Updated on September 13, 2022 by Sarina Tariq
Have you wondered at the processes that go behind the journey of a plain t-shirt to one printed with a design in a riot of colors and sometimes with words that speak individually to you? Here are the best of the many methods used by professionals to bring these t-shirts to life.
T-shirt printing methods
- T-shirt printing methods
- 1. Screen Printing
- 2. Inkjet /Laser Iron-on Transfer
- 3. DTG (Direct to garment printing)
- 4. CAD cut Vinyls
- 5. Plastisol Transfers
- 6. Dye Sublimation printing
- 7. Discharge printing
- 8. Variations of Screen printing
- c) Crackle finish
- e) UV glow finish
- 9. Belt printing
- 10. Cut & sew
- 11. Stencil Printing
- 12. Resist Dyeing
- If I have a t-shirt printing Business which of these would be my preferred methods?
- What are the different printers you can buy for t-shirt printing?
- What printer is needed to print iron-on-transfer stickers for your t-shirts?
- Which is best if you have one-off designs to print on one or two t-shirts?
- Which is cheapest way of printing on t-shirts?
1. Screen Printing
Equipment needed : Screens, Press, Exposure unit, dryer
Screen printing is the most popular and widely used printing process for beautiful t-shirts, especially when you are printing in bulk. It involves using screens to apply ink to the t-shirts. In this process, ink is applied on the t-shirt directly through mesh screens. You can learn more about screen printing here
The resulting artwork is of very high quality and can last a long time. Screen printing is very cost effective when used effectively.
Screening Printing Process goes like this – A screen made of a finely woven fabric called mesh is stretched over a wooden or aluminum frame. This Mesh Screen is pressed up against cloth to place paint onto t-shirts one color per screen.
The best thing about screen printing is that it is comparatively very inexpensive. But as each color requires a separate screen, when you have a design with lots of colors in it, it can turn out to be expensive. For screen printing to be cost effective you need to print many t-shirts at once with the same design. You have to keep the number of ink colors and locations of the design to a minimum.
If the design you have has only one or two colors, you can print it in small numbers, and it will still be economical. If you have a design with up to 3 colors, screen printing wins over any other method of printing, be it cost-wise or long-lasting quality, or the look of the colors.
Disadvantage: The process has a learning curve and the equipment may be costly. Screen printing is viable only if you have a design with fewer colors and you want to print a lot of t-shirts in the same design
Related post: Screen printing vs sublimation.
2. Inkjet /Laser Iron-on Transfer
Equipment needed : Inkjet/Laser Printer, Transfer Paper & Heat Press.
Heat transfers are almost as popular as screen printing, especially for designs with multi colors and complex details. It is great for printing digital photographs.
In this method, a special heat transfer paper (made of special transferrable vinyl) on which the chosen design is printed using an inkjet printer or a laser printer. This is used to transfer the design onto the t-shirt. You get a beautiful custom designed graphic t-shirt this way.
The process goes like this : You will be designing or choosing your design for the t-shirt with your own customizations on your computer. Print this image using an inkjet printer or laser printer on your special heat transfer paper designed for use with the printer. Place the transfer paper on the t-shirt design side down and apply heat with a hot iron. The amount of pressure and heat applied will help to transfer the design on to your t-shirt
Not Disadvantages but discomforts: Remember that you should use the inkjet heat transfer paper only with the inkjet printer and the same goes with laser transfer paper and laser printer. Another thing to note is that if you have a t-shirt which will not take the heat of the heat press machine you simply cannot print on it with this method. And finally, it is not as durable as a screen printed design – the print may crack or fade away with washing.
This method is great with white and light coloured t-shirts but for dark t-shirts you will need to buy another special iron on transfer paper for dark fabrics. And the process is a little different.
3. DTG (Direct to garment printing)
Equipment needed : DTG Printer, Heat Press
This is the best method of t-shirt printing if you are printing colorful designs for small lots like say about 5 t-shirts or less than that. For Print on demand (printing one off t-shirts or small lots) and for printing photos on to your t-shirt straight from the computer this method is a boon. You need DTG machines to do this printing. It is mainly used for cotton blend t-shirts.
The DTG printer prints directly onto the t-shirt with a great degree of precision and accuracy of colors.
You can use unlimited colors in this printing, even 100+ colors. You can design your own prints and patterns, make your own customizations with even your name on it or photographs. The color looks more vivid with this printing than with the screen printing, with a softer hand.
Disadvantage : A disadvantage is that it is not as durable as screen printing and may fade after many washes.
4. CAD cut Vinyls
Equipment needed : Cutter/Plotter, Film/Vinyl, Heat Press
In this process cutouts of vinyl (in matt or gloss finish) are applied on the t-shirt with heat. The design is cut from the solid coloured vinyl sheets, with the help of a machine. Vinyl printing is normally a one color process and it is a comparatively cost-effective method other than the cost of specialized Cutters. Vinyl with different types of prints and patterns are available
One problem is that each design has to be cut one by one making it a slow process – great for small numbers but not so great for bigger lots. If the design is big it may feel too stiff and heavy.
This is a very durable and cost-effective process.
Flock printing is a printing process in which, flock vinyl, a 3D textured vinyl is applied to t-shirts with an industrial heat press. This is a variation of the CAD cut vinyl printing.
Special cut-outs are applied to the t-shirt using an industrial heat press. You get beautifully bold and textured designs with the flock vinyl cut outs.(But look at the pilling on the textured cut outs)
5. Plastisol Transfers
Equipment needed : Heat press, transfer sheets
Plastisol heat transfers are a favorite option for t-shirt printing because the results are pretty good with a very soft feel. This printing is also called indirect screen printing.
