In this tutorial, I show you how to separate colors to prepare your art for screen printing. In the video, I use Adobe Illustrator, but you can follow along and learn the basics even if you use CorelDraw, Inkscape or any other vector app.
If you have a multiple color design that needs to be screen printed, this is an invaluable skill to have. I show you how to use registration marks, separate the colors and convert everything to the right black for printing onto transparent films. I even show you lots of tricks and keyboard commands in Adobe Illustrator that you can use in other graphic design or illustration projects, saving you tons of time.
If you’re selling t-shirts, you probably already know how to figure out your profit margins. It’s the simplest thing you can calculate, you just subtract the cost of the shirts from the selling price. Boom, there’s your profit.
But wait! There’s more.
Did you ever think about factoring in things like returns, credit card fees or packaging costs? I hope you didn’t just hear a wah-wah-wah-wahhhhh trumpet sound. It’s okay, we all learn something new every day. Those costs are annoying and bring your profits down, but you really do need to consider them.
A while back, I wrote a series of posts about how to get t-shirts printed. There were posts about apparel and fabric, different types of printing, what designs work best on different types of tees, really juicy stuff like that.
Don’t go looking for them, they’re gone. I took them down (gasp!). Instead, I thought that having all that info in one place would be super helpful. So I combined them into a simple guide that covers all the bases about getting screen printed shirts. Besides, I tightened up the writing and added some new tips to make it even more valuable.
Years ago, when I started selling t-shirts online, I would’ve loved to get some secrets to help me sell more t-shirts. I would have saved a ton of money and lost less sleep.
So if you’re about to start an apparel brand, get t-shirts printed for an event, or just want to geek out on all the things that go into making t-shirts, this is for you.
It’s called Amazing T-shirts on a Small Budget: Learn How to Save Money on Your Printed Apparel and I worked really hard on making it for you. I know it’s going to help you get started, or if you’ve already been going for a while, give you some fresh, new secrets.
If you want the secrets, they are yours. Just enter your email address below. When you confirm that you’re a real human signing up, you’ll get a direct link to the guide. Your email address will never be shared. We’re vegan. We hate spam.
Did you know that it takes 713 gallons of water to make just one cotton t-shirt?
Okay, well maybe that statistic is somewhat skewed because no one manufactures just one t-shirt. What it’s really about is the water that it takes to grow the cotton. It’s a lot.
It’s still a scary proposition for our planet and our limited resources. Last night one of our insta followers tagged us in a post about this, and I knew that I had to say something.
Our whole business being what it is, we print thousands of new cotton t-shirts every year. Does that concern me? You know me, of course it does. We try to make as little impact on the planet as possible in our screen printing. Are we going to shut down and stop taking orders of new shirts? Well, no. I don’t think that our going out of business would effectively solve the problem.
I do know that there are things we (and you and everyone) can do to at least slow this crazy train down.
Less consumption, for one. Think about how easy it is to go to any Target or WalMart in your area and buy a cheap graphic tee. Or think about the festivals and markets you go to. Rather than loading up on an armful of t-shirts and tank tops because you just gotta have ’em all, be choosier. Maybe choose one you truly love this trip. Choose one made with premium quality cotton, from a WRAP-certified manufacturer who uses the most sustainable methods. It’s a start.
Reuse your old tees. It doesn’t take Einstein-level thinking to figure out how to put your old worn-out t-shirts to new uses. Cleaning rags, for one. Cut them up and sew new things like bags and skirts and belts. Cut off the collar, twist it up and bam – soft bracelet! Stop throwing things away, people!
Eschew Fast Fashion. Fast Fashion is where garment designers create a limited supply of a new, trendy style for the mass market. If it sells, it may become permanent. If not, they didn’t bet the farm on it and have unsellable inventory. Neat-o, huh? It is for the manufacturer. In three months (or hours) when that style is no longer fashionable, guess what happens? They get thrown out, maybe donated. But what’s the point? Better to buy classic looks that stand the test of time than to bend to every fashion trend. One of my favorite shirts is a striped tee from The Gap that I bought over twenty years ago.
Watch Your Washing. It’s not just the making, but the care of the t-shirts that can make a big impact. Wash in cold water whenever possible, hang dry and leave out the ironing. If it’s wrinkled, hang it in the bathroom while you shower. It not only saves water, but reduces carbon emissions from using less electrical energy.
You knew I wasn’t going to say stop buying t-shirts altogether, right? Listen, they’re comfortable, easy to care for, they look cool, and they can last a long time. Like any other type of garment or product, we need to be more mindful about what we buy.
Hey! Check out this super cool t-shirt designer/printer that only reuses tees: Stay Vocal
Picture this scenario. You’re all set up at the local music festival, selling your fantastically-designed t-shirts from your swanky, well-branded booth. Wait, what’s this? You have a sale! Someone just walked away with your well-crafted tee and paid you real money for it. High five, you!
