Gradients are in styles everywhere today: from casual-wear, formal, to sportswear, to umbrellas, to even hair-dye! A revival of a fad of the past, but the technology available today builds bolder, better designs with it that really pop. Maybe they told you screen printing gradients was impossible. Think twice. 

screen printing gradients on vest tops

When it comes to trends the only constant is change. The fashion world has come full circle. Once upon a time women hid their facial characteristics, and now you can buy a pen to draw on freckles. You can see girls nowaday dressing like Monica and Rachel from the 90’s TV series ‘Friends’. The scrunchies, tie-dyes, gradients and boot-cut jeans are back in stock! 

While tie-dying is easy and can be done in your home garage, its results are unpredictable; whereas, producing a smooth gradient is extremely complex and requires machinery and some expertise — and in this way, can provide a controlled and crisp design. It’s very difficult, but we have the smarts to do it for you *wink* 

If you’ve found this post through googling “printing gradients”, then you’ll have probably gathered how tricky it is to print a fully-realised colour progression on a garment especially screen printing gradients. But don’t give up! You came to the right place to get some handy tricks. So buckle your seatbelt and get ready to dive into the gradient T-shirt printing world and see what fits you best! 

gradients printed on T-shirts

So What Exactly is Gradient?

When one colour bleeds gradually into another, harmonious shades progressing in-between, this is the essence of a gradient. You may also come across it being called “colour gradient”, “colour ramp” or “colour progression”. 

Linear gradient explanation
Example of a linear gradient

You can use two analogous colours (near to each other on the colour wheel, like blue and green,) which will blend agreeably. Or two or three complementary colours (opposite on the colour wheel), to produce some outstanding designs that grab the eye. 

Gradient is a great way to add depth and dimension to your design. Depending on your preference, you can add a drastic gradient for extra spice. Or a subtle transition, gentle on the eye. 

One way to tone down the high-contrast of complementary colours, but still producing eye-catching combinations, is to choose an analogous colour, one or two steps to the right or left, of your chosen colour’s direct opposite. 

How Can We Print Gradient on a T-shirt?

Long story, short: you have two options. Digital printing, with direct or transfer, or alternatively, screen printing with half-tone. With digital methods the detail is more smooth and gradual whereas half-tone is more manual and mimics the concept of a gradient in more simple parts, creating a graphical finish. But it’s not that simple. 

All these techniques have advantages and disadvantages and produce a different result. Therefore, the important takeaway is that before printing you need to preview how the design will appear on the garment and then adapt the designs specifically for the technique used. We have the technology to provide visual previewing to see what your design will look like. Just ask! 

Click here for more scrumptious info on different types of T-shirt printing techniques

Can Screen Printing Produce Gradients? 

Screen printing gradients on T-shirts, is it even possible? Let me just say it poses a few little drawbacks when it comes to fully realising the complexity of a gradient. While it’s clever process produces a more graphical or stylised colour blend, it uses far less colours and in this way cannot print a hyper-realistic gradient. 

Can Screen Printing Produce Gradients? A gradient of two colours might sound simple, but in actual fact, during the blending process, countless, complex shades are spread into a gradual fade between these two colours. In the screen print setup, each colour needs a different layer, added separately, and this can prove both costly and untimely to attempt to achieve as many as a full gradient demands. 

Normally, a printing company will offer up to 10 colours, which simply cannot cover the umpteen tones between the transition. However, there is still a cheeky screen printing gradients technique that can fulfil a decent gradient and that be the elusive “half tone” method. 

Q: I want to print gradients in large batches, however, my budget is tight so I cannot afford DTG or screen printing with lots of colours. How can I print out my gradients in large batches without paying crazy prices?

A: In this case, we recommend that you use half-tone screen printing. If you use half-tone, you can minimize the number of colours while gaining a lovely graphical gradient effect. For example, with black ink, you can create a transition into white without any extra cost for another colour.

So, What is a Halftone in Screen Printing?

Screen printing is as old as time, so no wonder it has a sneaky trick up its sleeve to stay modern when the customer demands the appearance of gradient. How you might ask. What is a halftone in screen printing? Half-tones are made up of miniscule dots of varying sizes and densities as opposed to continuous tones. When seen from a distance, the smaller and larger dots blur together, which fools the eye from a short distance to appear like the blend of two colours. This use of less colour is cost-effective and eco-friendly, when you consider that less ink is used for screen printing gradients. 


…and this CMYK work: 

Can be used to create this:

What is Colour Separation Then?

Screen print demands the use of colour separation when two or more colours are desired in the design. They are divided into different layers applied one at a time. There are several colour separation techniques such as spot colour, four colour process, simulated process colour and index colour. 

Half-tone gradients utilise the ‘four-colour process’, which manifest as dots of cyan, magenta, yellow and black. By varying the density of these four secondary printing colours, any particular colour imaginable can be perceived by the eye, (the wonders of primary colour theory), whilst only dirtying four screens! Saving you money and precious time. 

Direct-to-Garment Printing Gradients

DTG printing on T-shirts might be the best for producing the most realistic gradients, simply for the fact that this technique has unlimited colours at its disposal! This means thousands of colours for the same exact price as only ten, fifty, one hundred, and so on. The sheer colour potential is why this technique is reserved for detailed designs that other techniques can only daydream of on a rainy day. 

Quite honestly, DTG is merely the unconventional, more advanced cousin of your average everyday office printer, and it acts in much the same way. Replace paper with fabric, and extend the perimeter a smidge, and voila! Ink is fused directly into the fibres, unlike other processes that apply to the surface or vinyl on top of the material. This creates a fabric finish soft to the touch! 

