The Basics Shootout: Putting the Top Tees to the Test

The World’s Best Men’s T-Shirt? Big Claim! We’ve Reviewed 8 Tees That Might Fit the Bill

For years, I’ve been investing in my jeans, my button-up shirts, and my jackets. For the majority of this time, though, my tees were an afterthought. I couldn’t get over the sticker shock, so I was rotating through a collection of old tees, some of them decades old.

My first well-made tee showed me what I had been missing. Everything I loved about great denim pieces–the weight, the texture, the construction–was suddenly a factor in my selection of basics. Since my first foray into well-made tee territory, I have become something of an evangelist for top-shelf basics.

For this guide, we tested eight tees from some of the absolute best makers: Merz b. Schwanen, Iron Heart, Warehouse, Samurai Cotton Project, Whitesville, Wonder Looper, Utilitees, and Oni (click on these links to head directly to that part of the article).

Though we consistently advocate for buying fewer, better things, our basics are an exception to this rule. Unlike raw denim, which fades beautifully when washed infrequently, cotton tees need regular laundering. We should be reaching for a clean one every few days.

All Tees in This Guide Are Category Winners

We can personally vouch for every tee in this guide. We’ve tested them by wearing and washing them multiple times. All fit pics are after the shirts have been washed.

Yes, they are from brands we know and trust. But we put them through the wringer with our own hands and didn’t make any assumptions about how these shirts perform based on the brands’ reputations.

Six of the eight tees we look at below are loopwheeled. When looking for a top-tier tee, looking for “loopwheeled” in the description is a great starting point, but it’s not the only factor to consider. Instead of reflexively reaching for something loopwheeled, use a broader range of criteria including weight, construction, handfeel, and price.

Which shirt will be right for you will depend on how you assign value. Though there are definitely other great tees to consider, we’re confident that you’ll find your perfect tee among the shirts we’ve covered below. Happy hunting.

The Best Basics? Get One of the Top 3 Tees!

Ready to try a well-made tee (or get another)? Every denimhead must consider these: Warehouse 4601, Iron Heart 1610, and Whitesville.

The Heavyweight Champ

Merz b. Schwanen 2S14

The fit is quite boxy, which makes this tee ideal for those with a little bit of meat on their bones. Those with long frames might find them on the short side. Stiffer than the cardboard packaging it comes in. You’ll have to earn the softness with regular wear.

Loopwheeled: Yes

Weight: 13.4 oz.

Price: €120 (~$132)

The world of heritage basics got a huge shot in the arm when, in 2011, fashion designers Gitta and Peter Plotnicki found a nearly century-old Merz b. Schwanen henley in a Berlin flea market. The vintage hunters had seen plenty of early-century worker’s shirts, but nothing quite like this. 

The triangular under-arm inserts, the cuffs made from different-sized loops, the lack of side seams, and the woven label with the swan logo all indicated that this was a sui generis piece of knitwear. Their curiosity was piqued.

Gitta and Peter started investigating the brand and found that the Merz family had shut down operations in 2008. In the brand’s Albstadt factory, rows of ancient loopwheelers had been gathering dust.

With the help of “textilist” Rudolf Loder, and with the blessing of the Merz family, Gitta and Peter got these machines humming again and woke the sleeping swan.

In a relatively short period, Merz b. Schwanen became the standard bearer for well-made European basics with heritage bona fides. Made from 100% organic cotton (most of it Greek in origin), their tees and henleys look and feel like nothing else–something their long list of retailers can attest to. 

The brand got a grizzly-sized boost when the costume department for FX’s The Bear outfitted actor Jeremy Allen White in Merz’s signature 8.5 oz. 215 loopwheel tees. Merz b. Schwanen’s heavy basics have been selling like hotcakes ever since, but I managed to get my hands on one. It did not disappoint. 

The heaviest shirt on this list by a fairly wide margin, it’s not a tee for the faint of heart. Like a great pair of selvedge, you’ll have to earn the comfort by placing it at the very centre of your basics rotation and leaving it there. It’s worth the wait, and it’s worth its weight in gold.

