Loopwheel vs. Tubular Knit Fabric

Have you seen The Bear? Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) wears a nice looking plain white tee under his apron for the majority of the show. So what is the t shirt he wears in The Bear? It's a classic loopwheeled tee, one that sells for close to $100. So, is it worth it?

When it comes to the world of clothing, fabric choices can make all the difference in comfort, durability, and style. Among the myriad of options, loopwheel and tubular knit fabrics stand out as two premium alternatives compared to the fast fashion standard. 

The Loopwheel Shirt In The Bear

Loopwheel fabric, an icon of vintage apparel manufacturing, traces its origins back nearly 100 years. Some of the hallmark characteristics of loopwheel fabric are its softness, breathability, and lack of side seams. The fabric is produced using a specialized knitting machine called, unsurprisingly, a loopwheel machine. Unlike conventional knitting machines that produce fabric at high speeds, loopwheel machines operate at a much slower pace, less than one shirt an hour. 

The slow, gentle knitting process creates a fabric with minimal tension, resulting in a smooth texture and breezy drape. Think of the fabric sort of slowly cascading down from the machine. This breathability makes loopwheel fabric nice for hot summer days (or the hot kitchen in The Bear).

But, this same lack of tension during the knitting process can allow for excessive stretching and distortion in the wash. So while the shirt is durable in theory, it won’t take abuse well and should be washed carefully. It’s a $100 t-shirt after all. 

Not only is the loopwheel process exceptionally slow, just two factories in the world still use them, one in Germany and one in Japan. The mystique around the machines, the lack of availability, and the inherent quality of an artisan product all boost these shirts to exceedingly high prices, falling somewhere between our shirts and those from a true luxury brand. 

Tubular Knit Fabric in Goodwear Shirts

Tubular knit fabric, in contrast, is a more modern approach to garment construction. Developed in the mid-20th century, tubular knitting machines revolutionized the textile industry with their efficiency and versatility and thus phased out the use of the loopwheel machine. As the name suggests, tubular knitting produces a seamless tube of fabric, eliminating the need for side seams and offering a sleek, streamlined shape.

While a loopwheeled shirt has that lovely drape, one of the key advantages of the tension in tubular fabric is the shirt's ability to conform to the contours of your body, providing a slightly tailored fit without the bulk of traditional seams. This makes tubular knit garments exceptionally comfortable to wear, allowing for unrestricted movement and a flattering silhouette. So rather than the shirt “falling off of the body”, it hangs close to your shape and moves with you, instead of you moving inside the shirt. The seamless construction also minimizes friction against the skin, reducing the risk of chafing during physical activity.

This might sound like the shirt would never breathe, but in our case, it still does. We use a thicker cotton yarn than 99% of shirts on the market. The thickness of the yarn creates micro gaps in the knit, allowing the shirt to be thick, but have increased breathability. 

It goes without saying, tubular knitting is much faster, more economical, and more efficient than loopwheel knitting. This lets us produce a higher volume of shirts at one time, with many of the same benefits and then some. We’ve been making our shirts in this way since 1988. Tubular knitting machines are rare, but they are still around and in use in the US. 

Flat Knitting - The Industry Standard

Moving to the bottom of the cost scale, flat knitting is the golden child of the entire apparel industry. Fabric is knit into endlessly long sheets, at incredible speed. Using lasers, the t-shirt shape is then “stamped” out, like a cookie cutter. The two sides are sewn together and sleeves attached. The side seams from this process bring about a number of problems. 

First, side seams suck. In mass produced shirts like this, the thread used to sew together is often polyester based. This thread breaks down in the wash, creating little spiky fibers on the inside of your shirt that irritate the skin. As the shirt ages still, these threads can fail and the shirt will grow holes along the side seams. 

Secondly, they ruin the shape of the shirt. Slight discrepancies in the size and shape of the fabric panels make the shirt far from perfect. Try to fold a piece of paper from corner to corner perfectly - it takes patience and precision, something massive fast fashion producers have no time for. The two sides of the shirt pull and stretch on each other in the wash, then dry to a wonky shape. 

And before you even look at the tag, if the shirt is side seamed, it’s almost a guarantee it's imported. The benefit is speed, and low cost production. Add in poverty wages and questionable factories, and you’ve got a recipe for a $1.99 shirt. Shipped to the US and marked up, these are the cash cows for everyone from Youtube influencer merch to household name brand companies.

Benefits and Cost Difference

Both loopwheel and tubular knit fabrics offer unique benefits that cater to different preferences and customers. Loopwheel fabric excels in terms of breathability, softness, and rarity. However, the craftsmanship involved in producing loopwheel fabric comes with a much higher price tag, reflecting the labor-intensive nature of its production and scarcity of the machines - but not necessarily a “better” product.

On the other hand, tubular knit fabric like ours offers increased durability and comfort with the same seamless construction. Every bit as luxurious, but more affordable and much more well-suited for daily wear.

In the incomprehensibly large marketplace of t-shirts, the choice of shirt boils down to personal preferences and priorities. Whether you prioritize the alluring craftsmanship of loopwheel fabric or the affordable versatility of tubular knit fabric, understanding the characteristics and benefits of each can help you make informed decisions when adding to your wardrobe.

Regardless of the clothing you buy, consider the history, craftsmanship, and performance of the fabric in your shirt. Look beyond the brand name, and look for the telltale qualities of a premium product, tubular construction among them. And as always, look at the tag and choose Made in USA. 

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