The t-shirt challenge

Yesterday on Twitter, I announced an offer:

For any tech conference I attend which provides t-shirts in my size, I will donate $100 to the event or to a related non-profit or charity.

The small print:

  • The t-shirts must be provided as standard and available to all attendees, not custom-made just for me.
  • My t-shirt size is 24″ measured from armpit to armpit, unstretched, in a women’s “fitted” cut. This is roughly the same diameter as a men’s XL.
  • If the event is a volunteer-run/non-profit/donation-accepting event I will donate the $100 to the event itself. Otherwise, I will donate to a closely-related non-profit or charity such as an open source software foundation, the EFF, or similar.
  • I will do this for the first 5 events that meet my criteria, or 2 years, whichever comes first.

A word on sizing. Women’s/fitted tshirts provided at events or for sale online usually max out somewhere around 40″ bust measurement, plus or minus a few inches. For instance, Thinkgeek’s largest women’s size, XXL, is 36″ in circumference, equivalent to a men’s S. American Apparel’s women’s 2XL tshirt supposedly fits around a 44″-46″ bust though AA run small. The actual size of their largest women’s tshirt, measured with a tape measure, is 42″, and falls between a men’s M and L.

Here’s a picture of an AA women’s 2XL laid out over a men’s L. As you can see, the largest women’s size is smaller than a men’s L:

American Apparel women's 2XL tshirt laid over a men's L.  The women's tshirt is slightly smaller in diameter than the men's.

Now, I recognise I’m a large woman. But I’m not that large. Without breasts, I would be a stocky little guy with a bit of a paunch, and take a size L tshirt. With breasts — and again, they’re large but they’re not that large — I’m off the scale.

Don’t tell me I can wear a straight-cut/unisex/men’s tshirt. I don’t want to. Yes, some women prefer straight-cut shirts or find that they fit well. I am not one of them. And my size/shape/t-shirt preference is not a rare one.

When I wear a straight-cut shirt, it pulls across my chest and hips, sags around my waist, bunches under my armpits, creeps up to choke me, and the sleeves hang down to my elbows. I feel awkward and uncomfortable and I spend a good part of your conference thinking about how I look and feel, rather than about the subject at hand. I really hope that’s not what you want me to remember about your event.

Which conference cares more about its attendees?  Webstock t-shirt fits well, JavaOne t-shirt is baggy and unattractive.
Photo credit: Kathy Sierra, under CC-BY-NC-SA, from her Creating Passionate Users blog.

So here’s what I want event organisers to do. Find a vendor that provides women’s/fitted t-shirts in sizes that go up to 24″ measured armpit to armpit. Yes, there are a number of them out there — but American Apparel is not one of them. Have those t-shirts at your conference for any attendees who want them. And I will donate $100 to your event or to a closely-related charity or non-profit.

Who else is with me? (Or, since cash donations aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, feel free to propose other incentives in comments.)

28 thoughts on “The t-shirt challenge

  1. hepfat

    I have no money to offer, and no conferences to attend, but I wholeheartedly applaud this effort. Which is awesome. Hooray for awesome efforts :)

  2. Erika

    YES PLEASE. The t-shirt situation really chafes me in the wrong places, both literally and figuratively. “Male” should not be the default!

    Imagine if all restrooms were men’s restrooms, although sometimes you could find a small, crappy women’s restroom, but inevitably the stall door is always broken and it’s always out of toilet paper.

    That’s what the t-shirt situation is like!

  3. Maria Lima


    I’m tired of these damned shirts that I have to buy in men’s XXL to fit yet they don’t. And I love me my geek shirts, damn it!

  4. Chris Radcliff

    Thanks for the education; I noticed the weird “girl” sizing that AA provides, but it didn’t occur to me that there was such a strong mismatch. I’ll be ordering t-shirts for a local space BarCamp* soon, so this will come in handy.

    Any hints on vendors who provide better women’s sizes? Something more specific that “there are a number of them out there” would be best, because I’m going to go straight to our shirt printer with this information. The Geek Feminism Wiki mentions Port Authority Ladies Essential; is there a more complete list somewhere?

    Also, should we be asking for more info than “S/M/L/XL” from attendees? It would be weird to ask for bust measurements, but I wouldn’t want to give someone the wrong size just because the company uses a different nomenclature.

