Whether you consider yourself an aspiring, practicing or recovering writer, or are emotionally enmeshed with same, one perquisite which greatly appeals to many wordsmiths is the socially sanctioned synergy between creature comfort and presumed performance. Where pajama pants and a baggy T-shirt would be inappropriate for an attorney or banker, that ensemble not only ensures the necessary ease of movement over long hours spent shifting and slouching in a chair, it also provides the minimum necessary coverage to avoid arrest during excursions to various therapists. (Even for writers working regular hours in an office setting, there is usually a certain sartorial latitude granted in day-to-day practice, as compared to executives, managers or customer-facing staff.)
While there are certainly occasions when a writer should be presentable — say, in court, or at their own funeral — almost everyone agrees that what writers need to be is productive. In that context it seems axiomatic that if your work involves plumbing the depths of your imagination, psyche or intellect, you might have a hard time doing so if your senses are aggrieved. While a compelling need to limit distractions can also lead to compulsive rituals, if not histrionic demands of fellow employees, family members or random citizens — and may be motivated more by procrastination or a morbid fear of failure than any valid grievance — here we are concerned not with mental anguish about fashion but actual physical discomfort. So if you are currently debating whether to wear your new beret at a tilt or dead-level, or whether it might be time to transition to a full-blown dandy, we commend questions of both style and sanity to your personal support community.
A Brief History of Clothing and Comfort
Over the preceding millennia, the catalogue of human attire evolved and proliferated to such an extent that every conceivable manner of protecting and concealing the human body was attempted at one time or another. Some garment solutions stood the test of time, some disappeared as quickly as they came, but in terms of construction and function today there are no unknowns in the collective consciousness of that commercial industry. And that’s particularly true for issues related to physical comfort, which often transcend specific designs, materials and methods of manufacture.
When clothing the human anatomy, wildly different garments often share common points of pain at the intersection of fashion and fit. Not only are you personally familiar with most of those potential discomforts, however, but the clothing industry long ago identified and accommodated its practices to your biological vulnerabilities. For example, consider the waist, with or without a girdling belt. Whether you are wearing a mini skirt or a HAZMAT suit, if that article of clothing is too tight around your midsection you will never be comfortable until you loosen or remove whatever is strangling your gut. Fortunately, because clothiers know about that problem — which also comes and goes depending on the amount of food you consume both in the moment and over time — you may avail yourself of one or more built-in release mechanisms, from temporarily opening a button or zipper, to loosening a band which has been pre-drilled with alternate holes for just such bloated occasions.
Because humans come in different shapes and proportions, the garment industry also produces most items across a spectrum of sizes, making it possible for a majority of consumers to find something that fits off the literal rack, without alterations. Unfortunately, clothiers must also rely on consumers to be honest about their sizing, which is not always the case because consumers are often quite vain. Rather than wear the appropriate size, thus ensuring physical comfort, consumers may shop for size first, then cram whatever body parts are being clothed into that numerical value, even if they can’t breathe or walk normally as a result. To underscore the absurdity of this tug of war between psychology and physiology, consumer interest in wearing smaller sizes has actually compelled — if not induced — garment manufacturers to simply reduce the size shown on the garment tag without decreasing the size of garments themselves. (This then also makes it almost impossible for people who are honest about their physical size to buy clothes which actually fit, without first translating their known proportions to the vanity-coded sizing of a particular manufacturer.)
Perhaps even more so than the waist, questions of construction and size are critical to the physical comfort of footwear. Buy a shoe that is badly made and you will probably end up with blisters, calluses, corns or worse, from pressure points which rub against or cut into your feet. Likewise, if you buy a well-made shoe in the wrong size you can end up with the same problems, and if you consistently wear shoes that are too small — again, out of vanity — you can do permanent damage to your body which may or may not be correctable with long-term physical therapy or surgery.
Unless you really are a slave to fashion, however, you learned long ago to avoid foot discomfort — and that includes socks and stockings, which we will touch on again later. Even in the context of writing foot comfort matters greatly, whether you dangle them from a chair, pace back and forth, or use a standing desk with a matching cushioned mat to ease stress on your legs. (In urban environments where people walk to work, it is not uncommon for white-collar employees to wear comfortable shoes to the office, then change into formal footwear appropriate to the dress code.)
Across the universe of clothing both construction and fit are critical, and again and again we find that clothiers not only produce garments in multiple sizes, they make those garments adjustable in a variety of ways. Button-down shirts not only usually come with specific collar sizes and sleeve lengths, but collars can be left open or secured with a tie — which in itself can be tied for comfort as well as style. And of course at the cuff it is also common for button-down shirts to have two buttons provided for small and large wrists, again allowing for a comfortable fit for most consumers.