The 114 tee from Merz

If it’s out-of-the-box comfort and touchability you’re looking for, Merz b. Schwanen’s 5 oz. 114 tee will punch your ticket.

When they sent me the 2S14 to review, they threw one of these in. It’s been my warm-weather standard ever since. With its wide neck and silky drape, it’s elegant and refined. One of the softest pieces I own, and it’s getting softer each time I wear it.

Best All-Round

Iron Heart 6.5 oz. Cotton Knit Crew Neck

The high arm holes might feel a little constricting. If you regularly engage in sweaty work, this shirt will need to be washed frequently. Their classic tee has a boxy fit, but they’ve recently introduced a version of the 6.5 oz. tee with a significantly longer body.

Loopwheeled: Yes

Weight: 6.5 oz.

Price: $85

For many of us (myself included), Iron Heart has been the entry point into the world of well-made and heavy Japanese selvedge. In the same way, the brand is responsible for introducing legions of denimheads to the world of loopwheeled cotton basics. 

If an Iron Heart tee is your first experience with well-made basics, and if that experience is typical, you’re unlikely to find a superior product. You can spend more for a heavier tee (including Iron Heart’s 11 oz. 1600, below), but, for our money, the lighter and less-expensive 1610 is the best all-around tee on the market.

The high armholes and boxy Japanese fit of the classic 1610 have kept me from adding one to my collection, but Thomas has a number of them. If they were a perfect fit, I’d have a drawer full of them. Eventually, I’ll surely add one of the longer-body versions to my collection. 

Iron Heart’s tees are so popular that demand regularly outstrips supply. They disappear quickly from the Iron Heart website and from stockists’ shelves. If you come up empty-handed, check the Iron Heart Forum, where used tees regularly change hands (the tees hold not just their shape but their value as well).

Buy Iron Heart from these select retailers: Iron Heart International, Franklin & Poe (US), Division Road (US), Corlection (AU), Brooklyn Clothing (CA).

The pictures of the Iron Heart tees were shot for us by one of the friendliest guys in the denim scene, Emil aka @weftyarn.

Top Texture

Warehouse 4601 Slub Yarn Tee

In the Japanese style, the 4601 is cut quite short. Those long in the torso might find them on the short side, but they work exceptionally well on most bodies. One of the most comfortable tees on this list (and Thomas’ favourite).

Loopwheeled: Yes

Weight: 7 oz.

Price: $65

The purest of the purists in the Osaka Five, Warehouse are well known to denim connoisseurs. Those who have strayed into well-made basics territory know that Warehouse tees are every bit as essential as their stitch-perfect versions of classic jeans. Their slub tees can go toe to toe with any of the tees on this list. 

I have to give Warehouse credit for turning me into a true tee connoisseur. I had tried loopwheeled tees before I tried warehouse, but I hadn’t experienced anything quite like the 4601.

Warehouse uses slub yarns (cotton yarns with irregular thickness) to produce a highly textured jersey knit. They’re not the only maker to do this, but, based on my experience, they do it better than anybody else.

The texture draws the eye and the hand, and they’re in that Goldilocks zone for weight. They fit and feel great, and they pair beautifully with heavy selvedge (especially with slubby denims). I’ve only got one at the moment, but I like it so much that it’ll soon have company.

Warehouse is sold at these excellent retailers: Clutch Café (UK), Sun House (JP), Corlection (AU), Lost & Found (CA), Hinoya (JP).

Are the Best Tees Necessarily Loopwheeled?

Six out of eight of the tees we tested are loopwheeled. Made with a special kind of machine that knits in a circle and uses gravity to tighten the knit, loopwheeled jersey fabrics manage to be both dense and soft at the same time.

Loopwheel machines in action

The circular knitting pattern produces tubes rather than sheets of knitted fabric. This means you need a different machine for each size, but it also means no side seams and a tee that will hold its shape for much longer. 

