My T’s are the hardest working things in my wardrobe. Particularly my black ones. They are both beautiful and useful…nay, essential: I wear them at least 5 out of 7 days. So I take them seriously.

Now it’s time for true confessions here: the Gap Favorite used to be my go-to T. I’d buy a new one every year and reveled in the fact that they were cheap. But they’d changed over the decade I’d been doing that. I didn’t love wearing them anymore: I could feel the quality was on the decline, they’re not wearing all that well, and I’m forever finding loose threads. And I just didn’t feel that great about wearing a T from the Gap, not when I’m about promoting indie manufacturing and the artisanal ethos. I resolved to upgrade to a quality T, one that was crafted well.

But was it even possible to find something made by a smaller scale manufacturer? And would it be possible at an even close-to-reasonable price point? And how would I even begin to evaluate quality? Was organic everything the answer? So I started investigating, chatting with people who know their fabrics and what I should look for: people like sustainability and textile expert Lynda Grose of California College of the Arts and Andrea Donnelly of Little Fool Textiles (an artisan textile maker out of Virginia) and designers like the textile-obsessed Erica Tanov.

And it was far from straightforward. But one thing became clear: the notion of quality comes down to a lot more than technical quality (how does it look, perform, wear, feel). There’s a subjective component, and an environmental/social component. As Lynda says, “Something that’s in use for a long time, that works functionally, is beautiful, has utility, that’s all quality.” And that jives with my overall premise that quality – like luxury and pleasure – has to embrace the senses, the head, and the heart.

Now, if you want to dig deeper into what makes for quality, click here. Otherwise, here are the cliffs notes. 

Avoid mass anything. We knew this, didn’t we? Nothing really great is going to come out of industrialized textiles. Corners are cut. Synthetics are over-used. The environment and social conditions are more likely to be at the bottom of a list of objectives. The business of mass manufacturing of textiles and clothing is the story of waste, where more money and thinking goes into marketing and distribution rather than quality and paying the people who made the products in the first place, and where clothes are created with the certain knowledge that a high percentage (60%) will end up going into the global waste stream.  (According to the EPA, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds of clothing and textiles per person per year.) This is something that reducing emissions or changing out processes just can’t overcome: it seems to be a core part of the business model. And oh yes, the typical markup is between 8 and 10 times cost for a higher end item. That’s a lot of waste and marketing you’re paying for.

Labels actually matter. In this case, brand does matter. Look for textiles coming out of places like Japan, northern Europe, the UK (for wools) and some parts of the US (such as North Carolina) where there’s been a long tradition of textile making, and production is highly localized and smaller scale.  More mass but still high quality: Egypt and the US for cotton.

The search for the crafted T

The search for the crafted T

When it comes to production, there’s no guarantee that a “Made in the USA” label actually means that the working conditions are good: afterall sweatshops abound in San Francisco and LA and NYC. But the chances are high that conditions are better.

Buy only what you love and think is truly beautiful and useful (yes William Morris again). Fitness for purpose matters, and so does beauty. Both end up being better for the environment because you’re not tossing them unnecessarily.

And what of my search? Here were my finalists, after some feeling up of Ts at a variety of stores and some market research (aka chats with picky friends): Ts by: James Perse ($76) out of Japanese fabric,  Everlane ($16), a 50% cotton/Modal blend T by Graham and Spencer (I had to try a non-100% cotton one), and the ultra-luxe Lily T by Drifter  ($109) courtesy of Farfetch. All are small(er) batch, made in the US, in different shapes, since my wardrobe includes a range of Ts.

I love the incredibly luscious springy feel, great construction and awesome fit of the Drifter T (produced in Compton, CA out of Pima cotton) and want one for my “nicer” Ts: the price point was the highest but it felt measurably better than the rest.

The James Perse was OK but wasn’t impressive. Their fabrics are always unusual and their production quality (good stitching and thread tension, finishing-no unraveling seams, etc.) is exemplary, but something’s missing. And I do worry that given how broadly available Perse is, the chosen business model is going to butt up against quality pretty soon. The Graham and Spencer T felt a little slimy (the Modal, a type of rayon) though it draped well and again, the production quality seemed to be pretty high.

The winner? For 4 out of 5 black T shirt days, despite a bit of boxiness, it’s got to be the Everlane (Supima cotton, made in LA from textile to production–some say in the same factory as the Perse T). It feels and drapes great, the production seems sound, it washes up wonderfully and fits beautifully. And yes, it was the $16 one, but that’s because Everlane is about what they call “radical transparency”. They get to know their factories (many of which are domestic) and work with them closely. They watch costs like a hawk and because they are only online and only sell directly, they avoid all the markups along the way. Smart, and high quality. I hope they keep it up.

I wish it were less complicated to get to the answer for such a staple. But it’s not. All you can do is to care, and ask, and do your homework.