Have you ever wondered about the processes behind going from a plain t-shirt to a printed t-shirt with a pattern in a riot of colors and sometimes with words that speak to you individually?
Each different types of shirt printing technique have its own style and level of complexity. With so many different types of t-shirt printings available, how do you know which one to choose?
The most popular types of t-shirt printing are direct-to-garment(DTG) printing, sublimation, and screen printing.
Techniques such as vinyl cutting, heat transfer, and stenciling work well for small print jobs. Indirect screen printing, discharge printing, and airbrushing are some other options.
In this article, you will learn how the ten most popular different types of shirt printing work. You will know which methods of printing on t-shirts take the most time and cost the least.
Finally, you will find tips for printing your own t-shirt at home!
What Are the Different Types of Shirt Printing?
You can print on t-shirts with a variety of techniques, such as applying ink directly to fabric, applying ink to paper and then transferring it, which then adheres to fabric, or even cutting vinyl to secure it to the fabric of the shirt.
Each method requires specialized equipment and supplies. Some require expensive trade technology, while others can work with basic crafting supplies. This means that some types of printing can need relatively high start-up costs.
Another thing to consider is that certain methods work better on certain types of fabrics, like polyester versus cotton.
Finally, some printing methods work well for just one or two shirts, while others require so much setup work that you’ll see better ROI if you can handle large batches of shirts at once.
Check out this review of how the different main types of shirt printing work!
DTG, which stands for direct to garment printing. Sometimes you may also see this method called DTF or direct-to-fabric printing. It is appreciated by professionals. It works like printing on office paper; you’ll need ink and a textile printer to use the method.
The process does exactly what it sounds like: a special printer applies fine ink directly to the shirt’s fabric! This means you can easily create any design you can print on paper.
You can use lots of colors, create intricate graphics, or even use photos. Using computer programs such as Adobe Photoshop, you will be able to define the smallest details and transfer them to the t-shirt with great precision using a printer.
The ink soaks into the shirt’s fabric a little, which means the design feels soft to the touch instead of creating a stiff layer on the fabric.
Another advantage of this method is that it allows you to quickly run through multiple designs without having to worry about complicated settings. Since the ink used here is only thin, no very thick design layer will be created.
So, what are the drawbacks of using the DTG method? Purchasing a good DTG printer, on the other hand, will cost you between $10,000 and $500,000.
So if you’re considering starting a shirt printing business, that upfront cost is probably worth it, but obviously, it’s not the best option for a home-based artist.
Although you can set up and use a DTG printer reasonably easily once you master the basics of the technology, you will first need some understanding of graphic design to set up designs on your computer.
If you decide to use DTG, it is best to check if the printer is of high quality. This is because if you use a poor-quality printer, you will likely end up with low-resolution printing with ugly dot patterns.
Finally, while DTG designs look great, they don’t hold up to long-term and some other types of designs.
2. Indirect screen printing / Plastisol
Plastisol or indirect screen printing is gaining popularity these days among different types of shirt printing.
This method combines some of the fundamentals of screen printing with the use of screen-printing plastisol ink. The main difference is that the artist applies the ink to the plastisol transfer sheet, not directly to the fabric.
The transfer sheet is then heat-pressed onto the t-shirt, creating a durable raised pattern on the surface of the fabric.
To cut costs, some designers create digital designs and send them to a third party who can easily mass-produce plastisol panels. The artist then uses heat to apply plastisol to the shirt.
The advantages of this method include high quality and durable designs. Plus, you’ll have far less clutter and setup time than regular screen printing.
If you are ordering a plastisol transfer sheet print, all you have to do is create a digital graphic design and then have a heat press on hand to complete the t-shirt.
The disadvantages of this method include the fact that applying the plastisol transfer can be cumbersome. When done incorrectly, the design will crack and peel off later. In addition, this method works very well for small orders but less well for larger orders.
3. Heat Transfer Vinyl
Using heat transfer vinyl is another one of the most popular methods of decorating shirts for professionals and hobby artists alike. HTV vinyl is a unique type of vinyl that has a decorative side and a side coated with heat-activated glue.
You can cut letters, logos, or even intricate images out of vinyl, then use heat to seal the cutout into the fabric. The heat press can either be a machine or an iron box.
Although not technically a “printing” method, many artists essentially use vinyl instead of ink to create lasting embossed designs on t-shirts.
