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What Are the Best Kids’ T-Shirts?

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

T-shirts are the ultimate wardrobe staples, the garments my active 5- and 7-year-olds grab day in and day out and wear all year round. Like with all children’s clothes, a beloved T-shirt gets worn over and over again and becomes filthy — so a color, graphic, or pattern that can mask dirt, sweat, bug spray, and berry stains, then withstand many washes, is always welcome.

Every child also seems to have a preference around fit and fabric. My kids both like a slightly oversize shirt, but not too baggy or too wide or cropped. They also always notice the tees that get softer after many wears, which end up being favorites.

Then there are the graphics and prints. For a two-year period that began when he was 3, my son would only wear shirts featuring mushrooms or rainbows — so we accrued quite a collection, including multiple tops in this mushroom pattern from Winter Water Factory. My daughter is partial to crazy prints, tie-dye, and designs featuring cute food with faces — and excitingly, there is no shortage of great options.

To suss out the best T-shirts out for kids, from everyday to graphic to print-all-over brands, I talked to stylish parents, designers, artists, and two owners of their own apparel companies. Below are the tees and brands they recommend — for how they look, how they fit, and because their kids are always grabbing them out of the drawer.

Affordable basics

Gap offers a classic, or perhaps the classic, pocket tee in a wide array of prints, stripes, and solid colors. Lexi Mainland, a writer, editor, and parent of two grade-schoolers, emphatically recommends Gap’s organic cotton pocket tee as a unisex go-to for her kids. “It is not only the canonical version — they first came out in 1984 — but it is the best. They’re so comfortable that my son wears them to sleep,” she says. Plus they’re inexpensive and “have great solid colors and patterns,” which can also be purchased in three-packs.

Mainland also recommends the affordable three-packs from Lauren Conrad’s line, Little Co., available at Kohls. “They feel like they are made from actual butter — they are that soft — and the colors and patterns are cool and muted,” says Mainland of the 100 percent organic cotton tees.

Primary, a Strat-favorite brand offering colorful basics for kids, also has a great everyday tee with a slightly longer and narrower cut than other brands on this list. “I love the pocket tee — great price, great company, and really nice cut and quality,” says Claire Mazur, co-creator of the A Thing or Two podcast and newsletter and parent of a 4.5-year-old. “Of course, because it’s Primary, there are many color options,” Mazur points out. On this note, Mollie Chen, a Brooklyn-based mom of two, principal at Acora Partners, and co-founder at Birchbox, adds, “Primary is so great for solid colors that come in handy when the kids need to wear all green for a Very Hungry Caterpillar parade,” or one of the many dress-up or spirit days during the school year. (For that reason, the brand’s separates have appeared in our guides to Halloween costumes and dress-up clothes for kids.) If your kids are ambivalent about pockets, Primary also makes a plain-front tee in both “classic” and “slim” cuts, which are also available in a three-pack.

“I fantasized about dressing my daughter in chic French labels, but, alas, it’s only cotton graphic tees from Target and H&M,” admits Candice Pool Neistat, founder of Finn Jewelry and Billy. “It’s all she’ll wear, and I’m okay with that now. I don’t feel bad if she gets paint on them or if I wash and dry them a hundred times.” Strategist senior editor Jen Trolio is also a fan of Cat & Jack’s plain, graphic, and flip-sequin T-shirts for her two daughters, ages 5 and 8. Her family has several that have lasted for years; they’re Trolio’s go-to style for really basic solid colors like black, white, gray, red, and pink. She points out that even though they are labeled “girls” and “boys,” they are basically gender neutral in solid colors, “other than the ‘boys’ styles being cut a little roomier.” They come in both toddler and kids sizes up to XXL Plus.

Rabbit Skins is another great source for stocking up on affordable basic crewneck tees, recommended by Storq CEO and parent of two Courtney Klein. “Rabbit Skins is primarily a blanks supplier for screen printers but you can buy them directly online,” explains Klein, who has outfitted her 7-year-old son in these shirts since he was a toddler. “They check all the boxes: They’re 100 percent cotton, retail for under $10, and come in a ridiculous amount of colors, from bold and vibrant to subtle neutral shades.”

