Updated: Jun 19
T-shirts are the most ubiquitous fashion product that is worn by almost everybody in every country, of every age, gender or income bracket. But what can possibly make a garment have such a wide appeal - it's all about personalization in terms of materials, printing, branding and style. Here we talk about the most important printing techniques for T-shirts along with the Pros and Cons of each. Here are the most important factors you should take into account before you get started:
1. COMPATIBILITY WITH DIFFERENT FABRICS
Not all methods are good for all fabrics. If you have a thick cotton shirt, the last thing you want to use is dye sublimation, because it will ruin it. Each method has a preferred type of fabric and it is good to check them in advance.
2. SPEED OF PRODUCTION
If you need thousands of shirts printed as soon as possible, you don’t want to choose a slow method. Usually, it is very clearly specified whether one option is good for single or mass production, so make sure to check it out.
The cost of printing can vary greatly. There are more economic options for those with a tight budget. Also, if you want to start using some of the methods at home, you should factor in the price of additional equipment and supplies.
The Most Popular printing techniques are as follows:
1. SCREEN PRINTING
If you’ve had a printed shirt for years and it still looks amazing, it was probably made with screen printing. This method, known also as silkscreen printing, guarantees very good design replication. Many professionals rely on this method as it gives very good results.
HOW IT WORKS
First of all, you need some kind of a stencil (or template) that you want to use. Second, you need a mesh that will hold your stencil.
The mesh is usually made of synthetic materials, such as nylon. Before the printing starts, the mesh has to go through a pre-process. The goal here is to get a clean area in the mesh that is identical to the design.
Afterwards, you need to spill the ink all over the mesh and press it with a squeegee to make sure that the entire area is equally covered. This is the process that ensures that your design is replicated on the t-shirt. Don’t worry if there is some excess ink – you can wipe that away.
Finally, once you remove the screen and let it dry, you can enjoy your design.
WHO IT’S FOR
Although this method gives high-quality results, it is not suitable for all types of printing. It’s great if you want to produce a large amount of the same shirts because the stencil can be used over and over again. Big companies usually rely on this method for the mass production of shirts. The method is best used for one colour per screen. It can also print in multicolour, but if you are looking for more complex designs, this might not be the best option.
Guarantees high quality
Great for large quantities
Fast results if a single design is used
Too complicated for small quantities
Not the best for complex designs
Not good for manual usage
Can be more costly
2. DYE SUBLIMATION
This method is great for big and complex designs. There is one important thing to note regarding the shirt material. Dye sublimation can only be used for light fabrics. It gives the best results on polyester fabrics. Although this is also a printing method that ensures high quality, you must be very knowledgeable to use it.
HOW IT WORKS
To begin with, you will need a special liquid type of dye. You should apply the dye to the transfer paper first. Once it dries completely, you can use heat and pressure for the sublimation.
This is different from screen-printing because you’re dying the fabric directly, not just printing on top of it. As a result, you can very clearly see the colours and the design, but you can’t feel it under your hand.
WHO IT’S FOR
If you want to print an entire shirt, this is one of the best techniques for T-shirt printing. Remember that you need very light fabric for this process. This is also good if you have a very unique multicolour design. The design is very durable.
Good for large designs
Suitable for unlimited colours and patterns
Lasts for a long time
Works better on light fabrics
It can be expensive if used for small quantities
It doesn’t fully cover all parts of the t-shirt such as armpits or side seams
3. DIRECT TO GARMENT (DTG) TECHNIQUE
Here is another great method for those of you who are creative and want to experiment with your shirts. This method is somewhat new in the printing industry and expensive but for really small quantities, this may be the fastest, best and cheapest option.
It gives very good results, especially with complex designs. There are no thick layers on the t-shirt and you can enjoy its soft touch.
HOW IT WORKS
It is very similar to the way paper printers work. You insert a paper and the printer then applies the ink on it and outputs the final result. It’s the same with shirts.
You need a really high-quality printer for DTG printing on T-shirts as you can end up with low design resolutions otherwise.
Additionally, if you plan on designing dark fabrics, have in mind that it won’t look too good. The ink is thin and it won’t look good on darker shirts.
WHO IT’S FOR
Particularly for startups and brands who need very small quantities (less than 50) with frequent iteration of designs and colours.
Simple to use (although it requires some skill)
Good for complex designs
Easy to switch designs
Very high initial investment
Takes more time to produce in big quantities
Less durable designs
4. HEAT PRESS PRINTING
Heat press printing works similarly to dye sublimation, with minor differences. It is suitable for smaller quantities of t-shirts. If you want to experiment with your own designs, this is a rather easy way to do it.
One of its main benefits is that you can replicate very complex designs. The final result after using this method is a nice, soft shirt with a vivid and durable design. It gives you the option to use the full spectrum of colors for the desired outcome.
HOW IT WORKS
The essential component for this type of shirt printing is transfer paper. Once the design is printed on this paper, you can apply heat and pressure to replicate it on the shirt.
When this is done, you just have to remove the transfer paper and strip off the excess dye. It is a fairly simple process to perform.