Here it is also important to note that the closer an item sits to the skin, the more attention is usually paid to make sure there are no seams, fittings or gathers which might produce irritations or abrasions during normal use. Again, however, in most instances the garment industry is aware of such problems, and consumers can get good, comfortable products across a range of prices and sizes. As for the focus of concern in this post, that particularly includes keyboard jockeys from writers to programmers to students, and anyone else who regularly spends time pressing keys.
Typing in the Digital Age
If you are young — meaning certainly under thirty, and likely under forty — you have probably never used a typewriter to print characters on a piece of paper. If you are a bit older you may have spent a few years in high school or college typing on an electric typewriter, like the then-revolutionary IBM Selectric, but even if that’s the case the vast majority of your time as a typist has involved using either a dedicated computer keyboard, or the keyboards which are built into the bases of laptop, notebook and some tablet computers. And it is that specific technological evolution which occasioned this post.
If you have ever seen an old manual typewriter, one feature which probably stood out was the steep ascending pitch of the rows of keys from front to back. As typewriters evolved over the twentieth century — and particularly during the transition first to electric, then electronic machines — the pitch of the key rows decreased significantly. Only with the advent of computer keyboards and portable computers, however, did the rows of keys first become almost flat, then pancake flat. Not surprisingly, during that technological transition the ergonomics of typing changed for most people as well.
Again, you won’t know this if you’re relatively young, but for close to a hundred years the compulsory posture for typing replicated that of playing the piano — literally another keyboard. Sit forward in your chair, back straight and unsupported, shoulders loose, arms bent ninety degrees at the elbows, wrists straight, with your suspended fingers doing the actual work. Critically, the wrists and palms did not alight on any surface, including the desk or table holding the typewriter, and the machine itself provided no rests for the wrists.
In the digital age, however, that began to change, first with dedicated keyboards for desktop machines, then with portable computing devices which were, of necessity, completely flat. To be sure, even today many dedicated computer keyboards come with small adjustable legs which can be extended at the back, raising the slope of the keyboard if the user finds that more comfortable. But many dedicated computer keyboards also come with wrist wrests built in, and that is almost always the case with laptop, notebook and some tablet computers. And it is precisely that evolution of technology and ergonomics which is of concern, because despite the garment industry’s penchant for evolution as well, I am convinced that clothiers have not fully adapted to this recent change in typing posture.
A Brief History of Clothing and Wrists
There are two main factors which determine whether we cover or expose our wrists: formality and seasonality. In formal settings in all seasons, whether work-related or social, the arms are usually covered, and as a consequence the wrists are largely concealed. In casual settings in warm weather sleeves are usually short to aid cooling, and the wrists are flagrantly exposed. Conversely, in casual settings in cold weather temperature dictates long sleeves, often to such a degree that more than one long-sleeve garment may be worn to keep the arms and wrists warm.
It might seem that button-down shirts would be particularly prone to discomfort at the wrists when typing on a computer keyboard, because buttons at the cuffs could be pinned between the wrists and keyboard rests, but after centuries of experience with arms and hard surfaces the garment industry solved that problem long before computer keyboards became ubiquitous. Specifically, to prevent that same button discomfort on tables, desks, bars and even on actual armrests, buttons at the cuff were shifted to the outside of the wrist, thus preventing them from being pressed between the arm and any surface on which the arm came to rest. (This holds not only for dress shirts, but also for informal attire like flannel shirts. On all of my button-down shirts, dress or casual, the buttons at the cuff are uniformly positioned to the side, and as a result never become pinned under my wrists when I am typing.)
We do find issues, however, among the vast array of long-sleeve pullovers, where seams at the wrist are not uniformly constructed, but vary widely by brand and price. In fact this appears to be a growing problem, not only because computers changed the physical mechanics of typing, but because typing on computer keyboards quickly became the default means of document creation not only in a business context, but in college, secondary and even primary school. (Again, if you are relatively young you probably do not know how to write using cursive, which was developed precisely to speed the rate at which words could be committed to paper relative to block letters. Typing, however — even at hunt-and-peck speeds — not only beats both writing methods, it produces consistently readable text.)
The upshot of all of this means not only that more people are typing than ever before, but the vast majority are probably doing so in a casual context where long-sleeve pullovers are the norm in colder months, which coincidentally comprise the bulk of the school year. Unfortunately, because the garment industry has apparently not taken note of the relatively rapid transition between wrist-elevated typing in the twentieth century and wrist-rested typing in the twenty-first century — though to be fair, twenty years is a blink of the eye in garment time — there is as yet no established standard for preventing seams at the wrist from being pinned between the heels of the palms and the keyboards on which hands now routinely rest. As a hack, offending sleeves can be shoved up the arms on a temporary basis, but of course that leaves the ends of the arms exposed, which defeats the point of wearing long sleeves in the first place. An inelegant solution for an industry famous for elegance.
