Well, as with most things in life, it depends on what you’re after. When it comes to picking the best T-shirt printing technique, many factors can affect the final product. How many T-shirts do we need? What kind of fabric is the garment made of? What colour is it? Even the brand may play an impact.
So with so many variables, how do we decide which is the ultimate best T-shirt printing technique?
This is what we’ll try to answer in this post. We’ll take an extensive look at the most popular T-shirt printing techniques so, in the end, we can make an informed decision.
Part 1: Screen Printing
It pretty much works like a stencil method which allows printing onto a fabric via a fine mesh that has been coated with an impermeable solution. Using a squeegee, the ink gets pushed through only where the mesh allows it to, creating the design.
Only one colour can be applied at a time so a screen must be made for each. More on this when we talk about the process. In order to print onto coloured garments, a layer of white ink must be printed first and then all the other colours on top of it. This is often called ‘underbasing’ in the industry and it is a common technique.
While we will only talk about the screen printing used to make clothes, screen printing is also a very popular way of creating posters and other works of art. It is also known as silk-screen, serigraphy and serigraph printing.
Of all the printing methods, screen printing is, by far, the oldest. Experts differ on where it got started but some suggest that it goes all the way back to ancient China. To Europe, it didn’t arrive until the XVIII century and then it wouldn’t become popular but when silk mesh became easier to import from the east.
Screen printing’s next big moment would come in the XX century when an artist by the name of Andy Warhol (ever heard of him?) used it to create his famous Marilyn Monroe portrait Marilyn Diptych. The name ‘serigraphy’ started being used around this time in art circles.
Note: To learn more about the history of screen printing, check out the blog post we wrote on the subject where we go into more detail about its past.
Regardless if the process is done by hand or by a machine, these are the necessary elements to screen sprint:
- Screen (usually a mess stretched over a frame)
- Photo emulsion kit
- Transparent material to print the design
- A lamp (or another strong source of light)
- Pressurised water (shower head or hose will do)
STEP 1: Create your design
Like any other printing method, the first thing that must be done is create the artwork. This can be done by using any design software but special attention must be paid to the final format.
Save in vectors instead of pixels. Vectors are mathematical calculations which create lines and figures in our monitors. It’s a bit abstract but, basically, you can expand or minimise an image as much as you want without losing the quality, which is the exact opposite of pixels.
Pixels are tiny squares of colours that when put together create an image. All photos on the internet are made out of pixels. If you expand them well enough you’ll eventually see the tiny squares. The reason why low-resolution images look pixelated is because when we lower the quality, the squares get bigger so the computer has to process less information.
Note: For more information how to create artwork for T-shirt printing, visit our blog post ‘How to prepare artwork for T-shirt printing – The right way’
On top of being saved as a vector, the artwork must be separated into layers. To be more specific, each colour must be in a different one. This is done because, like we already mentioned, each tone is printed using a different screen.
Once the design is finished, the designer must create a version in solid black and print it on a transparent film. This is to block off the light. More about this in step 4.
STEP 2: Cover the screen with emulsion
Usually, the photosensitive emulsion comes with instructions on how to mix the liquid. Once this is done, the screen must be coated with it. This is a simple process but it must be done carefully because if the liquid is not evenly distributed then the end design won’t be as impactful as it could be.
STEP 3: Let the screen dry
For the photosensitive emulsion to work properly, it must be left to dry in a cold, dark room. As the name entails, the material is photosensitive so if it gets exposed to light at the wrong time, the whole process could go to waste.
STEP 4: Create the stencil
Once the screen is dry, using some sort of soft adhesive (that does not rip off the emulsion) the design is placed on top of the screen under a strong source of light. What will happen is that the parts of the screen that have not been covered with the design will harden while the rest will remain soft.
After it has been left to dry a while under the light (around an hour) the design can now be removed with a small brush and some water. What remains will be a negative composition of the artwork.
STEP 5: Apply the design
Once the screen has been made, it is time to do the actual printing. Now depending on whether the job is done by hand or with a machine, the T-shirt will be either placed on a flat surface like a table or on the machine itself.
Then the screen is placed carefully on top of the garment. After that, the ink will be placed on top of the screen and with the help of a squeegee, be evenly distributed across the surface. If it’s done by hand, the printer must be careful with the pressure and the amount of ink they apply.
The process of screen printing is simple. It’s one of the reasons why it has existed for so long but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a learning curve. This is also why good screen printing machines are expensive.
If the screens are to be used again, then the printer must thoroughly clean them. The emulsion can even be removed with a special product to create a new design.
