick linearly soft denimesque fabric with a run stitch. The cuff of the sleeve has less fabric and slightly shorter stitch run lengths. The new shirt is softer to the touch, has a pillowy feel with decent flex. It also has noticeable fuzz. A few washes will tell what direction we're going.
Other brands I've dealt with:
Side loading washer with no agitator (obviously), standard liquid and powder dryer detergent, cool/warm dry cycle.
Gildan Softstyle 64000 - Shrinks up vertically while staying the same width. You'll look like your wearing an oversized tube mid-drift. Fades quickly, even in a side loader with no agitator and a warm dry cycle. Thinner fabric, loses softness, does not fit or wear well over time, bacon collar. I pulled this shirt from my drawer after a few months and turned it into a gun rag.
American Apparel - Widely touted as the holy grail for quality seeking printers and aspiring apparel brands. In my experience the quality of manufacture can vary widely. I have had several shirts from them and it feels like a crap shoot whether the shirt will fit right out of the box and even less certain whether it will contort after washing. Their 2001 mens Jersey shirt (combed ringspun 4.Xoz) After up to a year on a few shirts, there is a large amount of frizz and pilling. The shirts are starting to noticeably fade around the collar and sleeves. They have about the same feel as any standard combed cotton shirt at this point, obviously some hard water is having an ill effect. I still have several and they are decent shirts. For mid $4's they seem a bit over-priced for what you get.
Their tri-blend athletic shirts on the other hand, typically fit well out of the box, and continue to wash and wear well with rare exceptions. They do adversely effect some people skin (mine) due to the Rayon. However after under a year they have massive pilling and frizz, are starting to do weird things around the collar, are rapidly becoming rough (not like regular cotton becomes stiff, these are becoming textured and rough). Generally they are not holding up very well over time (around a year). Durability is the biggest drawback for these shirts.
Next Level Apparel - I've begun switching over to NLA from AA lately, they seem to be decently constructed, the sizes run small but tend not to shrink too much. They retain reasonable softness after a few washes. Over all in a few months of use I don't hesitate to wear one, however, I don't have a long enough track record to pass judgement on them.
Tultex - Good old Tultex, their blended 60/40 heather shirts smell like acidic death going through the dryer and smoke like a brush fire, they are a confusing blend of scratchy and soft, thin to the point of sheer, and feel cheap. BUT they ARE cheap, and despite their drawbacks they tend to hold their shape (high poly content) and over a long period of time haven't changed much. I would rate them for unexpected durability and wash fastness. And if the initial feel isn't a turnoff, they will pretty much stay the same for a few years. Prepare to clean your platens often while printing due to the significant bleed through.
The Tultex Jersey shirt is another story. I know they've changed country of manufacture, but I've migrated away from them already. The jersey shirts love to twist and shrink. You'd think I have spinal problems when the side seams are wrapping around my body like a spring. They like to shrink vertically too. Wash fastness and fading are an issue only if you don't angrily throw the shirt out after the first two washes. I had a few shirts that didn't twist, held their color and stayed moderately soft, the vertical shrinking seems universal. At 6'2", I no longer have any Jersey Tultex shirts in my drawer.
LAT - I have one in my drawer somewhere. I need to pay more attention to it next time I wear it. I can't remember what it looks or feels like, but there again I have under 8 cycles on it so far.
Bella/Canvas - I have one black shirt from them. It's very soft, a little fuzzier than I'd like. I haven't had it for more than 4-5 months, so far it's holding up fairly well and hasn't shrunk overly much. I readily reach for it when it is the top shirt in the stack.
In Your Face - The girls shirts hold up well. We have an apparel line and frequently run into people wearing our shirts 2-3 years after we completed the run of the designs we see. Rather expensive, their ribbed shirts are a good option for women. I don't think they carry men's shirts.
Anvil 980? - Their ringspun version. We tried them, I tried to like them but my recollection is fading as to why I quit using them. The mix of softness, shape holding washability etc don't ring any bells.
Hanes Beefy-T - Not bad, they fade around the collar, sleeve cuffs, bottom of the shirt etc. They get stiff rather quick from hard water. They stay reasonably soft and wear well enough, I have one or two poking around, combed/ringspun bottom tier cotton is like putting spinners on a rust bucket. If the price is right these shirts are decent. For heavy duty outdoor work I typically just recommend basic 50/50 shirts and tell them to buy more. 50/50 stays softer, fits better and lasts about as long. If your work environment is that hostile you might as well get two shirts instead of one.
I'm curious to know more about shirt brands you guys use. I really would like some input into where I can find those really great shirts. A/X, Abercrombie from 20 years ago, Chouinard from it's India manufacture days, Pima, Supima, Extra Long Staple Cotton, etc. I've gone through the usual channels, now I'd like to know where I could go (if there is anywhere) to get boutique quality blanks without sourcing them from Peru or overseas.