How Your T-shirts Get Printed: Artwork

Thanks for joining the lessons already in progress. If you missed the first one, How Your T-shirts Get Printed: The Basics, you can read that and come back here. Or, just dive in to this one now. I’m not in charge of you.

In this lesson, we’re going to talk about the best way to prepare your artwork for printing on your apparel. Specifically, we’re going to cover screen printing and direct-to-garment printing. Embroidery is a whole other beast that will require several posts, each as long as the U.S. Constitution and even I can’t hold your attention that long. Let’s stick with printing for now.

Before we get into how to prepare or send your art to your apparel printer, let’s have a chat about design. So your designs are cool, your designs are super rad, the entirety of instagram says they want to buy one RIGHT NOW OMG SO CUTE. You’re off to a good start but you need to consider a few details before you order apparel.


Is your design a super big, full color masterpiece or small and open, with fine lines? You need to imagine how it will feel on the shirt. Even with the lightest weight of ink (water based), there’s going to be a heavier hand feel with a very large and dense design. That’s not to say it won’t sell, it’s just something to be aware of as you plan. If you select a sheer, light, flowy tank and slap a huge and heavy design on it it’s going to lose a little of that flowyness. Avoid surprises when you get the final product! Ask your printer for suggestions, they should be overjoyed to help you figure these things out. If not, find another printer.


How many colors is your design? Can you count them? Okay, I know you can count generally, but what you need to do is figure out how many individual “spot” colors there are in your design. Check out the examples below:

©2015 Sparky Firepants © D.J. Billings













On the left, you can clearly see and easily count four colors: black, purple, yellow and green. On the right… well, wtf? Sure, you can count blue, green, red, yellow, brownish…something… silverish. But you also see how the colors blend into one another, yes? Those are called gradients. Those gradients will affect how your apparel is printed and how much it will cost. The robot is considered a full color design, whereas the zombie is spot color.

Whether you’re designing yourself or you hired someone, it’s important to know how the art will be printed. Knowledge is power. Sandwiches are heaven. Buttons are for pushing. Okay, back to the lesson. Let’s get to the prep stuff!

Is it digital?

The majority of designs we get in our shop are already digital. If you have a design that’s on paper or canvas or wood, it will need to become digital. That means your printer will need a high resolution scan to work with. You can also give your artwork to them and they can take care of that for you (fees vary).

Be aware that the scan will need to be cleaned up in order to make a nice-looking print. That means removing any stray pencil marks, smudges or canvas texture that muck things up. Of course, if you want those things to show up in your print, that’s certainly possible but you need to make sure you communicate these things (out loud) to your printer.

Size, Resolution and DPI

Let’s pretend you already have your artwork in the computer and you’re ready to send it over. Yay! Before you do, you need to make sure it’s going to print at the highest quality possible. That means sending it at the highest quality possible. If you send a postage stamp-sized file and you want it printed 10″ wide, it’s not going to end well. Hopefully your printer will kick it back to you because they have ethics. Some don’t, so it’s best to be prepared.

Computers are amazing machines but they cannot do everything. They can’t make you a sandwich or toss a frisbee or repair your marriage or blow up tiny artwork so it looks awesome. You have to do those things yourself.

Size and resolution are related, so you need to prepare for both. So what does high resolution or dpi even mean? Here is a great primer on digital images and resolution. Don’t forget to come back here, mmkay?

Using your fancy new knowledge, you now know that if you want your design printed at 10″ wide, you need to send it at 10″ wide and 300 dpi. Or maybe you still don’t know. That’s okay. If you’re not a digital designer, don’t sweat those details. Just ask your printer and they’ll tell you what to send. At least now you know what the hell they’re talking about.


Let’s talk formatting and programs. Microsoft Word and PowerPoint are pretty handy applications. But for chrissakes please, please do not send your artwork embedded in a Word document. If you’re chuckling to yourself right now, then we’re already simpatico. If you’re scratching your head, then you clearly have been living in a bunker since 1944. Let’s sit down together and I’ll explain everything that’s happened since WWII. First, television…blah, blah, blah…

…and that’s why we use Netflix instead of cable now. Still with me? Okay. Simply put, Word and PowerPoint are not meant to be vehicles for reproducing high quality imagery. If you stick a high-res file in a Word doc, it can be difficult or impossible for your printer to extract it in a way that’s usable for decorating apparel. So just don’t do it. So what do you use?

If you’re not a designer and don’t want to buy a really expensive design program, that’s fine. Smart thinking. There are free apps that you can get online that will open and save high-res image files, like GIMP. However, my best advice is to hire a designer and let them deal with all of this for you. Pay them well and focus on building your apparel line rather than learning software.

If you are a designer, then props to you. But if you’re like me many years ago, you know how to create amazing digital design but not how to prepare it accurately for screen printing. It’s very different than saving to a high-res .png and calling it a day. I encourage you to learn as much as you can about the process, because it will make you much more valuable and you can charge higher rates. Here is a fairly in-depth tutorial on the process.

Like I mentioned before, your printer should have specs for preparing your files to send them. For example, here is ours: Artwork Guidelines. When in doubt, ask your printer.

Screen Printing vs DTG

If you remember from the last lesson, I mentioned how in screen printing a screen is made for each color in your design. The colors are printed individually, layered on the garment. For full color designs (the robot image above), five screens are made to mix Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black and White right on the press. It’s kind of like replicating your inkjet printer but you need to feed it sandwiches.

If you’re not exactly geeking out over this process, don’t worry. You don’t have to. What you really need to understand is that in screen printing, the colors in your design all need to be separated from each other (don’t make me pull this car over). In DTG or Direct-to-Garment printing, it’s usually fine just the way it is.

Um, is that it?

Well, yeah. It kind of is. I mean, creating amazing designs that will sell is much harder than formatting them. That’s a lot harder to teach. I don’t have all day.

Next on our apparel creating journey, let’s talk about different types of apparel!

Questions? Comments? Drop ’em below and I’ll reply as soon as I have a sandwich or two.

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