Which Custom T-Shirt Printing Method is Best for My Design
Getting custom t-shirts printed was once a pretty simple business because screen printing on cotton t-shirts was the only cost-effective option available. But in recent years, other methods have become much more affordable. Now you can choose the best custom t-shirt printing methods based on quantity, budget, color options, types of images being applied to the garment, and apparel brands.
In short, you can have pretty much anything you want in the way of apparel printing, as long as you understand the strengths and limitations of each. This article will give you the “nickel tour” of custom t-shirt printing/ decorating techniques so you can make the right choices for your application. If you’re looking for information on a specific process, use the topic links below to jump to the section you need.
- Transfer Printing Art Files: Best Practices
- Myths About Transfer Printing
- Direct to Garment Printing (DTG)
- How is DTG Printing Done?
- A Brief History of DTG Printing
- Direct to Garment Printing: Advantages and Drawbacks
- Other Important Considerations for Custom Apparel Printing
- Choosing the right t-shirt printing method
- Making a Final Decision
How is Screen Printing Done?
As the name indicates, screen printing applies ink through a fine screen of fabric mesh, which is stenciled with a pattern for one of the colors used in the design. The screen is placed on the surface of the shirt, then a machine (or human) draws a squeegee across to push a thick ink through the tight screen, applying a single-color image to the shirt.
Screening allows only one color at a time to be printed, and before the colors can be applied, a white background, called an under base may have to be applied to the fabric, so the colors will “pop” on the surface.
Garments are not the only application for screen printing. This technique, traditionally called silk screening, is used to print posters—even works of fine art, which are usually called serigraphs.
The History of Screen Printing
Screen printing is many times older than other garment printing techniques, dating back to China’s Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). The technique didn’t make its way to Europe until the late 1700s, and even then didn’t catch on until the mid-1800s, when silk shipments from the Far East were more common. In 1907, the first screen printing machine was invented and used to print on wallpaper and expensive fabrics.
Screen printing stormed the American art scene in the 1960s when Andy Warhol used it for such famous works as the Campbell’s Soup Can and his Marilyn Monroe portraits. Serigraphy (fine-art screen printing) became a common medium for other fine artists, and new techniques were refined that made beautiful color and detail possible.
Screen printing is now a standard technique in the toolboxes of artists and garment printers, alike.
Screen Printing Techniques
Screen printing can be done by hand, which is usually the case for fine art and hobby applications. Machines are used for garment printing, but the process and basic tools are the same. Here are the components of a standard screening operation:
- A fine-mesh fabric screen stretched onto a frame (like a painter’s canvas)
- A light source
- A squeegee
- A photo emulsion kit
- A transparent “light stencil” material
The Steps of Screen Printing
Create an Image and Digitize It
First, you need an image (our graphic designers can help if you don’t have one yet). The image has to be converted to a digital format for garment printing. The best format, by far, is a vector drawing, which maintains crisp edges and fine detail no matter what size it is. The alternative to a vector drawing is a raster drawing, which uses pixels (like the dots in a newspaper photo) to give the illusion of an image. Pixels are tiny, square dots that can make image edges look rough when they’re resized to a larger format.
Short version: use vector drawings for screen images whenever possible.
Separate the Colors
Because screen printing only allows the application of one color at a time, the artwork needs to be separated into its component colors. Artists typically use a program like Adobe Illustrator or Google Vectr to create images (or reproduce existing images in vector form). This allows them to place each color on a different layer in the document, so color layers can be exported individually for use on different screens with different inks.
Coat the Screen with Photo Emulsion
This is the cool part of the process: a photo-sensitive fluid is applied to the screen. It has to be a very smooth, consistent application for the garment to look right.
The emulsion is left to dry in a dark room. Think of this as a piece of old-school photographic film that will be exposed to light to make an image appear.
Print and Apply a Black-Out Stencil for Each Color
Now we use the electronic layers of colored vector images we separated above. The layer corresponding to each color is printed in black on a piece of transparent film, which is laid over the photo-emulsified screen, (which has now dried into a soft, flexible film). This will block the light from hitting image areas when we expose the film.
When the film is exposed, the image areas under the black do not change chemically, but the exposed areas of emulsion cure and harden. The stencil is then removed, and the softer areas of photo emulsion are washed away with water and brushes. What remains is a stencil on the screen through which ink can be pushed through to deposit ink only in the areas corresponding to each color in the artwork.
