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types of t shirt printing

Best Types of T-Shirt Printing

By
Ashutosh Ranjan

For many years, t-shirts have served as a platform for branding, self-expression, and creative expression, in addition to being a wardrobe must. The perfect t-shirt may make a big impression, whether it's supporting your favorite band or clever slogans, or it might be a representation of your business or sports team. T-shirt printing has become an art form in the world of custom apparel, with a wide range of processes available to meet every design requirement and price range. 

In this blog, we will provide a comprehensive guide to the best types of t-shirt printing. We will look thoroughly into the most popular and effective processes, from traditional screen printing, known for its durability and brilliant colors, to the cutting-edge technology of direct-to-garment printing, famous for its precision and detail. Along with that, we'll look at heat transfer, sublimation, and vinyl printing, all of which have their own advantages and applications.

6 Types of Best Printing Methods and How They Work

Creating custom t-shirts entails picking the best printing method to ensure your design is vivid, long-lasting, and cost-effective. Here are six of the greatest t-shirt printing methods, with a brief explanation of how each one works:

Screen Printing

Screen printing, often called silkscreen printing or serigraphy, is a popular and traditional method of printing images on t-shirts and other textiles. It entails making a stencil, or screen, for each color in the design and utilizing these stencils to apply layers of ink directly to the fabric. 

It uses thicker screen printing inks than other printing techniques, resulting in long-lasting, bright prints. 

The silkscreen t-shirt printing method is appropriate for large orders of up to 500 t-shirts since it is relatively easy to set up and operate.

Screen Printing on Tshirt

How does screen printing work?

Here is how screen printing works:

Stencil creation: It involves coating a mesh screen with a light-sensitive emulsion. Then, a film positive (basically a black-and-white copy of your design) is projected onto the screen and exposed to light. The light hardens the emulsion and the pattern is not obscured by the film. The unhardened emulsion is washed away, leaving a stencil-like design on the screen.

Printing: It involves placing the t-shirt on a platen (a flat surface). Ink is then put on the screen, and a squeegee (a rubber blade) is scraped across it, forcing ink through the stencil's open spots and onto the t-shirt.

Drying and Curing: The printed t-shirt is typically placed in a dryer to cure the ink, making it permanent.

Pros

Durability: Screen-printed images are extremely durable, withstanding multiple washes without fading or cracking.

Vibrant Colors: Screen printing inks are often more vibrant and opaque, allowing colors to shine out on light and dark materials.

Cost-Effective for Large Orders: Once the screens have been configured, printing large quantities of t-shirts becomes cost-effective since the setup cost is shared across multiple units.

Cons

Less Efficient for Small Orders: Screen printing is less efficient for small orders since the setup process is time-consuming and expensive.

Limited to simple graphics: While screen printing is ideal for bold and simple graphics, it can be difficult for more detailed or multicolored designs that require precise alignment.

Setup Costs: Creating the screens can be time-consuming and requires specialized equipment, making it unsuitable for tiny one-time printing.

Direct-to-Garment (DTG) Printing

Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing is a new and highly precise technique for printing graphics directly onto fabrics like t-shirts. This technique uses specialized inkjet technology to create detailed and vibrant designs, making it a popular choice for bespoke garments. Although inkjet printers for DTG printing are costly, they are more cost-effective for small batches because there are no setup fees. DTG is perfect for printing a few shirts because it prints directly on the fabric.

Direct to Garment Printing Method
Credit: Marcofinearts.com

How does direct-to-garment printing work?

We can understand the workings of DTG by following steps:

Design Preparation: Your design must be a digital file that works with the DTG printer software.

Pre-treatment: The t-shirt is treated with a particular solution to promote ink absorption and ensure bright colors.

Printing: A customized inkjet printer with specialized print heads sprays water-based inks directly onto the prepared fabric. These inks can produce a wide spectrum of colors, including photo-realistic graphics.

Curing: After printing, the t-shirt is put through a heat press or dryer to cure the ink. This procedure embeds the ink in the cloth strands, ensuring its longevity.

