If you are just starting your t-shirt business or looking for ways to streamline your operations, you may be asking yourself “What type of t-shirt printing method works best for ecommerce?”. There are many ways to get your shirt designs printed, from direct-to-garment printing and silk screening to airbrushing. Each method has pros and cons that come into play when considering how to get your t-shirts into production. Factors bearing on your decision include the look of your design, your t-shirt fabric, the quantity of your print run, and your budget.
In this guide, we'll walk you through six of the most popular types of shirt prints to help you decide which t-shirt printing method is best for your needs. We'll also answer some FAQs about different types of shirt prints.
Six of the most common t-shirt printing methods are direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, screen printing, dye sublimation, heat transfer vinyl (HTV), plastisol heat transfer, and airbrushing. Direct-to-garmenting printing and screen printing are the two most popular methods.
Direct-to-garmenting printing uses a special printer to spray water-based inks directly onto t-shirt fabric. DTG is best for printing complex designs with multiple colors onto cotton t-shirts. It can be used for single shirts or small-print runs.
Screen printing applies inks indirectly to t-shirts through a mesh partly blocked by a stencil shape, printing one color at a time. It works best for simple designs with a small number of colors and large quantities of orders.
When selecting your t-shirt printing method, consider the complexity of your design, the fabric you'll be printing on, your order quantity, and your budget. Working with a print on demand provider can streamline your production and help you keep costs low.
There are many methods to create t-shirts using both conventional and digital technology. Today six of the most common t-shirt printing methods used in ecommerce are:
Dye sublimation printing
Heat transfer vinyl printing
Plastisol transfer printing
DTG and screen printing are the two most popular t-shirt printing methods. Below we'll take a look at each of these types of shirt prints. We'll explain how each method works and examine its pros and cons.
As the name implies, direct-to-garment is a t-shirt printing technique that applies inks directly to t-shirts. This distinguishes it from t-shirt printing methods that apply inks indirectly using a screen or a transfer paper.
DTG uses a special printer that applies water-based inks to shirts by using a four-step process:
A t-shirt design is created in a digital art file and stored on a computer connected to the printer.
The t-shirt is prepared for printing. A pretreatment solution is applied to keep white ink from discoloring the shirt, smearing, or mixing with colored inks. The shirt is then cured with a heat press or air dryer to flatten the fibers for a smoother printing surface.
The t-shirt is aligned over a flat platform called a platen and fed into the printer.
After the t-shirt has finished printing, the ink is cured with a heat press or forced air dryer to make it stick to the shirt through repeated washings.
DTG printing takes images directly from computer files which allows you to easily customize your designs without needing to create new screens or stencils. You can print complex designs with vibrant colors, high resolution, and sharpness. DTG can be used on most popular t-shirt fabrics, including cotton, polyester, and cotton/polyester blends. It produces the best results on natural fabrics such as cotton.
DTG is widely regarded as the more environmentally sustainable printing method. The water-based inks used in DTG printing are free of toxic chemicals. Because designs are printed directly onto the fabric, there is no need for additional materials like screens or paper, reducing the amount of waste.
While DTG printers are costly, often priced at more than $10,000, this method lends itself well to print on demand. Working with a reputable print on demand provider makes direct-to-garment t-shirt printing affordable and reduces overproduction and excess inventory.
Direct-to-garment printing can handle highly complex designs with multiple colors or photographic detail.
DTG inks sink into the fabric for a smooth feel.
Direct-to-garment printing uses eco-conscious inks and materials.
DTG t-shirt printing can produce any quantity of shirts quickly.
Direct-to-garment printing works best on cotton but is less ideal for polyester t-shirts.
DTG t-shirts have less resistance to washing and sunlight than screen-printed shirts.
DTG printers are expensive to own, though this can be mitigated by working with a print on demand (POD) service.
Screen printing technique, also called silk screen printing, applies ink designs to shirts by pressing ink through a mesh partly blocked off by a stencil shape. Using a mesh medium classifies screen printing as an indirect t-shirt printing method.
Screen printing uses a seven-step process:
The design is created, usually by printing a digital file onto a transparent acetate film that will serve as a stencil.
One or more screens are prepared using an emulsion that will harden when exposed to light, blocking off the area surrounding where the design will be printed. One screen must be used for each color of the design.
The screen is exposed to light, causing the emulsion to harden.
A stencil is created by removing the hardened emulsion.
The screen is set on a printing press, and the t-shirt is placed on a printing board under the screen.
The screen lowers onto the printing board while the ink is inserted into it and pressed down with a blade or squeegee to impress the design on the t-shirt.
After printing, the ink is cured with a heat gun, heat press, flash dryer, or conveyor dryer.
T-shirts with multiple colors require stencils and screens for each color.
Screen printing was once the most popular printing method for making t-shirts. However, the time it takes to prepare stencils and screens makes screen t-shirt printing less cost-efficient than DTG for small quantities of shirts. Screen printing retains its value for large print runs of hundreds or thousands of t-shirts.
Screen printing produces vivid prints for simple patterns with a small number of colors.
