Activewear Buying Guide

Tees & Fleece


This Buying Guide adds industry insight to the decorated apparel buying decision, thereby aligning delivered results with expectations.

Activewear Buying Guide 


Activewear is the industry title given to three mainstay products that remain relatively unchanged since the previous millennium.

Very simply, a sweatshirt is simply a cold weather version of a t-shirt, with the same basic purchase considerations that go into one, apply to the other.  The same brands that manufacture t-shirts also produce fleece, which is the industry term used to describe the deep pile fabric in both crewneck and hooded sweatshirts.

The term crewneck refers to the collar styling of the first two listed products  According to Websters, it was first coined to describe the sweaters worn by sailors in the 1930's.  Now, it simply means the collar pattern used for both t-shirts and sweatshirts. 

Some styling variations exist, but only a few large brands actually drive this high volume product segment.  Where distinguishing variations do occur, it is usually by smaller boutique brands with products commanding a higher price.  These brands are found in our Fashion Activewear and Camouflage and Tie-dye categories.

Material Elevation

Apparel purchases for organizational branding efforts can be a daunting exercise if one looks at the sheer magnitude of available mill labels and product offerings.  Nevertheless, the decorated apparel industry is simple competition between brands operating within multiple quality categories.

Quality Categories

Activewear is Categorized into three QUALITY levels

Premium, Standard & Value-Priced


Within our industry, there exists premium athletic retail brands such as  Champion, Russell and New Era.  These command a higher overall unit price by offering additional brand nuances, premium manufacturing and a brand legacy factor.  Superior fabric materials, compared to the less expensive standard brands, does not always reside with these premium labels.


The products comprising this category are high volume, competitively priced medium and heavyweight products (see below) varying little from year to year, other than slight shifts in their color pallet offerings.  They provide consistent annual sales volumes through high brand loyalty, requiring minimal product change.  New product styles, with minor variations from these standard platforms, are introduced from time to time.  However, the product line-up remains basically the same from one year to the next.

Standard activewear brands include Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, Gildan and JERZEES.  These Big Four brands have the largest footprint in this product category. 


Rounding out this segment are select offerings of value priced activewear brought to the marketplace by the wholesalers who supply the decorating industry with blank goods.  These brands, Harriton, Port & Company and Sport-Tek cater specifically to the decorating industry and have little retail visibility.  These offerings appeal to price sensitive buyers not requiring superior product fabrics and premium manufacturing practices offered by the major brands.


Fabric & Printing

Most fleece and t-shirts are made with some variation of 100% cotton,  polyester or a blend of both.

Activewear cotton fabric quality descriptions start with a basic 100% cotton. The next grade up is a slightly more refined combed cotton characterization and concludes with the superior ringspun cotton.  Ringspun is a high-grade cotton reputed for its inherent softness and found in the following Activewear product categories: 

           Reference these categories below under Category Weight for more information


100% cotton is the SUPERIOR material substrate for screen printing multi-color and large design images. The material ink retention and absorbency, along with the longevity of  the print is greater than with any other  fabric.  This is due to the absorbent nature of cotton fibers.


50/50 delivers less moisture retention than a comparable 100% cotton t-shirt and less printing issues than 100% polyester for both large images and multi-color prints.  It is SECOND to 100% cotton in overall printing receptiveness.

For buyers familiar with 100% cotton t-shirts, check the shorter length of a comparably sized 50/50 before making a final purchase decision.  50/50 shirts also tend to lack the abundant color choices available with 100% cotton.


Polyester shirts are marketed as a moisture managing (also referred to as moisture wicking) alternative to the perspiration absorbing nature of 100% cotton.  The lightweight polyester material dispatches moisture to the shirts surface, where it can evaporate. 

Early on the industry was plagued with 100% polyester material that did not inhibit odor retention.  Many brands switched to treated anti-microbial polyester fabrics.  For certainty, watch for an anti-microbial or odor inhibiting statement in the product description.  Some premium brands may or may not list this feature.  Still, industry commentary suggests these treatments may break down over time.   If fabric odor becomes a problem, add baking soda and table salt to the wash.

Printing on 100% polyester fabric requires variant printing considerations not found with cotton. 

