School is back in session, and T-shirts for teams, events, clubs and more are a staple for promo. But what makes a great piece kids will want to wear?

Suppliers say softness is the name of the game these days, whether it’s the feel of the fabric or the color palette. Ring-spun shirts and infant bodysuits with a soft hand and tear-away labels for comfort – better yet, with custom pad-printed labeling – are now the baseline expectation when it comes to promo apparel for kids.

Softer colors, like pastels and earth tones, are starting to nudge out brighter Y2K hues. A key advantage of these lighter tones, also popular in retail where they are often considered neutrals, is that they are easier to decorate and often don’t require a base layer for a crisp screen print.

Jen Oleksik, director of apparel design quality for Georgia-based supplier LAT Apparel, which provides blanks for infants, toddlers and children through its Rabbit Skins brand, says her company recently introduced softer colors like blushes that are increasingly popular in children’s apparel.

“Colors like that are really doing well, I think because they’re easy to decorate, but also the pastels in the market have just been doing really well,” she says. “And from our perspective in this business, anybody who is printing it, they don’t have to put an underbase, they don’t have to fight with a dark color.”

Clive Rock, president of KidsBlanks By Zoë, a California-based supplier specializing in blanks for infants and children, says his company is also seeing more demand for “dusty earth tones” like oatmeal and sage versus brights. For example, KidsBlanks offers a single-color, neutral (gray or tan) tie-dye that has been very popular.

Look at what youth-oriented brands are doing, or what major brands are doing in their kids’ lines, says Rock, and “make it interesting for your customers.”

Oleksik also sees patterns taking off with children’s pieces, from LAT’s new not-quite-polka dot “spot” pattern to a thin horizontal stripe that comes in blues, pinks, grays or rainbow, as well as the tried-and-true tie-dye.

“It’s an opportunity to be a little bit more playful with the garment,” she says.

Decoration is key to any promo project, and kids’ clothes are no different. Look to retail for inspiration and go for bold, clean graphics to create a garment with high perceived value that a child will want to wear over and over.

Chip Stites, partner and graphic designer with SpunkyFuel, a Tampa, Florida distributor that specializes in school spirit gear, started designing for schools because he was disappointed by the shirts his kids brought home.

“The goal is to create something that they’d be excited to wear,” he says, “something that resembles maybe something that they would have seen in the store and thought, ‘That’s cool – I want to buy that.’”

Here are a few examples of what’s available in promo apparel for children:

baby in striped onesie and toddler in spotted gray tee

With the twinning trend – whether it’s mommy & me, just like dad or matching sibling outfits – blanks that offer the same patterns in a wide range of sizes can be a winning foundation for custom-branded apparel. Outfit newborns through toddler size 7 with these Rabbit Skins Toddler Crew Neck Short Sleeve Tees and Infant Lap Shoulder Short Sleeve Bodysuits that come in 96 colors and patterns, including stripes, spots, animal and camo and feature a soft hand, side seam construction and an easy tear label for comfort.

LAT Apparel / PPAI 254347, S4

   baby apparel tie-dyed in gray and tan

The tie-dye trend is still going strong with clothing for infants and children, and The Laughing Giraffe offers a large selection of infant pieces and toddler T-shirts in a pigment tie-dye pattern in neutral smoke or latte (both shown). These garments, made specifically for custom decoration, come in sizes newborn through youth XL.

KidsBlanks By Zoë / PPAI 264463, S6

gril wearing sage green tee and boy wearing mauve tee

No promo apparel list is complete without a T-shirt, and this poly/cotton Youth Heather CVC Short Sleeve Tee fits like a well-loved favorite. Made of ring-spun cotton, it comes in a rainbow of solid, heather, vintage and neon colors (heather blue lagoon and heather mauve shown) and youth sizes S-XL.

BELLA + CANVAS / PPAI 304892, S6

girl wearing peach tank top with curved hem

It’s important to keep school dress code requirements in mind, too. This Youth Girls Relaxed Fine Jersey Tank Top offers coverage with style for a fashion-forward garment that can be worn again and again. Available in six colors (peachy shown) and youth sizes XS-XL, as well as ladies S-2X and curvy 1-4.

LAT Apparel / PPAI 254347, S4

boy wearing pastel tie-dye hoodie sweatshirt with kangaroo pockets

Keep the tie-dye trend rolling into the cooler months with this Youth Midweight Tie-Dye Hooded Pullover featuring a jersey-lined hood. The tie-dyeing process gives each garment unique character that kids will love. Available in six color combinations (Sunset Swirl shown) and youth sizes XS-XL.

S&S Activewear / PPAI 256121, S12

boy in gray full-zip hoodie and girl in purple full-zip hoodie

For a classic hoodie that can also function as a light jacket, this soft poly/cotton Youth Fashion Fleece Zip Hoodie features a metal zipper and front kangaroo pockets. Made in the USA, it comes in 10 colors (heather gray and purple shown) and youth sizes S/8, M/10 and L/12.

Royal Apparel / PPAI 269959, S1