Screen-printed designs last through multiple wash cycles.
Screen t-shirt printing is cost-efficient for large print runs.
Screen t-shirt printing requires significant set-up time for stencils and screens.
Screen printing isn't suitable for complex color patterns or high-resolution images.
The screen printing process is only cost-efficient at large scales.
Screen printing wastes ink and materials, making it less environmentally friendly than DTG t-shirt printing methods.
Dye sublimation is also known as all-over printing (AOP) because it can be applied to all areas of a shirt. For example, dye sublimation can print repeated patterns or cover areas such as seams. It differs from DTG and screen printing techniques, which apply ink to designated printing areas on flat shirt surfaces.
The dye sublimation method uses a three-step process:
The t-shirt design is created in a digital image file.
A special printer prints the image in reverse on transfer paper.
The paper is pressed to the t-shirt, heated under pressure to a gaseous state, and then cooled, transferring the ink to the shirt.
Sublimation works beautifully on synthetic fabrics such as polyester. However, this printing method doesn't bond ink to cotton.
Dye sublimation can be printed all over a t-shirt.
Sublimated inks blend right into the fabric of the shirt, creating a smooth look and feel.
Sublimated shirt designs won't fade or peel.
T-shirts prepared through dye sublimation are breathable.
Dye sublimation doesn't work well with cotton or dark t-shirts.
Sublimation is expensive compared to other t-shirt printing options.
Heat transfer vinyl printing, also known as iron-on printing, transfers designs from vinyl plastic-based sheets. One side of the sheet is colored with removable tape and can be cut into design shapes. The other side is coated with an adhesive activated by heating.
HTV uses a five-step process:
The pattern to be cut is created manually or digitally.
The design is cut out by hand or with an HTV cutting machine.
Excess material is removed by cutting (weeded).
The design is applied to the t-shirt using an iron or heat press.
The tape is peeled away to leave the image behind.
The vinyl used in HTV printing creates stiff designs. Heat transfer vinyl printing requires fabrics that won't melt when heated. It doesn't show up well on dark backgrounds. HTV printing is often used for lettering on sports jerseys.
Easy for beginners.
Design cutting takes time, making the production process slow.
Vinyl creates stiff designs.
Doesn't work well on dark backgrounds.
It is limited to fabrics that can withstand the heating process.
Unsuitable for large-scale production.
Plastisol screen printing is an indirect screen printing method that uses a plastic-based transfer sheet to transfer ink to t-shirts. It is a simpler variation of screen printing that applies inks to a transfer paper instead of a mesh screen.
Plastisol printing uses steps similar to screen printing, with some crucial differences. The most significant difference is that the design is applied to the transfer paper rather than directly to the t-shirt:
Designs are created, screens are set up as in screen printing, except the design is done in reverse.
The transfer paper is run through a conveyor dryer to remove moisture.
The transfer paper is placed under the screen.
Ink is applied to the transfer paper.
The transfer paper is applied to the t-shirt with a heat press.
Adhesion powder is applied to the t-shirt to reduce blurring. Any excess powder is removed.
The ink is heated to a gel state in a conveyor dryer.
A heat press is applied.
The transfer paper is peeled off.
Gelled plastisol transfer papers can be stored before heating and then heat pressed to produce shirts when needed. This makes plastisol transfer printing useful for applications such as printing at live events where the quantity of t-shirts needed is not known in advance.
Plastisol transfer papers can be selected for special effects like textures and glosses. Designs produced through plastisol heat transfer are durable, resisting fading and cracking. However, this method can't be used for photographic images, half-tones, or large orders.
Special effects options.
Transfer paper can be stored for later printing.
Requires skilled, time-consuming preparation.
Not suitable for bulk orders.
Airbrushing is a manual t-shirt design method that uses a small spray painting tool. The process involves four steps:
A stencil is created from a material such as a pennant felt and attached to a t-shirt using a temporary, light adhesive to hold it in place. Multiple stencils may be used for multiple colors.
The airbrush is loaded with paint and attached to an air source. For multi-colored designs, multiple paints must be used.
With the t-shirt held in place on a board and an easel, the airbrush applies paint to the shirt, one color at a time. Manual touches may be added as desired.
After the paint dries, parchment paper is applied to protect the design, and an iron is used to set the paint.
Airbrushing is easy and inexpensive, allowing complete artistic freedom when applying designs. However, airbrushed designs don't allow intricate detail, and they aren't durable. The manual labor involved in airbrushing makes it unsuited for large orders.
Easy to get started and do it yourself.
Unsuitable for bulk orders
Turning your designs into high margins largely comes down to featuring them on the right products. Remember, it's important to choose high-demand products that you can sell for a retail price that covers your overhead costs and still leave you with a profit.
Keep in mind that if you want to make the highest profit margins in the long run, it's essential that you don't try to cut corners by offering your customers low-quality products. Gelato's got you covered with a full range of high-margin products that you can depend on.
We've got a full range of print on demand merchandise just waiting to be transformed into profitable products for your online store. You supply the designs and we'll take care of the rest!