T Shirt Printing Methods and Types

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There are various ways to print tees and tops, so which is better? My quick guide looks at the different types of t shirt print methods so that you can decide. The more you know, the better the results, it’s as simple as that. This short piece is for hobbyists and entrepreneurs who want to produce the best work possible. It’s especially helpful for anyone who wants to compete in this fashionable.

There are 5 printing methods in all, though some are more widespread than others. They are:

  1. Screen Printing
  2. Direct to Garments (DTG)
  3. Dye Sublimation
  4. Heat Press Printing
  5. Vinyl Cutting

You’ll have a good basic understanding of all the above by the end of this page.

#1 Screen Printing

Screen printing—sometimes called silkscreen—is a favored approach for businesses. The reasons are simple—the quality and results are fantastic. That’s what you need if you want customers to spread the word and bring repeat business. It’s not ideal for first-timers, though (see cons below).

How It Works

Screen printing works best for people who take bulk orders from the same template. Company uniforms and promotional garments are a good example. It’s a controlled method whereby the ink absorbs into the t-shirt or similar garment. The result is a striking, durable, high-quality look and feel print. The screens are reusable which is handy if you have a popular design in high demand.

Another plus point is that screen printing works well with most fabrics.

Cons of screen printing: Takes patience and persistence to perfect. Also requires a lot of equipment and is a messy procedure. You also need lots of space and a dust-free environment. This method of printing is impractical for designs that use multiple colors.

Ink Choices for Screen Printing

There are three types of inks used on screen printing:

  1. Plastisol ink
  2. Water-based ink
  3. Discharge ink

#1 Plastisol Ink

Most people at the professional level prefer plastisol ink. It’s easy to mix, durable, and gives striking graphic details. It’s also versatile and easy to source. The product doesn’t dry out like water-based inks either. You can find many colors to work with that produce flat or semi-gloss finishes.

#2 Water-Based Ink

Some like water-based ink because they prefer the way it soaks into the fabric. The result is a softer finish than plastisol which sits on top. It’s a design preference, and one is not better than the other. Water-based inks are also easier to work with and are thus more popular with folks learning the trade.

#3 Discharge Ink

Discharge ink is available in plastisol and water-based types and is unique in the way it works. This ink removes the fabric color it contacts and replaces it with its own pigment. Discharge ink is the favored choice for those who work a lot with 100% cotton garments. The downside is that it’s the hardest of the three inks to grasp and takes some skill to get right.

Only you can know what type of ink best suits your screen printing t-shirt projects. Seek advice from experts if you’re unsure on the direction to take.

Below are three examples of the inks used for screen printing:

TRIANGLE Screen Printing Plastisol Inks 1701 Phoenix White

Editor’s Rating: 4.8/5

A product like 1701 Phoenix White works well with 50/50 polyester/cotton blends. It’s versatile, meaning you can use it as a highlight, standalone, or as an underbase or primer. The ink has a creamy texture that’s bleed-resistant and high-opacity. Consider 1701 Phoenix White or a similar product when working with automatic presses.

Jacquard JAC-JSI1117 Black Color Water-Based Screen Printing Ink

Editor’s Rating: 4.7/5

Jacquard JAC-JSI1117 is a good example of a permanent semi-gloss water-based ink. It’s an excellent choice for porous t-shirt fabrics or paper, and non-porous vinyl and plastics. Inks like these have come a long way from a technological standpoint. They don’t dry out on the screen as fast as they used to which gives printers more stress-free work time. This water-based ink air-cures after around 72 hours.

Ecotex Water-Based 14 Pint Discharge Ink KIT for Screen Printing

Editor’s Rating: 4.6/5

This product is a ready-to-use water-based discharge ink kit. There are 14 pints and 14 colors that printers can use as-is or with the included D-powder discharge activator. It’s possible to mix the inks to create 1000’s of colors, so there are no limitations. The inks are free of PVC & phthalate. Printers can also use these inks with various others to create a plethora of artistic effects.

#2 Direct to Garments (DTG)

DTG printing is also a favorite method among pros and serious hobbyists. You only need a textile printer and inks to start. It’s not overly complicated but does take some practice to refine. The DTG method lets you print intricate designs with multiple colors. Another benefit of DTG is that it’s super-fast. Speed is a godsend if you’re busy—or intend to be—with deadlines to meet.

Cons of Direct to Garment: It’s ideally a method for cotton. You can experiment using other fabrics, but the results will be noticeably inferior compared to cotton. The printers are not cheap either, and many hobbyists struggle to justify the cost. Furthermore, these printers need regular maintenance and proper handling if they’re to last a long time and stay reliable.

Below is an example of DTG ink.

Dupont Artistri Direct to Garment (DTG) Ink for Epson Print head DTG printers

Editor’s Rating: 4.6/5

This kit includes 4 250ml bottles and 4 colors, black, yellow, cyan, and magenta. The product works with most models of Epson Printhead DTG printers. Artistri aims this ink at fulfillment houses. Artistri Brite DTG inks support the new and exciting generation of super-fast industrial scale printers.

