Back-to-school basics: Which budget T-shirts hold up the best?

T-shirts are a back-to-school staple and an essential underpinning of a fall wardrobe. For many families, stocking up on cheap basics becomes an annual ritual, as hems inch up the torsos of growing kids and discolored fabric demotes old tees to sleepwear. To find the best source for plain T-shirts on a tight budget, compared the offerings from four stores known for low prices — Wal-Mart, Target, Old Navy and JC Penney. The Gap was included as well, to see if it’s worth stepping up to a slightly higher price point. One men’s tee and one boys’ tee from each retailer were scrutinized before and after six heavy-duty wash and normal dry cycles. Testers tried each T-shirt on a model to assess the fit; noted the weight, feel and hue of the fabric; monitored the integrity of the stitching; and measured the shirts from shoulder seam to hem to quantify shrinkage. Here’s how the brands stacked up.

Arizona Jean Co. T-shirts shrank considerably after multiple washes.

Old Navy T-shirts come in a “Classic” crew-neck for men ($10) and a jersey ringer tee for boys ($5). Both are cotton/polyester blends that came through the wash none the worse; the boys’ tee didn’t shrink at all. These are relatively thin T-shirts that fit close to the body, making them ideal for layering, although the lighter colors leave some wearers feeling exposed, according to reviews on the Old Navy website. (Where to buy

Fruit of the Loom T-shirts from Wal-Mart were the cheapest of the bunch ($4.50 for men, $3.50 for boys). The fabric was the thickest and hardiest, lending itself to yard work or horseplay. The 100 percent cotton material did shrink substantially in the laundry test, but the initial fit was generous enough to allow for some constriction. More than a dozen colors are available. (Where to buy

The Gap T-shirts ($16.50 for men, $15 for boys) were made from visibly finer fabric than the cheaper tees, 100 percent cotton for men and a 60/40 cotton/polyester blend for boys. The stitching on the seams appeared stronger than on the shirt from Old Navy, the more affordable Gap Inc. brand. And yet, the crew necks stretched out in the laundry, and reviews on the Gap website gripe that the material is too thin. (Where to buy

Target T-shirts are sold under the Merona house brand for men ($13) and the Circo brand for boys ($6). Both are woven from 100 percent cotton that’s not especially thick or thin — a happy medium. Repeated washings loosened the collars on these shirts, however, and left the fabric looking a bit worn. (Where to buy

Arizona Jean Co. T-shirts from JC Penney ($12 for men, $14 for boys) were marked down to just $6 for men and $3 for boys. Both shirts are very thin. The boys’ tee is a 60/40 blend, while the men’s shirt is made from 100 percent slub-knit cotton. This is a popular look, but the material feels coarse against the skin compared with the smooth knits of the other tees. The men’s T-shirt shrank considerably in the wash, resulting in visible pulling across the chest. It also lost a full 2 inches in length, leaving it the shortest men’s shirt after laundering.

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