    * SpaceUp San Diego, in case it’s interesting:

    1. Mary

      Instead of asking, why not simply tell people more about the shirts? On the order form, don’t just have “S”, have “S (32″ bust)” etc.

      A minor point, relatively: it always bugs me when events provide a link to the manufacturer to find this out. “Click here for sizing info!” often leads to a giant list of possible shirts, from which I have to magically guess which style(s) you ordered and click around trying to find the measurements.Likewise having to click once per size for that size’s info. Event organisers should make it easy to find at least bust and length: one click at most to a full list of the sizes for one-stop comparison.

      1. Chris Radcliff

        Excellent point. A simple table with Style & Size (the identifier), bust measurement, and length should do it. Thanks, Mary!

        Now to find suitable vendors…

        1. Skud Post author

          I’d actually suggest reporting the size of the *tshirt*, not of the bust. That way people can measure a tshirt they already have and like, and know to look for similar things.

          A bit of theory which I hope isn’t splainy, but this is stuff I’ve learnt from knitting that’s apparently not all that widely understood.

          Let’s say your chest/bust/whatever measurement is 48″. If you wear a tshirt that’s exactly 48″ around, that’s said to have “zero ease”. Ease is a measurement of how much loose space there is inside the garment. So a 50″ tshirt would have 2″ ease, while a 46″ tshirt would have -2″ ease.

          American Apparel intend their shirts to be worn with -2″ to -4″ of ease — that is, their XXL shirt is 42″ when you measure the actual shirt, but they say it’s to fit bust 44″-46″. American Apparel, to put it politely, seem to like women to wear their clothes tight. Not all women agree with this. I, for example, like my tshirts with about zero ease in the bust, especially when it has printing across it, since negative ease will cause the printing to stretch and sometimes crack.

          So, my suggestion is to provide the shirt measurements rather than suggested bust measurements. That way people don’t have to make guesses about how tight the manufacturer thinks they should be wearing their clothes.

          As for vendors with good size ranges… Port Authority is still my top pick, I think, and has pretty broad support with various US-based tshirt printing shops (I’m about to get some of these done soon, so I’ll be interested to see how they turn out). Hanes tshirts go up to about 46″ in their women’s 3XL. Online, Zazzle have some larger sizes but only in a smaller range of colors/styles.

      2. Chris Radcliff

        I think I’ll steal the format from this sizing chart at TeeFury:

        It makes the width disparity pretty obvious, so hopefully it’ll make the improved sizing range obvious, too.

        Thanks for all the suggestions, btw. I also make shirts for sale as an ongoing fundraiser with a geek audience, so getting it right is important.

        1. G

          Excellent chart from TeeFury! All the vendors should do that.

          Zazzle is mentioned above: Its shirts run very very small like American Apparel does, so a Large there is about the same size as a Small or even an Extra Small at mainstream stores like Lands’ End.

  5. MadGastronomer

    Odd. I have a 50″ bust and find ThinkGeek largest babydolls fit me quite comfortably, though they tend to ride up a little over my very round belly. I only own six or eight babydolls, and fully half of them are from ThinkGeek.

    1. lilacsigil

      I have a 51″ bust (minimum, can be larger depending on my bra) and there is no way I could fit into my friends’ largest Think Geek t-shirt. I’m also tall, so maybe that has something to do with it.

  6. Trix

    Seconded, so long as women’s t-shirt does not equate exclusively to the “baby doll” shape, with the sleeves that are almost non-existent, exaggerated waist and short shirt length. Options are good!

    1. lala

      Thanks for mentioning the shirt length. A lot of women’s sizes seem to be designed to show some belly, which I prefer not to do. It’s even worse when put together with the bust issue, since protuding breasts fill out the shirt to make it shorter.

  7. Stephanie

    Hear, hear! And further more–I’d like to see more than just conferences do this, too. Several great t-shirt websites online have similar sizing problems for me. I need roughly the same size as you do, and like you, I hate wearing men’s/unisex shirts because I do not have a “unisex” body. I’m curvy, darn it, *and* I want to wear fun t-shirts! It shouldn’t be this hard to find them. :( Maybe a post pointing out how awesome conference X and/or company Y is for offering realistic shirt sizes for women would work, too. Companies like positive posts on blogs pointing people in their direction to buy their product. (Or at least I would think so.)