The great and not so great things about screen printing
Screen printing has got its fair share of fanatics and for good reason. It is a simple technique that allows for great quality and vibrant prints but it is not without its flaws. Let’s go over what screen printing does well first:
✅ – YAYS
The inks used in screen printing are usually thicker than the one of other techniques which lead to a good-quality print.
Speed and efficiency
Once the screen has been made, the screen printing process is actually the quickest of the month. Some screen printing machines are so fast that they can print up to 4600 T-shirts in one hour.
There are a lot of different types of screen printing inks that create various effects and textures. Some machines have also screens big enough to cover an entire T-shirt which results in all-over printing.
Because of the thick inks, screen prints have been known to keep their vibrancy for years and years.
❌ – NAYS
Set Up Costs
As you may have realised, the time people spend actually printing is much less when compared to the time they spend preparing the design and creating the screens. These, unfortunately, translates to set up costs. These costs increase when ordering low quantities which are not advised with screen printing.
Unfortunately, screen printing can be quite a messy activity. It requires lots of water and more often than not the inks used can be toxic to the environment. Thankfully, nowadays we have water-based inks which are much friendlier.
Screen Printing Myths
Many things have been said about screen printing. Some are true, some are not. Here we mention a couple of the most famous myths.
Screen printing cannot recreate gradients
This is not entirely true. Nowadays the most sophisticated machines can recreate small colour changes and even printers can mix inks in a way that makes it look like a gradient but its possibilities are much more limited than direct to garment printing, for example.
Screen printing cannot run small orders
This depends A LOT on one, the design and two, the printer. It may be possible to run a small order of screen-printed garments with a simple design of one or two colours.
Part 2: Transfer Printing
This is a term used to describe any sort of technique where the design is first printed on a non-textile surface so it can later be transferred onto the fabric using a different process – hence the word ‘transfer’. Most transfers are done with a kind of vinyl which is later sealed (much like a sticker) onto the T-shirt using a heat press.
Why not just print directly on the garment? You may ask. It would be a lot faster. There are several reasons as to why this technique is the way it is. Some are commercial (it is cheaper than DTG in most cases) while others are just about the final look and feel of the product.
There are many kinds of transfer printing such as sublimation, melt, film and wet but for this post, we’ll concentrate on heat transfer and cad cut vinyl which are the ones that are most used in the T-shirt printing industry.
What transfer printing is good for:
Transfer printing is mostly known for being the sports teams printing technique. Because of its quick process and setup, it is perfect for marking names and numbers on T-shirts of sports teams. It is always a good choice when going for big, bold prints.
It is also a good choice when the design is simple but the units are not enough to justify the setup costs of screen printing.
Other benefits of transfer printing:
- Designs that are printed on paper are easier to store away because they don’t take too much space and are ready to be used whenever there’s a demand.
- Production times are much shorter than direct to garment printing.
- The technique doesn’t require a high skill and has low reject rates.
- Certain effects and textures can only be produced with transfer.*
- It is easier to print complex designs directly on paper than on fabric.
- The equipment needed for transfer printing can be inexpensive and doesn’t require much space.
- Unlike DTG and screen printing, a transfer can be done on virtually any fabric.
- There are practically no setup costs.
There’s a great variety of effects and textures from fluorescents to metallics and even velvet.
These are screen designs that are printed on a heat transfer paper instead of the T-shirt. This type of heat transfer is known for its vibrant colours but it cannot print too many at once. Generally no more than four. Most transfer techniques use Plastisol.
Unlike other transfer papers, Plastisol has a very soft feeling and can last almost as long as a screen print.
Litho is the latest technology in the transfer world. It combines the best of digital and screen printing. Unlike CAD cut vinyl, a litho transfer doesn’t have to be cut. The name litho refers to lithography because it works in a similar way — It is printing from a flat surface treated to repel the ink, except for the one that’s meant to be used for printing.
Litho transfer retains the details of the artwork better than other printing techniques because it is printed on paper first. Paper is a smoother substrate than fabric which means the dot of colour doesn’t expand as much when it touches the surface.
CAD Cut Vinyl
CAD stands for ‘computer-aided design’ and it is why this technique is so special. What makes this method different from other transfers is that a computer, instead of a person, cuts the design. This leaves much less room for error but the downside is that it is limited to the kind of designs it can make.
In order for the computer to do its work, it is necessary for the artwork to be saved as a vector file. Once the design has been cut by the machine, the excess of vinyl is then weeded out by hand and sealed on the T-shirt using heat.
This kind of transfer printing is different from the rest because it works with a special kind of ink that turns into gas whenever it’s heated. It is quite unique because the gas joins the polyester, becoming part of the material instead of just being on top of it.
Sublimation can create some really vivid, long-lasting images — the problem is that it is limited by the materials it is compatible with. Because of the particular nature of the inks, this technique only works on plastic and fabrics made out of polyester.