Print Color onto the Garment
The garment is pulled taut on a smooth surface, and the screen is pressed against it. Ink is poured into the screen frame at one end and pulled across the screen by a rubber squeegee, which presses the ink through the open areas of fabric mesh, leaving a bright, bold layer of color on the garment. Voila!
Pros and Cons of Screen Printing
Screen printing provides sharp images with brilliant colors, as well as many different looks. But every printing technique has its pluses and minuses, so let’s go a little deeper.
Advantages of Screen Printing on Shirts
Deep, brilliant colors
Screening ink is thick, and it leaves bright, opaque colors on the fabric.
Screen printing can produce large numbers of custom garments very quickly, once the screens are made.
Variety of inks available
Screen inks are available in every color of the rainbow, as well as textures and options not available with other types of garment printing.
Screened images on shirts are tough, thick, and well bonded to the textile. They can last for years.
Disadvantages of Screen Printing
Higher setup costs than other methods
There’s a lot of labor involved in getting screens ready for the print run, compared to other processes. If you only need a small number of garments, the setup costs of screen printing may be cost-prohibitive. (There are exceptions to this. It’s true that designs requiring lots of setups can end up costing too much per shirt, but simpler designs with only a couple of colors can, in fact, be done at very reasonable prices. Give us a call to discuss your application)
Not the most environmentally friendly printing option
Every form of printing has its impact, but screen printing is particularly messy, environmentally speaking. It requires heavy water use and generates chemical waste. Today’s water-based inks are much better than older types, but this is still the least sustainable printing technique.
Heat Transfer Printing
Remember those fake tattoos when you were a kid, where you pressed a design on a piece of paper against your skin to leave a bright image behind? That’s a very temporary form of transfer printing. In the custom shirt industry, transfer printing is permanent and refers to any technique in which the design is printed onto an application paper or film (like the paper backing for a kid’s tattoo), then transferred to the garment.
When to Consider Transfer Printing
Heat transfer printing offers bright, bold colors. This method is excellent for small runs and quick turnaround projects, like your company’s softball team shirts, or t-shirts to commemorate this year’s family reunion.
Transfer garment printing can handle more complex designs than screen printing, but like screen printing, it also does a great job with simple designs and solid areas of color—with almost no setup costs. Here are some other advantages:
- Transfers can be applied to almost any fabric. This is not the case with direct-to-garment and screen printing.
- It’s faster than DTG and screen print options.
- Exotic colors and other effects can be applied with this method, including metallic and fluorescent inks, as well as velvety surface textures.
- Printing onto a backing first, then transferring the image to fabric allows for more complex designs than going directly to the textile.
Types of Transfer Printing
This is a beautiful option if you need to apply complex designs with fine detail. The image is printed onto a backing film with special transfer inks that tend to “flow” into the fabric when the heat is applied. The garment is placed on the flat base of the litho machine, the design is laid on top of the shirt, and an upper plate is pressed against the shirt, and heat is applied, causing the image to migrate into the fabric.
CAD Cut Vinyl
This is a very cool method in which a computer directs a vinyl cutting machine to score the outlines of a design into a vinyl film on a backing without cutting through the backing. The non-printing areas in the design are manually peeled away from the backing, leaving sharp, bold edges. The vinyl design is transferred to the garment in a heat press. This technique works well for simple designs that use strong splashes of color.
Why is it called CAD cut? It’s short for computer-aided design, which refers to the software used to tell the machine where to cut.
We earlier mentioned vector drawings as a preferred file type for any printing technique. In the case of CAD cut transfers, it’s mandatory, as this is the only kind of file the software recognizes.
A Plastisol transfer is the most common method used in shirt printing, and it provides visually powerful colors. As with many other techniques, heat is used to transfer an image from paper to fabric. Plastisol is a great option if you only need a few shirts.
Time for a quick, painless—and very cool—science detour. When we think of inks, we usually picture them being turned into a solid when they dry.
But the term sublimation refers to the chemical process of a solid being converted directly into a gas without passing through the liquid stage. Sublimation inks are chemically designed to, first, dry into a solid form on a transfer film. Next, this film image is placed on top of the garment and heated in a press, and that’s when the magic happens.
When heat is applied, the solid sublimation inks are converted into a gas, which permeates the “pores” of the fabric, bonds with it, and returns once again to a solid state, now a part of the shirt. Colors are brilliant and more permanent than any other type of transfer print. Fabrics are left soft and supple.
