T-shirt Decorating Options

Find out information on each decorating option, from screen printing to direct-to-garment printing.

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Like the variety of uses to which a decorated T-shirt can be put, there are a variety of ways that same shirt can be decorated. 


Screen printing uses liquid ink, which is pushed through mesh screens of varying fineness to be deposited on the shirt in a design that has been burned into the screen. These types of prints are, in general, a little heavier and will have a hand, which means it will be felt on the fabric.This type of printing is often done on cotton or cotton blends. 


T-shirt fabric may often be considered too flimsy for embroidery, but that isn’t always the case. Proper digitizing and the use of suitable stabilizer can help a shop create an embroidered T-shirt that wears a design lightly, but proudly. The left chest is a popular spot for logo embroidery on polos and button-ups and can be translated to Ts. Embroidery may also be added through appliqué or reverse appliqué. 


Sublimation is done using a special transfer paper and sublimation ink. The transfer is printed and then pressed to the garment with a heat press. The heat causes the ink to go from liquid to a gas, and the ink dyes the fibers of the garment. Sublimated prints have no hand, since the fabric itself is dyed. For best results, sublimation should be done only on polyester garments


As the name implies, direct-to-garment (D2) printing is done directly on a T-shirt. It requires textile inks and a printer, which has a carrier mechanism to bring the shirt under the inkjet nozzles. A digital print of the artwork is made directly on the shirt. This means that D2 printing works well for photorealistic art, and can generally handle a wide variety of colors and shadings. D2 inks may also require pretreatment before the shirts are printed if white ink will be used, which is an extra step in the process. Textile inks and inkjet printers can work well together, but there may be more maintenance than would be required by some other disciplines.


Another option for decorating T-shirts is heat transfer vinyl. To create a design using vinyl, most shops use a cutter machine, which will cut the vinyl into the necessary shapes or letters. Vinyl transfers, which are designs that are already cut and just need to be applied, can also be purchased. Vinyl must be applied with a heat press, a necessary piece of equipment for any shop that wishes to do heat transfers. Many sports jerseys utilize transfers for letters and numbers, so shops that cater to a lot of sports teams may find this a lucrative option. Heat transfers are available in a variety of colors, textures, and finishes. 


T-shirts that sparkle are always popular, and if glitter inks or glitter vinyl aren’t an option, rhinestones can bring the bling. The options for rhinestones are either to buy a transfer which can simply be heat pressed to the shirt or to make a custom design. Another option is to create a design and apply rhinestones with glue.

When deciding which options will be used, a shop should keep in mind market demand, the expertise and knowledge of those who will be creating the shirts, and what sort of budget is available. 


Kristine Shreve

Kristine is the founder and CEO of Kristine Shreve Consulting which offers writing, marketing and business development services. Kristine is also the creator and host of the Business + Women podcast, where the discussion centers around being a woman business owner. She blogs on her webiste, as well as and On Facebook, Kristine is the founder of the Women in Garment Decoration Facebook group. Kristine was the director of marketing for Ensign Emblem and EnMart from 2006 to April 2020.

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