  8. MaryBeth Schroeder

    Great post, great idea for sizing awareness. The garment industry by it’s very nature is a tricky and inconsistent place. The more speaking up about discomfort, the more the companies will be willing to change to suit their clients. We, as the wearers of the garments, should technically have the industry at our command and not the other way around.

    I hope everyone takes you up on your offer and you build your shirt collection to the max!

    1. Mary

      We, as the wearers of the garments, should technically have the industry at our command and not the other way around.

      Having shirts included in ticket prices is rather dampening the signals, isn’t it?

      I’m not pledging money, but I do pledge to give free event shirts back from now on unless they are a good fit, with a reason.

  9. Eivind

    Thanks, Skud.

    You made me aware of a problem I didn’t previously consider. I have been on the organizing-end of a number of t-shirt-sponsoring events, and I expect I will be in the future too.

    I certainly will consider it now.

  10. Katherine

    At the Engineering Student Association events that I attended when I was at university almost invariably did not have SMALL enough sizes for me and many other women attendees, and I was not even remotely the smallest woman there. This was due to them buying just the men’s sizes, which were much much too large. And for just about every event they offered, a Tshirt was part of the entry price. In one instance, they had Tshirts that were small enough to fit me (but not small enough for all the other women), but they were of a completely different colour to the other sizes (XS in one colour and everything from S up in another) which didn’t exactly help with the “in-group feeling” that the tshirts were supposed to provide.

  11. Clinton Roy

    If I’ve done the metric conversion correctly, and understood everything correctly, we (that is, provide an appropriate shirt size for you.

    However, there’s only one size up from that shirt, and I am a bit confused why our largest mens size is twenty cms (uh, nearly six inches) larger than our largest womens size though.

  12. Donna

    @Clinton – I have yet to find an Australian supplier that delivers Women’s T-shirts in larger sizes. I recently had shirts done for Software Freedom Day – and the size 20 was more like a size 14 or 16.

    Women’s clothing sizes are not standard – and vary for different markets, Europe, US, Asia and Australia all subscribe different sizing schemes. Larger size retailers also employ S, M, L where the S would be a tent on a small woman.

    This is the sizing guide provided by my supplier… so we knew they were small…
    Measurements are in cms. Bust is from left to right or from seam to seam..
    LADIES 08 10 12 14 16 18 20
    BUST 40 42.5 45 47.5 50 52.5 55

    Relying on cms or inches is a much better idea than using sizes, and ask for samples, because the fabric matters too – if the fabric is soft and elastic it will have more ease.

    I think I might go look into +size T-shirt suppliers and talk to my otherwise awesome t-shirt printing people to see what they suggest.

    Cost is also a factor… standard mens and womens t-shirts can be had for between $10 and $15 in volume… Nice t-shirts in plus sizes generally retail for at least $40… but I reckon I should be able to do better than that. And customising your order, always adds to the cost. So – organisers – if you’re going to seriously meet this challenge, pay attention to your pricing structure – and factor this in.

    @skud – as a +size short woman who organises events – I totally sympathise with you.
    I also find the sleeves on women’s cut t-shirts too short and some of them have the seam cut in such a way that chafes really uncomfortably.

    For LCA 2008 we had standard Ts & 3/4 Sleeved T’s for men and women – and some super extra sized men’s polo shirts (4X and 5X) I reckon I tried pretty hard, however the women’s shirts weren’t big enough for me.

  13. Anna

    And please please do NOT make the tshirts in *white*, especially *thin* white fabric. I feel like I’m in a wet t-shirt contest whenever I wear a thin white tshirt. I really don’t *want* my bra-straps showing, thank you.

    1. spz

      What struck me in my search for womens t-shirts for bulk printing is that “extra thin material” and “semi-transparent” were actually used as selling points. People must be buying these or they wouldn’t be on offer, I wonder whether it’s the intended wearers though.

      Also, if I have a t-shirt printed I want to be able to wear if for a while, not have it fall apart after the second wash.

  14. spz

    heh, just in the nick of time.

    I recently commissioned a drawing to print on t-shirts (see – does the image intent come across?), then found out the largest womens t-shirt my printer offered wears like an overextended sock for me (in German, Presswurst-Stil). Thankfully, it was just a test run. Onwards to better choices .. if I manage to find any.

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