While no one was looking, computer technology tossed a figurative wrench into the long, logical, historical advance of garment construction. Despite both the scale of the garment industry and the number of consumers negatively affected, however, there may be very few people who are consciously aware of this problem, even though it is probably more common today than it has ever been. At the same time consumers may be forgiven for failing to take note of this scourge — even as they absently jam their sleeves up to their elbows — because, along with requirements for strength and durability, it is a universal objective of seam construction to make garments look attractive from the outside. Only by looking at how seams are finished on the inside does the problem become clear.
Correlating Construction with Wrist Discomfort
If you are a writer — or a programmer, or anyone who uses a computer keyboard with regularity, and particularly during the cold season in your part of the world — at this very moment you may be thinking about a cozy long-sleeve shirt you otherwise love, but cannot stand to wear while working, precisely because the seams inside the ends of the sleeves irritate your wrists. For reasons articulated above that garment will almost certainly be a long-sleeve pullover as opposed to a button-down shirt, and will also be worn closest to your skin, as opposed to an outer layer. Garments meeting those criteria include long-sleeve T-shirts, long-sleeve henleys, and a vast array of long-sleeve pullovers which are a bit more upscale but still priced for mass appeal. Unfortunately, because lower-priced, off-the-rack garments are usually stitched together as quickly as possible, and because more and more people are using computer keyboards, it stands to reason that any issues with clothing comfort at the wrists will disproportionately affect people who have less money rather than more money, because those individuals will likely purchase less-expensive items to stretch their clothing budget.
The measure of any individual discomfort is of course affected by personal pain tolerance and — for writers specifically — the degree to which one is looking for something, anything, to distract from the task at literal hand. That said, if given a choice I believe most consumers would prefer a more finished garment construction at the wrist, particularly when compared to some of the raw offerings currently available in the marketplace. And if you think I’m overstating the magnitude of this construction variance — and consequent potential for physical discomfort — take a gander at this:
What you are looking into here is the business end of a sleeve on a low-priced ($10), relatively heavyweight long-sleeve T-shirt, sold under a well-known brand. (I will not be naming specific brands or manufacturers in this post because it is impossible to know who actually makes what, and because for any product the method of construction could change in the future. My goals are simply to arm you with the information you need to make wrist-friendly purchases, and to encourage the garment industry to do better, and neither of those objectives will be advanced by sleeve-shaming.)
As you can see, the various seams at the end of this sleeve have been stitched together in a manner which produces ridges of fabric on the inside of the shirt. I would also very much like to tell you what those specific seams are called, but after an absurd amount of research on garment construction I have not been able to put a name to that finishing method. Perhaps not surprisingly, that obscurity is also part of the problem for consumers, because the vast majority of people who buy clothes have no idea how to talk about differences in garment construction, including dozens of different methods of stitching two pieces of fabric together. And that in turn makes it impossible for consumers to know — or even to ask — what they are getting inside the end of the sleeves on any long-sleeve pullover.
To avoid any possible confusion in this post, here is how the end of that particular sleeve was put together:
Line A parallels the short seam where the cuff material was stitched together into a ring, and it is that seam which is particularly important to comfort at the wrist because that is the seam most likely to be pinned between hand and keyboard. Line B parallels the visible portion of the circular seam where the the cuff ring was joined to the end of the sleeve, and Line C is the visible end of the sleeve seam, which originates where the sleeve and body of the shirt are joined. (Note also in the images above the veritable knot of fabric which results when all three of those seems abut or intersect.)
To orient the sleeve in these images, and in the similar images that follow, note that it is a convention of fashion that sleeves short and long are attached with the sleeve-length seam shielded from view as much as possible, usually by positioning that seam to the underside or inside of the arm. Not only does that convention make obvious sense on the basis of aesthetics, but once again it reminds us that a great many manufacturing decisions in the garment industry were standardized long ago, to the point that we think nothing about them. In practice this convention means that when a sleeve — whether short or long — is joined to the body of a shirt, the sleeve seam usually begins under the arm and follows the length of the sleeve proper, regardless how the end of the sleeve is finished.
Because mass-market clothing is usually manufactured by workers who are paid piecework, however — meaning according to the number of garments completed, as opposed to hours worked — the compass point at which sleeve seams are oriented to the body of a shirt may vary, and that includes on a per-shirt basis. For example, when I am wearing the shirt pictured above, one of the sleeve-length seams terminates at the cuff on the outside of that sleeve, while the seam on the other sleeve terminates at the underside of that sleeve. And as you might imagine, in the context of this post that latter sleeve proves particularly irritating when I type, because those rope-like seams — and particularly the one across the cuff — end up pinned between my wrist and the rest on my keyboard.
