T-shirt printing can be very confusing (and intimidating in some cases) for first time customers as there is a lot of jargon used in the industry. These special words are usually what makes most customers to end up regretting their choice of print after choosing a method which they only know by name, but really do not understand the processes involved, or whether that would be the best type of tshirt printing suited to their particular needs.
This post is about demystifying the different methods of t-shirt printing available in Cape Town so as to help future prospective customers or our readers in general, to know which method to choose the next time they want to get their custom printed t-shirts.
As such, there are a number of methods used in the Cape Town tshirt printing industry, however, in this post I will just focus on the main ones. Expanding on the most common t-shirt printing methods should help in the decision making process of custom t-shirt customers, no matter which t-shirt printing company they choose to go with. This post should equip our readers so that they would be in a better position to see if they are getting the best deal or not, as well as, to find out if the tshirt printing method they choose is what they truly require based on their needs.
The main T-shirt printing methods in Cape Town, are as follows:
a) Screen printing
This is the traditional method of t-shirt printing which involves water based inks being passed though a wire/ silk mesh using a squeegee, onto the t-shirt to be printed below, hence producing a high quality, permanent print. The screen is cut to make a stencil of the design, then ink is spread over it using a squeegee, passing through to the object underneath only in the areas you want it to pass through. Only one color per screen can be used – so depending on the number of colors in the design, you would need multiple screens to produce the final item. As one can imagine, this process requires a longer lead time, as it is manual. On the upside, this is the most cost effective method for printing high quantity orders. Screen printing involves exact pressures, specialized water based inks and heat curing to ensure a long lasting print.
Screen t-shirt printing advantages
- Once the setup is finished, nothing will need to change from shirt to shirt (as long as the design stays the same), making it much quicker to print larger orders
- the print is permanent / long lasting and usually outlasts the life of the garment under normal use
- After the initial set up, screen printing is the least expensive method per shirt cost of printing, and the most cost effective for larger quantities
- Screen printed garments have a better and softer “hand” feel of the imprint compared to vinyl printed t-shirts.
- There are many more options to choose for textures/colors when it comes to screen printing
Screen printing disadvantages
- A considerable amount of effort is required in the learning process since there is a bit of an experience curve involved.
- The equipment is expensive and requires many more supplies than vinyl t-shirt printing which is just as long lasting
- There is a high initial setup fee involved so it is not suitable for small quantities (less than 15), plus the cost is higher for multiple colors as this method requires a set up per color, making it expensive for smaller quantities
- Screen printing can be messy and the print may wash out if not properly cured, hence, this is where experience comes in.
b)Direct To Garment printing(DTG)
This was started as a viable alternative to the expensive setup involved in screen printing, especially for low quantity customers. Direct to garment (DTG) T-shirt printing involves ink being printed directly onto the t-shirt using specialized ink jet printers. These high cost machines are able to print t-shirts in full colour, and involve each t-shirt being placed directly onto the board of the printer and, unlike screen printing, there is only one application irrespective of the number of colors involved
According to Wikipedia, DTG Tshirt printing is the process of printing on textiles and garments using specialized or modified inkjet technology. The two key requirements of a DTG printer are a transport mechanism for the garment and specialty inks (inkjet textile inks) that are applied to the textile directly and are absorbed by the fibers. Direct to garment (DTG) printing is most commonly implemented on garments that are made of cotton or cotton blends, although recent developments in technology have allowed for superior performance on light colored polyester and cotton/poly blends. DTG printing on dark garments requires pre-treating the fabric in order to achieve opacity on dark garments.
All direct to garment printers are descendants of the desktop inkjet printer, therefore many DTG printers, such as the Anajet Sprint, and the BelQuette Mod1 utilize some parts from preexisting printers . Some companies, such as DTG Digital, AnaJet, Oprintjet, Brother, MAPI Digital, Kornit and Mimaki have printers which utilize similar technology, but are manufactured without the exact parts from any other brand machine. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_to_garment_printing)
DTG printers have the following advantages:
- This is the most suitable tshirt printing method for detailed images,especially for images with tiny dots which are difficult, or impossible to do with screen or vinyl printing (respectively).
- Highly detailed prints with gradients, shading, or various colors blended together can be printed and come out exactly as they are on the supplied artwork.
- Direct to garment printer inks attach directly to fibers: when you run your hand it almost feels like part of the fabric.
- Unlike screen-printing, direct to garment printer shops do not have to charge by the color, so full-color printing is extremely affordable.
- Small orders and one-offs can be printed at a reasonable price.
- There are no set-up costs, as compared to screen-printing.
DTG t-shirt printing disadvantages:
- Unlike Screen printing, the ink tends to fade over the life of the garment.
- costs increase significantly for larger orders, therefore, it is best for short runs and small batches.
- The fabric must be at least 80% cotton and the maximum print area is 12.5″ wide by 14″ tall, hence this limits the material types, as well as, the sizes of garments that can be printed by such printers.