Conventional tees have side seams, usually sewn with an ‘overlock’. Though the difference might seem minor, you’ll be able to feel it immediately, especially if you wear your tees close to your body.

Overlocked seams

Like selvedge looms, loopwheelers were phased out in the second half of the twentieth century, making way for faster knitting machines.

Just as legacy brands like Levi’s and Wrangler once exclusively used selvedge denim, legacy knitwear makers like Champion and L.L. Bean used loopwheelers to make some of their knitwear until cheaper and faster manufacturing techniques came along.

Today, loopwheel machines can only be found in two places: Germany and Japan. The German machines are owned and operated by Merz b. Schwanen, and as far as we know, they don’t manufacture shirts for any other brands.

The Japanese loopwheelers are located in a Wakayama factory, and they are less exclusive. All made-in-Japan loopwheeled garments are produced in this factory, albeit with different specs provided by the brands. 

Side seams on Samurai and Wonder Looper tees

You’ll notice that two of the most expensive shirts on this list (the Wonder Looper and the Samurai Cotton Project tees) are in fact not loopwheeled. Both of them feature flat side seams.

We should note here that some loopwheeled tees (particularly those in large sizes) feature side seams, and there are other circular knitting machines that produce tees without side seams, so the presence or absence of side seams isn’t definitive proof of anything.

The Game Changer

Samurai Cotton Project

Fits snugly around the torso and the upper arms. Thanks to the plush cotton, it feels like a soft embrace. Only negligible changes to the fit when washed. Worth every penny.

Loopwheeled: No

Weight: ~10 oz.

Price: $150

Japan once had a thriving cotton industry, but, by the 1970s, garment manufacturers found it more expedient and cheaper to just import raw materials. Without customers, Japanese cotton farmers moved towards Japan’s largest cities, leaving fallow farmland behind.

The good people at Samurai have stepped in and reinvigorated these small, local economies by planting their own cotton. The first crop helped them create a small batch of truly 100% made-in-Japan jeans, but the cotton farms have grown since then, birthing Samurai’s one-of-a-kind Cotton Project, a dedicated cotton basics line.

The 100% organically grown cotton is spun into slub yarn and then knit on vintage machines in Wakayama. The resulting fabric has a creamy and seedy texture. It’s heavy and plush, and there’s simply nothing like it.

Word is spreading as more and more people sample these tees. They sell out quickly, so, if you see one in stock in your size, pounce on it.

You can buy Samurai from all of these retailers: Franklin & Poe (US), Brooklyn Clothing (CA), Blue in Green (US), Redcast Heritage (ES), and Corlection (AU).

Best Bargain


A generous cut straight out of the packaging, they will shrink a considerable amount if washed in warm or hot water. Will retain their boxy shape, though. On the short side. Size up for best results.

Loopwheeled: Yes

Weight: 7 oz.

Price: $72 (for two!)

The world of well-made basics got a substantial boost when garment sleuths began looking into the tees Jeremy Allen White wears in FX’s The Bear. A reporter at New York Magazine got the definitive answer from the show’s wardrobe department, who confirmed that White wore two loopwheel basics brands: Merz b. Schwanen and Whitesville.

The heavier Merz tees soaked up the lion’s share of the fan interest, but the Whitesville tees, made by the good people at Toyo Enterprise, the parent company of Buzz Rickson and Sugar Cane, looked like an incredible bargain when compared to the more expensive German brand.

If you’re looking to stock up on loopwheel basics without breaking the bank, Whitesville stockists should be your first port of call.

No bells or whistles, just a pair of great tees (they can only be purchased in two-packs) for a little more than what you’ll pay for just one of the cheapest tees on this list. 

Rookie of the Year

Wonder Looper

Fits like a tee should; feels like a sweatshirt. Touches me in all the right places, and hangs just below the belt (exactly where a tee should). By all measures, the perfect fitting heavy tee. 

Loopwheeled: No

Weight: 12.1 oz.

