Types of T-Shirt Printing Methods

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Printed t-shirts are a modern fashion staple, accepted as appropriate apparel in all but the most formal situations. T-shirts were originally worn as undershirts until the 1950s, when Hollywood portrayed hipsters and rebels wearing t-shirts as their primary shirt style, and printing of shirts soon followed. T-shirts were originally used as an advertising medium, but wearers adopted printing to include social and political statements and decoration of the fabric itself.

Screen Printing

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Screen printing, or silk screening, is the most popular method for t-shirt printing. The screen printing process offers speed and cost-effective production, brilliant colors, and durable imprints. Although the process is one of the oldest printing methods, with origins dating to first-century China, the popularity of printed t-shirts sparked numerous technological advances in machinery, inks and production materials.

Hand Painting and Airbrushing

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Hand painting and airbrushing of shirts are favored methods of hobbyists and custom artists. Both processes are capable of decorating in their own right, but can be combined with screen printing and other decorating means to produce special effects or add artistic value.

Appliqués and Patches

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Appliqués and patches have been used to decorate garments for centuries. Hand-sewn and more modern iron-on appliqués and patches are still used as an inexpensive alternative to embroidery, and in the case of iron-on lettering, an alternative to screen printing. Appliqués are often embroidered, but can include rhinestones, metal studs and other decorative materials.

Heat Transfers

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Heat transfers are iron-on images, produced primarily by screen printing and other commercial printing methods. Heat transfers have also advanced to include transfer papers for use with home computer printers. Transfer imprints differ in quality and appearance depending on the printing method, but all operate on the same application method and principle: heat and pressure are applied to a special release paper, facilitating the transfer of ink to the fabric.


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Embroidery on t-shirts, whether by hand or machine, remains a popular decorating method. Since t-shirt fabric is generally light in weight, it easily puckers with the application of embroidery for large designs. This limitation, coupled with embroidery's higher cost when compared to other methods, generally limits decorating to smaller designs, embellishments and logos. Embroidery can be combined with screen printing and other printing methods to achieve interesting effects.

Digital Printing

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Direct-to-garment digital printing was introduced shortly after the advent of large inkjet printers and the development of colorfast, washable inkjet inks. Although inkjet printing technology has advanced as a viable commercial production method, its slower production speed makes large-volume orders cost-prohibitive, when compared with screen printing. Digital garment printing does have the advantage of applying any number of colors required, including full color photography work, but does not require the extensive screen printing set-up process, making it ideal for smaller quantity production runs.



About the Author

Matt McKay began his writing career in 1999, writing training programs and articles for a national corporation. His work has appeared in various online publications and materials for private companies. McKay has experience in entrepreneurship, corporate training, human resources, technology and the music business.

Photo Credits

  • Adrián González de la Peña/Demand Media