The other unique benefit of sublimation is that, instead of being printed only in confined parts of the garment’s front and back, images can wrap all the way around—a first in shirt printing technology.
Only one drawback…
Sublimation doesn’t work on some fabrics. The ink will only bond with plastics/polyester fabrics—a limitation of the chemistry behind the process. But for polyesters, prepare to be amazed by the images that are possible with this process.
Heat Transfer Printing Art Files: Best Practices
When you print a vacation photo from your computer, the colors in the image are usually defined in terms of RGB (the amounts of red, green and blue that make up each color) or CMYK (the amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow and black used to make the color).
A third option is often used in transfer printing: Pantone colors are created with 13 base pigments and assigned a number for each hue, which means you need to know the Pantone number of each of the colors in your design. Don’t worry, there are plenty of Pantone colors; it’s just a different way of describing them to some of the computer programs used in garment printing. If you have questions, give us a call. Our customer service reps can help.
How to Save Artwork Files
Now for a bit of an art lesson—this is important, and it’s not difficult, but it’s the biggest favor you can do for yourself as a printed t-shirt customer.
We talked earlier about pixels, which are the tiny dots that make up the images on your computer screen and in newspapers. When an image is enlarged for printing, the dots are enlarged, as well. So the idea is to start out with plenty of dots per inch, so that when the image as bigger, the dots are not perceptible. This raster-type artwork can function for garment printing if it’s at least 300 dots per inch (dpi), and the image is saved at the size in which it will be printed. Pixel resolutions lower than 300 dpi just, plain, do not look good.
The preferred method of file creation is, not a raster file, but a vector file. A vector drawing is not a map of pixelated colors; rather, it’s a mathematical description of lines, curves and color areas. This description can be multiplied at any scale without losing crisp, clear resolution in the art. You could enlarge a 3-inch-wide vector drawing and project it on a movie screen without making the edges fuzzy.
To make a vector drawing work well with some transfer processes, it’s also important to convert the paths into strokes. This provides smoother curves in the finished art.
Vector formats include AI (Adobe Illustrator), EPS (encapsulated postscript) and PDF (as long as it’s created in vector format; raster images saved as PDFs are still raster images).
Let’s restate: we like vectors a lot in the custom garment industry. A lot. Vectors. Please. If you’re in doubt about the format of your design, ask your graphic designer, or send it over to us. We’ll make sure you have the very best possible image on your printed shirts.
Myths About Transfer Printing
Transfer printed garments are somewhat misunderstood. Here are a couple of common fallacies:
Transfer prints look shiny and cheap
This reputation is not entirely unearned because older types of inks often did look like cheap plastic stuck on a shirt. Not so with newer ink technologies; today’s inks offer matte finishes that blend nicely with the textures of the underlying fabrics.
The image splits and cracks with a few washings
This also used to be somewhat true, but modern inks are much more flexible and durable, providing consistently solid images over time, assuming the garment is washed and cared for properly.
Non-printed spaces don’t look good in vinyl designs
We’re not sure where this myth comes from; it’s absolutely untrue. In the right designs, the use of non-inked spaces can add a very nice dimension and texture to the overall look.
Direct to Garment Printing (DTG)
DTG is the newest garment printing technology, and it renders stunning, realistic images onto fabrics. This technique allows designers to use gradients and shading in their designs.
How is DTG Printing Done?
As the name implies, direct to garment printing skips the intermediate, transfer film step and prints directly onto the garments, just as an office printer does on paper. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than printing on paper. Let’s take a look at exactly how DTG printing is done.
You need a design
Designers have free reign with DTG, but images still need to be high resolution (300dpi) with high image quality settings. Here are a few other graphic design pointers to get the best look possible:
Save images in CMYK color type.
Images can be saved in a variety of formats, including:
EPS, AI, TIFF, PCT, PDF, PNG, and PSD. JPEGs can be used, but the other formats are preferred.
Convert all text to outlines.
Fabric pre-print treatment
Before printing, the shirt is soaked in a liquid that helps the ink adhere. The garment is then dried before printing.
US Logo designers often make final tweaks to file formats to improve compatibility with DTG printers. This doesn’t affect the design; only the way the computer translates it to the printer.
Under base layer setup
When printing onto dark fabrics, a new layer is created to place a white base under the other colors, to make sure they pop nicely.
