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1. An overview of the most common types of shirt printing methods

6 Types of shirt printing methods & how they work

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 of printing t-shirts to get your 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 popular shirt printing techniques 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.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • 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.

  • Gain insights into the various printing types and Gelato’s approach to refined t-shirt printing.

  • Direct-to-garment printing uses a particular 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. You can use it 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.

An overview of the most common types of shirt printing methods

There are many methods to create t-shirts using conventional and digital technology. Six of the most common t-shirt printing techniques used in ecommerce are:

  1. Direct-to-garment printing

  2. Screen printing

  3. Dye sublimation printing

  4. Heat transfer vinyl printing

  5. Plastisol transfer printing

  6. Airbrushing

DTG and screen printing are the two most popular t-shirt printing techniques. Below, we'll take a look at each of these types of shirt printing. We'll explain how each method works and examine its pros and cons.

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1. Direct-to-garment printing (DTG printing)

direct to garment

As the name implies, direct-to-garment is a t-shirt printing technique that applies inks directly to t-shirts, and this distinguishes it from t-shirt printing techniques that apply inks indirectly using a screen or a transfer paper.

DTG uses a particular printer that applies water-based inks to shirts using a four-step process:

  1. A t-shirt design is created in a digital art file and stored on a computer connected to the printer.

  2. 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.

  3. The t-shirt is aligned over a flat platform called a platen and fed into the printer.

  4. After printing the t-shirt, 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, allowing you to customize your designs without creating new screens or stencils. You can print complex designs with vibrant colors, high resolution, and sharpness. You can use DTG on most popular t-shirt fabrics, including cotton, polyester, and cotton/polyester blends. It produces the best results on natural fabrics such as cotton.

Many widely regard DTG 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 over $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 techniques 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 not as ideal for polyester t-shirts.

  • DTG t-shirts have less resistance to washing and sunlight than screen-printed shirts.

  • DTG printers are expensive, though you can mitigate this by working with a print on demand (POD) service.

2. Screen printing

screen printing

The screen printing technique, also called silkscreen printing, applies ink designs to shirts by pressing ink through a mesh partly blocked off by a stencil printing shape. Using a mesh medium classifies screen printing as an indirect t-shirt printing method.

Silkscreen printing uses a seven-step process:

  1. The design is created by printing a digital file onto a transparent acetate film that will serve as a stencil.

  2. One or more screens are prepared using an emulsion that will harden when exposed to light, blocking off the area surrounding where you will print the design. You must use one screen for each color of the design.

  3. The screen is exposed to light, causing the emulsion to harden.

  4. A stencil is created by removing the hardened emulsion.

  5. Set the screen on a printing press and place the t-shirt on a printing board under the screen.

  6. 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.

  7. the ink is cured with a heat gun, heat press, flash dryer, or conveyor dryer after printing.

  8. 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.

3. Dye sublimation printing

dye sublimation

Dye sublimation is also known as all-over printing (AOP) because you can apply it to all shirt areas. For example, dye sublimation can print repeated patterns or cover areas such as seams. It differs from DTG and silkscreen printing techniques, which apply ink to designated printing areas on flat shirt surfaces.

The dye sublimation method uses a three-step process:

  1. The t-shirt design is created in a digital image file.

  2. A particular printer prints the image in reverse on transfer paper.

  3. 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 into the shirt's fabric, 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.

4. Heat transfer vinyl printing (HTV printing)

heat transfer

Heat transfer vinyl printing, also known as iron-on printing, transfers designs from vinyl plastic-based sheets. You color one side of the sheet with removable tape and cut it into design shapes. You coat the other side with an adhesive activated by heating.

HTV uses a five-step process:

  1. The cut pattern is created manually or digitally.

  2. The design is cut out by hand or with an HTV cutting machine.

  3. Excess material is removed by cutting (weeding).

  4. The design is applied to the t-shirt using an iron or heat press.

  5. The tape is peeled away to leave the image behind.

The vinyl used in HTV printing creates stiff designs. Heat transfer printing requires fabrics that won't melt when heated. It doesn't show up well on dark backgrounds. Many often use HTV printing techniques for lettering on sports jerseys.


  • Easy for beginners.

  • Inexpensive.


  • Design cutting takes time, slowing production.

  • 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.

5. Plastisol transfer printing

platisol transfer

Plastisol screen printing is an indirect screen printing technique that uses a plastic-based transfer sheet to transfer ink to t-shirts. It is a simpler variation of silkscreen printing that applies inks to heat 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:

  1. Created designs and screens are set up as in screen printing, except you do the design in reverse.

  2. The transfer paper is run through a conveyor dryer to remove moisture.

  3. The transfer paper is placed under the screen.

  4. Ink is applied to the transfer paper.

  5. The transfer paper is applied to the t-shirt with a heat press.

  6. Adhesion powder is applied to the t-shirt to reduce blurring. Remove any excess powder.

  7. The ink is heated to gel in a conveyor dryer.

  8. A heat press is applied.

  9. The transfer paper is peeled off.

You can store gelled plastisol transfer papers before heating and then heat-press them to produce shirts when needed, making plastisol transfer printing useful for applications such as printing at live events where you need to know the number of t-shirts required in advance.

