By Kathryn Birky

The Case for an Heirloom Tee

 
 

At the start of WWII, the U.S. Navy issued tees to their sailors, known in the vernacular as “skivvy’ shirts. It was the beginning of a legend; the Tee shortly saw so much frontline battle action that it became the emblem of manliness.

-The White T

 
 
 

IDEATION AND DESIGN

For our 2015 pilot project, we set out to create an interpretation of the modern uniform that represented our values. After considering the most essential items in a man’s wardrobe, we decided to start with an American icon, the white crewneck t-shirt.

‘What intrigues me about this piece of clothing-which has crossed our entire century unscathed and is poised for a glorious future-are the sensations that it transmits to me. The first is a sense of cleanness that goes beyond the superficial meaning of the word; it implies presenting oneself to others without artifice or disguise... an anti-status symbol, putting rich and poor on the same level in a sheath of white cotton that cancels the distinctions of caste.’ -Giorgio Armani in The White T

A white tee doesn’t need to be reinvented every season, so we wanted to get it right before moving on. Our singular focus allowed us to completely immerse ourselves in the fit, fabric and construction, leading to a product that would look just as good in ten years. Because the t-shirt had been done so many times, the easiest way to make our garment stand out would have been to do something bold, but what we really wanted to do was pay attention to the subtle details. Each adjustment had to add value and be done very consciously.

SOURCING & FABRIC

From our fabric to the packaging, we were committed to sustainable, locally produced materials of the highest quality. In our search for a domestically produced organic jersey that would allow us to back our t-shirts for life, we sampled fabrics from mills around the country. Unsatisfied, we realized we were going to have to build a custom fabric.

We chose to start with the best raw cotton. The top 3% of the U.S. cotton crop is Supima cotton, known as the “cashmere of cottons.” However, only 1% of that 3% is organic and the vast majority of it goes over to the European market. We were told we were on a wild goose chase to try to get our hands on organic Supima.  

A mill owner in Los Angeles bought into our vision and convinced one of the absolute best yarn spinners to work with us on a small run in Switzerland. Our next production run was large enough to be spun at a sister company in the US, which reduced transportation emissions.

We decided on a 5.75 oz fabric—staying true to the workwear roots of the tee— made of 100% Organic Supima® Cotton grown in the American southwest, spun in Georgia and milled in California.

We compacted the yarn and prewashed the fabric to prevent shrinkage.

PRODUCTION

After the fabric was knit in Los Angeles, it traveled to Detroit. Each garment was made by hand at our production facility in Corktown.

Our first hire was Aaron, who spent 22 years in prison. We believe in investing in our community, which meant starting our workers at a living wage of at least $15 per hour.

“Detroit-based Lazlo has the best (and most ethical) Kickstarter t-shirt we’ve ever seen.’ -Complex, 2015

We examined every step of the process to ensure that our clothing would stand up to heavy use.

We recognized that even when garments are made with the most sustainable fabrics and energy sources, they still impact our planet.

Therefore, truly sustainable production meant also designing garments that would be as appealing in a decade as they were the day they came off the shelf—and then constructing those garments to last that long.

FINAL PRODUCT

The finished product was a contemporary update on the iconic crewneck tee with relaxed shoulders and a hand-applied, self-fabric bound collar. The curved hem and side vents encouraged the drape of a longer, slimmer fit. 

NATURAL DYES

Some of our shirts were dipped by hand in an indigo bath, a traditional practice that goes back thousands of years and leads to a deep, rich finish. Each shirt was unique and aged beautifully.

In our studio we maintained several indigo vats, which required regular stirring and feeding. A small collection of iridescent bubbles, called an indigo flower, indicated a healthy vat.

The base for these vats included a combination of indigo, hemp and fructose—all completely nontoxic but occasionally temperamental, needing sufficient quantities of steaming water to prevent it from solidifying in an instant to mud.

On the first of six dips, a tee would come dripping out of the vat a yellow-green and as it oxidized rapidly turn blue, getting successively darker with subsequent dips.

 

Left: 2017 // Below: 2015 launch video, pre-renovation