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A Beginner’s Guide to T-Shirt Printing

Hoping to start a t-shirt printing business or a clothing brand soon?

That’s awesome––you’re in the right place.
Regardless of whether you’re deciding to start a custom t-shirt printing business or a unique line of t-shirts, the t-shirt printing industry is a great one to be in. People are always in need of t-shirt printing services or looking for new clothing to buy.

However, before you embark on your new business journey, it’s important for you to understand the difference between the various t-shirt printing techniques available. Depending on the t-shirt fabric, design specifications, and the volume of the order, certain printing techniques may perform better than others. It’s also important to consider how the t-shirt will be used on a regular basis, since some t-shirt printing techniques may produce a longer-lasting product.

With many variables to consider, it may feel like starting a t-shirt printing business is too complicated. However, couldn’t be any further from the truth. As long as you understand the basics of the business, you’ll be able to operate a successful clothing line or t-shirt printing business with little to no guesswork––and much success. You’ll save lots of money in the long run as well, which of course is always a good thing for your wallet and business performance.

To help you as you plan to get started with t-shirt printing, we’re here to help. This beginner’s guide gives a quick yet complete rundown of the ins and outs of t-shirt printing, from front to end. Let’s dive in, shall we?

I. What is t-shirt printing?

As the term implies, t-shirt printing refers to the art or process of, well, printing on a t-shirt. The t-shirt’s artwork, which can be an intricate design, lettering, or image, is applied or printed onto the t-shirt using one of the various printing methods, as mentioned earlier.

These printed t-shirts can then be sold commercially. In fact, one of the most popular business ideas is selling custom t shirts or starting a clothing brand line!

II. The history of the t-shirt printing industry

While the exact history of t-shirt printing is unclear, screen printing is definitely the oldest and most common of the three. Experts tend to have varying opinions, but most believe that screen printing has its roots in ancient China. From there, the art of screen printing made its way to European countries, where it didn’t become popular until silk mesh was regularly imported from the east.

While screen printing existed the entire time, it wasn’t until the Spanish-American War that the t-shirt became popular as it was issued to sailors by the U.S. Navy. Designed to be undershirts for their uniforms, it wasn’t long until these sailors would remove their uniform jackets when off-duty, wearing their t-shirt as their primary shirt.

From there, the t-shirt’s popularity spread to agricultural and industrial workers, soon becoming known as an all-purpose work shirt by the time the Great Depression set in. As soldiers came back home and wore their t-shirts, it became even more popular in the states.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s when printing was finally implemented on t-shirts as we see today. Starting in Miami, Florida, a few companies began to print resort names on t-shirts as a form of promotion. The printed t-shirt’s popularity spread after that, becoming a staple in the wardrobes of hipsters, rock-n-rollers, and the “rebellious” crowd. Printed t-shirts continued to grow in popularity, becoming a mainstream style concept and often seen in Hollywood.

Since then, t-shirt printing has become one of the largest sectors in the clothing industry, with just about everyone in society owning at least one printed t-shirt at any given moment. Going into 2020, t-shirt printing is expected to trend even further.

III. What are the various t-shirt printing techniques available?

As mentioned earlier, there are three primary t-shirt printing techniques available today: screen printing, heat transfer printing, and direct to garment (or DTG) printing. However, dye sublimation and vinyl cutting are two other t-shirt printing techniques that you’ll often hear about as well.

While each printing technique has its own unique advantages and uses, screen printing is by far the most popular and common of them all. It has existed since before you and I were even born, therefore having a deep history and centuries of development and improvement.

Before simply deciding to take the screen printing route, let’s take a look at each t-shirt printing technique in detail. You’ll find that other techniques may work better for you, depending on your specific wants and demands.

IV. Screen printing method

Of all t-shirt printing methods, screen printing is easily the most popular and commonly used. It has existed for many centuries and has only grown in popularity with time. While early screen printing (in ancient China) involved the use of silkscreens, modern screen printing is done by both human hand and machinery.

One of the biggest reasons why screen printing is the most popular t-shirt printing technique is because of the quality product it produces. The inks used in screen printing tend to be thicker than those used in other printing techniques, which results in a longer-lasting product with more accurate and vibrant colors in the design produced.

However, if you decided to go with the screen printing technique, always make sure to opt for higher-quality inks. There are some very low-quality inks on that market that, although cheaper upfront, will result in a poor-quality printed design that quickly fades and is rough to the touch.

If you’re expecting to have rather high-volume orders on a consistent basis, then screen printing may be the best bang for your buck method of printing. Depending on a number of factors (such as how big your design is, the ink quality, and so forth), you can expect to print anywhere between 200-600 t-shirts with a single gallon of ink, which makes this method very affordable and profitable for large orders. If you are only expecting to print a few t-shirts here and there, screen printing is not the way to go.

