Different T-shirt Printing Methods

What Are the Differences Between the Methods Used for T-shirt Printing?

There tends to be a misconception among customers that there is only one “basic” way of doing t-shirt printing… and that some companies just happen to do it well and others poorly. It’s a problematic notion, as it very often leads to customer dissatisfaction.

To be clear, there is an element of skill or expertise that can differentiate good work from bad for the same printing method. However, there is not only one printing method being used—and the particular results and styles best-matched to each method can differ greatly.

This means that there are a lot of occasions when customers’ complaints about an order not being done to their taste may simply be a matter of mismatch: one between their intended execution and the printing method used. That’s why it pays to find out what printing techniques each printer offers, as well as how each one works.

Screen Printing

This is the first and arguably most common method among the pros. Some people still call this silkscreen printing, but given the range of materials now used for it, removing “silk” from the name is probably more accurate. Basically, a screen/mesh plate is set up like a stencil, with waterproof materials like wax blocking the “negative space” for the intended design. In effect, the only part of the screen that remains “permeable” for dyes is the part that is supposed to have the intended design.

This “stencil-like” method is very popular for high-quantity t-shirt orders because it allows perfect replication of a design. It yields professional-looking output too, which makes it very popular with customers as well.

However, most printers will only accept large orders for screen prints, particularly ones involving complex and multi-colored designs. This is because the technique only allows one color per screen. If you have a very complicated, multi-color design, that will entail the creation of a lot of screens and a longer print time due to the complex layering of prints.

Direct to Garment (DTG)

This is another of the more popular printing methods. In fact, a lot of hobbyists do it from home instead of getting professionals to do it for them. It can be a bit expensive to set up, though, given that you need to buy a dedicated printer and inks for it.

DTG printing involves using a textile printer. This looks and works very much like the paper printer you probably have in your office, only the inks are meant for fabrics. Designs can be uploaded to the printer straight off your computer, which allows for a lot of creativity and uniqueness.

The fact that there is no need to create multiple stencils or go through multi-layer print processes as in screen printing makes this the most cost-effective answer for a lot of super-complex designs. It also tends to have a soft hand feel, which means the inks are thin enough not to feel like a thick “extra layer” on the shirt.

It has its downsides, however. Some textile printer heads have fairly low resolution, so if your printer uses them, you might find dot patterns (like the ones in old comic books) on the print when you inspect it from up close. The inks are also so thin that they don’t always look right on dark fabrics—there’s a bit of translucency to most of them that they tend to change color on a colored shirt. Finally, they are among the least durable prints, with most experiencing notable fading in the first year.

Dye Sublimation

Often referred to as “dye sub” by printers, this method works best for full-color designs on light shirts. It can be a little bit costly, but the results can be amazing when done by an expert. It’s not ideal for use on any type of cotton fabric, but takes to polyester like cream does to coffee.

It works with a special type of dye that comes in liquid form but dries almost instantly as soon as it goes on the shirt. Once dried, it becomes a solid—and that’s when it’s exposed to heat and pressure to start the sublimation process.

The solid dye turns into a gas under the heat. At the same time, the polyester fabric’s molecules expand due to the temperature and the dye (now a gas) slips in between the “gaps” that appear in the cloth. When the heat is removed, the polyester contracts again, closing the gaps. The dye returns to solid form and remains trapped in those gaps.

This means that dye sub is great if you want polyester shirts printed with very enduring designs. These are among the most durable of all printed shirts and can look very striking as well.

Heat Press Printing

This is another option for smaller-quantity orders. It works by having a design printed in reverse on a special paper called a transfer paper. This paper is then pressed to the shirt being printed on and heat and pressure are applied. The heat softens the dye on the paper enough for it to get a grasp on the cloth beneath it. The glossy transfer paper can be peeled off the dye easily after that and the design remains on the shirt.

This method is good even for complex designs, as it is very similar to DTG. It’s not ideal for dark shirts again because a lot of the dyes used are somewhat translucent. It also tends to suffer quite badly from rough treatment—being thrown in a very hot dryer, for example. Furthermore, it can feel a bit thick, which is not always desirable.

However, Plastisol transfers technically fall under this category too. These can have a softer hand feel and are also fairly durable—rather similar to screen printed shirts, in fact.

Vinyl Cutting

Transferable vinyl is cut into precise shapes or designs for this, then transferred to a shirt. It’s not a good choice if you want something really complex, but it does work amazingly well for quick number, symbol, and letter-type prints. A lot of sports shirts get their numbers and letters printed this way, in fact. It’s also quite durable, which is obviously ideal for the sportswear crowd.

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