Elevated basics

One ultrasoft tee my son loves is the Willie T-shirt by San Francisco–based Oso & Me. A basic tee with a front pocket and contrast piping, the fabric is soft and silky while still having structure. The tees are made of the brand’s trademark “Float Jersey” and come in an array of solids and stripes.

Les Gamins, a Brooklyn-based brand making garment-dyed, domestically produced basics, “is my favorite for their plain t-shirts,” says Erin Jang, a designer and illustrator and parent of two boys, 11 and 7. “Their boxy tees have such a comfortable and easy fit and a soft, lightweight texture that my boys love and they come in the most pleasing colors (like the perfect shade of olive or bright green).” While the price point is a little higher than some other basic tees, Jang adds, “these basics have been worth getting as my boys reach for them over and over again.”

Jang, who also goes by the professional moniker the Indigo Bunting, recently collaborated on a line of tees, totes, and sweatshirts with Les Gamins. Liz Libre, co-founder of Lewis, a line of organic textiles for babies and kids, recommends the graphic watermelon tee, printed on the Les Gamins boxy tee, from the line. “I love the illo, the designer and the cause it supports,” she explained. 25 percent of the proceeds are donated to CHiPS, a local soup kitchen and women’s shelter.

Editor’s note: The Easy Boxy Tee is currently sold out in most sizes, but will restock seasonally in new colors.

Libre also likes Les Gamins’ Classic Crewneck T-shirts, which she gets for her two younger kids, ages 7 and 10. “I love a T-shirt that can be dressed up or down, work for both boys and girls, and be handed down,” she says.

Mollusk, the California-based surf shop, also offers a range of basics and graphic tees. “We have their hemp pocket tee in every color. The style is relaxed and the fabric is soft and a little nubby,” says Lena Corwin, founder of Peace Cloth and a San Francisco–based parent of two boys. The tees are made of a blend of both hemp and cotton, and get softer with progressive washes. Corwin praises their fit, which delivers on her preference for “a smaller sleeve silhouette that hits above the elbow.” Mollusk’s cotton tees are a favorite in my house, including the Olde Whale Tee, which shares the same slimmer cut and comes in a ultrasoft, faded black.

Available in sizes 2T to 5T, the Anaheim Tee from Young Days is a little more structured and textural. It’s made of 95 percent organic cotton in a comfy rib knit with 5 percent spandex for stretch and a contrasting ringer collar and sleeves. Though Trolio’s kids have mostly sized out of the brand — which also sells convenient mix-and-match capsule-wardrobe bundles of coordinating separates starting at size 0–3 months — she has gifted it to her nieces and been impressed with the styles, muted colors, and prints.

Graphic tees

For kids (and parents) who prefer graphic tees, Mainland recommends the Spanish brand Tiny Cottons, which makes brightly colored apparel for kids with friendly, bold patterns featuring fruit, poodles, ice cream, big florals, and the like. “It’s a brand that flies under the radar in the U.S. but has awesome tees like this cheerful fruit face,” says Mainland.

Corwin also recommends the Wild By Nature tee from the brand Parks Project, an organization working with artists and brands to create products to raise awareness about the country’s national parks. “The graphics are playful but appealing to adults, too, with great color palettes,” says Corwin of the shirts she gets for her kids. “And Parks Project has given over $2.5 million to national parks” since its formation in 2014.

A favorite graphic tee in Jang’s household is Mochi Kids’ kimchi tee, which features the pickled Korean cabbage with a smiling face on the front. “How cool that we live in a time where this T-shirt exists for kids, and that my child is excited to wear it and tell everyone how much he loves kimchi?” says Jang. Many of Mochi Kids’ shirts feature foods kids love, from bananas and pretzels to boba and bánh mì. The designs are screen printed onto the 100 percent cotton shirts, so when washing them, are best turned inside out to limit both shrinkage and impact on the graphics.