Pros

High Detail and Color Range: DTG printing can create extremely detailed designs with a wide range of colors, making it suitable for complicated and multi-colored pictures, such as photographs.

Soft Feel: The water-based inks used in DTG printing seep into the fabric, giving the t-shirt a soft feel without adding bulk.

No Minimum Orders: Unlike screen printing, DTG printing is less expensive for small orders and one-time prints because screens and stencils do not require setup fees.

Quick Turnaround: DTG printing's digital nature allows for speedier setup and production periods, making it ideal for quick turnarounds.

Cons

Durability: While DTG prints are generally robust, they may not last as long as screen prints, especially if not properly maintained.

Fabric Limitations: DTG works best with 100% cotton materials. While it can be applied to cotton blends, the effects may differ. It is less effective on synthetic textiles, such as polyester.

Cost: For larger orders, DTG printing may be more expensive per unit than screen printing, which benefits from economies of scale.

Heat Transfer Printing

Heat transfer printing is a common process for customizing t-shirts that involves applying designs with heat and pressure. This technique provides for detailed and vibrant prints, making it ideal for a wide range of designs and applications. There are several types of heat transfer printing, including heat transfer vinyl, direct-to-film, and inkjet transfer.

Heat Transfer Printing of Tshirt

How does heat transfer printing work?

The mechanism of heat transfer printing is mentioned below:

Digital Design Preparation: The artwork is developed with graphic design software. The design may feature elaborate elements and many hues. The design is printed onto a specific heat transfer paper with a conventional inkjet printer, laser printer, or sublimation printer, depending on the type of transfer paper and technology utilized.

Placement: The t-shirt is placed on a heat press machine to ensure it is smooth and wrinkle-free.

Positioning the Transfer: The printed transfer paper is placed on the t-shirt in the desired spot.

Heat Press: Close the heat press machine and use heat and pressure to transfer the design from paper to cloth. The temperature, pressure, and time settings differ according on the type of transfer paper and fabric.

Curing: After the prescribed time, open the heat press and peel away the transfer paper, leaving the design on the t-shirt.

Pros

Versatility: Can be printed on a wide range of textiles, including complicated and multicolored designs.

Detail and Quality: Creates high-quality, detailed prints in brilliant colors.

No Minimum Orders: Cost-effective for small batches and one-time prints because there are no major setup expenditures.

Ease of Use: The technique is relatively simple and may be completed using basic tools.

Cons

Durability: Heat transfer prints may not last as long as screen prints, particularly if not applied or cared for properly. They might break and peel with time.

Feel: The printed region may feel heavier or stiffer than the rest of the cloth, especially with vinyl transfers.

Cost: Heat transfer printing can be more expensive per unit than screen printing, especially for large orders.

Sublimation Printing

Sublimation t-shirt printing is a popular and inventive way to transfer full-color graphics to materials, particularly polyester. This process employs heat to transfer dye into the fabric, producing brilliant, long-lasting designs that become a part of the cloth itself.

Sublimation Printing
Credit: Wooter Apparel

How does sublimation printing work?

The workings of sublimation printing are mentioned below:

Design Creation: Your design must be digital and compatible with sublimation printing software. Sublimation can handle full-color graphics and sophisticated designs, as opposed to screen printing, which has a limited color palette.

Transfer Paper Printing: The pattern is printed in reverse on special sublimation paper using heat-reactive dyes.

Heat Pressing: The printed paper is placed on the t-shirt, and a heat press is used to apply high temperatures and pressure.

Dye Sublimation: Under high heat, the dyes on the paper change from solid to gas (sublimation). The gas enters the fibers of the polyester fabric, thereby coloring them from within.

Cooling and Removal: After pressing, the paper is peeled away. The design has now been permanently dyed onto the t-shirt fabric.

Pros

Vibrant and Durable Print: Sublimation provides bright, vibrant colors that are embedded in the fabric, making the prints extremely durable and resistant to fading, breaking, and peeling.

Soft Feel: Because the dye becomes part of the fabric, the printed portions are as soft and breathable as the rest of the t-shirt.