Mitigating Wrist Discomfort with Improved Construction
While more people are doing more typing than ever before these days, it is true that most people do not spend as much time typing as writers or programmers do. In that context, concerns about wrist comfort may seem trivial or at least transient, and it would be hard to argue that the ridges of fabric depicted in the previous images constitute a public health emergency. That said, however, consider how you would feel if the agglomeration of prominent seams pictured above was present not at the end of a sleeve, but somewhere — anywhere — inside the foot of a sock. Even if you weren’t wearing shoes or bearing your weight, but were sitting with your feet up while watching TV, would those raw, abrasive ropes prove distracting or irritating? Because I think they would to most people.
Since it is unlikely that the garment industry will segment the design and construction of long-sleeve pullovers by anticipated typing time, the question is what can be done across all such garments to minimize if not negate this problem for every consumer. However trivial the problem may seem, it is equally important to note that the solution does not require an extensive redesign of offending shirts. From the images and discussion above, it is clearly only the last few inches of fabric at the end of a sleeve which can become pinned between the wrists and the rests of a keyboard. Anything that can be done to flatten or conceal the seams inside the ends of long sleeves should therefore mitigate any discomfort associated with typing, and the more one expects to type the greater the measure of expected relief. And as it turns out, there is already a great deal of seam-stitching knowledge in the garment industry about how to do exactly that.
Here now is the business end of what I would describe as a mid-priced ($25), mid-weight, long-sleeve T-shirt, also sold under a long-established brand name:
Even if you knew absolutely nothing about how the various pieces of material are sewn together at the end of a long, cuffed sleeve, it would be blatantly obvious from this picture that the inside of this sleeve would be considerably more comfortable in any context, as opposed to the low-priced T-shirt in the first set of images. Where the first shirt featured three equally prominent if not pugnacious inside seams, here we find what looks to be three different types of seams despite using the same basic method of construction.
Most obviously and importantly, the seam along Line A on this second shirt — meaning the seam connecting the ends of the cuff into a ring — is virtually invisible to the eye. To be sure there still is a seam hidden inside the cuff, and as a result the fabric to either side is thicker than the rest of the cuff, but the seam itself lies flat against the skin, as opposed to the rope-like seam on the first shirt.
As before, Line B on this second shirt parallels the seam where the cuff is joined to the sleeve. Here the stitching on the inside of that seam is visible to the eye, but the seam is flattened by that stitching, and that flat seam is sewn to the inside of the shirt so it cannot sit up. (Again, I am sure there is a name for that kind of seam and stitching, but I was unable to pin it down. Also, there seems to be an important difference between sewing and something call serging, with fierce constituencies asserting the advantages of each, but I don’t understand that terminology either.)
Likewise, Line C follows the end of the seam that runs the length of the sleeve itself, and though it’s a bit hard to see that seam is also finished differently from the same seam on the first shirt. Where the sleeve seam on the first shirt was a relatively thick rope — just like the other two seams on that shirt — on this second shirt that seam is again sewn flat, only this time the resulting flap of fabric is not sewn down to the inside of the sleeve.
It is of course not a surprise that better, more refined methods of garment construction are more comfortable. But that doesn’t mean better, more refined methods of construction are necessary in every aspect. For example, no matter how prominent a sleeve seam may be — whether on a short-sleeve or long-sleeve shirt — I have never felt any discomfort from seams above the level of my wrists when typing or doing anything else, precisely because I rarely if ever pin the length of a sleeve against my arm. And indeed we see this difference accounted for in the seams of this second shirt, because the seams become progressively less refined as they move away from the wrist. Meaning also that the garment industry is generally aware of the problem of wrist discomfort, and has already developed methods of seam construction which minimize same. What we need are not new methods of construction, then, but consistent, standardized methods across price points and brands.
To underscore the point that it isn’t just how seams are constructed that matters, but also where those seams fall on the body, here is the business end of a short-sleeve version of the low-priced, long-sleeve T-shirt pictured above, from the same brand line:
At first glance this may seem to have been put together more like the mid-priced, long-sleeve T-shirt, with flattened seams, but that’s actually because the end of this short-sleeve shirt — like most short-sleeve shirts — does not have an attached cuff. That in turn also explains why there are only two seams visible in the image, instead of three seams in the previous examples.
