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Different styles of polo shirts and how they are made

Updated on March 15, 2013

Polo shirts aren't just for the golf course or tennis court any more. You see them everywhere - under sport coats at nice restaurants, as well as on the people behind the counter at your favorite fast food joint. Also known as golf shirts, most have some form of left-chest embroidery, be it in the Lacoste alligator or in the form of a company logo.

Definition of a polo shirt

Is there a difference between the definitions of polo shirt and golf shirt? People today refer to anything with a placket as a golf shirt. Traditionally, a golf shirt is a short sleeved knit shirt with a right-hand pocket, four-button placket, hemmed sleeves and tailored collar. Shirts with fashion knit collars and cuffs and two- and three-button plackets are technically polo shirts. A quick glance through any manufacturer's catalog will tell you that this latter style is the preference today.

Knit material close up
Knit material close up

Fabric and knit styles

Whether you call them golf shirts or polo shirts, they both are available in several types of knits: pique mesh, interlock, jersey, plaited jersey, plaited cotton and calendered jersey. The last three are imported fabrics. The main difference between various knits is the stitch construction. Other more marginal differences occur in weight and elasticity.

As you would expect, 100% cotton shirts are more expensive than 50/50 cotton-polyester shirts. Cotton is becoming more popular with buyers because it is fashionable and shrinkage is not the concern it once was.

Cotton left a bad taste in people's mouths years ago, because of the shrinkage. At that time, manufacturers would stretch the fabric before cutting. The shirt would look great and wear great until you washed it. Cotton is a natural fiber and it always goes back to what it was when Mother Nature made it.

Acceptable shrinkage for 100% cotton shirts should only be about 5%. But to be safe (because there is no way to know unless you wash the shirt), buy cotton shirts with a generous cut. And, if you're really concerned about shrinkage, especially with pique knit fabric, look for compacted pique mesh. This fiber is compacted so the shrinkage will be less than 5%. Perhaps, the best advantage to 100% cotton knit shirts is their comfort in hot weather or for sports. Cotton breathes and its high absorbency contributes to a cooling effect. If comfort in hot weather or during sports is of major concern to your customer, recommend a 100% pique mesh. The cotton, combined with the pique's open weave, will provide the most comfort.

Most manufacturers use combed cotton, as opposed to carded cotton, because it has been cleaned one step beyond that of carded cotton to yield a cleaner, softer yarn. Pima cotton, the most expensive, is a combed cotton with a long staple fiber that can be spun into a finer yarn.

Even as manufacturers add more 100% cotton styles to their lines, the 50/50 cotton/poly blend still remains the mainstay of the market. The polyester offers several advantages; it stabilizes the shrinkage factor, takes a dye better so colors stay brighter longer.

Shirts with a higher polyester percentage are becoming more popular lately. Historically, these shirts were considered less expensive and thus are purchased frequently for promotional giveaways. Newer "technical" fabric blends have changed this way of thinking, by utilizing polyester to make a fabric more breathable and durable. Custom embroidered polo shirts made with a polyester blend are perfect for use as uniforms by businesses interested in the synthetic's moisture wicking and soil resistant properties.

Just as you can purchase polo shirt knits in different fiber contents, you can purchase them in different weights. Generally, a heavyweight fabric means the fabric is knit more tightly, and so there is more yarn per square inch. The weight of a knit is measured in yields or number of yards per pound of fabric. For example, on fabric that is 32 inches wide, a yield of 1.45 to 1.65 would be considered a heavyweight.

The construction of the shirt is undoubtedly every bit as important as the fabric content and knit type. Some construction differences signal a better-made garment and others are just for variety. Generally, the more stitching on a shirt, the more expensive it will be. But that extra stitching doesn't always mean better quality. Often top stitching is added for decoration; it adds reinforcement, but it's like anything else - the more stitches you put in it, the stronger will be. If it's not there, though, that doesn't mean it'll fall apart.

Polo shirt placket
Polo shirt placket

Placket

There are three different types of plackets: Solly, set-in and set-on. The Solly placket is named after Allen Solly, its inventor. Of the three, it is the least expensive to manufacture because it uses little extra fabric and stitches. It is known as a hidden placket because you only see one seam-at the bottom.

A set-in placket is similar to a Solly placket, except it has more stitching on the button-hole side. This gives a more rectangular, finished appearance. The set-on placket is the most expensive construction because it involves more stitching and fabric. The placket is sewn of fabric separate from the shirt and then sewn on the shirt. A "full-finished" placket means more stitching is used to secure the inside of the placket to hide the placket's interfacing.

Polo shirt collar
Polo shirt collar

Collar

There are two types of collars associated with polo shirts; tailored collars and knit collars. A tailored collar is made of the same fabric as the shirt with interfacing in the collar and neckline for stability. A knit collar can be of single or double lock-stitch construction. A double-lock collar will have a tendency to curl up along the edges, but a single-lock will lay flat. The single lock is also a heavier knit.

Polo shirt sleeve
Polo shirt sleeve

Sleeves

Most polo shirts have set-in sleeves, but some are available with raglan sleeves. Which you choose is strictly a matter of preference. Some folks prefer the raglan because it offers more movement through the shoulders. At the end of the sleeve you'll find a hem, welt cuff or rib cuff. The hem is the least expensive construction. The welt and rib cuffs are rib knits. The difference between the two is in the number of stitches and elasticity, with the welt cuff being less elastic.

Quality Points

Construction variations aside, let's talk quality. Manufacturers talk mostly about shoulder seam tape, sizing and dyeing when referring to quality.

Taped shoulder seams: If a shoulder seam is taped, you’ll see a white, knitted strip of fabric sewn into the inside of the seam. This tape stabilizes the natural crosswise stretch of the shirt so the shirt will retain its shape at this stress point.

Dyeing: Unfortunately, there is no way to know if a shirt has been dyed correctly until it is washed. You should always check to be sure the color of cuffs and collars match the shirt. If the collars and cuffs are from different dye lots, the colors may not be acceptable.

Sizing: Because sizing can differ slightly between manufacturers, it's best to try on a shirt before purchasing. Manufacturers looking to save a few dollars may do so by cutting sizes smaller to save fabric. You may hear terms like single-needle stitching and reinforced box. Single needle stitching at the shoulder is actually a lapped seam that is recognizable by the top stitching. This is done to present a finished look as well as for reinforcement. The reinforced box is extra stitching at the bottom of the placket.

Look for things like interfacing in the placket and cross-stitched buttons, two points that add stability and longevity. Pricing depends on many factors: fabric, weight, amount of stitching and the like. A 100% cotton heavyweight knit with a tailored collar and set-on placket will be fairly expensive. Striped shirts will always be more expensive because the manufacturer has to invest more money in the dyeing and finishing of the yarn so colors won't bleed, and because more time is spent in cutting and sewing to make sure stripes match front to back.

What all this should tell you is that there is a type of polo shirt for almost everyone. If you’re looking for uniform shirts for restaurant staff, try a plaited jersey. If you’re looking to wear one to the beach, go with a 100% cotton shirt with extended tail. By knowing the differences polo shirts have in fabrics and how they are made, you should have a better understanding in picking the shirt that’s perfect for you.

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