They get their new tee home and what’s the first thing they probably do? Yep. Rip out the tag. Because… itchy.
A couple years pass, and they’re still wearing that awesome shirt you made. So cool. Someone stops them at the grocery store.
“Hey, that’s a cool shirt, where’d you get it?”
“Uhhh, I don’t remember, it was some booth at Stinkypaloozachella last year.”
And that’s how that works. You made one sale and that was the end of that. Hey, cool story.
But what if that one sale made you more sales over the years without you even doing a thing? The secret, which is actually not so secret and which you probably guessed by now because of the ginormous photo I threw up at the top and maybe also the title, is tagging.
Rather than sewing in labels (which can be ripped out), I’m talking about actually printing your own branded label on the garment itself. Not only does it go everywhere the shirt goes, it can’t be ripped out and it’s a subtle reminder to your customer that you exist beyond that sale. If you want to be seen as a premium brand, relabel your tees. It’s one of the best marketing tools you could utilize for your apparel brand. Before you go willy nilly tagging your tees, there are a few things you need to be aware of.
Laws and Stuff
Yes, there are actually laws about t-shirt labeling. I know, right? There are people not using their turn signals when they drive in front of me and this is a thing? But yes, it’s thing and it’s serious.
If you look at a (correct and legal) t-shirt label, you’ll notice that they list a few things:
Country of manufacture
Origin country of fabric
By federal law (in the U.S. anyway), those facts must be somewhere on the garment at the point of sale. After the sale, it doesn’t matter. Same as your mattress, you won’t go to jail if you rip off the tag once you own it. True story.
So what if you want to sell your tees without that annoying manufacturer’s label hanging off the neck? Well, you totally can. All you have to do is relabel the tee with that same information. You can replace the manufacturer’s brand name and logo with your own, but you must use your own RN number or keep the RN number the same.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer (was it obvious?) and I’m not advising you in a legal capacity, but here are some links that will help you with actual legal requirements:
The most obvious place to tag your tees is the inside back collar. You’ve seen this on t-shirts in stores, right? It’s fairly straightforward for your screen printer to do. You might consider other areas of the garment to tag, just to differentiate yourself in the marketplace. If your tag is designed well (and I mean very well), you can even put all that info on the outside back collar area and make it part of the whole garment design.
You also have the option of doing a very faint tag or something bold (like in the photo up top). It’s really personal preference, but try to think of your t-shirt designs as holistic. Remember that you’re designing a whole garment, making it premium. If you slap a bunch of info on it to suit a legal requirement, you risk looking cheap.
If you really want people to remember your brand, you might consider sewing in embroidered labels on the sleeve or one of the lower sides. See Triple V Clothing, or brands like The Gentle Pit that do this well.
If there’s ever a legit time to make things all about you, this is one of them. Take advantage of your options, don’t let people forget about you once they walk away.
If this post was helpful to you, I send out content regularly to help you navigate the t-shirt biz. Subscribe and you’ll get regular updates, plus a free copy of my book, Amazing T-shirts on a Small Budget!
How many shirts do you buy for your event? As an apparel brand, how many t-shirts should you add to your inventory? Even if you know the total amount of shirts you want, how many mediums do you need? How many larges?
Every person who gets t-shirts printed has to ask these questions. At some point, every person who has had t-shirts printed has gone into a fuzzy-headed stupor over how to figure it out. There are so many variables, how can you know what’s the right number?
Because every need is different, there’s no “right” answer. It depends on a couple of factors:
Your Audience: Who do you imagine will be buying your shirts? Skinny girls in their 20s, or large men in their 60s? It’s very likely you wouldn’t want to order any XS women’s fitted with “Old Guys Rule” on them. Narrowing it down this way gives you some clues.
Experience: If you’ve sold shirts before, look at your sales and see what was left over. It’s likely that you can order fewer of those styles, sizes or designs next time. Or none. But that would be sad, so let’s imagine that you sold out! Yay! High-fiving you.
What if you have no experience? It can be a bit of a crap shoot. However, as far as sizes go, I can tell you that a good starting point size breakdown is to order roughly 15% of smaller sizes, 35% medium, 35% large sizes and 15% bigger sizes (like XL and 2XL). Once you have some sales going, you can see what breakdown works best for your particular brand.
To help you even further, we have a handy t-shirt breakdown calculator that you can use anytime. It’s an Excel spreadsheet that’s 100% free to download. If Excel isn’t your thing, you can easily import it into Apple Pages or Google Sheets. It works the same way.
Whether you’re just starting your apparel brand or you’ve been selling t-shirts for a while, one of the biggest challenges is choosing the right type of shirts to have printed. Unless you’re already immersed in the industry and have wholesale accounts with garment manufacturers, it can be super difficult to figure out the right shirts for your brand. Maybe you’re even one of those freaky people who stops strangers on the street and asks to feel their shirt. Maybe that’s just me. In this post, I’ll try to make it easier for you and help you avoid any potential harassment issues.