Although there is no attached cuff there is still a prominent sleeve seam at Line C, which runs the length of the sleeve. Because this is a short-sleeve shirt, however, it doesn’t actually matter if there is a thick inside sleeve seam, unless you plan to spend a lot of time with your arms draped over a fence rail. Absent such a pose, however, that rope-like seam will probably never be crushed into the underside of your arm, even though that same type of seam is clearly a problem in the long-sleeve version of that shirt. (The closer any seam is to the wrist, the more refined it should be.)
As for Line D, while that seam looks like the same flat-sewn seam that was used to join the cuff to the sleeve in the mid-priced, long-sleeve T-shirt, in this short-sleeve shirt there is no attached cuff. Instead, that seam is actually a hem of the sleeve material, which was sewn before that piece of fabric was then stitched into a sleeve. While it is more common for long sleeves to be finished with a cuff, they can also be finished with a simple hem, so you will definitely want to determine how the end of the sleeve seam has been finished on such garments.
Correlating Construction and Comfort with Price
The fantasy of consumerism promises, and reality largely confirms, that you get what you pay for in the marketplace — at least to a certain point, after which products simply give way to excess. In that context, it is obviously not surprising that the low-priced, long-sleeve T-shirt uses the same brutish stitching for all three seams at the cuff, while the moderately-priced T-shirt uses three different seams, each designed to proportionately minimize irritation at various points of sensitivity on and along the wrist. Reinforcing the perception that more money equals better construction, here is another mid-priced ($25) T-shirt, this time from a heavyweight, construction-grade brand which also uses three different seams at the cuff.
Here we see that two of the seams are less-refined than the other mid-priced shirt, almost certainly because this garment is intended for blue-collar use and abuse, as opposed to clerical work or other white-collar pursuits. That said, however, again the pattern of construction is almost exactly the same as the other mid-priced shirt.
Like the other mid-priced shirt, the cuff seam which parallels Line A is concealed, but uses a different technique which is thicker and more intrusive when typing, but also undeniably stronger. Line B again parallels the visible portion of the seam where the cuff is attached to the sleeve, and here that seam is over-sewn but also thicker than the seam on the other mid-priced shirt. Finally, the sleeve seam at Line C is sewn almost exactly like the same seam on the other mid-priced shirt, befitting the fact that it not only runs the length of the sleeve, but is significantly less important to comfort.
Given that both of the mid-priced T-shirts in this post were clearly built to be more comfortable at the wrist, it is tempting as a consumer to leap to the conclusion that the mid-priced T-shirts must be better all around, and yet that does not seem to be the case. Other than concerns about the wrist seams on the low-priced T-shirt, the construction of the rest of that shirt seems to be equivalent to the mid-priced shirts in most other aspects — save one which does directly relate to both fit and cost, which we will consider momentarily.
First, however, take a look at this side-by-side comparison of the neck and shoulder seams of the low-priced T-shirt and the first of the two mid-priced T-shirts:
At first glance you might think that what you’re looking at is the outside of both shirts, but in fact both shirts have been turned inside-out. To the right is the inside of each neck opening, and the short length of vertical stitching is the visible part of the seam which binds the collar to the body of the shirt. (Note particularly how the stitching on that vertical section is similar on both shirts.)
If you look even closer, however, you’ll see that the exposed stitching at the neck doesn’t actually end, but burrows under a strip of colored fabric on each shirt, which starts at the far left and runs across the shoulder, before arcing down and around the back of the collar. Again, I searched high and low for the name of that fabric strip, but I could not find any consistent terminology. What is clear from the reading I did, however, is that the main purpose of that piece of fabric is to cover either a good deal of extra stitching or an added plastic strip of some kind, either or both of which are added to the shoulder seams and back of the neck to provide the shirt with long-term stability. And given that shirts effectively hang from the shoulders and back of the neck, that obviously makes sense.
If stability was the only concern, however, shirt manufacturers could reinforce those seams with staples or wire and be done with it. Which is to say not only that part of the structural solution shown in the photo obviously relates to comfort, but over time that method of ensuring comfort has become standardized even at relatively low price points. Cover all of the stabilizing material with a strip of like-colored fabric, so the reinforced seams at the shoulder and back of the neck do now saw into the bodies of the people wearing those garments, and customers will come back for more. In fact, it works so well that even though you have probably never noticed that construction detail, it is probably present on the shirt you are wearing right now. (You can see a step-by-step description of how those seams are stabilized in a hand-made shirt here.)
Not only do all of the shirts pictured in this post use the same relatively complicated shoulder and neck construction, regardless of price, but that consistency suggests that variance in construction at the wrist is less about controlling costs than it is about ignorance of the degree to which those seams can be as irritating as open seams at the shoulders and neck. In fact, whatever actually accounts for the fact that the mid-priced shirts cost two and a half times as much as the low-priced shirts, if the makers of the low-priced long-sleeve shirt took the time to provide equal or better treatment at the cuffs it is likely that doing so would cost only a few cents per shirt at the wholesale level, translating to a minimal price increase at the retail level while producing a demonstrably better product.