Large-scale professional operations will likely use huge commercial cutting machines to create vinyl designs. However, local artists also love this method because they can also make their vinyl cuts with a simple electronic cutting machine like Cricut.
You will also find many variations of basic vinyl laminate that you can use, including glitter vinyl, flocked or velvety vinyl, and metallic vinyl.
Using heat transfer vinyl gives you great flexibility for small orders or even home use. If you want to make jerseys for your child’s basketball team, you can start with nothing more than cutters and irons! If you’re starting a small business, you can also use as little as Cricut and a heat press to get started.
Besides low start-up costs, HTV design is generally not time-consuming or labor-intensive compared to many other different types of shirt printing. Additionally, HTV designs have greater durability than almost any printed design.
The downside of using the HTV is that it doesn’t work well for large orders because you have to cut the HTV multiple times for each t-shirt. You also cannot use HTV on heat-sensitive fabrics as you must use a heat press to activate the vinyl glue.
4. Heat press printing
Heat printing would be a convenient technique if you are just starting to print on t-shirts and don’t have many or large orders. It is another good choice for a novice or home artist.
It will save you not only resources but also time, although it generally does not offer high-quality like other different types of shirt printing methods. Besides, some professionals or small business owners do offer heat-printed t-shirts for sale.
Heat press printing is a method of printing designs from a computer using an inkjet or laser printer. You must print on a particular type of paper called iron-on transfer. Then use an iron or heat press to stick the design onto your t-shirt!
In most cases, vinyl is used as the transfer paper, with adhesive material on one side and tape on the other.
After printing your design and attaching it to the shirt, grab the tape and peel it off, leaving only the design. The tape is usually the shiny side, and that’s what you need to remove.
This method works great for home designers because of its easy setup and low start-up cost. It allows you to create intricate drawings or photos as easily as on paper.
You need to be an expert in graphic design software if you want to create original artwork, but you can also use images you find online or photos you take on your cell phone!
On the contrary, heat press printing may not last as well as screen printing or HTV design. It also usually doesn’t work on dark-colored t-shirts because the design won’t look good without a light background. Finally, this method requires a lot of heat, so you can’t also use it on heat-sensitive fabrics.
5. Heat transfer printing/inkjet
Heat transfer printing can work in different ways. It can be used similarly to the above-mentioned heat press method. Your design can also be printed on vinyl, and then use a heat press to adhere the vinyl to the t-shirt.
Either way, using an inkjet printer to place the design on a type of transfer makes the process relatively easy. You don’t need an expensive printer or lots of special supplies. However, it takes a long time to set up each transmission and then heat press it on the shirt.
One of the benefits of heat transfer printing with an inkjet printer is that it is also one of the different types of shirt prints you can quickly try out at home. You will get a decent quality of your design, and if you want, you can use a complex image like a photo.
However, this method takes longer than many other different types of shirt printing processes. It is not usually a method chosen by professionals for this reason.
It also creates a solid layer on the fabric that may not feel comfortable, and the pattern will only show on white or light t-shirts.
6. Screen printing
Screen printing is one of the highest quality types of the different types of shirt printing and also leaves a lot of room for creativity and artistry. It is also among the oldest printing techniques in the world.
For screen printing, you create the negative pattern you want on the screen. You then run a special ink called plastisol ink over the screen and press the sieve onto your shirt. This pushes the ink through the negative space pattern in the design and creates an image on the t-shirt.
You can make quite complex screen prints by using special chemicals to create photorealistic patterns on screens. Alternatively, you can screen print in a very basic format using Cricut to create a screen template.
Screen printing has many advantages that make it a popular choice for top professional shirt designers as well as hobby artists. First, it creates colorful and very durable designs.
They have a slightly stiff, raised feel on top of the fabric, but the ink is absorbed into the material, making it more durable even than the HTV design.
Second, screen printing offers a low-cost option to bulk order the same shirt because you can reuse the ink screen you painstakingly set up for the first t-shirt.
Finally, you can screen print on almost any fabric, from silk to cotton to polyester. Of course, you can find potential downsides to this popular method.
It requires quite a large workspace and equipment like a screen and a press to line up the screen with the shirt. If you want to create intricate designs, you also need special chemicals to work with.
Finally, the screen print design usually works best when it includes one to three colors because you need to layer each color one screen at a time.
