Three Popular T-Shirt Printing Methods
T-shirt printing has come a long way from simple silk screening. Aside from screen printing,
other methods include direct-to-garment printing and thermal transfer. Each of these methods has a different
effect and can produce either vibrant or dull colors.
The intricacy of design is also dependent on the t-shirt printing method to use. One method may only produce
six-color designs while another can print a thousand colors on the fabric. Understanding each method can help
you decide which method to use for t-shirt printing.
Designing T-Shirts By Screen Printing
Screen printing makes use of a mesh or screen made of polymer, a squeegee made of rubber, and a t-shirt
printing machine. The mesh used to be made of silk because the screen printing method originated in China.
However, because of silk’s expensiveness, manufacturers have started creating fine screens from polymer
These modern screen printing meshes were as durable as the silk screens of yore. When they are damaged, these
polymer meshes will not be as costly to dispose of as when they are made of silk. Polymer is also easier to
gather as a resource material compared to silk, which is hard to come by.
The screen printing process involves the following steps:
As each custom printed t-shirt is finished, they are immediately "cured," which is a process
of embedding the ink into the fabric by exposing it to intense heat. A special heater is used for certain types
of inks, especially the water-based types.
The client discusses with the t-shirt printing company the requirements of the
design. These will include the number of colors to use, the final effect the client wants for the
design, the color and type of the fabric, the number of t-shirts to produce, and the t-shirt printing
methods to use.
The t-shirt printing company then prepares the ink, the rotary printing machine,
the screen printing meshes, and the soft copy of the design, which has to be edited using an imaging
software such as Photoshop, and then printed from the computer to the acetate.
The design has to be printed in its negative image, which means the areas where
the ink should fill up must be the ones that are opaque. The areas that do not need any ink should be
transparent. The reason for a negative image is for the creation of the stenciled image on the
Using an emulsion, the stencil is created by placing the acetate with the printed
design on top of the mesh, and then exposing the two to UV light. The UV light will harden the
exposed areas with emulsion underneath the acetate, while the emulsion in those opaque areas will
remain soft and washable with water. After washing away the soft emulsion, the hardened emulsion will
form the stenciled image.
With your mesh ready with the stenciled image, the t-shirt printing process now
begins. The t-shirts are laid on the platform in the t-shirt printing machine. The back of the shirt
should be protected from leakage. The mesh for each color should be tightly screwed so it will not
move and smudge the design.
Each color of the ink is applied to the screen depending on the area they are
needed. The stenciled image for each color will also differ to match the area where the color is
needed. The angle of the squeegee and the pressure applied will determine the depth and consistency
of the color.
Direct-to-Garment Printing (DTG) Method of T-shirt Printing
Direct-to-garment printing uses a modified inkjet printer to directly print the design on the t-shirt without
the use of a stenciled image or a squeegee to apply ink through a mesh. The textile ink is the same one used in
screen printing the t-shirt.
Because of the reduction of the steps in the t-shirt printing process, the DTG method increases the turnaround time. More shirts can be printed on in
less time. Aside from that, becauseDTG does not use a mesh for printing, the number of colors and the intricacy
of design is more flexible and customizable.
T-Shirt Printing Using Thermal Transfer
The thermal transfer method uses the same modified inkjet printer to print the textile ink onto a special paper
that reacts to heat. When heat and pressure are applied to this special paper, the design is transferred to the
fabric. Sometimes, water is applied first to the back of the paper before being ironed over the t-shirt. Other
times, the back of the paper is directly ironed over after being placed on top of the fabric.
These are the major processes used in t-shirt printing. There may be other methods such as flex and flock
printing, but these three methods are the most used by t-shirt printing companies. They are also the most
cost-efficient and most requested by clients. The other t-shirt printing methods are used in combination to
produce custom printed t-shirt designs.