An Illuminating Detour into Side Seams
The very fact that I can purchase a low-priced, long-sleeve T-shirt in a variety of colors and sizes for around $10 gives me pause, apart from the rough finish of the wrist seams, because there is a good chance that exploited workers are part of that pricing equation. Because I am not rich I do have to be a price-conscious consumer, but I also know that the garment industry worldwide has an atrocious record on multiple fronts, from labor abuses intrinsic to fast fashion to environmental abuses and rampant greenwashing. That said, while researching this post I had an unexpected and disorienting moment of realization about a significant and blatantly obvious — yet simultaneously inconspicuous — difference between the low-price and mid-price shirts in this post, which did in fact help account for part of the gaping $15 difference in cost.
While reading a veritable cascade of articles about how T-shirts are constructed, and looking at patterns of same, I found myself feeling the seams of a T-shirt I was wearing at the time. Or at least that’s what I was doing until I came to the side seams in a diagram I was looking at, because when I absently tried to feel the side seams of the T-shirt I was wearing I could not find them on either side. Thinking the seams must be hidden in a fold of fabric, or perhaps located a bit farther back than I expected, I looked at both sides of the shirt until it became quite clear that my T-shirt had no side seams at all.
Initially that discovery proved to be a mild curiosity, which I attempted to resolve by imagining some alternate means of construction. The more I tried to invent the underlying garment pattern, however, the more it became clear — at first dully, then to a stupefying degree — that it is not actually possible to join pieces of fabric into a T-shirt with no side seams. At that point I experienced a preposterous moment of unreality, because I had just proven to myself that the T-shirt I was wearing, and had worn off and on for years, could not possibly exist. (You may be wearing a T-shirt without side seams at this very moment yourself, and if so I urge you to try to figure out how your shirt was constructed before reading on.)
After grudgingly admitting defeat — while also grappling with the embarrassing fact that not once had I ever noticed or wondered about the blatantly obvious absence of side seams before — I finally looked up the solution on the internet. Not only was the answer satisfyingly clever, but it turns out the distinction between shirts with side seams and shirts without side seams is a well-known fault line in the fashion industry. Importantly that distinction not only relates directly to questions of fit and finish, but also to manufacturing costs both including and apart from labor costs.
Where the body of a T-shirt with side seams is made from two roughly equal pieces of fabric for the front and back, T-shirts without side seams are made from fabric that is woven into a tube, which then becomes the seamless body of the shirt. Not only does tube construction mean side seams don’t need to be stitched — thus saving on labor costs — but the body of the shirt can effectively be created with simple cuts across the tube of fabric. Once cut to appropriate length, the bottom of the tube can simply be hemmed, becoming the bottom of the shirt, while cuts for adding the sleeves and neck are made at the top. (You can see a diagram of the component pieces here.)
It is always mind-blowing to me just how much there is to know about even the simplest product or process, and making a T-shirt is no exception. In this case, however, they mysteries of tube construction also help explain the pricing gulf between the low-price and mid-price shirts in this post, even though all of the shirts share similar construction methods at the shoulders and neck. Whatever the specific costs associated with side-steam construction, it is clearly much cheaper to make T-shirts out of tubes of fabric, and as a consequence the makers of side-seam T’s cannot compete on price. Instead, manufacturers and retailers of side-seam T’s compete on fit, because it is only through side seams that the torso of a T-shirt can be tapered, as contrasted with the inherent barrel-shape of tube T’s.
Where we do find incoherence, however, is in the fact that the low-price, long-sleeve T-shirt in this post uses a cheaper method of manufacture for the torso which poses no threat to comfort, and a more expensive method of manufacture at the shoulders and neck to ensure comfort, while using an atrocious method of manufacture at the wrist which guarantees discomfort. And that’s particularly odd given not only that superior methods of seam construction at the wrist are well known in the industry, but that comfort is at least as important as fit when it comes to competing in the marketplace.
A Plea for Wrist Seam Standardization
In the twenty-first century, in the most powerful and technologically advanced nation on earth, this method of garment construction at the wrists of a long-sleeve shirt is completely indefensible:
Even if it is incrementally cheaper to stitch all three of those seams using the same technique, as opposed to using three different seam types in the mid-priced shirts in this post, what you get for that marginal savings is a markedly worse product in a highly competitive market. Precisely because all three of those seams still need to be stitched — as opposed to tube construction, which eliminates the need to stitch side seams — some other method of finishing those seams should be used to prevent discomfort at the wrist, whether uniformly or on a per-seam basis. (I also find myself wondering whether anyone has tried using tube construction for sleeves, which could conceivably eliminate two of three seams pictured above, and reduce the third to a simple hem.)