As more and more artists have started creating their own merch, checking out individual artists’ websites (or Etsy shops) is one of my favorite sources for great T-shirts. Lorien Stern is a California-based artist who makes ceramics and apparel she describes as having subjects related to “nature, celebration, and death.” Her hand-drawn characters feature bespeckled frogs, ghosts, awkwardly posed sea otters, a single upright tulip, and other objects from the natural world like fruit, insects, and ocean life. She offers a broad selection of apparel for adults, and a more limited selection of tees for kids with her signature illustrations screen printed on the front. (Note: The kids’ shirts are only available in 3T and 6T, but older kids who like an oversize fit may be able to jump to the smallest of the adult sizes.)

“The tees from Atelier Atsuyo et Akiko have been so beloved and durable in our family that we pass them down to cousins and friends,” says Mainland of the label created by Atsuyo Yang and Akiko Mukae. “They’re designed and silkscreened in New York and are super-comfy while also looking elevated.” Her kids have loved the tiger one, which comes in several colors, and the gold-foil celestial tee, whose cosmic design comes in a shimmery gold. Many of the tees are made in collaboration with artists and feature ancient symbols and astrological themes.

Prints and patterns

Winter Water Factory, which specializes in bold screen-printed textiles, is the first print-all-over brand I recall seeing seemingly everywhere in Brooklyn. My kids were gifted a few of their onesies as babies and have been wearing their tees and hoodies for years. They are certifiably some of the hardest-working garments in their dresser. “Their tees have a nice substantial feel,” says Chen of the heavy-weight, 100 percent cotton shirts. “The fun designs also make getting dressed easier because I can ask my 3-year-old, “Do you want puppy dogs or surfers today?” The prints, created in house by Stefanie Lynen and in collaboration with artists, often represent kids’ myriad obsessions, from construction vehicles to narwhals to bugs with new patterns out every season.

My own favorite T-shirt for many years running is the Lorel Tee from Jungmaven, which has, in my opinion, the perfect weight, cut, and texture. The brand’s kid-size Grom Tee, with a bright tie-dye design, is made of the same very-comfortable hemp-cotton blend. The tie-dye design helps hide whatever gets spilled down the front, and the hemp seems to get softer and softer after more washes and wears. Tie-dye is also officially in fashion, at least according to my 7-year-old.

The tees from Noo Works are for kids who like a heavy dose of color and pattern. The woman-owned brand collaborates with artists on limited-run prints that are also featured on their adult apparel, then offers select patterns in kid-size tees (from 6 months to 8 years). Patterns range from the more psychedelic to the absurdly delightful, but all are guaranteed to invite curiosity. (Are those dogs … having a party?) The sizes can go fast because of the small print runs, so it’s worth checking frequently for announcements of new pattern drop dates.

“My 7- and 9-year-old kids are big fans of the Tocu Kids Born Again Tees,” says Klein of these made-to-order upcycled vintage cotton tees that are hand-dyed in San Francisco. The shirts are only offered in one size — “Most kids 7-10 years old” — a signal of the years you’ll likely get out of them. “I always find it frustrating how fast my kids outgrow their favorite clothes so I appreciate that these are intentionally designed to be oversize, ensuring they fit for years,” adds Klein. You can select a smiley-face, flower, or peace-sign design on the shirts, which are each unique because of how they’re made.

Another eye-catching print-all-over brand that makes quirky, colorful, and downright maximalist tees for kids comes from Molo, a Danish brand that’s lesser known in the U.S. My daughter had a sweatshirt from the company featuring a graphic print of galaxies, and not only is it stylish, it’s also incredibly soft and well made. The brand’s tees are the same — extraordinarily high-quality fabrics with bold prints in a slightly oversize fit. They are pricier than other options, but at least in our house, the price-per-wear has made them well worth it.

Additional reporting by Maxine Builder.

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What Are the Best Kids’ T-Shirts?