T-Shirt Printing 101

A few months ago, I had a custom shirt (bearing the logo of that high-functioning sociopath who won’t stop tormenting me) made with the aid of master graphic designer QuoterGal. While we were working on it, QuoterGal told me she was pretty sure people would want to buy an Evil Gal shirt of their own. I waved it off – I had a 5K to run! – and said I’d deal with it when and if it happened. QuoterGal is no dummy. People really did want to buy some shirts. Apparently people really like highly functioning sociopaths. Who knew?

When we decided to sell the shirts, it seemed like no big deal. I’d never gotten shirts printed before, but I had paid people on the internet money for goods and services. What I didn’t count on was how bloody complex the world of shirt printing was. Having lived in the world of printing-onto-paper my entire life, my conception of shirt printing was of some awesome, industrial printer excreting colored ink onto fabric in the desired pattern in assembly-line fashion. Some guy would hit a button, the shirts would roll through to where shirt Oompa Loompas could box them up and send them my way.

Apparently? Not so much how it works.

It turns out there are multiple ways of getting images onto a shirt, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, and few people in the shirt printing business are interested in explaining them to you. After wading through multiple botched orders, I’ve learned the hard way about those printing methods. I now have the most tenuous grasp on how it works. The least I can do is share what I’ve learned with you. Let’s break it down.

  1. Commercial Press – The first round of shirts were very delayed. So delayed that I almost didn’t have one for my run. In order to get them out to me in time, the shirt printer offered to do the letters in Direct to Garment and the image using Commercial Press. This was basically Martian to me, so I agreed. Foolish me. Commercial Press? It’s just a fancy pants way of saying iron-on. If someone wants to charge you for “commercial press” dig your iron out of your closet (you know, the thing you theoretically would use on your dress shirts if you ever wore them) and do it yourself.
  2. Direct to Garment – Apparently the new kid on the block, relatively speaking. If you bought an Evil Gal shirt, this was the method used. It’s basically a big inkjet printer for shirts. The printer who made your shirts blogged about it, so you can see an Evil Gal t-shirt being Direct-to-Garmented before your eyes! The upside to DTG is that it can reproduce a digital image more or less exactly. It also doesn’t require any special set-up of the image. The problem, as you can see, is that it does exactly one shirt at a time. Every shirt has to be placed on the printer individually. It takes time. Because of this, DTG isn’t used for big orders. For a small order, the lack of special setup makes it the cheaper option. It stops being as awesome when you’re ordering 300 shirts and someone has to spend 2 weeks doing them one at a time. Something else to watch out for: A lot of DTG printers won’t do white ink. If there’s white in your image, you can’t do it on a dark shirt. Our printer, obviously, didn’t have this problem.

    She's evil. She's not supposed to be a zombie.
  3. Screen Printing– Anyone ever take a graphic arts course in high school? Did you get to silk screen any shirts? Imagine that on a way bigger scale. That’s screen printing This is the big dog of printing. The process has been around for over a century and it produces very, very nice shirts. The problem is that getting a slick digital image (with gradation in the hair color, for instance) into a screen printing format is not exactly simple. The RGB or CMYK image needs to be translated into solid ink colors. The more complex the image, the harder this can be. Plus, a lot of screen printers not only charge you extra per extra color, they’ll often only be able to do six colors per image. If you’re printing a huge pile of shirts, the setup costs quickly disappear into the cheaper per-shirt printing cost, but if you’re not careful you end up with an image that looks a little…off.

There you go. Shirt printing 101. Knowledge earned through weeks of combat. May it serve you well.

For the record, the blog linked above goes to Spilled Ink Productions. If you’re looking for Direct to Garment shirt printing, they’ve been an absolute dream to deal with. You can see in the blog that their printer rebelled against them during printing, but he still got me all of your shirts on time without complaint. If you use him, tell him thanks for saving our Evil Gal shirt order at the last minute.

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One Response to T-Shirt Printing 101

  1. Christopher says:

    As I’ve had to order shirts for our nonprofit before, one of the worse things about all of this is how stupid the printer assumes the customer is. Understanding a little about screen printing, I rendered the t-shirt image into a halftone pattern on photoshop so that I could save money and still have a cool image (here’s the link to the image I made: http://christopherlirette.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/tshirt-design-round-halftones-high-quality.jpg). So the printer’s quote was well, I’m going to have to charge you for black, grey, white. And I’m like, buddy, there’s only one color here. I want it printed on white shirts. I could not believe he was going to try to charge me for extra screens and colors for a single color image. It took weeks of back and forth before we ended up getting it done and totally frustrating.

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