All-Over Printing: Sublimation enables full-coverage printing, which covers the entire surface of the t-shirt without leaving any blank regions.

Detailed Designs: It can reproduce detailed details and high-resolution images, making it excellent for complicated and multicolored designs.

Cons

Fabric Limitations: Sublimation works best with polyester fabrics and polyester-coated products. It is not ideal for cotton or dark-colored fabrics since the dye does not bond effectively with natural fibers and the colors do not appear correctly.

Cost: Sublimation printing equipment and consumables may be more expensive than other processes, such as heat transfer or screen printing.

Color Limitations for Dark Fabrics: Sublimation is less successful on dark-colored materials since the inks are translucent and do not stand out well.

Vinyl Printing

Vinyl t-shirt printing is a popular method for creating custom designs on garments using heat transfer vinyl (HTV). This technique involves cutting designs from sheets of colored vinyl and then heat-pressing them onto the fabric.

Vinyl Printed Tshirt

How does screen printing work?

The working mechanism of vinyl printing is explained below:

Design and Cutting: After creating your design digitally, you use a vinyl cutting machine to cut it from a colorful or patterned sheet of HTV.  

Weeding: After cutting the pattern from the HTV sheet, remove any excess vinyl around it. Weeding guarantees that only the intended image remains.

Positioning: The weeded vinyl design is applied to the t-shirt in the desired area. Heat transfer paper could be placed on top for placement or protection when pressing.

Heat Pressing: A heat press is a machine that uses heat and pressure. You adjust it to the recommended temperature and time for your individual HTV and t-shirt fabric. The press is then closed, transferring the design to the shirt. The heat activates the vinyl's adhesive, which firmly bonds it to the fabric.

Peeling: After the pressing process is completed, carefully peel away the carrier sheet or transfer paper to show the finished design on the t-shirt.

Pros

Durability: Vinyl graphics are extremely durable, withstanding numerous washes without fading, breaking, or peeling.

Vibrant Colors: HTV is available in a variety of colors, finishes (including matte, glossy, metallic, glitter, and holographic), and textures, allowing for vibrant and visually appealing designs.

Flexibility: Suitable for simple designs, text, numerals, and logos. It is also ideal for producing unique graphics with additional effects such as glitter or metallic finishes.

No Minimum Orders: Suitable for small batches or individual goods, making it ideal for bespoke orders and customization.

Cons

Not Suitable for Complex Designs: Vinyl cutting is not suitable for extremely detailed or intricate patterns with fine lines and many colors since each color requires a distinct layer of vinyl.

Feel: Vinyl designs can be heavier and less breathable than other printing technologies, particularly when vast sections are covered.

Labor-intensive: Cutting, weeding, and applying vinyl can be time-consuming, especially for elaborate or multicolored designs.

Discharge Printing

Discharge printing is a specialized textile printing method that produces graphics on dyed fabrics, typically dark-colored clothes. Unlike common printing procedures, which apply a layer of ink on top of the fabric, discharge printing removes or "discharges" the dye from the cloth and replaces it with a fresh color, resulting in a soft, bright, and long-lasting print. 

Discharge Printing
Credit: Vacord.com

How does screen printing work?

Discharge printing is best used on dark-colored, 100% cotton textiles. The discharge agent works well with natural textiles such as cotton. Let’s see how it works.

Screen Preparation: Similar to screen printing, a stencil is formed on a mesh screen to prevent ink from being applied to certain places.

Printing: It involves the application of discharge ink to the fabric via the screen.

Chemical Reaction: The ink reacts with the dye in the cloth, bleaching it and replacing it with the color from the discharge ink pigment.

Curing: The printed garment is heated to ensure that the ink is permanently bonded to the cloth.

Washing: Discharged clothes may feel slightly stiff at first. Washing them once or twice softens the print and removes any remaining discharge agent, making them more pleasant to wear.

Pros

Soft Feel: Because the dye is removed and replenished rather than piled on top, discharge prints are soft to the touch and have the same feel as unprinted cloth sections.

