Custom shirts are a great way to promote a business, display a cause, or even just express yourself, and there are a few ways to print a design on a shirt—or any fabric. So, which one is right for your design needs?
Direct-to-garment printing is probably the easiest method for printing on t-shirts and fabrics. The shirts are placed on a platen and the printer almost works similarly to a paper printer. The shirt goes into the machine, and a printing head goes back and forth across the fabric blowing the ink into the shirt. Blowing the ink into the shirt means that you can't feel the design on the fabric.
This makes direct-to-garment the fastest and easiest method, and it also allows printing of full color pictures. There is no limit to the number of colors for direct-to-garment printing. So, if your design requires more than 4 colors, this method is likely your best option. This method is great for printing color pictures or complex designs.
There is one primary setback when it comes to direct-to-garment printing: it can only be printed onto lighter colored shirts like white or pastels. Other methods place the design on top of the fabric, so they can be done on any color; but because the ink goes into the fabric, it mixes with the color of the fabric than lay on top of the fabric—leading to the restriction of lighter colored fabrics. Over time, this type of printing also tends to fade as compared to a traditional screen print.
Traditional Screen Print
Traditional screen printing is done using screens which act in the same way as stencils so that when the ink is pressed across the screen it only goes through where the design is. This method is done manually, and if a unique color is required, the ink is also mixed by hand. While there are automatic screen print presses, the process itself is still often done by hand, pressing the ink across the screens with squeegee. When the design is finished, you can feel the ink on the fabric. Because this method is so much more hands-on, it tends to go a little slower than other methods of printing.
Two things to keep in mind about traditional screen printing are that there is a maximum limit to the number of colors that can be used in design and a minimum number of shirts. Because of the way that screen printing presses are set up, only a certain number of screens can be accommodated, limiting the number of colors. Most often the maximum number of colors accommodated are four or six. And, because of the more complex process for creating the screens for a design, there is often a minimum number of shirts required to make going through the whole screen printing process really worthwhile—usually upwards of about 18 shirts. Over time, this type of printing can tend to crack, creating an interesting texture.
Heat Press Vinyl
Heat press vinyl is an interesting medium between direct-to-garment printing and traditional screen printing. This process involves taking rolls of colored vinyl, cutting out a design, and heating the design onto the shirts using a heat press; you can feel the design on the fabric as in screen printing, though the feeling is different. Like direct-to-garment, and unlike screen print, this can be done on one shirt or multiple shirts; and unlike direct-to-garment, but like screen print, this method can be used on any color shirt. This method is in the middle on speed, though it is still a pretty quick way to have a shirt made.
There is also a limit on colors with the heat press vinyl, primarily due to logistics. When screen printing, the shirts and screens are lined up through placement in the machine. In direct-to-garment printing, the colors are printed all at once. However, with heat press vinyl printing, different colors and parts of designs are aligned by hand, and as the number of colors increases, complexity, difficulty, and probability of errors increases dramatically. So this method of printing is great for one- or two-color designs.
Other Methods and Processes
There is a different method of vinyl transfer, called quick print or express print, where a design is printed onto heat press vinyl and then applied to a shirt. This is a method that combines direct-to-garment printing and heat press vinyl, though is best used when there is a single object that needs to be printed and doesn't work as well for large, whole shirt designs.
Which Method Fits Your Needs?
When choosing which type of printing will work best for a design it best to keep three things in mind: the number of shirts, the number of colors, and the color of the shirt you want. After considering those things, it's only a matter of deciding which compatible kind of printing style meshes best with the design.
We offer all three of these methods at By George and have just added a state-of-the-art automatic screen press which allows us to print faster and have more colors per shirt. We are happy to demonstrate all three methods to our customers to help them pick out the best print method for them.