T-shirt printing: How it works

January 3, 2013 · Print This Article

How exactly are images and words are transferred onto garments and what is the best method of custom-printing your own t-shirts? Minuteman Press Benoni explains the various processes:

T-shirts can be printed via four common processes.

  • Silkscreen/screen printing
  • Heat transfer printing
  • Digital cut-out printing
  • Direct-to-garment printing

Silk-screening or Screen Printing

This ancient technique of using a stencil supported by stretched, woven silk mesh, over which ink was passed with a “squeegee”, was pioneered by the Chinese between 960 –1279 AD, and reached Europe in the late 1700s as “serigraphy”, where it grew in popularity and was eventually patented in Manchester, England.

As technology improved – along with printing components – screen-printing began to be used for commercial items, such as posters and other advertising material, and remains the favoured printing technique for underground movements and subculture activities.

Today screen-printing is still regarded as the most versatile printing method and automatic presses are able to mass-produce thousands of prints at any one time.

In terms of t-shirt printing, it’s accurate, fast, flexible and permanent, and can be used effectively on any colour fabric.  Screen-printing is most economical for large print runs, as the set-up process is fairly labour-intensive and time-consuming.  

Now, with rapid technological advances, other t-shirt printing processes are beginning to supplant screen printing as a commercial printing method.

Heat Transfer Printing

This method prints bright, full-colour images onto light-coloured t-shirts quickly and easily, using a computer and heat-press machine. Material bearing the required design is fed into a special laser printer, where heat and pressure bond the image to the fabric.

Production costs are high, but heat transfer printing is an excellent way of producing a limited volume of customised t-shirts, from one-offs, to around ten at a time.

Due to the nature of the heat-bonding process, t-shirts must be washed with care, to retain the appearance of the designs.

Digital Cut-out Printing

With the aid of a heat-press machine, designs in vinyl, foil or flock velvet are digitally die-cut and transferred to the t-shirt, where high heat and pressure bond the cut-outs onto the fabric to create an embossed finish.

With this process, a range of glittery, reflective, fluorescent or phosphorescent materials can easily be hot-pressed onto textiles of any colour, however – again – these designs are not as hard-wearing as screen-printed ones and t-shirts should be carefully hand washed.

Direct-to-garment (DTG) Printing

This versatile new printing process operates much like a desktop ink-jet printer, by depositing ink directly onto the chosen textile.  Like screen-printing (and unlike heat-transfer processes) DTG printing produces permanent, clear, vivid images in unlimited colours, on a wide variety of textures and fabrics.

Furthermore, DTG printing is easy to set up and has a quick turnaround time, making it a viable option when printing t-shirts.

This method still cannot produce the same volumes as screen-printing, but is ideal for smaller runs – however, equipment maintenance and ink costs remain a disadvantage.

Similar to DTG is a parallel technology known as “Sublimation Inkjet Printing”, which is rapidly gaining favour as a textile printing method in the USA and Europe.

With existing technology constantly being improved upon, will these digital processes displace the time-honoured screen-printing technique forever? Only time will tell…

For more information about t-shirt printing in Benoni, contact Minuteman Press today!

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