Sublimation is a particularly popular technique for all-over printing. It is easy to recognise because any fold or crease on the T-shirt will remain white. This is a problem with the area under the sleeves.
Artwork for any kind of transfer
- Transfer works with Pantone colours, which means these have to be carefully selected when working in the design software.
- The artwork must be saved in vectors and in ai, eps and pdf formats.
- All paths must be converted to strokes
- The artwork must be done in the real size as the final print
- Saved at 300 dpi
- Avoid gradients and shades
Transfer Printing Myths
Here are some myths surrounding transfer printing. Let’s take a look and see how correct they are.
It looks shiny and plasticky
This isn’t completely false but it isn’t completely true either. In the past, most vinyls ended up looking cheap but modern ones have nice matte finishes. Still, you never want to cover a large part of the garment because the vinyl will make it less flexible.
It cracks with time
Again, it mostly depends on the quality of the paper. Nowadays there are good-quality options like IronAll and SoftStretch which are elastic and take care of the cracking problem — when they’re properly taken care of, of course.
Vinyl doesn’t work well with negative spaces
Quite the contrary, when the vinyl is cut to show the colour of the T-shirt as a background, it makes it feel less ‘stiff’ and plasticky.
Part 3: Direct to Garment Printing
Out of all of the modern T-shirt printing techniques, direct to garment printing (DTG) is the newest and also the most approachable method for those who are not acquainted with the T-shirt printing world. Basically, DTG works like your office printer but instead of injecting ink directly onto paper it does so on fabric.
DTG is usually reserved for artwork that it’s considered too complex for the other printing techniques. Because of its potential with colour mixing, DTG printers can recreate gradients, colours and small details that the others have trouble achieving.
DTG has got low setup costs but it takes the longest to produce which is why it is usually reserved for low orders. Another particular quality of DTG is that because it is printed directly into the fabric the feel of the garment is very soft in the end. This is why it is a particularly popular technique when recreating vintage-looking T-shirts.
Because DTG works with water-based inks, it is not compatible with polyester garments or other types of materials that repel liquid. For the best possible results, it is always advised to use a 100% Cotton T-shirt. This doesn’t mean that a cotton/synthetic blend but as a general rule, the more cotton the T-shirt has then the more vibrant the end print will be.
A brief history of DTG
Like we mentioned earlier, DTG is a new T-shirt printing technique. Specially, when compared to the ancient screen printing. In fact, its story only dates back to the late 90’s when the first printer called ‘Revolution’ was introduced into the market.
The prototype was created by a man called Matthew Rhome. He filed for a patent which was granted in 2000 and turned him into the father of Direct to Garment Printing. Rhome currently works for Epson America and is in charge of direct to garment business development. Epson DTG printers are considered by some to be the best in the world.
Note: If you want to learn more about the history of DTG, check out the blog post we wrote about it here.
While the basics of DTG are pretty straightforward, after all, it works like a regular printer, there’s more to it than just placing a T-shirt on the machine.
STEP 1: Create the design
There are no restrictions on colours with DTG. It is a technique designed to print hyper-realistic images so when creating the artwork, designers can get creative with it.
Unlike other printing techniques, it is not imperative to save the file as a vector. DTG printers can handle pixel-based images as long they are high-resolution, of course. Ideal settings for DTG are:
- Text must still be converted to outlines
- Avoid images from the internet as they tend to have low resolutions
- The file must be saved in the highest possible quality 300 dpi
- Only CMYK colour type is admitted
- DTG accepts almost any kind of format which include AI, EPS, JPEG (not recommended), TIFF, PCT, PDF, PNG, PSD
STEP 2: Pretreatment of the T-shirt
This is particularly important if it’d a dark garment the one that’s going to be printed on. The pretreatment liquid makes it easier for the ink to attach to the fibres of the T-shirt. Most printers of this by hand but some of the most advanced machines already include this step of the process.
Once this is done, the garment must be left to dry.
STEP 3: Prepare Artwork
Using a specialised software like ‘artwork creator’ the design is prepared to be printed on the T-shirt.
Like screen printing, if we want to print onto dark garments, we have to create an ‘underbase’ of white ink to work on top of later. This is the moment when the white layer is set up.
STEP 4: Load T-shirt onto the DTG printer
This part of the process varies depending on the printer. The most advanced will come with its own device to stabilise the garment while the most simple models will require you to use some sort of cardboard to create a flat, sturdy surface where the machine can do its work.
STEP 5: Print
Push the print button and ta-dah! The machine does its work!
STEP 6: Curation of the garment
It’s not enough to just let the T-shirt dry, in order for the ink to properly set it has to be cured. This is usually done with a heat press. A silicon paper is put between the garment and the press and it has to be left there for around 90 seconds.
