3 T-Shirt Printing Methods Explained
Custom t-shirts were a $3.8B global market in 2020, and expected to grow to $8B by 2028 according to Grand View Research *, as they continue to be used as a branding technique by businesses, sports teams and the entertainment industry worldwide.
While screen printing accounts for 50% of the t-shirt production worldwide, the digital printing segment is expected to be the fastest grow segment over the next several years.
So what’s the difference between the various techniques, and which is right for you?
All t-shirt printing techniques yield good results, but they differ in method and cost. Digital printing, or Direct to Garment printing (DTG) uses a printer to spray the ink into a garment, sublimation heats the ink into the fabric, and screen printing layers the ink on top of the fabric. These differences in production techniques mean minimum orders, garment selection, and sustainability vary widely.
WHAT IS SCREEN PRINTING AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
Screen printing is a printing method where ink is pushed through a woven screen (also called mesh stencil) onto fabric. The ink doesn’t soak into the fabric, but lays on top of the product.
Screen printing is excellent for printing on a wide variety of fabrics, from lightweight t-shirts to heavyweight hoodies.
Since screen printing involves laying each color individually, the final design must be separated into stencils for each color element, and a screen is created. Then the colors are applied color by color, layer by layer, to achieve your design. This stencil creation time can take hours, so it is not cost-effective to print only a t-shirt or two, or even 20. However, once the setup is done, and the investment has been made, it’s advantageous and cost effective to print large quantities of shirts with the same design
Keep in mind, stencils for intricate designs are time-consuming and it’s difficult to get the details right during the printing process.
Since each color is applied separately, screen printing is also mostly used for designs with few colors. Print providers often limit how many colors you can have in your design, and usually no more than 9 are allowed. As a result, if your design involves various shades of a single color, it may be reduced to just 1 shade for printing purposes.
Direct to Garment Printing process. Credit: Printful
WHAT IS DIRECT-TO-GARMENT PRINTING AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
Direct-to-garment, or DTG, is a printing method that sprays the ink onto the garment, just like your office printer sprays onto paper. The ink then soaks into the fibers of the garment.
The main advantage of DTG is that it’s easy to print one-offs because there’s almost no setup time. The design file is uploaded to the DTG printer, and sprayed onto the fabric in one pass. This also means there are almost no color limitations, and small details can easily be recreated.
The disadvantage to the one pass printing system of DTG is white, very light colors and halftones don’t translate as well on dark apparel as screen printing. You will find white designs on black shirts are good, but not as crisp as screen printing, where you can add more layers of white ink to get a brighter white image. You most likely will only notice the difference when the two methods are observed side by side, but as a seller, you should be aware of the issue. Maybe more importantly, if the design involves large fields of white, like a white background across the chest, or 4” wide white letters, the white ink will not spread evenly.
The fibers of 100% combed cotton t-shirts work best with this method. However the fibers of a heavyweight hoodie soak up a little too much ink, and don’t work as well.
As there is no upfront investment for each design, there is also no advantage to printing in large quantities. In fact, DTG printing can be a slower process than screen printing. According to leading t-shirt manufacturer Bella+Canvas, DTG printing can result in about 30-60 shirts per hour on 1 machine, vs screen printing over 1000. Check out Bella+Canvas video comparing these 2 printing methods here
WHAT IS SUBLIMATION AND HOW DOES IT WORK?
Sublimation is a printing process that involves printing the design onto special paper, and then heat printing the design into the fabric. This makes it easy to print seam-to-seam, or even into the fabric before the garment is made. Because the design becomes part of the fabric, it seldom bleeds or fades and can show great detail.
For this printing technique however, only light colored garments with high polyester content should be used. A common method is to start with white fabric, and print the entire design using sublimation, including the background color. And then cut and sew the garment.
Sublimation is also used to print on mugs, mouse pads, signs and much more.
The primary sustainability factors in apparel printing are textile waste, and water consumption.
Screen printers have been moving to water based inks when possible, or utilizing ink vendors who are working toward reducing their carbon footprint. However, at this time screen printing uses a lot of water and chemicals to clean equipment.
According to Printful, an industry leader in DTG printing
“ DTG is a more sustainable fashion business model than screen printing. Mainly because printing one-offs allows businesses to avoid overproduction and textile waste. With 92 million tons of textile going to waste in the fashion industry each year, a business model like this is a game-changer.”
The latest DTG printing technology creates almost no wastewater, and can utilize inks that are non-hazardous, toxin-free, biodegradable, and contain no animal by-products.
Sublimation uses very little water, requires no screens to clean, and is perfect for small quantity orders, leaving no unsold inventory for landfills.
As a business owner, ultimately, the decision to utilize screen printing, sublimation or DTG printing comes down to a few key factors.
- The quantity of product needed, and a cost that allows you to sell profitably
- The product you are offering
- If the design involves large fields of white on a dark shirt
- How critical sustainability is in the mission of your business
We will be happy to review the options available to you for your desired item.
Have other questions about building your maker brand and business? Subscribe to the Business for Makers Blog and Business for Makers Podcast for insights and tips. Tune to Sawdust Talk on IGTV Live on Wednesdays at 10 pm CST to hear from makers about their projects and business and meet some great members of the maker community.
By the way, once you get your business name, you’ll need T-shirts to show it off! Check out georgesupplyco.com to get your maker business’s name and logo on a shirt, hoodie, or hat.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Scott Chervitz is owner of George Supply Company, dedicated to helping woodshops build their brand. See more at GeorgeSupplyCo.com. You can reach him at Scott@GeorgeSupplyCo.com, on Instagram at @GeorgeSupplyCompany or Twitter @ScottChervitz
Brian Chervitz, M.S., is an Associate Instructional Designer at the University of Wisconsin Extended Campus