How T-Shirts are Printed

The process used for screen printing on t-shirts or other articles of clothing has evolved over the years as more technology has become available to assist with the printing. Also called silkscreen, screen printing is one of the most popular ways to put a design or logo on clothing because it is cost-effective and can be customised according to the needs of each customer.

There are four main formats used for t-shirt printing: digital printing, traditional screen printing, heat transfer press printing, and embroidery. Technically, embroidery isn’t considered a “printing” process because it uses thread instead of ink, but it is often grouped into the printing category since it is another method that can be used to print an image on an article of clothing. All methods are effective, and there are pros and cons to each option. Here are the basics of the various methods of t-shirt printing:

Screen Printing

Traditional screen printing uses a stencil that is attached to a screen. Each colour needs to have a unique stencil, so that the colours can be stacked accordingly. With this method, the images must be broken down into separate colour files, so the digital file will be designed into a CMYK file which is then used to print the screen design for each colour. The C screen is for cyan, the M screen is for magenta, the Y screen is for yellow, and the K screen is for black or grey scale.

There are usually four separate images for printing, one for each colour. The stencils are applied to the fabric one at a time, and the ink is applied by running a squeegee across the stencil to apply the ink to the fabric. Each of the screens is tested before the printing run begins, and the four screens are mounted onto a printing press to ensure that the colours are aligned correctly.

There is a bit of setup work that needs to be completed for this process, but once the screens are aligned and everything is setup then it is a fast and easy process to print the design on each shirt. Once the first colour has been applied, it need to dry completely before the next layer is added. The overall design is built one layer at a time, until all of the stencils have been used with the appropriate colours.

An advantage to screen printing is that it looks nice on darker coloured clothing, because a bright coloured design “pops” a little better than digital printing. The ink is applied a little thicker, which makes the design more noticeable.

The extensive set-up costs for screen printing can be expensive because it is such an intensive process. But, once the screens are setup, it is one of the most cost-effective methods if you are printing a lot of shirts.

Digital Printing

Newer technology has made it easier to print designs through printers that are designed specifically for fabric printing. The advantage to a digital method is the fact that the design can be applied all at once, and the ink is applied directly to the shirt following the digital programming for each design.

Dye sub shirt printing

This process works similar to using an inkjet printer at home, and the printer has a movable plate where the t-shirt is mounted. The movable plate ensures the accuracy of the design, because it is guided through the printing process automatically by the computer. This printing method can be used on any colour of fabric, because white ink is applied as the base of the printing.

The advantage to digital printing is the attention to detail, because the computer can include small details that are difficult to add in screen printing. The printers are high resolution, and they can handle photographic realism and black and white prints. If you are printing a picture on a t-shirt, digital printing is usually the best way to go because it will include all of the details that make the picture unique.

Because of the automation of the digital printing process, it is a better option to use if you are only printing a few shirts at the time. You can save on the set-up costs that would be required for standard screen printing. This method can be a cost-effective option for small printing runs as well as large printing runs.

Heat Transfer Press Printing

With heat transfer printing, the design is digitally reproduced onto a special type of paper that is coated, then the image is reversed printed onto the paper before the paper is applied to the t-shirt. When the paper is laid against the t-shirt, heat is used to transfer the image from the coated paper onto the fabric.

The advantage to this style of printing is that it is a cost effective option for shorter printing runs. If you only need a few shirts printed, then it can be cost-prohibitive to have four screens made for printing. The drawback to this form of t-shirt printing is that it can only be used on white t-shirts. If you want a different colour of shirt, then you will need to choose a different method of t-shirt printing.


As mentioned earlier, embroidery isn’t technically a form of t-shirt printing because it uses thread instead of ink. A design is programmed into the embroidery machine and a stitch pattern is developed so that the machine replicates the design accordingly. Then, the specific thread colours are added onto the machine, and the machine will automatically sew the programmed design.

It is a high quality and durable process which makes it a good option for corporate clothing, although it is usually more expensive than ink printing. Because of the higher cost, this method is best used for smaller logos, and there are limitations if you want to print a bigger image.

Which is Better?

As you can see, there are advantages to both types of printing, and your choice should depend on the type of t-shirt that is being printed. If you are looking for photo realism in the printing, then digital is the way to go. But, if you want a bold colour printed on dark fabric, then screen printing will be a better option.

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