Some printing techniques are best suited for specific fabrics and at the same time, a certain printing technique might be best suited for a job depending on the job’s volume. Moreover, the printing method you end up using will also be influenced by the number of colors in the design you are planning to print. With so many variables, it gets difficult to choose a printing technique!
1. Screen Printing
Equipment needed: Screens, Press, Exposure unit, dryer
Screen printing is the most popular and widely used printing process for beautiful t-shirts, especially when you are printing in bulk. It involves using screens to apply ink to the t-shirts. The resulting artwork is of very high quality and can last a long time. It is very cost-effective as well when used effectively. In this process, ink is applied to the t-shirt directly through mesh screens.
Screening Printing Process goes like this – A screen made of a finely woven fabric called mesh is stretched over a wooden or aluminum frame. This Mesh Screen is pressed up against cloth to place paint onto t-shirts one color per screen.
The best thing about screen printing is that it is comparatively very inexpensive. But as each color requires a separate screen, when you have a design with lots of colors in it, it can turn out to be expensive. For screen printing to be cost-effective you need to print many t-shirts at once with the same design. You have to keep the number of ink colors and locations of the design to a minimum.
If the design you have has only one or two colors you can print in small numbers and it will still be economical. If you have a design with up to 3 colors screen printing beats any other method of printing be it cost-wise or long-lasting quality or look of the colors.
Disadvantage: The process has a learning curve and the equipment may be costly. Screen printing is viable only if you have a design with fewer number of colors and you want to print a lot of t-shirts in the same design.
2. Inkjet /Laser Iron-on Transfer
Equipment needed: Inkjet/Laser Printer, Transfer Paper & Heat Press.
Heat transfers are almost as popular as screen printing, especially for designs with multi colors and complex details. It is great for printing digital photographs.
In this method, a special heat transfer paper (made of special transferrable vinyl) on which the chosen design is printed using an inkjet printer or a laser printer. This is used to transfer the design onto the t-shirt. You get a beautiful custom designed graphic t-shirt this way.
The process goes like this: You will be designing or choosing your design for the t-shirt with your own customizations on your computer. Print this image using an inkjet printer or laser printer on your special heat transfer paper designed for use with the printer. Place the transfer paper on the t-shirt design side down and apply heat with a hot iron. The amount of pressure and heat applied will help to transfer the design on to your t-shirt
Remember that you should use the inkjet heat transfer paper only with the inkjet printer and the same goes with laser transfer paper and laser printer. Another thing to note is that if you have a t-shirt that will not take the heat of the heat press machine you simply cannot print on it with this method. And finally, it is not as durable as a screen printed design – the print may crack or fade away with washing.
This method is great with white and light-colored t-shirts but may not work as great on dark t-shirts. You may have better success with special paper for dark fabrics.
3. DTG (Direct to garment printing)
Equipment needed: DTG Printer, Heat Press
This is the best method of t-shirt printing if you are printing colorful designs for small lots like say about 5 t-shirts or less than that. For Print on demand (printing one-off t-shirts or small lots) and for printing photos onto your t-shirt straight from the computer this method is a boon. You need DTG machines to do this printing. It is mainly used for cotton blend t-shirts.
The DTG printer prints directly onto the t-shirt with a great degree of precision and accuracy of colors.
You can use unlimited colors in this printing, even 100+ colors. You can design your own prints and patterns, make your own customizations with even your name on it or photographs. The color looks more vivid with this printing than with the screen printing, with a softer hand.
A disadvantage is that it is not as durable as screen printing and may fade after many washes.
4 CAD cut Vinyls
Equipment needed: Cutter/Plotter, Film/Vinyl, Heat Press
In this process cutouts of vinyl (in matt or gloss finish) are applied to the t-shirt with heat. The design is cut from the solid colored vinyl sheets, with the help of a machine. Vinyl printing is normally a one-color process and it is a comparatively cost-effective method other than the cost of specialized Cutters. Vinyl with different types of prints and patterns are available
One problem is that each design has to be cut one by one making it a slow process – great for small numbers but not so great for bigger lots. If the design is big it may feel too stiff and heavy.
This is a very durable and cost-effective process.
Flock printing is a printing process in which, flock vinyl, a 3D textured vinyl is applied to t-shirts with an industrial heat press. This is a variation of the CAD cut vinyl printing. Special cut-outs are applied to the t-shirt using an industrial heat press. You get beautifully bold and textured designs with the flock vinyl cutouts.(But look at the pilling on the textured cut-outs)
5. Plastisol Transfers
Equipment needed: Heat press, transfer sheets
Plastisol heat transfers are a favorite option for t-shirt printing because the results are pretty good with a very soft feel. This printing is also called indirect screen printing. It uses high-quality heat transfer paper on which your design is screen printed to transfer the design and is regularly used by professionals.
