Types of Shirt Printing: Understanding the Differences - Ninja Transfers

Types of Shirt Printing: Understanding the Differences

Jul 28, 2023Tom Golubovich

When bringing a t-shirt design to life, the print method plays a pivotal role. It's not about slapping an image onto fabric however you can; it's about selecting the right process that aligns with your design, print colors, the material of the t-shirt, your budget, and the quantity you need.

This guide provides an overview of the different types of t-shirt printing: how they work, their pros and cons, suitable use cases, and print cost. By the end, you'll be armed with the knowledge you need to make an informed decision and triumph in the world of t-shirt printing. Let's begin.

Table of contents

     types of shirt printing in action

    Factors to consider for t-shirt printing

    Each project has its own requirements, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. But there are certain features you can consider when evaluating any print work. Once you understand the characteristics that go into a successful print, you can choose your method wisely. Here are the top 10 factors to consider.

    1. Color vibrance: How bright and saturated the print colors appear. Different variables affect the color vibrancy, such as the types of inks used, the fabric color, and the strength of the underbase.
    2. Color matching: How closely print colors match the original artwork. Most printing uses a 4-color process, which cannot reproduce colors outside that color gamut, such as fluorescents or certain Pantone colors.
    3. Detail accuracy: How closely the print matches the original artwork regarding fine lines and small details. Some print methods are challenged with ink spread and dye migration, which can affect accuracy.
    4. Hand feel: How the print feels to the hand and worn. Some prints, such as vinyl, sit heavy on the shirt, while other methods, like sublimation, have virtually no hand feel because the print is part of the fabric.
    5. Fabric types: The range of different fabrics that can be printed on. Certain print methods, like DTG, are limited to just one fabric type, while others, like DTF, and be printed on virtually any material.
    6. Durability: How resilient the printed design is to regular washing, sunlight, detergents, and general wear and tear, etc. The variables affecting this include the type of inks used and how they bond with the fabric.
    7. Print on darks: The ability to successfully print on darker and black fabrics. Some methods can easily do both, while others have issues. Sublimation, for example, can only be used on light colors.
    8. Versatility: The capacity to print on unique locations and garment construction, such as on pockets, hoods, across seams, and more. Some methods are limited to only standard print locations.
    9. Flexibility: Refers to the capacity to stretch the printed design without damage, like cracking or image warping. Flexibility is also the drape or movement of the garment, which can affect overall comfort.
    10. Satisfaction: The overall customer satisfaction with the outcome of the print, including all the factors mentioned here and the final product's perceived value. In other words, the least complaints.

    Print method comparison chart

    This chart compares the print methods against each other on the top factors of t-shirt printing. Remember that these assessments are in general (all things being equal) and may not apply to every type of job.

    Types of T-shirt printing comparison chart

    Understanding the different types of shirt printing

    Embarking on a t-shirt printing project involves understanding the various print methods. Each technique has its own process and materials with unique advantages and challenges. Selecting the right one is crucial to being satisfied with the final product. This section demystifies the jargon and provides a clear overview of the most common t-shirt printing methods.

    Direct-to-Film (DTF) transfer printing

    DTF transfers are a new and innovative technology in the realm of t-shirt printing. This method involves printing designs onto a special transfer film with a combination of ink and glue. The transfer is then heat-pressed onto a garment, resulting in detailed, high-quality prints that are durable, flexible, and vibrant.

    Firect-To-Film (DTF) examples

    How DTF works

    how it works

    A direct-to-film transfer starts with printing the design directly onto a thin PET film using specially-formulated DTF inks. During printing, a layer of adhesive powder is applied to the film and melted to create a bond. This process creates a DTF transfer. The film is then transferred using a heat press. After cooling slightly, the film is easily peeled away.

    For more on this, here we answer the question: What is a DTF Transfer?

    Best use cases

    best use cases

    DTF transfer printing is an excellent choice for many uses, but especially for printing intricate, full-color designs onto various garments, including dark and synthetic materials. It's perfect for photo-realistic prints, brands that require high quality, businesses needing durable custom uniforms, and much more. Ordering custom-printed DTF transfers to heat press at home is a low-cost way to get into selling custom apparel.

    Print costs

    print cost

    The cost per unit is often more economical for small to medium-sized orders or on-demand printing and is competitive with other print methods. From a print business standpoint, the equipment and materials are a significant cost, but the investment pays off in the long run. For those looking to enter the production arena, read our in-depth guide to DTF printing.

    Pros and cons of DTF transfers

    Pros

    Cons

    • Vibrant, high-quality full-color prints
    • Reproduces detailed, intricate designs
    • Works on dark and light colors
    • Almost any kind of fabric type
    • Durable, flexible, and long-lasting
    • Can work for unique print locations
    • Easy to heat press at home
    • Large solid designs have a hand feel
    • May be cost-prohibitive at high quantity
    • Limited to CMYK colors only
    • No special FX inks (glow, puff, etc.)