If the manufacturers of low-price, long-sleeve shirts only improved the short seam which forms the cuff, that would produce a disproportionate gain in comfort because that is the seam most likely to be pinned between the wrist and keyboard. Whether the current brute method of construction pictured above reflects genuine oversight about how the digital age has increased wrist discomfort for people who use computer keyboards — which is the great majority of people these days — or simply represents cost-cutting in a competitive market segment with small margins, it is still unacceptable.
Just as the construction of neck and shoulder seams has been standardized across price points, so too should seams at the wrist. To that point, after looking at pretty much every shirt I own, I also believe there is an untapped opportunity to mitigate if not eliminate that problem during production, with zero additional cost. Specifically, doing so involves following lessons that were learned long ago about how to position cuff buttons, and likewise reorienting the seam of any pullover cuff to the side of the wrist, where it poses no threat.
In the image above, notice how the cuff seam along Line A and the sleeve seam along Line C line up perfectly across the seam at Line B, which joins the cuff to the sleeve. Not only is that the case with the low-price T-shirt, but if you look at all of the images above you will see the same consistent construction for sleeves with cuffs. And of course from an aesthetic perspective that obviously makes sense: lining up those seams makes the construction of the shirt look neater, even as the sleeve and cuff seams are also positioned so they remain largely out of view — also for aesthetic reasons. (Again, I looked at every long-sleeve pullover I own, and the sleeve and cuff are always joined so the sleeve seam and cuff seam line up with each other.)
From a construction perspective, however, that design choice not only has nothing to do with the strength or fit of the garment, but it is actually contrary to the comfort of the garment — and that’s true even if the inside seams are otherwise minimized or concealed, as they are in the mid-price shirts. As noted earlier we can actually confirm that by looking at the construction of any long-sleeve shirt with buttons at the cuffs, because garment manufacturers learned long ago that locating buttons under the wrist is uncomfortable. In order to avoid that problem, the wrist placket (opening) and buttons are shifted away from the sleeve seam, so the buttons won’t end up pinned between any surface on which the wrists come to rest.
In this image we see the considerable offset between the sleeve seam at Line C and the opening where the buttons are positioned at Line A. Again, from a construction perspective there is no imperative for that offset in terms of strength or fit, and it would almost certainly be cheaper to locate the wrist opening at the end of the sleeve seam — as with the shirts shown above, where Line A and Line C are aligned. Instead, however, because that would position buttons under the wrist when the arm was resting on a hard surface, sleeves with buttons at the cuff offset that closure to improve comfort.
Other than aesthetic concerns — which are admittedly prominent if not preeminent in much of the fashion industry — there is no reason that sleeve seams and cuff seams need to line up together on long-sleeve pullovers. Instead, simply by rotating the cuff before sewing it to the sleeve, manufacturers could likewise offset the short but critical cuff seam (Line A in the above images) so it fell to the outside of the wrist, instead of beneath. And because those two components need to be joined in any case, that offset would not increase the cost of production at all.
As for aesthetic objections — and legitimate concerns that customers might interpret offset cuff seams as an indicator of sloppy construction — that’s what salespeople and marketing materials are for. If you make a garment better in some way, then you advertise that change to differentiate your products in the marketplace. Cuff seams offset for improved comfort and utility!
Consumer Takeaways and Action Items
There is admittedly a lot of information to process in this post, above and beyond the shocking revelation that tube T-shirts not only exist, but have been passing among us undetected for years. For that reason, and for those afflicted with TLDR, what follows are key takeaways and action items for consumers, which savvy manufacturers night note as well. If nothing else, my hope is that one day keyboard jockeys the world over will be able to work pain-free in the long-sleeve pullovers of their choice, and as an incentive I would add — at least for this consumer — that heightened awareness of this issue has already impacted garment purchases in the marketplace.
* The road to good wrist health begins with inspecting the long-sleeve pullovers you already own, and determining which ones are acceptable for use while typing. If you do spend a fair amount of time working at a keyboard you have probably already identified a few of your shirts which are problematic, and you know when you put them on that you will have to endure them as you work. Trust me, I’ve been there, but life is hard enough without sabotaging yourself with irritating wrist seams, so eliminating distracting shirts is as important as any other decision you make to ensure good work hygiene.
• On the initial screening pass, simply conduct a visual inspection of every pullover you own. Whether a sleeve ends in a cuff or a hem, eliminate any shirts like this from your keyboard rotation:
For those shirts which do pass visual inspection, proceed to the next step. As to what to do with any shirts that fail visual inspection, keep reading for a few suggestions.