For the purposes of this post, let’s assume you’re looking for t-shirts. I could write a lot more about tanks, crop tees, and hoodies, but right now let’s focus on t-shirts specifically.
How do you choose between 100% cotton, cotton/poly and tri-blends? Like a lot of things, it first comes down to personal preference. What do you like to wear? What are the go-to tees in your own drawer? Check out the labels and see how they’re made. Easy, right? You’ve also potentially solved the problem of what brand to buy, but we’ll discuss that later.
Since you’re having your shirts decorated, you should really understand how different fabrics stand up to printing. There’s a lot to learn, but hopefully I can share the juicy highlights without breaking your brain.
As a screen printer, 100% cotton is my all-time favorite fabric to screen print, heat press or do DTG (direct-to-garment). It’s also my favorite to wear. When you get the right cotton tee, it lays flat (good print surface), it holds up to heat (drying ink), and it’s better than polyester on a hot, sticky day. It also happens to be the least expensive blank you can buy. There’s a ton of value with cotton.
What to watch out for? Simple. Don’t buy cheap cotton! If you’re trying to sell tees these days, you cannot use anything less than cotton that is ringspun, preferably combed cotton. You might make some early sales with cheap-o stock and a great design, but eventually you’ll tank when customers end up using your shirts as polishing rags.
Cotton/polyester blends can be great, too. Try to stick to a higher cotton-to-poly ration like 80/20. Even a 60/40 can work well. The more poly you use, the more challenges you encounter. Such as:
Pilling. The more poly fibers there are, the more they tend to pill up after washing and wearing. Eww, not a classy look.
Heat. Polyester, rayon and spandex don’t like heat very much. So when your printer goes to dry the ink on your shirts, they’ll have to use extra care and sometimes special inks. That can cost more. Water-based inks also don’t play as well with some polyester blends.
Dye migration. With excessive heat, the dyes in blended shirts can be released. That makes your print look faded, sometimes before your customer even wears it.
Triblends and shirts heavy on poly fibers can sometimes be hot to wear, unless it’s a moisture-wicking weave. Cotton cools you down.
I don’t want to dissuade you from using poly blends. There are some great products out there that we love. Ask your printer about any special concerns when they print on your apparel of choice.
Fit is another area where personal preference comes into play. Now, just because you love super tight-fitted shirts that show off your boobs, your girlfriends may not. So your preferences are a good place to start, but consider what the market wants as well. It also depends largely on your intended audience. We work with a brand whose customer base really does want those booby shirts, so it works for them. You really should know your intended customer. If not, you’re doing a lot of guessing, which means a lot of expensive trial-and-error.
But let’s say you have a broad customer base because you sell beer and your customers all have different fit preferences. Until you’re selling tees well and you can afford to offer lots of specific types of apparel, go with a unisex fit. Our favorites are from Bella+Canvas, Alternative and Hanes (Nano). They fit all kinds of body shapes and they’re perfect for those customers who like to do fashion cuts on them.
Stay away from tube manufactured tees. Side-seamed tees are the way to go. Side seams mean that the shirt fits a little closer to the body, rather than falling straight down like a box (like those “Old Guys Rule” shirts).
This is super simple. Don’t shop on price. Not only do you “get what you pay for,” you’re not really going to save that much. Don’t be penny-cheap and pound stupid. If you find yourself trying to negotiate with your printer for 10 cents off each shirt, you really need to consider that you need a bigger budget.
Fun story time. We spent a lot of time quoting a new customer on shirts, getting them the best deal possible with the best value. They’re a non-profit so their budget was super low. It was a challenge but we did it. We aren’t usually the cheapest in town, but in this case we were right in line with everyone else. Suddenly, they got an offer from a friend to get the shirts for free. We didn’t even try to beat that price.
When their customers got their shirts, they complained. Scratchy. Bad print. Didn’t fit well. No one wears them and we still hear complaints about those shirts (small community). I think you can figure out the moral here.
Research and Trust
Don’t fumble around in the dark! The best thing you can do for your apparel brand is to find a great printer. They can help you figure out the best tee for your needs. That may sound self-serving coming from a screen printer. In the Holy Name of Transparency, I totally get that. But it is absolutely true. A great printer will:
Listen to what you need
Give you suggestions based on your specific goals
Be 100% happy to answer all your questions, 100% of the time
Do your research and find an amazing printer, nothing less. Then trust them to help you get what you need.
As always, ask me any questions. I love answering them, even weird ones. Especially weird ones.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. Subscribe to our semi-regular emails here!