    Screen printing

    Otherwise known as silk screening, screen printing is the veteran of methods in customizing apparel. This tried-and-true technique uses a mesh screen to transfer ink onto a substrate, except for areas blocked by the stencil. This classic method is reliable and effective for producing vibrant, durable spot colors.

    screen printing examples

    How screen printing works

    how it worksThe process begins with creating stencils, or "screens," that will combine to create the full design. Each color in the design requires its own screen. Plastisol ink, known for its color opacity and durability, is spread over the stencil and pushed onto the fabric. Once the screens are printed, the ink is heat-cured, permanently bonding it to the shirt.

    Best use cases

    best use casesScreen printing is best for large batch orders of simple designs with limited colors. For concert tees, logos on company uniforms, promotional shirts, and more, screen printing provides dependable, quality results. And it's the go-to when you need exact Pantone colors or special FX inks, something only screen printing can deliver.

    Price range

    print costThe cost of screen printing varies, depending mostly on the number of colors in the design and the size of the order. Setup costs increase with the number of screens, but larger orders can offset these costs, reducing the price per unit. Use a different print method, such as DTF, for small orders with many colors.

    Pros and cons of screen printing

    Pros

    Cons

    • Vibrant, saturated colors
    • Precise Pantone color matching
    • Prints on a variety of fabric types
    • Durable, flexible, and long-lasting
    • Cost-effective for large orders
    • Can use special FX inks (glow, puff, etc.)
    • Number of colors increases cost
    • Cost-prohibitive at low quantity
    • Dark shirts require white underbase
    • Difficulty with gradients and photos
    • Small details can get lost
    • Limited to standard print locations 

    Sublimation printing

    Sublimation is a newer method on the printing scene. This unique technique uses special paper and inks that convert to a gas form when heated. It's known for producing vibrant, long-lasting prints with photographic quality. However, it's strictly limited to light-colored (ideally white) polyester fabrics.

    sublimation print examples

    How sublimation printing works

    how it worksSublimation starts with a design printed onto sublimation paper using specialized ink. The paper is placed on the t-shirt and heat-pressed, transforming solid ink into gas and skipping the liquid phase. The sublimation ink instantly bonds to the material's fibers and becomes one with the fabric, leaving behind a permanent design. This method can produce "all-over" prints using industrial-size equipment.

    Best use cases

    best use casesSublimation printing is your method to print a vibrant, all-over design on a light-colored, synthetic t-shirt. It's perfect for sportswear, promotional items, and other garments with a desirable soft print feel. Popular uses include elaborate, multi-color team jerseys, photo-realistic prints, and unique custom apparel.

    Price range

    print costThe cost of sublimation printing can be higher than other methods due to the equipment and materials needed. All-over prints can be pricey due to the production efforts involved, but the cost per piece can be reduced with higher volume orders. Resell value tends to be high.

    Pros and cons of sublimation

    Pros

    Cons

    • Vibrant, high-quality full-color prints
    • Capacity for detailed, complex designs
    • Smooth gradients & photo-realism
    • Virtually zero hand feel
    • Durable, flexible, and long-lasting
    • Can achieve “all over” prints
    • Limited to polyester and poly-based
    • Limited to white or light-color material
    • Cost-prohibitive at lower quantity
    • Limited to CMYK colors only
    • No special FX inks (glow, puff, etc)

    Heat Transfer Printing

    Various types of heat transfer printing have been around for decades in the world of customized apparel. All the methods in this category use heat to transfer an image from a special type of paper to the t-shirt but vary in the quality of results. For more, read about the different types of heat transfer paper.

    heat transfer examples

    How heat transfer printing works

    how it worksHeat transfer begins with printing a design onto special paper using the particular ink required. Some papers are designed specifically for either light or dark fabrics. The design is transferred onto the fabric under the plate of a heat press. Certain types of heat transfers require weeding (removing excess paper).

    Best use cases

    best use casesUseful for smaller, one-off projects like personalized gifts or a small test run of custom branded shirts. Good for beginners who want to start a home heat press operation. Most home inkjet and laser printers can be used, provided the right ink and paper. Here's how to use heat transfer paper.

    Price range

    print costThe cost is low for small runs, and setting up a small operation at home is affordable. However, the cost per unit is constant, making it much less cost-effective for large runs, especially factoring in the time.

    Pros and cons of heat transfer printing

    Pros

    Cons

    • Vibrant, detailed prints
    • Works on various fabric types
    • Can be used for unique print locations
    • Easy to heat press at home
    • Cost-effective for small runs
    • Limitations based on the type of paper
    • Poor durability for certain types
    • Requires white background for darks
    • "Weeding" can be time-consuming

    Cut and printed vinyl

    Cut vinyl and printed vinyl are two traditional techniques in the art of t-shirt printing. Using a special type of vinyl that is printed (or not) and cut into shapes or designs, then transferred onto fabric with a heat press. Durable and completely opaque, most names and numbers on the back of jerseys are cut vinyl.

    cut and printed vinyl examples

    How cut and printed vinyl works

    how it worksCut vinyl involves cutting out a design from a solid-colored sheet of vinyl using a special cutter, then heat pressing it onto the fabric. Printed vinyl involves printing a full-color design onto white vinyl, then cutting and pressing it onto the t-shirt. Most vinyl needs to be "weeded” before or after pressing.

