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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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