Vibrant Colors: Discharge printing produces rich and bright colors, especially on dark fabrics, because the original dye is removed before the new color is applied.

Durability: The prints are long-lasting and wash nicely since the color becomes part of the fabric rather than sitting on the surface.

Detail & Intricacy: Able to create fine details and intricate designs with sharp edges.

Cons

Chemical Handling: The procedure includes handling potentially hazardous chemicals, which necessitates sufficient safety precautions and ventilation.

Fabric Restrictions: Works best on 100% cotton and fabrics treated with dischargeable dyes. Results may differ for synthetic mixes or non-dischargeable dyes.

Color Variations: The final color can be unpredictable due to the interaction of the discharge ink and the original dye, necessitating extensive testing.

How do I Select the Best T-shirt Printing Method?

You can select the best t-shirt printing method based on the comparison made in the following comparison table for the different t-shirt printing methods based on various parameters:

Parameter Screen Printing Heat Transfer Printing Direct-to-Garment(DTG)Printing Sublimation Printing Vinyl Cutting Printing Discharge Printing
Durability High, very durable, withstands washes Moderate, can crack or peel over time Moderate, less durable than screen printing High, prints are part of the fabric High, very durable High, prints become part of the fabric
Feel Can feel thick, depending on the ink layers Can feel heavy, especially for large designs Soft, as ink is absorbed into the fabric Very soft, as dye becomes part of the fabric Can feel heavy, especially for large designs Very soft, as the dye is removed and replaced
Detail and Color Range Good, but limited to very fine details Good, suitable for detailed designs Excellent, suitable for detailed designs Excellent, suitable for detailed designs Good, but limited by vinyl cutting detail Good, but requires testing for accurate colors
Setup Cost High, requires screens and setup time Low, no significant setup costs Moderate, cost of printer and inks Moderate to High, specialized equipment Low to Moderate, vinyl cutter needed High, requires screens and handling chemicals
Cost per Unit(Large Batch) Low, economical for large batches Moderate to High, depending on the material High, more cost-effective for small runs Moderate, cost-effective for polyester Low, economical for simple designs Low, economical for large batches
Cost per Unit (Small Batch) High, not cost-effective for small runs Low, economical for small batches Moderate to High, cost-effective for small runs High, not cost-effective for small runs Moderate to High, depending on complexity High, not cost-effective for small runs
Best for Fabric Types All fabrics, especially cotton blends Most fabrics, but vary with transfer type 100% cotton, cotton blends 100% polyester, light-colored fabrics Most fabrics, especially cotton blends 100% cotton, fabrics with dischargeable dyes
Color Vibrancy Very vibrant, especially on dark fabrics Very vibrant, especially for light fabrics Very vibrant, good color range Extremely vibrant, particularly on polyester Very vibrant, wide color options Very vibrant, particularly on dark fabrics
Design Complexity Moderate, multiple screens for colors High, supports complex, multi-color designs High, excellent for intricate designs High, excellent for intricate designs Moderate, simple to medium complexity High, good for detailed designs
Speed Moderate, setup time required Fast, quick application Slow to Moderate, depending on the design Moderate, setup time required Fast, quick application Moderate, setup time required

Best Types of T-Shirt Printing FAQs

Which type of t-shirt printing lasts for the longest period of time?

Screen printing and sublimation printing of t-shirts last for the longest period of time.

Which is the best quality of printing on clothes?

The best quality of printing on clothes is direct-to-garment printing

Is t-shirt printing a good business?

Yes, t-shirt printing is a good business, as there is demand for printed t-shirts globally across all age groups.

Which type of t-shirt is good for printing?

The best types of t-shirts for printing are cotton, cotton blend, and polyester t-shirts

Which type of printing is best for a cotton t-shirt?

The best printing methods for cotton t-shirts are direct-to-garment and screen printing methods.

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Ashutosh Ranjan

Ashutosh is a Postgraduate in Engineering and has years of experience in content writing across wide domains, including educational and e-commerce.

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