The process uses high-quality heat transfer paper on which your design is screen printed to transfer the design and is regularly used by professionals.
Hot split transfers give a soft matty finish. Cold Peel transfers give a glossy finish.
The advantage of this method is that you can print one off orders without incurring much cost. The results are comparable to a high-quality screen printed design. The time required is also very less compared to screen printing. Many t-shirt businesses use this method.
Disadvantage is that you need a good heat press machine for this. That is an investment you can make if you want to start a t-shirt business
6. Dye Sublimation printing
Equipment needed : Sublimation Printer, Inks, Release Paper, Heat Press .
This printing is done on white polyester t-shirts; infact, it works best with man made fabric . It also works on 50% polyester blend t-shirts and even pre-treated fabrics but with varying degrees of success.
In this process, the dye turns into vapor and is absorbed into the polyester fabric of the t-shirt. This is a very durable printing method for the 100% polyester t-shirts and the result looks similar to DTG, with a great softer feel. Usually, all over designs are used for sublimation printing. The advantage is that you can print even small lots.
As said it is best for full-color designs on white or light colored t-shirts.
The disadvantage is that the printing does not work on cotton t-shirts – the colour of the prints will wash out gradually.
Read more on sublimation printing here.
7. Discharge printing
This is a different reverse method of printing on t-shirts. In this process, the shirt is bleached with discharge inks which remove the shirt’s dye instead of putting a color on top of the shirt, leaving the imprint on the surface. This is done on natural fabric like a 100% cotton t-shirt. The effect of this printing is a vintage look which is appealing.
But this is not the easiest way to print and can be costly.
8. Variations of Screen printing
a) Puff Print technique.
Puff Printing is a variation of the screen printing technique with an embossed effect. An additive is added to the screen printing ink during the screen printing process. This results in an expansion of the paint resulting in a 3D puffed effect. You can create designs with multiple colors with this technique
b) Gel printing
A see-through gel layer is added over screen printing.
c) Crackle finish
In this variation, the ink breaks up after drying for a beautiful cracked effect.
d) Glow in the dark finish
In this variation of screen printing, the ink absorbs light and glows in dark places.
e) UV glow finish
The ink glows when exposed to UV rays.
f) Suede finish
Additive added to the screenprinting ink makes the printed image puff up to a suede-like finish.
g) Glitter finish
Here glitter is added to the screen printing ink.
9. Belt printing
This is screen printing process which gives you large prints all over the t-shirt, even along the seams. The very expensive belt screen printing equipment used for this printing can print the entire front of the t-shirt or the back or even together in one go. Because of the cost of the machinery used the prints work out to be very expensive which is why despite the beauty and coverage of this process, it is not widely used
10. Cut & sew
This is not a printing process as such but as the name suggests it is cut and sew. In this process, custom printed fabric is used to make the t-shirt . You can make one of a kind designer t-shirts this way after printing the fabric in designs of your choice. You can use the different methods of fabric printing to create your own prints
Related post : How to do inkjet printing on fabric at home.
11. Stencil Printing
This is not a commercial printing method as you cannot print on a large scale with this method. Using stencils to print on the fabric is labour intensive especially when a lot of t-shirts are involved, But for a DIY t-shirt version, this is the best method. Check out this post on some tips to make a stencil and more details on 7 stencil painting techniques.
One problem with a stencil is the limitation in the type of design you can use. The design areas need to be connected and that is not very easy to do with some designs
12. Resist Dyeing
Simply dyeing a t-shirt does not make any prints on the surface of your t-shirt. But when techniques like Batik and tie and dye are used there are beautiful prints and patterns made on your t-shirt. Tie and dye and Batik are resist methods of dyeing fabric – In tie and Dye, the t-shirt is wrapped in threads in areas where you do not want color and then it is dyed.
Batik is another resist technique in which wax is applied to areas where you do not want the colour and then the t-shirt is dyed; this results in beautiful patterns.
Most of these processes of t-shirt printing work great at some level -all depending on the quality of the supplies and equipment used and the skill that executes them. If you are thinking of starting a t-shirt printing business knowing all of them or some of them can give you a lot of range and flexibility.
Embroidery is one hugely popular method of getting your design on the t-shirts. It is durable and looks very elegant when done properly, with high-quality threads and precision. Industrial sewing machines with specialized embroidery capacities are used for large scale embroidery on t-shirts. You can do regular flat embroidery or 3D embroidery.
Generally, small designs are embroidered on t-shirts because of the thin knit fabrics most t-shirts are made of. If big designs are used, a lot of open spaces are left inside to make the design less dense. You can learn more about t-shirt embroidery here
Some more questions on t-shirt printing
If I have a t-shirt printing Business which of these would be my preferred methods?
Plastisol transfers or sublimation printing or screen printing, depending on many factors.
What are the different printers you can buy for t-shirt printing?
Most people use inkjet printers. If you want sublimation printing you will need to buy sublimation printers but as they are very costly inkjet printers are used with sublimation inks and special paper.
What printer is needed to print iron-on-transfer stickers for your t-shirts?
Inkjet printers. Heat transfer sheets can be printed on your home inkjet printers. The results are not very durable.
Which is best if you have one-off designs to print on one or two t-shirts?
Sublimation printing is very effective, if you are using polyester or polyester blend t-shirts – vivid durable colors and any kind of intricate detail can be printed with this printing. The dye penetrates the fibers leaving the design permenantly. DTG printing is a good option for cotton t-shirts.
Which is cheapest way of printing on t-shirts?
Screen printing is the most inexpensive way to print on t-shirts. But there are some stipulations to maintain low cost. You should be printing the same design on a number of t-shirts. Another stipulation is that the number of ink colors and locations of the design should be minimum. If these conditions are not met, screenprinting may not turn out to be cost-effective