- Another major disadvantage of DTG printing is that the machines are very expensive, therefore the printing companies which offer this type of print are few in Cape Town, and hence, would charge high prices due to not enough competition in the market.
c) Transfer printing
In general, transfer printing /heat transfer is when letters, images or logos are transferred onto a garment through a process that uses a combination of heat and pressure.This method for printing customized t-shirts is broken down into three main categories, that is:
- Dye Sublimation
- Cotton transfer
- Vinyl heat transfer
i) Dye Sublimation
According to Wikipedia, sublimation is the transition of a substance directly from the solid to the gas phase without passing through the intermediate liquid phase. Sublimation Tshirt printing or Dye Sublimation is a permanent type of print suited for multiple color images and the procedure involves initially printing dye onto special transfer paper. Though on the offset, the ink may appear to be in a liquid state, however, it is actually dye in powder form which is dissolved in a fluid to allow the dye to pass through the ink-jets of the printer to the transfer paper. Thereafter, heat and pressure is applied to convert the solid (powder) dye into gas state so as to transfer the image from the paper to the garment using a heat press machine, hence, sublimation takes place. When the garment cools down, the gas converts back to a solid state, in which case, it would have penetrated into the fiber and becomes one with the t-shirt. Sublimation t-shirt printing is mostly used for polyester t-shirts, or cotton polymers, which are a blend of polyester and cotton, but predominantly polyester. It would be preferable to use this method if your garment is at least 60% polyester. Light color garments are to be used for this method, as the procedure does not allow the printing of the colour white, also, sublimation is not suited for black / dark color t-shirts. This method is the only permanent method for highly detailed full color t-shirt printing. The downside is that, few people prefer wearing polyester t- shirts, unless if it is sports attire.
ii) Digital print Heat Transfer
Unlike Dye sublimation, the better alternative to having full color images printed onto cotton t-shirts is through cotton transfer printing. This method is broken down into two types,namely: dark transfer and light transfer tshirt printing. Just as the names suggest, light transfer paper is used for light colour tshirts, most preferably white; while dark transfer paper is used for black and dark color garments. Both do not last very long hence we prefer to do this type of print only if the customer approves thereof, that is, after we explain to them how long it lasts. We prefer to use the transfer printing method for once off events, as well as, when printing photos onto t-shirts.
Transfer printing is exactly the same as sublimation printing, with the main difference being that transfer printing is most suited for cotton, unlike sublimation which is mainly for polyester.There are also variations in the texture of the final printed product. Transfer printing involves the print sitting on top of the t-shirt: while the substrate for dark transfer is light paper/soft plastic-like; that of light transfer printing feels like candle wax. This is unlike dye sublimation where the ink is infused into the fibers becoming part of the garment.
Transfer printing is an alternative to DTG printing, with the disadvantage that the print does not last as long lasting as DTG, and unless it is a kiss cut print, for dark transfer printing there would be an A4 block as a background whereas DTG only prints just the detail in the print. Like DTG printing, transfer printing is more suitable for small quantities and is best used for a once off occasions.
A kiss cut print is a variation of dark transfer printing whereas the substrate is cut as close as possible to the edges of the images, thus removing the back ground. This is unlike the general dark transfer printing where an A4 block would be used as the background, unless the image is an A4 rectangle itself. With Kiss cut printing, the t-shirt itself would be used as the print’s background.
iii) Vinyl T-shirt Printing
Vinyl tshirt printing is our main method of choice when producing high quality, long lasting prints: the print usually outlasts the garment onto which it is printed. Heat transfer vinyl is cut out into designs, shapes, letters, number and/ or logos. After weeding out the unnecessary parts, exact temperatures and pressures are applied on the remaining vinyl design so as to transfer the cut out images onto the t-shirt(s). There is a large variety of vinyl available in the market, ranging from flock vinyl (which has a suede feel) to smooth vinyl print (such as the number on a rugby jersey). Vinyl t-shirt printing also allows other variations of t-shirt printing such as glitter, glow in the dark, rhinestone, and holographic prints, just to name a few.
Vinyl T-shirt printing advantages
- Lasts almost as long as screen printing and is the perfect alternative to such
- One can do individual designs with little extra effort (such as is required when printing team garments for numbers or different names on shirts)
- There is no minimum order and the method is cost effective for small quantities: individual designs are possible without the heavy set up required when screen printing
Vinyl t-shirt printing disadvantages
- With vinyl, one cannot print full color images/ photos, as it is used to print only uniform, distinct colors without any blending, shading or minute dots, which are rather suited for DTG printing
- High costs of vinyl make it an expensive choice for large t-shirt quantities (say for 50 t-shirts and above).
- Vinyl some times requires double pressing for certain types of Vinyl which may lift when removing the plastic backing, hence it might be a bit more time consuming when compared to DTG or transfer printing, but not as long as screen printing orders
- One cannot iron on the print as is possible with screen printing
- Rubbery feel for some types of vinyl when you run your hand on the print
- Cracks and fades with time (usually 3-5 years)
Washing instruction for long lasting prints
For vinyl printed t-shirts, and most of the above mentioned t-shirt printing methods, with perhaps the exception of screen printing, it is important to adhere to the following guidelines to ensure your print last as long as possible:
- use a cold wash with the garment inside out
- dry outside where there is open air with the garment inside out
- iron the garment inside out.
- DO NOT tumble dry or dry clean printed garments