Whether it’s for a team, a club, or even a family reunion, printed t-shirts are all the rage. It’s no surprise that they’re also a popular item to make for both startup companies and home crafters, but what may be surprising is the sheer number of printing processes available. Not too long ago, screen printing would have been the method of choice, but today there are many other options available, each with its own benefits and drawbacks depending on the kinds of designs you want to print and the number of shirts you plan to work with!
This is probably the most familiar technique. Screen printing, or silk-screening, originally developed in ancient Asia, is now commonly used for printing everything from posters, to totes, to, of course, t-shirts. It involves using a screen that is permeable to ink only in the area of the design, rather like a stencil. When the ink, a thick paste, is scraped over the screen with a squeegee-like implement, it leaves behind a thin layer of color. If your design includes multiple colors, you’ll need to use multiple screens, each of which needs to be carefully aligned to make sure the design comes out crisp and clear.
Screen printing is one of the less expensive options for printing t-shirts, and it’s scalable enough that there’s not much cost difference between printing a few shirts and printing a lot of them, as long as they’re all of the same design. There are limitations, however. There’s an up-front cost associated with the equipment, and you’ll need to create a new screen or screens for each design you want to print. It’s also not great at reproducing highly intricate designs. If you’re looking to make printed t-shirts as a hobby, however, or as gifts for friends and family, screen printing is one of the few options that’s easy and affordable enough to use.
Direct to Garment Printing
Developed in the early 2000s, direct to garment, or DTG, printing revolutionized commercial fabric printing. The process involves literally printing special inks directly onto a t-shirt just like a home printer applies ink to paper. It’s easy to create incredibly intricate, multicolor designs that would be impossible with screen printing techniques. The fibers of the shirt absorb the ink, so you don’t have the stiffening effect that vinyl transfers and even some screen printed designs create, making DTG printed shirts very comfortable to wear.
Unfortunately, though DTG printing has come a long way since its creation, it’s not easily accessible for home or hobby use. DTG printers are major investments, but if you’re looking to start a printed garment business or an artist looking to feature your work in a new medium, leasing a DTG printer might be a good way to start. Keep in mind that even for commercial operations, DTG printing isn’t always the right solution. Because of the construction of the printer, your options for design placement are somewhat limited, and the higher cost of each shirt makes it less cost effective to do large print runs, especially of simple designs that could be reproduced by something like screen printing.
Thermal transfer printing is the fancy term for a technique you may have already used: iron-on transfers! The process is a little different on the commercial level. Using special “paper”—which is typically a type of plastic film—a high resolution design can be printed and stored for later use. When you’re ready to apply the design to a shirt, it’s a simple matter of fusing the ink to the fabric with heat and removing the backing paper. Professional grade transfer ribbon doesn’t leave shiny marks around your design like the lower quality papers available for home crafters, but if you’re looking to create high quality transfer printed designs, you won’t have to break the bank to do it. The initial investment for small businesses or dedicated hobbyists is in line with what you might spend to set up screen printing equipment, but you’ll be able to print a greater array of designs, colors, and placements with relative ease. Large transfer printed designs can sometimes cause the fabric to feel stiff, and the process, which only completes one shirt at a time, is rather slow, so keep that in mind if you need to create large orders.
Technically, CAD (Computer Aided Design)-cut vinyl isn’t a printing process, but it’s still a commonly used method of applying a design to a shirt or other garment. Like DTG printing, it requires a bit of special equipment, and like thermal transfer printing, it requires heat to set the finished design. Using a computer-guided cutter, thin sheets of vinyl are cut into the desired shapes, which can then be fused to finished garments. This process is especially popular for sportswear and jerseys, but it has other uses as well, especially since vinyl is available in different types and textures, including breathable varieties for athletic garments, and flocked textures for use in trendy fashion and accessories. Though commercial vinyl cutting systems are quite expensive, hobby crafters can still use this technique at home! Vinyl can be ordered from a wide variety of online suppliers, and to cut it, use a computer-guided cutter like a Silhouette or Cricut. Both originally designed for use with paper, the companies behind these machines have developed special versions optimized for cutting designs in vinyl!
Another non-strictly-printing option, embroidered designs are nonetheless frequently used to decorate or brand garments. This is the method of choice for polo shirts, since it’s a very professional finish that doesn’t look out of place in a business environment. Embroidery like this is done by machine, using an automated process much like the CAD-cut vinyl, except that instead of cutting a design out, the machine is stitching it in. This process isn’t suitable for very large, complex, or many-colored designs, but for simple logos and medium to large size fonts, it provides a much higher-end look than other printing methods. Though domestic embroidery machines can create these designs fairly easily, keep in mind that the process is somewhat time consuming and expensive, so large orders may require a longer turnaround time than other processes.
So many options! Who knew something as simple as a printed t-shirt could be so complicated? But since each type of printing has its own pros and cons, the right option for you depends on the final product you want to create. Take some time to decide what features you need, and, whether you’re starting a business or whipping up gifts for friends, there’s a printing method that meets your needs!