WHO IT’S FOR
Since this printing method is rather economical, it can be useful for domestic production. It’s not limited in design and the quality remains high for all sorts of designs.
As with similar methods, this one also works best on lighter fabrics. It is also not suitable for fabrics that have low heat sensitivity.
Always make sure that you pre-check the care and specifications of your shirt before you start decorating it.
An economical method for small quantities
Fairly simple to use
Good for home production or starting a t-shirt business
Doesn’t work well on darker materials
Can’t be used on shirts that are sensitive to high heat
Takes longer to print
5. VINYL CUTTING
As the name suggests, the main focus here is on the cutting process. Unlike previous methods, this one includes very precise cutting of material. The pattern is applied afterwards to the fabric. This particular type of t-shirt printing is good for both small and big quantities. However, it is mainly used for small designs such as brands and logos. You may often find shirts made with this method in the sports industry.
HOW IT WORKS
You start by using a professional CAD cutter to tailor the design that you want. In order to transfer it to the shirt, you need to use the heat press method.
Since you will be using the vinyl cutting machine, you can play with different colours. They will look very vibrant on your shirt.
The reason why this is mainly used for small designs is that the shirt loses its flexibility once the design is applied.
WHO IT’S FOR
This might be the best alternative to screen printing for producing in mass quantities. The process is pretty fast and simple.
As with most of the previously mentioned methods, you do need special equipment for printing. In this case, it’s the professional CAD cutter that is used to make all of the patterns.
Works well with small and large quantities
A wide spectrum of available colours and designs
Very durable shirts
No cracking of the design
Requires special CAD cutter
Suitable for only small designs
Reduces the flexibility of the shirt
6. SPRAY PAINTING
In the era of technology, we mainly use machines to print on fabric. However, we shouldn’t forget the old-school t-shirt printing methods. This is a method that hobbyists prefer since it gives them a lot of freedom to experiment and express their creativity. However, note that the final outcome depends largely on your skills.
HOW IT WORKS
This might be the very basic method of printing. You can either use spray or fabric paint to colour your shirts. There are different techniques for you to explore.
It’s important to stress that you have to check the quality of your shirt in advance and whether it’s compatible with certain colours. Make sure that you get some of the high-quality paints if you choose this option.
The process is pretty much straightforward – you directly apply the colour or the spray on the shirt. Once you finish, you need to wait for a while for it to dry completely.
The issue with this is the durability of the colours since many of them might fade away after a while.
WHO IT’S FOR
This might be a perfect option for artists or those of you who want to have unique clothing for an Etsy shop or local store. Be patient because the results sometimes might not be as you imagined, but that’s also a part of the charm. Many people find this type of artwork very relaxing, so you might consider trying it out if this is what you need.
Unlimited design options
The experience of making your shirt manually
Lower design quality
Less durable results
Not suitable for large quantities
7. Glow in the Dark
Have you seen the new T-shirts available these days with 'Glow in the Dark' prints that look so ultra-cool especially in the evening or in dark rooms?
As the name suggests, a glow-in-the-dark t-shirt appears white during the day but glows in the dark. The ‘glow’ t-shirt printing is a little different from the usual printing, though the process and set-up remain the same. The screen creation is the same as screen printing, but there are additional effects given either on the whole print or in parts, to lend its ‘glowing’ properties.
8. Foil Printing (glitzy)
Another printing technique for T-shirts, which is very much in vogue these days, is called 'Foil printing' which comes in silver as well as gold. Foil Printing is similar to traditional screen printing but an adhesive glue ink is used instead of standard plastisol inks. The foil is cut in squares off of a large roll of foil. It is then placed over the glue adhesive print and heat pressed. The heat press activates the glue adhesive and grabs onto the foil. After the print cools, the foil sheet is pulled off and the excess foil is peeled off of the garment.
9. All-Over Printing
Sometimes we want a print to cover the entire T-shirt and go over and around the dress, across the seams. This required the fabric itself to be printed and then cut into panels and stitched. This kind of printing is achieved through rotary and tabletop printers. The effect it achieves is significantly different from the techniques mentioned above and really helps your brand to stand out and be unique.
Last but not least and not really printing, this is another great way to personalise your t-shirt and is often used in different ways to achieve very good results. It gives the garment a significantly more luxurious feel and helps position your brand in a more aesthetically appealing way. Embroidered logos are also used by many brands on corporate giveaways and branded merchandise.
Modern technology has brought us a variety of t-shirt printing options. Most of the methods ensure a very high-quality reproduction of the design. Make sure to check whether the colour and the fabric of your t-shirt are compatible with a certain printing method. These might be the most important factors that greatly affect the outcome.
If you're looking to buy T-shirts for your fashion brand or Etsy store or any other website/e-commerce store or if you need T-shirts as give-aways or corporate branding merchandise, you are in the right place. Click here to visit our T-shirts page and feel free to contact us with your specific requirements for making, personalising and printing T-shirts any way you like.
Click below to view some of the best performance fabrics for T-shirts especially for sportswear applications.