  • High heat is detrimental to polyester, as it can act as a catalyst for dye migration and cause the actual fabric to pucker or melt.  Heat is used during printing to advance dry one ink color prior to printing additional ink colors and then again to dry cure the overall design.  Dye migration is the tendency of polyester fabric colors to bleed into a lighter printed ink color (ex: white ink can turn pink, resulting from absorption of a heated red polyester fabric).  

  • Plastisol  inks, used for printing on cotton material, must be chemically altered to cure at a lower drying temperature to be resilient on polyester material

  • Unlike cotton, heated prints on polyester must be cooled before being bundled and boxed for shipment

  • Large size prints on polyester fabrics reduce the moisture wicking capacity of the shirt, similar to painting a screen

For branding requirements necessitating screen printing on industry distributed  polyester t-shirts, we recommend a small image with no more than a few  image colors. 

For polyester printing with larger images and multiple location requirements, we recommend dye sublimation printing.  Dye sublimation is a gas based chemical process conducive to printing on polyester material. 

For an all over print, similar to a professional bicyclist jersey,  we suggest a full dye sublimation print with a custom fabric cut & sew  production. 

Contact McGRAPHIX for more information.


Category Weight


Crewneck and Hooded Fleece

  • Lightweight cotton is a thinner 3 to 5 ounce fashion oriented style commanding a higher overall unit price than comparable heavyweight  cotton.  It is the most active category segment in regards to new products and alternative designs.

  • Heavyweight cotton is the industry standard-bearer weighing in at 5 to 5.6 ounces.  This segment covers the high volume, price competitive, traditional styled t-shirt offered in an abundance of colors for men, women and children.  It features short and long sleeve options and is the pre-eminent best seller of the imprinted apparel industry.  Dominant brands include Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, JERZEES, Gildan and a USA Made offering from Bayside.

  • Premiumweight cotton covers the 6 ounce category.  The group is similar in style to the heavyweight class, but priced slightly higher for the added material.  For a WHITE event t-shirt, women appreciate this version more than the standard heavyweight..

    This segment includes product offerings from Champion, Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Gildan. USA Made offerings include from Bayside and EAGLE USA with some ringspun cotton options from Hanes Beefy T and Comfort Colors.

  • Polyester shirts range in weight from 3.7 to a JERZEES 5.3 ounce offering.  Most of the activewear staple brands, with the exception of Fruit of the Loom, offer products in this category.

  • Fashionweight are a relatively new entrant in the fleece marketplace with an Alternative brand entry weighing in a 4.9 ounces, Bella+Canvas at 6.5 ounces and concluding with a 7 ounce entry from both District and Anvil.  In addition to the lighter fabrics, these products feature contrasting element colors and some ringspun cotton fabrics.

  • Mediumweight fleece typically weighs in at 7 to 8 ounces.  This category features entry level product and is most popular as an inexpensive casual summertime or slight cool weather cover.  It is sought after  for resort retail, sport and program promotions.  Properly decorated, they can reflect traditional athletic and university sports apparel at a lower unit price.  This is where the BIG FOUR brands of Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, JERZEES and Gildan compete on volume, price and color.

  • Heavyweight is the most popular functional weight at 9 to 10.5 ounces.  This category offers a warmer layer in colder weather than lighter weight options.  It features sturdier construction, better overall quality and a longer cold climate wear expectancy. This weight is popular in the trades, uniform programs and premium athletic retail sales.  In this segment, the 50/50 material blend is a BEST BET due to its reduced susceptibility to sleeve and body shrinkage that can be an issue with higher cotton product.

  • Superweight is the ultimate in fleece inspired warmth with 11 to 12 ounce products.  Along with the standard options from  Fruit of the Loom, trade features include Champion's Reverse Weave [woven horizontally to offset vertical sleeve and body length shrinkage] and two work brands, Dickies and Dri-Duck,  providing thermal lined options. 


Event Ordering Suggested Size Breakdown

Our industry offers this general size ordering guideline for American & other predominately western market sizes:





























Check out all the brands we offer under the Activewear section of the "Branded Apparel" area of our website.
For professional assistance, please feel free to  Contact Us.  We are always happy to help.