Written by Ray Masaki

Being in the t-shirt business, I’ve done a fair share of research on the t-shirt printing processes. I wanted to share all the processes I know, because I feel that it is useful for anyone that is starting out. Mind you, the only processes that I have personal experience with are plastisol screen-printing and heat press, so the other categories are all based on research. Regardless, I think this could be a very helpful resource for people looking for the right type of look and feel.

Screen-printing Ink Types:

Plastisol

  • This is the most common form of ink used for printing. Used for mostly all types of t-shirt prints.

Benefits:

  • Cheapest method of screen-printing
  • Many colors
  • Low minimums

Disadvantages:

  • Prints thicker on the shirt, unless you’re using a higher mesh screen
  • If you have a large area of plastisol ink, the print feels a bit heavy
  • Sometimes has a gummy texture if not done correctly

Discharge

  • This method bleaches the ink from the shirt, which leaves a light print and you can print over it with regular inks or you can add dye to the discharge to give a subtle-colored look.

Benefits:

  • Super soft print
  • Cool look; has a more vintage look and feel

Disadvantages:

  • Expensive process
  • Difficult to print
  • Don’t recommend DIY discharge printing

Plascharge

  • A hybrid of discharge and plastisol; it is mixed with plastisol inks to get pigment in discharge printing.

Benefits:

  • Has softer feel than plain plastisol
  • More vibrant colors than discharge

Disadvantages:

  • More expensive than plastisol
  • Not as many printers use plascharge

Waterbased

  • This ink uses concentrated pigment based dyes that are, as the name suggests, waterbased.

Benefits:

  • Superior feel
  • Environmentally friendly

Disadvantages:

  • For best results use dark inks on light shirts
  • Colors are not always consistent
  • Coverage may sometimes be uneven

Foil

  • This is a specialty printing method where an adhesive print is made and then the foil is heat pressed onto the fabric.

Benefits:

  • Very unique

Disadvantages:

  • Not many variations
  • Has to be used sparingly

Other printing processes:

Belt Printing

  • This printing process prints over the t-shirt seams, which allows the printer to print extremely large prints.

Benefits:

  • Extra large print

Disadvantages:

  • Very expensive process
  • Very high minimums
  • Registration is difficult; printing over one color is not recommended

Cut and Sew

  • This process uses custom made fabric with the print directly on it, and then the manufacturer custom makes the garment using the custom fabric.

Benefits:

  • One of a kind look
  • Really professional

Disadvantages:

  • Extremely expensive
  • Very high minimums
  • Uncommon (usually outsourced outside of US)

DTG (Direct to Garment)

  • This process uses a printer to directly print onto the garment without the use of screens or sublimation.

Benefits:

  • Low minimums
  • Full color printing
  • Quick turnaround for low quantities

Disadvantages:

  • Prints on demand, so ordering more shirts doesn’t necessarily make it cheaper
  • More difficult to print on colored shirts
  • Best results on 100% cotton shirts
  • Large orders take much longer

Heat press

  • This process uses transfer paper, so it can be done in a very DIY fashion.

Benefits:

  • Very easy for beginners
  • You can easily make custom shirts (sports teams, custom names)
  • Available anywhere

Disadvantages:

  • Depending on brand and equipment, results may not be the best of quality
  • May start to peel after couple washes
  • Will not retain color very well as well as screen-printing

Dye Sublimation

  • With this process the dye turns into a vapor and is absorbed into the fabric, you must use a fabric that is at least 50% polyester.

Benefits:

  • Full color
  • Great feel
  • No minimums

Disadvantages:

  • Very expensive
  • Can only print on synthetic shirts
  • You can only print on white shirts

So that’s a quick overview of the printing processes I’m familiar with. If you’re interested in a process, I recommend researching more on the process before you decide to use it for your shirts. Also, if you are planning to do your own printing, be sure to be careful because some of these processes have harmful chemicals that could be potentially harmful to your health. Good luck!

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