Everyone loves t-shirts, but how do you make yours look vintage? That's what we discuss here. In this post, we explore some of the features you should look for to achieve a vintage t-shirt style. We then expound on some methods you can use to give tees an aged look. Check out our ideas below:
Vintage T-Shirt Buying Guide
Here's what to look out for when shopping for vintage t-shirts:
Going for an oversized fit is one of the easiest ways to make a t-shirt look vintage. Tees that went down to the thighs and forearms were all the rage from the late 1980s to the late 1990s. Everyone was trying out the style, from TV personalities to rappers.
T-shirts often had printed graphics on the front, designed to match the wearer's personal style or message. People also paired them with heavy jewelry, baggy jeans worn low on the hips, and sneakers.
Clothesmakers started using burnout, also called devoré, at some time in the 19th century in the southern French city of Lyon. The chemical process was a cheap alternative to conventional lace.
During the 1920s, burnout became extremely popular. Originally, manufacturers developed burnout for shawls and evening gowns. However, the technique enjoyed a second surge in the 1990s, thanks to increasing usage in theater costumes.
Burnout works on mixed-fiber materials. Clothesmakers put the material through a chemical process that dissolves cellulose fibers, creating translucent patterns against the surrounding fabric (which are not affected by the chemical). The result is a vintage effect which is also a great way to age t-shirts.
You can also make t-shirts look vintage using textured fabric. These materials have an undulating surface which gives them an unusual feel. Garments look more inviting and, in many cases, are more comfortable to touch.
While there are multiple textured fabrics available, most t-shirts are made of satin, woven cotton fabric with a soft, smooth texture.
Washed dye is another technique used in vintage clothing. On t-shirts, it looks as if part of the dye has been washed out of the fabric during a hot wash.
Washed-dye t-shirts were popular during the 1990s. T-shirts looked as though people washed them at high heat for too long. However, now the style is coming back around.
Clothes makers use several techniques to give clothes a washed-out dye effect. One is to simply expose sections to hot water, causing the dye to run. Another is to use a bleach wash. Rather than washing out the dye, this technique changes its color, making it appear whiter or similar to the underlying fabric.
Others use an enzymatic process using enzymes that can break down the molecules in dyes that give them their unique color. Manufacturers simply drop these compounds where they want to achieve a faded look.
Another technique is atmospheric pressure plasma, sometimes abbreviated as APP. This treatment involves blasting clothes with a jet of high-pressure plasma, causing colors to fade. This technique is relatively new but appears just as effective as regular enzymatic approaches.
Other techniques include sanding, sandblasting, stone washing, snow washing, and rinsing. Brands may choose fading techniques specific to the underlying fabric and dyes used.
Then there are some clothes makers that don't fade clothes at all. Instead, they print faux washed-dye effects directly onto t-shirts, giving them a vintage look without any fading techniques.
Contrast stitching involves stitching the seams of a garment using yarn of opposing color. Many vintage t-shirts feature this type of stitching to highlight the seams.
Contrast stitching has a haphazard feel. Instead of sewing seams neatly and inconspicuously, manufacturers give them a chaotic appearance for emphasis. Many t-shirts with contrast stitching, for instance, use a crisscross pattern that widens the stitch and makes it look more pronounced. Others go even further and incorporate contrast stitching that looks jagged and random.
Black vintage clothing often used white, haphazard stitching at the seams and hem. The technique created an almost bohemian effect and worked beautifully on more Gothic outfits.
It is great for anyone looking to create a darker vintage effect. Look for t-shirts that use stitching yarn that is a different color from the main material.
You might also want to explore getting t-shirts featuring contrast fabric, the practice of stitching a different type of fabric from the main fabric on the garment. For a vintage tee shirt, it usually involves adding an embellishment to the front that stands proud of the rest of the t-shirt.
Lastly, look for faded graphic t-shirts. Fading immediately makes a t-shirt look vintage.
Manufacturers fade t-shirt graphics in several ways. The most common option is to simply produce a graphic that already looks faded and doesn't require any additional processing. However, these faux methods aren't always convincing.
Another option is to dunk the t-shirt in a mild bleach solution. Brands leave garments for a few minutes and then put them through a rinse cycle to prevent the fabric from disintegrating. (We discuss how to apply this method at home in detail below).
A final technique involves ultraviolet light exposure. UV rays break down color compounds in dyes, fading them over time, similar to how the sun operates on household items left outside.
How To Make T-Shirts Look Vintage
In this section, we take a look at some of the techniques that you can use to give your t-shirts a vintage look.
Bleach For A Faded Look
Usually, you wouldn't dream of washing clothes in a bleach solution. However, it can be a great way to fade a printed graphic or discharge ink from sections of the garment as a whole.
To bleach a t-shirt, you'll need rubber gloves, bleach, water, and a washing-up bowl.
Begin by donning the rubber gloves. Then mix a quarter cup of bleach with a gallon of water.
Soak your t-shirt for between five and ten minutes, depending on the degree of bleaching that you want. (Don't go beyond this, as you'll risk breaking down the fabric itself).
If you want to use gentler bleach, try using all-fabric bleach. It uses a blend of oxygen bleaching agents instead of chlorine, yielding more predictable outcomes on non-colorfast items. However, you'll need to submerge clothes for longer – as much as 30 minutes.
Once you complete the bleaching process, thoroughly rinse the clothes in clean water. Make sure that all the bleach leaches out and that the smell is gone.
Use Sandpaper To Give Garments A Distressed Look
Using sandpaper on the cuffs, hems, and around the shoulders is another low-cost and simple option to make t-shirts look distressed.
To do this, all you need is some sandpaper and a small piece of cardboard.
Start by placing the cardboard under the area that you would like to target. Then take the sandpaper and begin rubbing, making sure that you don't rub any areas without cardboard support.
How much you sand is up to you. A little will make the fabric look fuzzy while a lot will create a hole.
For most t-shirts, fine-grit sandpaper is all you need. Coarse sandpaper is better for materials like canvas and denim.
Fade With Lemon Juice
If you don't want to use bleach on your t-shirts, you can also use lemon juice to fade them.
Because lemon juice is relatively mild, you can apply it to t-shirt areas directly. Simply take lemon juice (either freshly squeezed or from a bottle) and drip it onto the area you want to target. Leave it for a couple of hours and then rinse it out with lukewarm water. Then dry.
If you want to fade the whole t-shirt, fill a bucket with lemon juice and dunk the garment for several hours. Then rinse and dry. Fading will be significantly less dramatic compared to bleach.
Use A Razor Blade To Make Cut-Outs
Another technique is to use a sharp razor blade to make cut-outs to make your vintage t-shirts. To do this, cut small nicks into the collar or hem, or, if you're looking for an ultra-distressed look, create slashes in the front.
Add Soda To Your Wash
Lastly, adding washing soda to your machine cycle is another great way to age t-shirts to make them look more vintage. Put two cups of salt and a quarter cup of washing soda in your washer's detergent drawer, then add in your usual detergent and run on a normal cycle.
Once complete, set the dryer to high heat. The process will shrink the t-shirt between one and two sizes below what you normally wear. Repeat the process three to five times to give your t-shirt a worn-in aesthetic.
These days, shopping for a vintage t-shirt is easy. However, you can also make your own using a variety of simple DIY techniques. Why not start experimenting today?