• Even if the wrist seams on a shirt look acceptable, it is still important to try that item on. Yet even then there is a potential pitfall in determining whether a given shirt will cause problems when you type. I learned that lesson myself while trying on a number of my own shirts for this post, because I kept looking at where the wrist seams sat on my wrist. The problem with doing so is that the very act of turning my hands over to look at where the cuff and sleeve seams fell on my wrists altered that relationship, because my arms were turning inside the sleeve itself. Instead, when trying on a shirt, ignore what your eyes are telling you and place your hands, palms down, on any flat surface — or better yet, if you have a computer keyboard handy, type a few sentences to see if the seams prove distracting.
• Beyond eliminating problematic garments, screening your current clothes will advantage you in two ways. First, you will quickly learn which seam types bother you and which do not, making it that much easier to make purchases in the future. Second, while manufacturing methods can change without notice, looking at the tags of shirts which are and are not acceptable will help you identify brands you should consider and avoid when looking to add to your wardrobe.
• When you are ready to buy new shirts it will be easier to conduct similar tests if you buy your clothes at a brick-and-mortar store. Not only can you quickly look at wrist seams across brands, but you will be able to try on candidate shirts and test their fit as you did at home. (Again, even if you don’t purchase a shirt that is otherwise acceptable, make a note of that brand for future reference.)
• If you purchase your clothes online the screening process will remain problematic until manufacturers and retailers realize they should make the relevant information available to consumers. Unfortunately, as alluded earlier, manufacturers and retailers are not particularly forthcoming about displaying or describing the methods of construction used at the wrist, even if it is superior, so you will almost certainly have to seek out that information. Fortunately, there are several ways to get the answers you need, some of which are free.
First, email customer service and request pictures of the wrist seams on shirts under consideration. Second, ask questions of fellow consumers on sites which allow for such exchanges of information. Third, if you are otherwise satisfied with a garment, and the return costs are not prohibitive, order a sample that you can inspect, try on and test at home. (The makers of low-price shirts may be reluctant to talk about any sadistic stitching they use at the wrist, and a refusal by anyone to answer questions is obviously a red flag. The more often manufacturers and retailers find themselves fielding such questions, however, the more likely they will consider employing better solutions in the future.)
• As for what to do with shirts you already own which do not make the cut, donating is always an option, as is piling said offending shirts in your yard, dousing them with gasoline, kerosene, napalm or whatever accelerants you have lying around, and lighting them on fire. Before you give up on those garments entirely, however, note that they may be perfectly suitable for anything from dining out to lounging around the house, to gardening to rebuilding an engine. Likewise, if those shirts are otherwise comfortable when you’re typing, there are several hacks you might try to mitigate wrist discomfort.
First, consider wearing offending shirts inside out when you are not concerned about your appearance. As a test I did just that with the low-price, long-sleeve tube T pictured above, and not only was that shirt absurdly comfortable inside out, when I was typing it was no more distracting at the wrists than the mid-priced, long-sleeve, side-seam T’s which cost two and a half times as much. (If you cover an inside-out shirt with another garment as a second layer there would literally be no reason not to wear that shirt inside out.)
Second, in the previous post I referenced a specific product — literally called Wristies — which can also be employed as a buffer against long-sleeve garments which have irritating cuffs or hems. Tuck a pair of Wristies into the ends of an offending pair of long sleeves and you can mitigate much of the discomfort because the Wristies themselves function as a buffer. (For that matter a pair of old socks with holes for your fingers would probably provide similar protection.)
Whatever else there is to say about the garment industry, it is the source of clothing for the vast majority of consumers. Over the centuries, manufacturers and retailers struck a deal with their customers, which is that they will do what they can to make clothes comfortable across the spectrum of price, but we have to be honest about our physical size, and select items appropriate for intended use. Unlike the waist, however, or the neck, or the feet, when it comes to the wrists there are no choices to make for long-sleeve pullover shirts. You not only get what you get in terms of size, but also construction — and if you learned nothing else from this post, you now know why you must inspect the insides of long sleeves if you spend any appreciable time typing on a computer keyboard.
It is obviously problematic that even a motivated consumer cannot readily identify garments which have wrist-friendly seam construction. Indeed, even the brands I already own which do seem to consistently employ better seam practices make no effort to advertise that advantage, even as they pitch facets of construction which are trivial in comparison. As it stands now most manufacturers and retailers don’t recognize fit and construction at the end of sleeves to be a consumer concern, and I put that down to the relative recency of the advent of computer keyboards. Because of the consequent massive increase in the amount of typing being done across all demographics, however, my hope is that by raising awareness we can all profit, from manufacturers to retailers to consumers alike.
— Mark Barrett