TESTING, TESTING! / by Britt Howard

Love the look and feel of a well-worn cotton t-shirt, and ever wonder how to get your tees to get to that coveted stage faster? PGF's dear friend Claire McKinney took on the challenge in her new column TESTING, TESTING! Check back for periodic experiments from Claire's test kitchen—she'll do the dirty work, so you don't have to!

CHAPTER 1: GETTING THAT WELL-LOVED T-SHIRT FEEL

A few weeks back I set my sights on finding the secret recipe for achieving the look and feel of a lifelong-favorite t-shirt—thin, soft, well-loved (see above). I figured there must be a way to burn out certain parts of the fiber while keeping the shirt intact—not by physically hand-distressing but through  *science*

Attempt 1: SALT

The internet is littered with this recipe. For the amount of articles written about salt-soaking it seemed tried and true.

Ingredients:

  • 2 quarts warm water
  • cup salt

    Stir mixture until combined. Add t-shirt and let soak for 3 days. Wash as usual.

This recipe yielded no changes to my t-shirt. I also tried boiling the mixture and letting the t-shirt bubble in the pot for about an hour before letting it soak for 10 days. Again, no difference in softness. I've worn this trial t-shirt often for 7 months and it's just beginning to soften, but I doubt it has anything to do with the salt process. Luckily all that was lost was a $2 bag of salt and 10 days of my patience.

 

Attempt 2: TSP / Lye 

While sifting through all the articles about salt-soaking, I found what appeared to be a truly secret, highly successful and hardly-tested recipe. There it was, on a craft blog thread from 2004: 

4 tablespoons TSP (Trisodium Phosphate)

1 tablespoon Lye 

2 gallons water

Protective clothing, goggles, dust mask, rubber gloves (Lye is extremely caustic and can cause severe chemical burns)

Combine TSP and hot water in a plastic bucket. Stir until water stops steaming but is still warm, about 10 minutes. Wearing goggles, mask, long sleeves and rubber gloves, slowly add lye. Soak shirt for 8 hours. Remove shirt and rinse in steel sink or tub—protective wear on! Dry on well covered surface, then wash and dry in normal cycle. Dispose of water in drain and rinse well.

While it was obvious that the chemicals in this recipe were dangerous, I believed their potency would create the results I wanted. TSP is used to deep-clean roofs and walls and was easy to purchase at Home Depot. Lye, on the other hand, was more difficult to find—you can only buy this product at soap-making stores as it's been banned from all home improvement stores for some scary reasons you probably shouldn’t google. The protection needed to work with these chemicals definitely took the "fun" out of this experiment. And unfortunately the results were nothing close to what I hoped for—the t-shirts actually became more stiff. I think the deep cleaning process puffed up the fibers and reversed the shirt's natural wear.

After running these experiments I came to realize you could spend a lifetime finding an at-home solution for softening and thinning t-shirts. There are tons of (safe) products that can help keep t-shirts soft—fabric softener, borax, white vinegar, baking soda, the list goes on. And some pseudo-scientists on the internet have proposed that hot-acid baths could potentially thin a 100% cotton t-shirt, but I’ll let them try that first.

From my failed attempts it seemed that fiber content was a significant factor—the salt-soak recipe claimed to work on all fiber contents, while the TSP/Lye recipe claimed to work on cotton/poly t-shirts specifically. This led me to question the fiber contents of some of my favorite 70s-era t-shirts, all of which I had found at thrift stores at their prime thin-and-soft stage. All were 50% Cotton 50% Polyester—the texture is unique in that it doesn't seem naturally worn-down but just finer-knit than t-shirts today. Most cheap t-shirts today are 100% Cotton—the tri-pack Hanes ComfortSoft tees take a good amount of wear (and sweat) before they start to feel soft like a vintage t-shirt. So this leaves me wondering, were t-shirts knit with different techniques back then? Does the polyester content influence the wearing-down process? Or was my favorite vintage t-shirt once someone else's favorite t-shirt, worn to every Dodgers game for 20 years? 

A few pieces of advice for those looking to "hack" the thin-and-soft t-shirt game:

  • Wash t-shirts as much as you can—whenever you wash anything, throw in your t-shirts. They'll just get softer over time. 
  • Go somewhere where they actually sell worn-in, old t-shirts for cheap. Your best bet is the Goodwill Bins or anywhere you have to dig for items yourself. Super-worn undershirts tend to come with pit stains, but I always consider this the perfect opportunity to make a pot of dye and experiment with color. 

                                                                                                                                    -Claire McKinney