How Your T-shirts Get Printed: The Basics

Whether you’re starting a printed apparel line or just getting shirts for your event, there are a lot of things to consider. There are so many questions to answer, everything from where you’ll sell your apparel to what goes on the garments. You might be wondering if you’ll need to sell your home to pay for everything, or if you can barter for beer (hint: it’s somewhere in between).

I want to help you figure some of this stuff out before you spend any money. So don’t put your home on the market just yet. As a custom screen printer, I am fielding questions from apparel creators almost every day, and many of you have the exact same problems to solve. Some of you just want to know how I look so young and pretty and that’s cool but a whole other series.

I decided to create a series of posts that will walk you through the process of how your apparel is decorated. Mostly, we’ll cover screen printing because that’s the predominant method for decorating apparel these days, especially for retail.

Maybe you’re doubtful about why you should learn the nitty gritty details of how we print your shirts. If you’re not going into the shirt printing business, why learn a skill you’re not even going to use?

I hear you but I disagree with, like, my whole body. You do need to learn this. Why?

Learning how your apparel gets printed will:

  • Save you money
  • Make your shirts turn out a helluva lot better
  • Save you time (see also money)
  • Make you more knowledgable so you can close more sales

There’s a lot to know, so I’m going to break it down by subject to avoid overwhelm. Also, I like shorter posts myself. My attention span is like, very sho– wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah, short posts. Yes. Right. Okay, let’s get started!

The Basics: A Printing Primer

The first thing to know is that printing on paper and screen printing on t-shirts are completely different processes. For example, your desktop inkjet printer has a bunch of tiny nozzles that squirt different colors of ink onto the page, simultaneously. The computer tells your printer how much of each color (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and BlacK) to mix and squirt, so that what comes out is pretty much what you see on your screen. Whether it’s a photograph, a bake sale flyer or a sorry-i-yelled-at-thanksgiving letter to your Aunt Beatrice, the printer just handles them all the same. Mix-squirt, mix-squirt.

The major difference in screen printing on t-shirts is that you can’t connect your computer to your screen printer (even wirelessly). That’s because instead of a device with tiny nozzles, your screen printer is a human. The human uses a screen printing press (see some photos) to manually lay down color onto the garment. You can see the process in this video (it jumps to the middle so you can get the gist a little quicker).

In a later lesson, I’ll walk you through artwork creation and screen making. Basically, the printer will take your design, separate it into different colors, and make a screen for each color. A “screen” is like a stencil where the color only goes through the areas of the design. That’s how its printed the exact same on each garment. Genius, right? It’s so genius that they haven’t changed the basic operation since the Chinese invented it a few thousand years ago. That was sometime after fireworks and a little before takeout containers.

Next, your screen printer will choose or mix ink for each color in your design. Then, they push the ink through the stencils onto your t-shirt using a rubber-edged squeegee (that’s fun to say). Each color is cured (or dried) before the next color is printed. That’s important if you don’t want to get ink all over your customers. Another retail apparel tip for the day: don’t get ink all over your customers.

There are many different types of ink, and each one results in a different feel or look on your apparel. Knowing about what ink is being used on your apparel will affect time, cost and customer appeal. So it’s hugely important to understand. It’s a big topic to cover, so we’ll talk about that in another lesson.

Are you still with me? Fantastic.

Now you have a very basic understanding of how your shirts are screen printed. In the next lesson, we will have a heart-to-heart on your artwork. If your eyeballs aren’t too tired, you can jump there now.

Questions? Comments? Drop ’em below and I’ll reply as soon as I clean up the press.

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