Placing the garment in the printer requires close attention, but once the shirt is aligned and perfectly flat, it’s just a matter of hitting the print button, and soon, out pops a beautiful custom t-shirt. But there’s one more step to make sure the design doesn’t wash out…
Once the ink is dry, the shirt is placed in a heat press for a minute or two, this sets up the ink, bonding it to the fabric.
A Brief History of DTG
DTG is the newest fabric printing process on the market, dating back to the 1990s when Matthew Rhome invented the first printer prototype. His machine was marketed in the late 90s, and his patent came through in 2000. Rhome is considered the father of DTG printing and leads Epson’s Direct to Garment Business Development division.
Direct to Garment Printing: Advantages and Drawbacks
This technique has gained huge popularity for small print runs because setup costs are very low, but the printing process itself takes longer than other techniques. Here are a few other pros and cons of DTG printing:
- DTG can print finer color patterns than screen printing and transfer printing options, including photo-realistic images with gradients, shading and fine detail.
- This process leaves the shirt feeling soft and supple, rather than smooth and stiff.
- Millions of color options.
- Low setup cost.
- DTG’s water-based inks are more environmentally friendly than other options.
- DTG uses only water based inks that are not compatible with polyester or water-repellent fabrics. But it’s a great way to print vibrant designs on cotton shirts.
- Slower printing process than other methods.
- Colors fade over time. This is another drawback of using water-based inks.
- Designs can only be placed in specific parts of the garment.
Other Important Considerations for Custom T-Shirt Printing
The shirt brand matters
Different shirt manufacturers use different materials and techniques to arrive at the same result, so the same design can look different on shirts of different brands. US Logo staff can help you choose the best fabrics and brands for your design.
Ink quality matters
US Logo uses only the finest quality inks because it does make a difference.
The image will look different on fabric
Images do not look the same on the matte texture of fabrics as they do on a backlit computer screen. This doesn’t mean the design looks bad, just that you’re viewing it in a different context.
Pigmented inks look better than dye-based inks
Pigmented inks used pigment particles in solution rather than dissolved dyes, and they bond better with fabric, giving richer color and greater durability.
Choosing the Right T-Shirt Printing Method
So, what does it all mean? Let’s summarize the advantages and disadvantages of each option:
Screen printing advantages:
- Bright, vibrant colors.
- Long lasting images.
- Compatible with most fabrics.
- Excellent choice for high-quantity print runs.
Screen printing disadvantages:
- High setup costs can make small orders impractical.
- Environmentally not-so-great, due to high water usage and sometimes toxic inks.
- Does not reproduce complex images, high detail or gradients well.
Plastisol heat transfer advantages:
- Quick turnaround.
- Good choice for large quantities.
- Bright colors and high durability.
Plastisol heat transfer disadvantages:
- Images can be a bit stiff and shiny compared to other processes.
CAD cut vinyl heat transfer advantages:
- Creates bold, clear colors for simple designs.
- Bonds well with most fabrics.
- Extremely durable.
CAD cut vinyl heat transfer disadvantages:
- Time intensive for the printer (removing vinyl from image patterns), which affects cost.
Stretch litho heat transfer advantages:
- Best type of transfer printing for complex designs.
Stretch litho heat transfer disadvantages:
- There are cheaper methods (but none are as bright or resilient as stretch litho).
Sublimation transfer advantages:
- Bright vivid graphics.
- Long lasting because the ink permeates and bonds with the fabric.
Sublimation transfer disadvantages:
- Cannot be used on cotton garments; only 100 percent polyester.
Direct to garment advantages:
- Brilliant colors, fine detail, and gradients can be printed.
- Looks great for “vintage” shirt designs.
- Leaves the shirt feeling soft and supple.
Direct to garment disadvantages:
- Only compatible with 100 percent (or close to 100 percent) cotton fabrics.
- Fades in the wash over time.
Making a Final Decision
If you’ve read this far, you know that there is no single, correct answer to which printing technique is best for you. It depends on what type of image you need to print, how many shirts you need, what type of material you’ll be printing on, and of course, your budget.
Now that you understand the basics of garment printing, let one of our customer service reps help you fine-tune the options, as they apply to your situation. We’ll help you choose the right garment brand and fabric, and we’ll help you determine the best and lowest-cost method for getting your images onto t-shirts. Give us a call at (316) 264-1321.