Sublimation printing is the most professional way to print on polyester. However, it does not work on other types of fabrics with completely natural fibers, such as cotton.
This cool but very expensive method uses heat to convert the dye into a gas that sticks to the fabric. Sublimation printing creates smooth, durable designs on synthetic materials such as polyester.
Due to the unique way the paint adheres to the fabric, it leaves the fabric feeling breathable and does not create a thick layer on the material. It also means the sublimation designs will not crack or peel.
The disadvantage of this technique is its price. It would help if you had a lot of commercial equipment for this process, which makes it more cost-effective for a large company than for home use or a small business. Furthermore, the sublimation method cannot be used on cotton t-shirts.
8. Discharge print
Discharge printing is not widely used among the other different types of shirt printing, but it creates a unique shirt. This process works by removing the paint instead of applying it!
The printer uses a stencil to protect part of the t-shirt design, then bleaches out the rest of the color, leaving only the color design.
You might like to try this technique at home with a group of friends to create stylish vintage-looking t-shirts. The great advantage of this technique is its unique appearance.
But while this process creates unique vintage-style shirts, it is time-consuming and expensive, which makes it unpopular with professionals.
The most straightforward technique you can use on home shirts is stenciling. You can cut the template manually or use a more advanced tool such as Cricut for the electronic cutting of digital designs. Then apply the color to the template, creating a logo or design on the t-shirt!
Professionals frequently used more advanced stenciling techniques in methods such as screen printing.
However, you can repeat this at home with very simple tools if you want to create fun t-shirts for your family.
The advantages of stenciling are that you can make it as intricate or simple as you want. Plus, you don’t need modern technology or expensive equipment.
You don’t even need a heat press, although you generally get longer-lasting results if you heat the fabric design in some way.
The downsides are that this simple method works best for personal use and won’t give you the professional design you need if you want to sell t-shirts.
Airbrushing isn’t the best t-shirt design option for big business operations, but it’s still hugely popular among artists and small business owners. This method of designing t-shirts allows for incredibly intricate and artistic designs.
You can also use this approach as a standalone replacement for screen printing by airbrushing over stencils, one coat at a time.
One of the advantages of this method includes its versatility. If you’ve ever seen an airbrush artist at work painting a caricature in a public park or perhaps a chef using a food-safe airbrush brush to decorate a cake, you know how great they can paint with this tool.
Another cool feature of airbrushing is that it doesn’t take much time to get started, and you can mix and use multiple types of paints or stains.
The disadvantage of the airbrush is, above all, the time it takes. Although this method allows many artistic expressions, making a t-shirt can take hours. It can also be difficult to replicate shirts if you want multiple identical designs accurately.
Best Way to Print Cotton T-shirts at Home
The best way to print cotton t-shirts at home is to use the heat transfer method with an inkjet printer or cut and use the HTV design.
If you have a standard inkjet or laser printer in your home or office, you can easily create any design and then use an iron or small heat press to seal the transfer paper onto your shirt.
Likewise, if you have Cricut or even want to cut the vinyl shape with a knife or scissors, you can easily apply the heat-activated glue to a cotton shirt at home.
Cotton can withstand high temperatures, so any method that uses a heat press or iron works well on this type of shirt.
If you want it simple, you can use a stencil, fabric dye, or paint on a cotton shirt at home.
What Type of Print is Best for Polyester Shirts?
The best professional printing on polyester t-shirts uses the sublimation printing process; however, you can print on polyester at home with screen printing or other methods.
One thing to remember with polyester is that it is heat sensitive. If you watch the temperature and time, you can use a heat press, but it’s much more difficult than working with stronger cotton.
What is the Most Durable Type of Shirt Print?
The most durable types of t-shirt printing are sublimation and screen printing, although several other methods are time-consuming.
On the other side of the coin, DTG designs can start to fade over time, and heat transfer designs may crack or peel over time.
HTV designs will last for a long time, but they can also start to crack over time.
DTG, sublimation, and screen printing are some of the most popular methods for printing on shirts. For easy DIY printing on t-shirts, you can try HTV or heat transfer designs.
Simple tools like a heat press enable heat transfer or inkjet printing and make it easier to use vinyl for heat transfer.
Some of the different types of shirt printing, such as DTG and sublimation printing, require expensive professional equipment.
But most methods don’t require very expensive equipment, including HTV designs, heat transfer printing, stencil making, and even airbrushing.