The great and not so great things about DTG
The good, the bad and the ugly.
✅ – YAYS
- Almost limitless colour options.
- Able to recreate photo-realistic prints and complex designs
- Little setup required
- The inks used are water-based which are much friendlier to the environment
❌ – NAYS
- Limited placement of the design
- Takes longer to produce than other techniques
- DTG printers are crazy expensive (up to £ 5000 and more) which means a big up-front investment for business owners
- Colours fade over time
Part 4: Other elemments to consider
The quality of the inks and even the brand can have a big influence on the final product. For example, the same design can be very different when printed on a T-shirt of the same colour but of different brands.
Inks Play an Important Role
1- Inks have to be specially made for T-shirt printing, the reason being that fabric is susceptible to liquids and moisture. Any ink that will easily wash away must be avoided at all costs.
2- Printers have to be calibrated properly. This is the absolute responsibility of the printer, of course.
3 – The design will always look different on the garment than it does on your monitor, it doesn’t matter if it is the best printer in the world. This occurs simply because most fabrics are matte while your screen is backlit. Light sources change how material look by a lot.
4 – Dye-based VS Pigment Inks
Dye-based inks are the standard ink type used in inkjet printers. They consist of colourant that is fully dissolved and suspended in liquid. Meanwhile, the pigmented ink consists of a very fine powder of solid colourant particles suspended in a liquid carrier.
While nowadays there are good-quality dye-based inks, they’re known for not lasting as long as their pigmented counterparts. The second is also known for creating a richer colour.
Part 5: Final Veredict
‘Thank you for giving us this detailed explanation on each printing technique,’ you must be thinking. ‘But that’s not what I’m asking. All I want to know is which is the best T-shirt printing technique for ME?’
And you would be right. But being the smart person that you are then you must know that in order to make the best-informed decision, we must first have all of the information. In order to reach to a conclusion, first, we have to make a quick summary of each technique.
- Recreates vibrant colours
- Remains bright and smooth for a long time
- Not variable (most of the time) for small orders
- Only allows simple designs (no photo-realistic images)
- Compatible with most fabrics
- Not environmentally friendly (uses lots of water and some of the inks are toxic)
- Recommended for printing many T-shirts at the same time
Transfer – Plastisol
- Can leave a plasticky feeling depending on the quality of the paper
- Long lasting and with vivid colour
- Fast and easy to make
- Suitable for large quantities
Transfer – CAD Cut Vinyl
- Can be sealed onto all kinds of fabrics
- Compatible with all kinds of products
- Takes a long time to cut the vinyl and weed (the more complex it is, then the longer it takes)
- Takes longer to use more than one colour since they must be layered
- Ideal for numbers and names on the back of sports T-shirts
Transfer – Stretch Litho
- The best transfer for complex designs
- The paper doesn’t have to be cut. It’s just ironed
- It is printed onto paper first allowing more fidelity to the original design
Transfer – Sublimation
- Creates vivid images and colours
- It becomes part of the material rather than ‘being on top’ therefore it lasts for a really long time
- It’s only compatible with 100% polyester garments
- Only compatible with 100% cotton garments or blends with high percentages of cotton.
- Capable of recreating vivid colours, gradients and small details.
- Washes out over time.
- Ideal for recreating a vintage vibe.
- Don’t feel the ‘print’ on the fabric when you touch it.
So which is the best T-shirt printing technique?
What makes a great T-shirt? Yes, I know it’s infuriating to answer a question with a question but I am going somewhere with this — I promise.
A great T-shirt is timeless, comfortable, soft, looks good and fits great. Its graphics last for a very long time and feel soft to the touch. Out of all the techniques we just discussed there’s only one that checks all the marks and that is screen printing.
Of course it has its limitations, specially when it comes to the reproduction of designs with gradients but it can be dealt with. Check the following video where they compare screen printing with DTG.
Note: Bella + Canvas is one of our clients’ favourite T-shirt brands.
Even though it is obvious that screen printing didn’t as many gradients as DTG, other than that the quality of the print is pretty much the same. Screen printing is also often referred to as ‘unprofitable’ for small runs but that is relative. If the design consists of one of two colours, then it might be possible to run an order.
And last but not least, there is the problem of the sustainability. Luckily, nowadays there are quite a few of quality water-based inks which minimise the negative effects of screen printing on the environment.
Ultimately, there are different T-shirt printing techniques because they fulfil different needs but if we had to pick one, we’d choose screen printing.
For more information on printing techniques and T-shirts, don’t forget to contact our printing experts. They are always more than happy to answer to any questions you may have.
Infographic: Hayley Cantor
Text: Harald Meyer-Delius
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