The setup is simple enough and doesn’t take up too much of your precious time. The one drawback is that DTG can mount to being quite expensive in the end. The printer must determine the golden ratio between quality and speed. The print machine can be in the region of above half a million, maybe more — this may be down to the fact it is still a relatively new technology, but any cheaper would not produce quality. 

Insidently, DTG is our go-to for print on-demand stock because once you purchase the machine, after that setup is cheap. As colours have been known to fade with time, it has been used purposely to create a vintage-finish and at the same time this technique pairs exceptionally well with natural cotton garments as DTG uses predominantly water-based inks — looking out for Mother Nature there again. 

The most important takeaway is that printing using DTG is the most recommended method for gradients. Even still, it is important to note, the result may have some white areas that show-up under the transitions. This is because DTG cannot detect Alpha channels and creates a base layer, usually white, to accomodate transparencies. 

To stop this affecting the design, you must properly convert the transparency to solid colour first, or a solid base-layer. We recommend to avoid any  transparencies towards the edges of the design and to add a base solid colour base that matches the garment colour for the alpha channel areas.

Q: I want to print a gradient design on fabrics suitable for sports. I would like to know if it is possible and how I can do it?

A: We don’t normally recommend transfer printing for gradients as this technique, attaches to the garment like a sticker, which disturbs the breathability of the clothing. However, in this exceptional case, we would recommend transfer printing. 

Screen printing and DTG works the best on cotton, while sportswear breathes best in synthetic fabrics, and the best printing method for those materials is transfer, as it fuses plastic-to-plastic. Moreover, transfer prints first on paper and then onto the garment, that, unlike other techniques, does not forfeit the integrity of the design, which is paramount when dealing with gradients. 

Q: I printed using DTG, but the result, even creating smooth gradients, shows a base colour layer under the gradients and the gradient transitions don’t blend with the garment colour background. Why is that?

A: This problem occured since the design was made with transparencies and alpha channels instead of colour gradient. DTG printing cannot print alpha channel pixels, so instead it adds a base layer (usually white) where it detects an alpha channel. 

To properly print a fully-realised gradient, you need to convert the transparency to solid colours, even if they shade into a gradient. After that you should add a solid colour base layer behind the partial transparent areas to have a complete progression. We recommend avoiding any transparencies towards the edges of the design and to add a solid colour base there, that matches the garment colour.

Transfer Printing Gradients 

There are a few kinds of transfer printing on garments, however, not all have the power to create gradients. So then, which methods can produce fully-realised colour blends? 

To answer that, you can use half-tone with a vinyl print or screen printed transfers. You could transfer the design to your garment using transfer paper made digitally. However, the transfer paper designs can look like a tacky sticker and the fabric thereon doesn’t breathe, so you will sweat like a pig, which in turn incurs overwashing and loss of colour intensity.  

Then you’re left with sublimation, which is a transfer sub-technique where the needed colour progression would work best for the amazing ability to reproduce many, many colours without the annoying extra cost. However, you must use synthetic fabrics only and you might want to embrace the fact that using this method will leave you with a design perhaps a tad blurry at the end. This may feature as part of your desired artwork effect. 

Q: I wanted my gradient to have a smooth transition that looks really natural. However, it didn’t turn out as I expected. Why did this happen, and how can I achieve a more realistic gradient?

A: If the printed gradient doesn’t look as realistic as you wanted it to be, then unfortunately you have chosen the wrong printing technique in the first place. Each printing technique produces a different result, especially for gradients. 

Assuming you used screen print: while screen printing might have saved money for bulk, for a more smoother gradient, we always recommend digital printing. That is DTG or transfer printing (if your budget is not too tight). The important lesson here is that as we mentioned earlier in the introduction, it’s forever important to preview the completed garment first to prevent this kind of problem.  

Need more? Click here for in-depth information from us on transfer printing!

To Conclude: What Technique Should I Use For My T-shirt?

Quantity wise

  • Below 250 we would say go transfer. 
  • Below 100 we would say go DTG. 
  • Less than 50 we would have to recommend screen print. Simple!

Colour wise

As aforementioned, screen print produces a stylised colour progression, and that is great if you’re going for that. If not, and you want a more complex gradient, DTG is recommended. 

Design wise

It must be said that if your design is complex, the only way forward is DTG. But if your design is simple, and often less is more, *wink* use transfer or our hero screen print! 

If you didn’t get the memo: gradients are back in! However, as we have come to realise, producing a smooth gradient is extremely complex and requires some expertise — expertise that Printsome has. In this blog we have discovered how to properly render a gradient in garment printing. Discussed the advantages and disadvantages of each technique, price versus quality versus job size, and the unique result each produces and answered some common questions with our professional know-how. You have all the information now to make your own deductions and for custom T-shirt printing across the UK you know who to come to! 

T-shirt Printing for Businesses and Brands in the UK

Interested in printing high-quality T-shirts and apparel in London or anywhere in the UK? Prinstome manages printing orders of any size among a variety of printing techniques. We are experts in bulk printing for businesses and events. No matter if you are needing a batch of 25 items or bulk production of thousands of customised garments; we have you covered! Get a quick quote here (and the best customer service, too!). 


He goes by Rafa and he is the Team Manager of the Printsome-Insights blog. Since the foundation of the company he has been an advisory and is heavily involved with Printsome's marketing. He is a startups ecosystem promoter and business developer and works closely with interns to help them realise their potential in the company. When he is not the guru for new interns, he is golfing and drawing!

Write A Comment