Price: $120

The brainchild of Bahzad Trinos and Risa Saito, Wonder Looper answers the growing demand for extremely heavy basics. They have strained the limits of the possible to produce one of the heaviest jerseys on the planet, and the scene has gobbled them up as fast as Bahzad and Risa can produce them.

The brand name refers to the chain-stitched embroidery (loop stitch is another name for chain stitch) that is an available option for each shirt. It also refers to the fact that all knitwear is made by looping (rather than weaving) yarns together. The tees haven’t been produced on loopwheel machines, but the flat side seams make them feel practically seamless. 

If your primary issue with wearing tees is that they reveal things you’d rather leave concealed, the Wonder Looper tees might upend how you feel about basics.

Their weight means they fall in straight lines rather than hugging the body’s contours. They flatten curves and only hint at what’s beneath.

Best Every Body Fit


If you find the other made-in-Japan brands too boxy, Utilitees, with their slim cut and long bodies, will be a breath of fresh air. With a larger size range than anybody else on this list, they have a shirt to fit every body.

Loopwheeled: Yes

Weight: 5.5 oz.

Price: $75

A relative newcomer to the tee game, Utilitees have been steadily gathering steam since 2020 with their laser-like focus on simple and well-made basics.

They’ve recently added socks to their line-up, but it’s their loopwheel tees, available in a wide range of colours and the broadest range of sizes you’ll find anywhere (S to XXXXL), that have made their name. 

All of their tees are made in Japan, but, unlike their compatriots, Utilitees have clearly been designed with Western frames in mind.

The official Indigo Invitational tees for Y2 and Y3 are made from Utilitees t-shirts

In the middle of their size range, the fit is a perfect combination of long and lean. If you ever find yourself tugging your tees down to keep from exposing your navel, you’ll want to place a stack of these tees in your closet.

I’ve got four of their tees, and it’s unlikely I’ll be stopping there. They fit me better than any of the other lighter weight tees on this list, and they’re proof that you simply can’t have too much of a good thing. 

Best Bells and Whistles

Oni Denim T01

Cut generously from left to right, the tee will be an excellent choice for those with broad shoulders. The neck is high but quite soft, and I quickly got used to the feeling. If worn unrolled, the cuffs will reach most of the way to the elbows.

Loopwheeled: Yes

Weight: 8 oz.

Price: $124

When we first published this list, Oni had not yet ventured into the loopwheeled tee game. The good people at Redcast Heritage reached out to us and told us about this one a few days before they announced its arrival. They sent us Oni’s T01 to try, and it easily breezes onto this list.

Let’s start with the fabric. It’s made from a blend of Memphis and Texas cotton. Like the other Japanese-made tees on this list, it has been loopwheeled in Wakayama, but it’s not like any of the other tees we’ve profiled here. 

It’s crisp, both in colour and in hand-feel. It feels and drapes as though it is substantially heavier than its advertised weight–a result of a proprietary finishing process that is a secret as closely guarded as the recipe for Oni’s Secret Denim.

The stark white colour definitely catches the eye, but what’s most impressive here are the details. The triple-stitched and ribbed collar sits quite high, gently hugging the throat, and the waistband, well north of two inches wide, is reminiscent of vintage sweatshirts.

Best of all are the thick cuffs, which come at the end of wide sleeves. In true ‘50s rebel style, the sleeves can be double rolled, with the sturdy cuff ensuring that they won’t unroll until you want them to. This is how I wear it, and, in my books, this makes Oni’s first tee absolutely indispensable.

Honourable Mentions

Every shirt on the list above has been tried and tested by us. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can be certain that these are the best tees on the market. It’s a crowded field, and, though we haven’t tried them personally, we have to give honourable mentions to some of the makers we haven’t tried yet.

If we return to this topic at a later date, we’ll do our best to include tees like:

Even still, we’ll be leaving great tees undiscussed. Let us know what your favourite tee is. We’ll be sure to at least consider it as we update this list.

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