    Best use cases

    best use casesGood for creating sports jerseys with individual names and numbers or a small batch of custom t-shirts with simple, small designs. Excellent for creating special FX prints such as metallic foil, glitter, and glow-in-the-dark on any fabric. This print method can be combined with others for truly unique pieces. 

    Price range

    print costThe cost per piece remains fairly constant because of the manual work involved, so larger orders are less cost-effective than other print methods. However, ordering custom-cut vinyl and heat press items at home is easy and affordable. Combining this print method with others (like jerseys) can double the cost.

    Pros and cons of cut & printed vinyl

    Pros

    Cons

    • Perfectly-cut shapes, names, numbers
    • Vibrant, full-color prints on vinyl
    • Works on dark and light colors
    • Almost any kind of fabric type
    • Durable and long-lasting
    • Can work for unique print locations
    • Easy to heat press at home
    • Special FX (foil, glitter, glow, etc.)
    • Difficulty with intricate shapes
    • Large designs have heavy feel
    • Cost-prohibitive at high quantity
    • Printed vinyl limited to CMYK colors
    • Combining print methods increases cost
    • "Weeding” designs is time-intensive
    • Colors may fade over time & washes
    • Vinyl can crack and peel

    Direct-to-Garment (DTG) Printing

    Direct-to-Garment (DTG) printing is a modern, high-tech disciple as far as print methods go. This technique produces full-color, high-resolution designs printed directly onto the t-shirt's fabric with large, specially-designed DTG printers, much like a regular home or office machine prints on paper.

    Direct-To-Garment (DTF) examples

    How DTG works

    how it worksDTG printing starts by loading a t-shirt into a DTG printer, much like you would load paper into a traditional printer. The design is then printed directly onto the fabric using special water-based inks that the fibers absorb. It's a digital process that allows for a high level of detail and a wide spectrum of colors.

    Best use cases

    best use casesGood for multi-colored, detailed designs on a small batch of t-shirts or for print-on-demand orders. Useful  for selling custom prints, small-run event t-shirts, or personalized gifts. A decent alternative to screen printing for photographic prints and designs that fade softly into the shirt.

    Price range

    print costThe cost of DTG printing is worthwhile for small or individual orders of designs with many colors and gradients. However, the cost per unit is constant, so there is a limited discount on high-volume runs. 

    Pros and cons of DTG printing

    Pros

    Cons

    • Detailed, full-color prints
    • Photo-realistic designs and gradients
    • Good for print-on-demand services
    • Soft hand feel compared to others
    • Difficulty with color accuracy
    • Cost-prohibitive at high quantity
    • Limited to cotton & some cotton blends
    • Limited to CMYK colors
    • No special FX inks (glow, puff, etc.)
    • Can fade with washing over time

    What is the best method for shirt printing?

    which is best

    Like everything else in the shirt printing world, it depends on several factors, including your design, the quantity of your order, the type of fabric you're printing on, and your budget. Overall, we recommend DTF as the superior choice. The most important thing is to align a method's strengths with your project's needs.

    If you have a complex, multi-colored design for a smaller batch of t-shirts or various fabrics, DTF transfer printing is your perfect match. If you want to print a large batch of t-shirts with a simple, one-color design, screen printing is a time-tested choice that delivers vibrant, durable results. For more on these two titans, read our comparison of DTF vs screen printing.

    Heat transfer printing is fine for personalized gifts and one-offs, with cut vinyl being especially useful for personalization and special FX looks, while sublimation printing is the go-to for all-over designs on light-colored, synthetic fabrics. For a closer look, check out our comparison of heat transfer vs sublimation.

    We don't recommend DTG or printed vinyl, especially for brands and those who are reselling apparel–when quality counts. Direct-to-film transfers have eclipsed those methods in terms of print quality, durability, details, and more–including the most important factor of all: customer satisfaction. For more, read our breakdown of DTF vs DTG.

     

    DTF transfer

    Mastering t-shirt printing: The path forward

    Each printing method, like a different martial arts style, offers its own strengths and specialties. From the traditional techniques of screen printing to the innovations of DTF transfers, the key is to find the method that best suits your unique mission.

    At Ninja Transfers, while we embrace the art of t-shirt printing in all forms, we are masters in the DTF realm. Should you choose this method, we're here to guide you through the process. As your trusted allies in this journey, we arm you with the knowledge, tools, and unmatched services for your print projects.

    We hope this guide has been illuminating. Remember, the path to mastering the art of t-shirt printing is a journey of continuous learning and discovery.

     

    transfer sensei


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