Pros of screen printing:

  •  Ink quality is better, resulting in a premium and longer-lasting printed result.
  •  For high-volume orders, screen printing makes it easy to produce hundreds of t-shirts in no time.
  •  Very cost-effective for high-volume orders.
  •  Screen printing is compatible with most fabrics available on the market.

Cons of screen printing:

  •  It requires a large work area, making it a poor option for some who may want to start an at-home business.
  •  It requires more money upfront to purchase the equipment and ink (although it is cheaper in the long run).
  •  Designs with different colors takes longer to setup

V. Heat transfer printing method

In short, the heat transfer printing method involves using a heat press machine to essentially melt a design onto a t-shirt. Heat transfer printing is a very popular choice for younger entrepreneurs and enthusiasts who may find the heat press and materials to be much more cost-effective than other methods.

First, a design is digitally printed on a special heat transfer paper, which is commonly known as a transfer vinyl. The heat transfer vinyl is then placed on top of the t-shirt and a heat press used to press or “melt” the design from the vinyl onto the t-shirt permanently.

One of the best advantages of the heat transfer t-shirt printing method is that it is very cost-efficient to use, regardless of order volume. It also requires very little maintenance unlike in screen printing, where the machinery requires a great deal of cleaning and upkeep.

Contrary to popular belief, heat transfer can result in high-quality t-shirt prints. This, of course, depends on the quality of the machine, ink, and method used. There are a few subcategories of heat transfer (such as dye sublimation and plastisol transfer), which each vary in implication and quality. Plastisol transfer, however, is the most popular of them all.

Pros of heat transfer printing (with plastisol):

  •  Results in high-quality prints that are comparable to screen printing.
  •  It is very cost-effective, especially for low-volume prints.
  •  Little to no mess involved.
  •  Works great with both full-color and few-color designs.

Cons of heat transfer printing (with plastisol):

  •  Designs may crack and fade quickly if heat transfer is done incorrectly.
  •  Involves a fairly intensive learning curve.
  •  High volume orders may become expensive and rather time-consuming compared to screen printing.

VI. Direct to garment (DTG) printing method

The newest of the three, direct to garment, or DTG, involves the use of modern inkjet technology that allows you to print your design directly onto a t-shirt. These prints are typically very high in quality, reflecting accurate colors and a smooth feel to the touch.

The DTG technique allows you to print just about any design you can think of, thanks to its use of some of the latest technology available that allows you to print millions of color combinations.

Although direct to garment printing is high quality and very efficient, it can become extremely pricey if you plan on purchasing a printer and ink yourself. Inkjet printers for t-shirts range from $300 DIY models to $300,000 for industrial-quality machines, and the ink is rather expensive as well. In fact, ink can cost up to $6 per shirt print.

Therefore, direct to garment printing is best suited as an outsourced method if you’re low in startup funds and want to start your own t-shirt brand.

Pros of direct to garment (DTG) printing:

  •  Capable of printing extremely intricate designs without color limits.
  •  Setup time is much shorter compared to screen printing.
  •  The workflow is less messy compared to other methods.
  •  Ink is “injected” directly into the t-shirt’s fabric, resulting in a smooth feel and longer-lasting print.

Cons of direct to garment (DTG) printing:

  •  This method of printing is best suited for cotton. While it works on other fabrics, the color won’t be as vivid as it would on cotton.
  •  Inkjet printers can be extremely pricey.
  •  Colors may appear faded over time compared to other methods.
  •  Inkjet machines require a considerable amount of upkeep.

VII. How to choose the best method for your business

While the decision on which t-shirt printing method to opt for is completely up to you, it’s important to keep your customers in mind as well. As you review the options above, ask yourself some of the questions below:

  •  Who is your target audience/customer?
  •  What material(s) will you be printing on the most?
  •  Will the designs be intricate and rich in color, or simple and containing only a few colors?
  •  Are your orders going to be high or low in volume?
  •  Is there a turnaround time you’re hoping to achieve?

By answering these simple questions, you can begin to paint a more precise picture of what is needed for your business and/or customers. For example, if you expect that you’ll regularly have high-volume orders, screen printing would be a much better option than the heat transfer printing technique.

Over to you

Before solidifying your t-shirt printing technique, it’s always a good idea to learn more about your customers and their printing needs first. If you have no idea what they would be needing, try setting up a quick survey online.

So now that you have a better idea of the various t-shirt printing methods available, what’s it going to be? We hope this comprehensive guide has been helpful, and we wish you all the best in your endeavors! If you have any questions, be sure to leave a comment below.


We make it easy to create your own custom printed t-shirts. Start by using our T-shirt design studio, create your own design using our extensive library of cliparts or add your own logo-artwork, and if you’re stuck on a design or tight on time, just contact us with your design ideas and we’ll help you create one at no extra cost! We have a whole team of graphic designers that’s ready to help with anything you can come up with.

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