#3 Dye Sublimation

We see most t-shirt prints centered on the front or back of a garment. There are also tees that standout out with all-over designs. The chances are the printer used the dye sublimation approach. It’s a method best suited to lightweight fabrics and larger projects. It’s a costly procedure and therefore aimed at a niche market. The customer must also be okay with polyester clothing or similar.

The dye sublimation method uses a specially formulated liquid dye. The ink dries and solidifies once it contacts synthetic fabrics like 100% polyester, lycra, and nylon. The sublimation process needs the correct pressure and heat to produce the best results. The mark of a good print is one that can breathe and is smooth and soft to the touch. It shouldn’t fade, crack, peel, or deteriorate over time either.

Cons of dye sublimation printing: Limited to certain fabrics (see above). It’s not an effective method for designs that go over folds and creases of a garment like the armpits.

Below is an example of Dye Sublimation ink.

Dye Sublimation Ink 4 x 500ml Multi-Color Bottles – EcoTank ET-2600, ET-2650

Editor’s Rating: 4.7/5

This dye sublimation ink is a pack of 4 multi-color 500ml bottles, black, yellow, magenta, and cyan. The ink is for EcoTank ET-2600, EcoTank ET-2650 printers. It works well with most types of substrates too. The product doesn’t require color profiles, specialized software, or drivers.

#4 Heat Press Printing

The fourth t-shirt printing method is the heat press. It’s a perfect introduction for anyone who wants to have a go at printing t-shirt designs. Heat press printing is also practical for those who have a small sideline business with low demand. The method uses something called heat transfer. The heat press then applies heat and pressure to the paper to transfer the design onto the fabric.

The most common material used for heat transfer paper is ultra-thin vinyl. This printing method is easy to do, and the results can be impressive considering the cost. There are no limitations with colors or the complexity of designs either. The biggest investment here is the heat press machine.

Cons of heat press printing: Be patient as this is the slowest of all the t-shirt printing methods. And it’s not a good choice for dark clothing or fabrics that are heat-sensitive.

Below are a few examples of heat transfer paper (also called fabric paper and iron-on paper).

PPD Inkjet Dark Iron-On Transfers Paper for T-Shirts

Editor’s Rating: 4.6/5

Here is an excellent example of a quality dark transfer paper. Users can print an image or block of text onto the paper using an regular inkjet printer. That’s all there is to it. The image or text is then ready to transfer to a dark colored t-shirt or other surface using an everyday iron. This pack contains 20 sheets of LTR 8.5×11 and easy-to-follow instructions.

Avery Quality 3275 Iron-On Light Fabric Transfers (12 pack)

Editor’s Rating: 4.5/5

You can use Avery 3275 sheets for tees, aprons, bags, hats and whatever else. They also work on harder surfaces like glass, ceramics, and wood, etc. It’s a simple iron-on transfer paper that fits most inkjet printers. The company provides free templates for those who need a little creative help. The product is for use on light color garments of 100% cotton, poly, and cotton blends

Jet Opaque Iron-On Heat Transfer Paper 25 Sheet Custom Pack

Editor’s Rating: 4.7/5

This heat transfer paper product is the JET OPAQUE® II (9754P0), also for darker fabrics. It’s ideal for photographic quality prints on 100% cotton tees, cotton blends, and various synthetic materials. Iron-on sheets protect the ink while medium pressure transfers the graphics to the fabric.

#5 Heat Transfer Vinyl

The last type of t-shirt print method is heat transfer vinyl or HTV. It’s the easiest of all to do, and the results can last a long time. It’s a technique that uses a soft cloth that the user cuts into different shapes. The cutouts transfer to the fabric using a heat press machine of an iron. The benefits of this approach are that it’s easy to achieve and the results are long-lasting.

One of the downsides of HTV is that it’s not practical for bulk orders. Another disadvantage is that it’s not workable with heat-sensitive fabrics.

Below are a few examples of Heat Transfer Vinyl (HTV).

ARTEZA Heat Transfer Vinyl Set, 22 Flexible HTV Sheets 100% Guarantee

Editor’s Rating: 4.7/5

This ARTEZA HTV set includes 22 quality sheets that transfer and adhere well to most fabrics. The product arrives in a protective box, so there’s no risk of curled up corners in transit. Prints stand up well to repeated washings and should easily last the lifetime of the t-shirt or another garment. It’s easy to cut and weed too. That’s not something all HTV can boast, especially weeding.

CAREGY HTV Iron-On White Color Heat Transfer Vinyl 25ft Roll

Editor’s Rating: 4.8/5

CAREGY iron-On HTV is an ultra-thin product that’s CPSIA certified for kid’s clothing. It’s a pressure-sensitive HTV that peels hot with no cooldown time necessary. This is an easy-to-use transfer that works seamlessly with most craft cutters. You’re not limited to tees either. Think bags pants, shoes, hoodies, pillows, and wherever else your imagination takes you.

Primology HTV 20 Pack Bundle of Heat Transfer Vinyl

Editor’s Rating: 4.5/5

Primology HTV is a South Korean product. It arrives in a quality plastic envelope to protect the sheets in transit and for storage use. The sheets are compatible with most of the die-cutting machines around today. The transfer is a cinch for many fabric types using either a regular iron or a heat press. Peeling can be hot or cold, and weeding is quick and easy with the included tool.