Starting a T-Shirt Company? How Will You Print?

Graphic T-shirts became a household item back in the 1960s, when rock show promoters figured out that they could sell T-shirts at their events. In the decades since, an entire industry has been built up around what was once just standard workwear. T-shirts continue to be a good money maker for businesses of all sizes.


Are you thinking about starting your own T-shirt company? If so, you have a lot to think about. For starters, how are you going to handle printing? Chances are you will buy blank T-shirts from a wholesaler located overseas. You are going to have to print graphics on those T-shirts one way or another.


Screen Printing


Some of the biggest mass producers use a printing method known as screen printing. This printing method applies ink in multiple layers, using a screen for each color. It is pretty easy to pull off and the technology has proved itself reliable for nearly a hundred years.


As effective as screen printing is, you need a lot of space to do it. It is also labor intense. Screen printing probably isn’t the right way to go for a new startup. However, you could contract with a screen printer to do the printing for you. You would still get the printing effect you appreciate without having to invest in equipment and labor. You would pass the cost of printing on to your customers.


Direct-to-Garment Printing


One of the more recent entries into the graphic T-shirt market is direct-to-garment (DTG) printing. This printing method utilizes a specialized inkjet printer to apply ink directly to fabrics. Unlike screen printing, it doesn’t require a large footprint or a tremendous amount of labor. You just feed images into a computer, press a button, and let the printer do its work.


Umai Clothing is a boutique apparel company that offers anime T-shirts, sweatshirts, posters and more, all decorated with original artwork. All their T-shirts and sweatshirts are produced by way of DTG printing. They say they prefer the DTG method because it produces the highest quality images. They also say DTG images hold up better over time.


The downside to DTG printing is that it requires a significant investment. Buying your own printer could easily run you more than $10,000. But like screen printing, you can contract with a third-party to handle the printing for you. Expect to pay between $3 and $10 per garment.


Sublimation and Heat Transfer Printing


Before the advent of DTG printing, new T-shirt startups not interested in paying outside printers to screen print their garments turned to sublimation and heat transfer printing instead. Sublimation and heat transfer are similar processes that transfer images from a specialized paper to T-shirt fabric.


Of the two, heat transfer is the easier and less expensive process. You start by printing graphic images on heat transfer paper. They are printed as mirror images so that, when transferred to garments, they appear as they should. When it is time to print the actual T-shirt, the garment is laid on a flat surface. The transfer paper is laid on top of the garment and heat is applied via a hot press.


Sublimation and heat transfer printing have one disadvantage: the images they produce rest on top of the fabric rather than soaking into its fibers. Over time, the images can flake and peel away.


All the printing methods discussed in this post have their advantages and disadvantages. As a startup owner, you have to decide which process works best for you. One way or the other, know that there is money to be made in graphic T-shirts.