From Seed To Tee

The Makings of a Cotton T-shirt

Considered as a  wardrobe staple, the T-shirt is arguably the most popular outer garment we all own. Coming in different colors, styles, cuts and fabrics there is quite literally a t-shirt for everyone. But where did this iconic garment come from and how is it made?

The invention of the T-shirt

The T-shirt that we know today has only been around for the last 60 or so years. While the garment itself has existed in a recognisable form since the early 20th century, it was almost universally considered to be underwear and it was rarely, if ever worn in public. Back then, people dressed in a lot more layers than we do now- regardless of the rising temperatures. There were even laws as early as 1890 in places like Havana stating that it was illegal to wear these shirts exposed in public as they were considered to be garments to be worn underneath a inform of some sort.

The fate of what would become the t-shirt we know today began to change in 1904, when the Cooper Underwear Company began marketing them to single men as “bachelor undershirts” with a tagline that simply read: “No safety pins — no buttons — no needle — no thread”

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The Cooper Underwear Tshirt wasn’t so much a fashion hit that propelled a generation to start wearing undergarments as outerwear but soon after that, the US navy started to officially incorporate the button-less white undershirt into its uniform. A few years later, the US Army also incorporated the undershirt to be worn by tens of thousands of army soldiers, many of whom took the fashion home with them. The final push for mainstream acceptance of the t-shirt as an outer garment started at the end of WWII, when soldiers returning home began incorporating them into their casual wardrobe, much in the same way they’d done during the war.

It didn’t take long after that for business to see the marketing potential of a blank wearable garment, and later on to be produced by every single garment brand globally. 

From Cotton Seed to Wardrobe Staple

The life of a cotton T-Shirt begins in cotton fields in a different part of the globe from where you might be living in. Most clothing manufacturers would like to stay on the cheaper side and source cotton from countries like India and China.

Cotton Production by Country in 1000 480 lb. bales

From Seed To Tee cotton tshirt production

The Production of a single T-shirt undergoes several stages from field to gin, to looming, wet processing of the raw fabric (this can involve harsh chemical treatments) then cutting and sewing into a wearable t-shirt.

From Seed To Tee tshirt infographic trusted clothes

With several stages involved in the production of a single garment, how much cotton, water and energy does it take to make a T-shirt?

The Environmental Impact of Making  and Keeping  a T-shirt

A typical clothing label will show you where it’s made, what it’s made of and the care instructions. But it never tells us how much energy went in to making the garment. And if it did, here are the facts that we would be seeing:

  • It takes 2,700 liters of water to make one T-shirt
  • The amount of cotton used to make a single tshirt needs roughly .22 pounds of fertilizers
  • .01 pounds of pesticides and 1.2 pounds of fossil fuels!
  • Calculations from 2000 show that CO2 emissions from light trucks alone amount to 1.15 pounds per mile.

Once we have purchased the T-shirt, washing, drying and ironing are all part of the upkeep. Here’s how much more water and energy goes into it:

  • One load of washing uses 40 gallons of water and five times more energy to dry it.

We all need new clothes every once in a while, but let’s all try to keep in mind what goes into the production of clothing has a real impact on the environment.

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