Hot split transfers give a soft matty finish. Cold Peel transfers give a glossy finish.
The advantage of this method is that you can print one off orders without incurring much cost. The results are comparable to a high-quality screen printed design. The time required is also very less compared to screen printing. Many t-shirt businesses use this method.
The disadvantage is that you need a good heat press machine for this. That is an investment you can make if you want to start a t-shirt business
6. Dye Sublimation printing
Equipment needed: Sublimation Printer, Inks, Release Paper, Heat Press.
This printing is done on white polyester t-shirts; in fact, it works best with man-made fabric. It also works on 50% polyester blend t-shirts and even pre-treated fabrics but with varying degrees of success.
In this process, the dye turns into vapor and is absorbed into the polyester fabric of the t-shirt. This is a very durable printing method for the 100% polyester t-shirts and the result looks similar to DTG, with a great softer feel. Usually, all over designs are used for sublimation printing. The advantage is that you can print even small lots.
As said it is best for full-color designs on white or light-colored t-shirts. The disadvantage is that the printing does not work on cotton t-shirts – the color of the prints will wash out gradually.
7. Discharge printing
This is a different reverse method of printing on t-shirts. In this process, the shirt is bleached with discharge inks which remove the shirt’s dye instead of putting a color on top of the shirt, leaving the imprint on the surface. This is done on natural fabric like a 100% cotton t-shirt. The effect of this printing is a vintage look that is appealing. But this is not the easiest way to print and can be costly
8. Variations of Screen printing
a) Puff Print technique.
Puff Printing is a variation of the screen printing technique with an embossed effect. An additive is added to the screen printing ink during the screen printing process. This results in an expansion of the paint resulting in a 3D puffed effect. You can create designs with multiple colors with this technique
b) Gel printing
A see-through gel layer is added over screen printing.
c) Crackle finish
In this variation, the ink breaks up after drying for a beautiful cracked effect.
d) Glow in the dark finish
In this variation of screen printing, the ink absorbs light and glows in dark places.
e) UV glow finish
The ink glows when exposed to UV rays.
f) Suede finish
Additive added to the screenprinting ink makes the printed image puff up to a suede-like finish.
g) Glitter finish
Here glitter is added to the screen printing ink.
9 Belt printing
This is a screen printing process that gives you large prints all over the t-shirt, even along the seams. The very expensive belt screen printing equipment used for this printer can print the entire front of the t-shirt or the back or even together in one go. Because of the cost of the machinery used the prints work out to be very expensive which is why despite the beauty and coverage of this process, it is not widely used
10 Cut & sew
This is not a printing process as such but as the name suggests it is cut and sew. In this process, custom printed fabric is used to make the t-shirt. You can make one of a kind designer t-shirts this way after printing the fabric in designs of your choice.
11 Stencil Printing
This is not a commercial printing method as you cannot print on a large scale with this method. Using stencils to print on the fabric is labor intensive especially when a lot of t-shirts are involved, But for a DIY t-shirt version, this is the best method.
One problem with a stencil is the limitation in the type of design you can use. The design areas need to be connected and that is not very easy to do with some designs
12 Resist Dyeing
Simply dyeing a t-shirt does not make any prints on the surface of your t-shirt. But when techniques like Batik and tie and dye are used there are beautiful prints and patterns made on your t-shirt. Tie and dye and Batik are resisted methods of dyeing fabric – In tie and Dye, the t-shirt is wrapped in threads in areas where you do not want color, and then it is dyed. Batik is another resist technique in which wax is applied to areas where you do not want the color and then the t-shirt is dyed; this results in beautiful patterns
Most of these processes of t-shirt printing work great at some level -all depending on the quality of the supplies and equipment used and the skill that executes them. If you are thinking of starting a t-shirt printing business knowing all of them or some of them can give you a lot of range and flexibility.
Embroidery is one hugely popular method of getting your design on the t-shirts. It is durable and looks very elegant when done properly, with high-quality threads and precision. Industrial sewing machines with specialized embroidery capacities are used for large scale embroidery on t-shirts. You can do regular flat embroidery or 3D embroidery.
Generally, small designs are embroidered on t-shirts because of the thin knit fabrics most t-shirts are made of. If big designs are used, a lot of open spaces are left inside to make the design less dense.
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