You can select plastisol transfer papers for special effects like textures and glosses. Designs produced through plastisol heat transfer are durable, resisting fading and cracking. However, you can’t use this method for photographic images, half-tones, or large orders.


  • High-quality.

  • Durable designs.

  • Special effects options.

  • Store transfer paper for later printing.


  • Requires skilled, time-consuming preparation.

  • Not suitable for bulk orders.

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6. Airbrushing

Airbrushing is a manual t-shirt fabric paint method that uses a small spray painting tool. The process involves four steps:

  1. 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. You may use multiple stencils for multiple colors.

  2. The airbrush is loaded with paint and attached to an air source. For multi-colored designs, use various paints.

  3. With the t-shirt on a board and an easel, the airbrush applies paint to the shirt, one color at a time. You may add manual touches as desired.

  4. Paperback paper is applied to protect the design and use an iron to set the paint after it dries.

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 start and do yourself.

  • Inexpensive.

  • Allows creativity.


  • Low-quality designs.

  • Low durability.

  • Labor-intensive.

  • Unsuitable for bulk orders

Which methods of t-shirt printing should you select?

When deciding on a t-shirt printing method for your business, consider the design complexity, fabric type, order volume, and budget.

  • Direct-to-garment (DTG) is perfect for intricate, colorful designs on cotton fabrics but may be a bit costlier for bulk orders.

  • Screen printing excels in vibrant, long-lasting prints for larger batches, making it cost-effective for bulk orders.

  • Dye sublimation works best for all-over prints on polyester fabrics, offering vivid and durable results.

  • Direct-to-film (DTF) printing offers versatility across various fabrics, providing bright, detailed prints.

  • Plastisol transfers are great for high-quality prints on diverse materials and allow glossy or textured finishes.

  • Vinyl printing is ideal for text-based designs like sports jerseys and offers durability and flexibility in design placement.

  • Though limited in design complexity, embroidery adds sophistication and is incredibly durable.

  • Airbrushing allows creative, hand-crafted designs for unique, small-scale projects.

Your choice should align with your t-shirt business’s specific needs, whether prioritizing design intricacy, fabric compatibility, production volume, or cost-effectiveness. Each method has a unique appeal and application, making your selection crucial to defining your brand’s product quality and style in the t-shirt printing industry.      

Create top-quality shirts with Gelato's finest printing technique

Explore the world of shirt printing with Gelato, where sophisticated printing techniques bring your designs to life. Gelato offers direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, ideal for detailed, color-rich designs. The print quality provided by the DTG method results in a superior, appealing, and long-lasting finish.

The flexible nature of DTG printing lets you implement a wide array of design options, resulting in a more expansive catalog for any budding or seasoned print enthusiast.

Moreover, the time it takes to complete an individual print is comparatively shorter than most other printing options, translating to more time for you to create numerous printed t-shirts; time is money.

DTG printing lets you churn out a greater volume of designs without compromising on the durability of each print. This reliable printing technique that Gelato specializes in will transform your creative vision into wearable art when perfectly applied with precision and care.  

Design high-quality custom t-shirts easily with Gelato

Turning your designs into high margins primarily comes down to featuring them on the right products. Remember, it's essential to choose high-demand products that you can sell for a retail price that covers your overhead costs and leaves you with a profit.

Remember that to make the highest profit margins in the long run; you mustn'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 with high-quality prints you can depend on.

We have 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!

Shirt printing FAQs

What is the most suitable printing technique for shirts?

The most suitable printing technique depends on your specific needs. For example, DTG is ideal for detailed, colorful designs on small orders, while screen printing works best for simpler designs in large quantities.

For synthetic fabrics, Dye Sublimation is the go-to choice. Evaluate your design complexity, fabric type, and order volume to choose the best method for your t-shirt business. Overall, DTG is a superior, versatile printing method for t-shirts.

Which shirt printing method offers the highest durability?

DTG is known for its high durability, making it an excellent choice for designs that must withstand frequent washing and wear. Embroidery also offers long-lasting results. These methods ensure that your t-shirts retain quality over time, making them ideal for businesses looking for durable printing solutions.

What printing technique is effective for small businesses?

DTG and vinyl printing are effective for small businesses due to their lower setup costs and flexibility with order sizes. DTG is suitable for detailed designs with multiple colors, while vinyl printing is perfect for simple graphics and text-based designs. These methods allow small businesses to produce high-quality prints that last long.


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