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T-Shirt Design Basics and Creation

two women wearing Viera Social Media company shirts

Think about how many people you see around town or around your workplace wearing a graphic T-Shirt on a daily basis. You probably see quite a few. However, how much have you actually thought about what goes into the making of a custom T-shirt design?

Maybe you needed shirts made for a school, church, or sports event and went through the process of finding a place to get them made. Depending on how many shirts you needed, you may have looked into finding a local business that makes shirts. You may have gone online and ordered from Custom Ink or Spread Shirt. Either way, you probably found that creating a custom T-shirt design was more confusing than you had thought.

There are 3 main ways of creating a custom shirt. All three ways are very different, so keep them in mind when designing your next custom T-Shirt.

Screen Printing

Screen printing is a way of printing shirts where each color is laid down separately. They are printed in a specific order to get the desired design. Six to nine colors is typically the maximum amount of colors you can print at any local print shop. However, the more colors you are printing, the more it will cost. The reason screen printing can get pricey is because of how much work goes into it. As shown in the diagram below, screen printing is a multi-step process that starts with a silk screen.

screen print diagram, T-shirt Design

Screen Print Process

A designer will take your design file and open it in an editing software, such as illustrator. They will then limit the number of colors in it. The design will be printed, each color will print on a separate sheet, and one at a time each color sheet will be sealed against a screen. Each screen is then exposed to light which burns the printout image onto it. You then wash out the screen to reveal the image burned into it. Once you have your finished screens, add the correct ink color to the corresponding screen. Then squeegee the ink from each screen onto the shirt. After you dry the ink, the final product should have the same design on it that the designer printed.

The fewer colors the better

Screen printing is your best bet if you are looking to print a design with few colors, such as a simple logo. If a large quantity of shirts is needed for events, such as races, school plays, or church events, consider using only one or two ink colors.

When ordering from a company with automatic screen print machines, large quantities of single ink colored shirts are typically more economical than ordering a small quantity of 6 plus ink colored shirts. This is because of how much easier it is to print a single color on a shirt versus even two ink colors and up. The difficulty in printing more than one color is getting the colors to line up to create the desired T-shirt design. Not to mention, the more colors you print, the longer each shirt takes. If you are printing a design with nine colors, it will take roughly the same amount of time to print nine shirts with one ink color as one shirt with nine ink colors.

Screen printing takes a lot of time to set up no matter how many colors you get. Because of that, most larger screen print shops won’t print less than a dozen shirts.

Direct to Garment Printing

Direct to Garment printing, also known as, DTG printing, is the process of using a modified ink jet printer to print on apparel. Instead of printing a design on paper, it’s printed on a shirt. Unlike screen printing, Direct to Garment printing can print as many colors as you want. This method is best is you are wanting to print an actual picture. However, because of the cost of ink, direct to garment printing can get expensive. DTG printing is much easier to set up than screen printing. It is best to consider direct to garment printing when needing a dozen, or less, shirts.

Some shops that print direct to garment may only allow you to print on a white shirt. This is because the ink will show up better and last longer.

Direct to Garment Printing, T-Shirt Design

Sublimated Printing

When looking to get shirts printed, sublimated printing is probably the least common method you will find. Sublimated printing is when you print sublimation ink from a printer onto sublimation transfer paper. After printing your design, you press in onto a blank shirt using a heat press. Sublimated printing can be quite costly. The ink is expensive and the multi-step process makes printing large numbers of shirts not very economical. If you are only printing a few shirts sublimation is a great option. However, like previously mentioned, it can be harder to find somewhere to do sublimated printing.

Sublimation printing, T-Shirt Design

Fully Sublimated Shirts

Instead of printing a design on just one part of the shirt, you can also use sublimation inks to print on the entire shirt. You may have seen this method used on sports apparel and other graphic t-shirts. Fully sublimated shirts start essentially the same way as regular sublimation. However, the designs will be printed in the shape of the shirt, pressed onto blank fabric, cut and sewed together. This method, of course, is the most expensive. That is why typically these types of shirts will only be mass produced.

fully sublimated T-shirt design

Consider Quantity and Cost for your T-Shirt Design

At the end of the day, deciding how and where you would like your shirts printed, comes down to two factors- quantity and cost.

  • With screen printing, the more shirts you order, the more economic.
  • With Direct to Garment and Sublimated printing, fewer shirts is the way to go.
  • When you only need a few colors it is best to go with screen printing.
  • If you are needing shirts with a lot of colors, it is best to go with DTG or Sublimation.
  • If you are wanting a picture, screen printing is not an option.

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