So You Wanna Design T-Shirts? Part 1: There are THAT many ways to print a shirt?

In our first installment of the “So You Wanna Design T-Shirts” series we’re taking a bird’s eye look at all the different methods to imprint a t-shirt. This is by no means an exhaustive explanation (you could easily break down each of these categories further), but is meant to give a good foundation for exploring all the options out there.

  1. Heat Transfer

    Pros: Photographic, full color prints.
    Cons: Relatively poor quality print. Washes out eventually.

    Remember the kits your mom bought for you when you were a kid? The ones where you’d print a design from your printer on special paper, and then your mom would iron it on a white t-shirt? Well… this method of printing is still alive and well.

    You see the grown up version of this at mall stores and event booths selling 5 minute “pick-your-design” shirts. They use slightly better quality paper and inks, and a heat press machine that applies the design to the shirt with more staying power than your mom’s iron. Even so, these prints will quickly deteriorate after a few washings.

    Heat Press

  2. Digital Printing (also called Direct-to-Garment)

    Pros: No cost for materials other than ink. Photographic, full color prints, easy to to do small runs, very soft feel to the print.
    Cons: Technology still has issues printing on dark colored shirts. Color quality can be unreliable if you go with a vendor who is using cheaper equipment. Limited imprint size.

    Digital printing is essentially the process of running a t-shirt through an ink jet printer that has special mechanisms and inks for garments. It’s a process that’s been the holy grail of the imprintables industry for a some time now. After all, what could be better than a clean, cheap, almost completely hands off production method that gives photographic quality results?

    Unfortunately, the technology isn’t quite there yet. While prints on white and light colored shirts are generally acceptable, prints on black and dark colored shirts still have vibrancy issues. Additionally, the less expensive machines that many printing companies “buy to try” are lower quality, have color management issues over the course of longer runs, and frequently break down.

    Digital Printing

  3. Screen Printing

    Pros: Best option for long lasting, multi-color prints. Able to maintain very good detail. Wide range of special effect inks available including glitters, textures, and glosses.
    Cons: Can be expensive for short run jobs because of set up costs. Because jobs are usually charged by screen, multi-color/multi-position jobs can become expensive. Dark colored t-shirts printed with multiple colors can have a thick, rough feel.

    Screen printing is the grand-daddy of imprinting and still the most popular method of applying art to t-shirt today. For good reason: it’s still hands down the best way to print a shirt.

    The apply named process involves pushing ink (water-based, plastisol, or discharge ink) through a specially prepared screen onto the garment. Each color gets its own screen and each screen contains a “burned” image of all the elements of the design that should appear in that particular color.

    Screen printing machines can be as simple as a one station/color setups, or as complex as large presses that support 10-20 colors and can print hundreds of shirts per hour.

    Screen Printing

  4. Vinyl

    Pros: Very inexpensive to produce single shirts
    Cons: Realistically limited to 1-2 colors, no complex graphics, limited imprint size.

    To most commercial printing companies, Vinyl is synonymous with sports teams. “Sports Teams? What?” Yup… the names and numbers you seen on the back of little league and high school teams everywhere? Usually done with Vinyl.

    Long rolls of the stuff (with a special backer) can be purchased in a wide variety of colors. Letters, numbers, or any other simple designs can be etched from the material using a special vinyl cutter connected to a computer.

    After cutting, the excess vinyl is removed from around the graphic (the backer is left intact to hold the piece of the design together) and then it’s applied to the garment using a heat press machine.

    Most printing companies don’t offer this as a stand-alone imprint method, but it’s an ideal solution for sampling simple one-off designs and many places are willing to do it if you ask.

So what does this all mean to you? Well, there’s a lot of different ways out there to put a design on a shirt, some methods work a little better than others. Generally though, screen printing is still the defacto standard. It’s the perfect choice for artists who want to get the best quality representation of their work on a shirt.

Check back for our next article in the series:
Photoshop? Illustrator? Vector? Bitmap? (How to make your design easy to print; or, how to make the printers not hate you.)


21 thoughts on “So You Wanna Design T-Shirts? Part 1: There are THAT many ways to print a shirt?

  1. I generally agree with your assessment of the various decoration methods although I don’t feel it is 100% accurate. For instance, there are so many variables with heat transfer that it is impossible to say it isn’t as high quality as other methods. You can actually get plastisol transfers which are every bit as good as screen printing. And some of the new inkjet papers have a very soft hand and excellent washability. Then with DTG, I believe the ability to print on dark garments is here. In my shop, we are able to produce excellent results on dark garments. And a photographic image on a black shirt is absolutely stunning. The biggest issue is that a DTG is not as easy as loading paper into a printer. There are so many variables, down to the nap of the cotton on the shirt that can effect the print. The final thing I would say is that to really evaluate the correct decoration method you need to evaluate the artwork and the garment it is going to print on. Light colored artwork on a high polyester content green or red garment is going give you enormous problems when screen printing. Not that it can’t be done but another method might be a better choice, in my opinion.

    • Fernanda says:


      We are in LA and looking for a good printer to print on black tshirts using DTG. Can you recommend someone?

  2. Hi Sarah, I’ve already started work on it and hope to have it finished soon! Thanks for following along.

  3. oneasia19 says:

    Thanks here too, I am no longer going to look forward to using my inkjet printer as the printer for heat transfer, saved me the almost endless search for home heat transfer printing..toodles

  4. I am not a fan of DTG – too slow….if your planning to do it to make money.


    This past weekend at the show, I got a first hand look at the Kornit 931DS –

    This DTG printer was SUPER FAST compared to anything out on the market. I was impressed how it applied the pre-treatment with the shirt on the pallet automatically, then started to print. The white underbase printed better than expected. They printed for me a full size color print that took less than 2 minutes to complete. The only downside is, the Dual Head machine cost over $200,000!

  5. We outsource our printing to a screenprinter–I highly recommend doing this for startups, print the minimum and get it done at someone who does it all day every day rather than trying to learn it for yourself.

    It just takes too much time and costs too much money to do it on your own at first–after you’ve sold a few thousand shirts, use the money and print on your own!

    • Hi, I am a small biz owner–trying to branch out with t-shirts. I am a graphic designer and I’ve screen printed before–but a long time ago). I’m very hands-on but even I realize that this would be too time consuming. the shirts are very design driven. My wife and I think that you are right. In fact, we have been looking for places to outsource the work to..they have to be quality and I think that would better be handled by a pro. But most we’ve seen are just to expensive..Can you please help us with any recommendations?

  6. ashish says:

    when i print on t.shirts the edges need to be trimmed. Is it possible to print using a transfer sticker that only prints the design and not the complete dimensions of the paper

  7. Hi, Thanx for the Great illustration on printing the T’ees I really intend to go into the business since I myself am gonna need quite a few Tshirts monthly 🙂

  8. Lauren says:

    Are there any tshirt printers that print Direct-to-Garment but all over as i notice the Direct-to-Garment printer only print a size around an a4 print? i want to print all over but not have to use a heat press (inc sleeves).

    Am i investing something here or is there something out there that does this?

    Thank you

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