Shiny things are cool. And though I love my shiny things, I never really thought to print in metallic before. One day a regular client of ours texted me a photo of a singer on stage wearing a tee with an extremely shiny silver image on it. I couldn’t really tell what the image was, but based on the blurry quality it was clear that the photographer was having a very shiny time. Our client asked if we could do something like that.
My first thought was Hell yes, go to a show and get sweaty drunk? Then I realized he meant the shiny shirt.
Of course I said “Yes,” even though we had never done it, but that’s kind of our motto around here. Say yes and figure that shit out later. It’s worked so far.
I did some research and it turns out there a few ways to achieve a metallic look on apparel. One is with foil, one is a metallic ink and another option is heat pressed vinyl. There’s also welding a piece of metal to a t-shirt, but I don’t really think that will catch on. So I’ll talk more about the first three.
Applying foil to a t-shirt is a two-step process and it’s actually pretty cool. First, a layer of adhesive is screen printed onto the tee with whatever design is needed. After it’s cured, a section of thin foil material is heat pressed on top. When it’s pulled away, the foil in the glue-printed areas sticks and the rest is discarded, leaving the design in shiny, pretty foil.
After trying a sample in silver, I thought it looked amazing. Well, amazing in that it definitely achieved the shiny look I had seen in my client’s band photo (which was blurry if you remember). It shined. It was silver.
It has a very vintage look to it. It’s not perfect and flat like a solid color print, there are teeny tiny gaps in places. This could be due to the black heather material I printed/pressed it on.
I sent a sample off to our client, which they loved. A few months later, they made an order with foil, although they went with gold rather than silver. After pressing some trial shirts, I decided to get in touch with them to make sure it was the look they were going for. It turns out that even though they liked the silver, they wanted something with a more consistent, flat (yet still shiny) look (more on what we did later).
Bottom line: Foil can be a super cool look, but it will be on the vintage-y side, more like gold leaf than chrome bumper.
You can also use a metallic gold ink. There are a lot of choicesa nd not all get the same effect. The first one I tried was super dull. Like an aging heavy metal band from 1989, it looked a bit tired and washed up. It should not wear spandex.
Another gold was much shinier and had more of the metallic look, but still wasn’t exactly what our client was going for.
Bringing Back Vinyl
Let’s get this out of the way. I’m not a huge fan of putting vinyl on tees. I admit that it can have a very clean look, and my obsessive-compulsive need for clean lines gets a lot of satisfaction in pressing vinyl. I will always prefer putting ink on shirts over vinyl. Ink wears better over time and it just feels better on the shirt.
That said, putting vinyl on jackets and other items that aren’t going to go through the washer every week is something I can get behind. Which is how we came to use gold vinyl on our client’s tees.
They decided to get some promo bomber jackets for their team (and these bombers are the bomb, bee tee dubs). The black ones would get gold crowns and lettering and the look worked so well I sent them another sample on a tee. Winner winner, vinyl dinner (um, gross). Yup. I did it, I put vinyl on tees. I lived. They loved it.
The look is super shiny, metallic and consistent. Our client is happy, so that’s a shiny happy win.
Foil me once, shame on you…
I haven’t given up on the foil. First, I really love the vintage look. It’s not right for everyone or every design, but I know there are people who will think it’s the very thing they want. I’ve also read about some tricks to filling in those tiny gaps by mixing the glue with colored ink. I will have to go back to the lab and see what happens.
In February, we had the pleasure of printing for Saul Colt and Freshbooks for their February #IMakeaLiving event. Not only did we print souvenir shirts for guests right on the spot, we created an exclusive design for the event.
We also had a few designs of our own that were very popular. And yes, we had someone remove their clothing for us to print on. Again. It must be a vibe we create everywhere we go.
A few years ago, Jenni and I set up our t-shirt booth at a little vegan beer festival in Santa Monica called Vegan Oktoberfest. It was the first year for that event and the “little” festival turned out to be a major draw. We printed t-shirts live throughout the event and I don’t think we paused to breathe more than a couple of times that day. We also sold plenty of pre-printed tees. We may have been able to sample some food and beer… I don’t really know, it’s all a blur. A good blur, since sales were much better than we expected.
Over the next few years, we either attended or had booths at a plethora of vegan festivals all over Southern California. It didn’t take long to notice that with each festival, the number of vegan t-shirt booths grew exponentially. If there were two booths at one fest, the next event would have four. We’ve done our fair share of printing for many vegan apparel brands (we love them all) and our business in that area has grown as well.
Then there are the many vegan t-shirts available online. It seems like you can spit in any direction and find vegan-themed tees.
Does this mean that the vegan apparel market is too full? Has it reached its peak? Are we at oversaturation levels? Can we squeeze one more frikkin’ vegan t-shirt booth into the festivals? Are we at SHIRTCON 5? I’ve talked with a lot of our customers and festival exhibitors about this and I do hear some concern out there. As business owners, it’s smart to be concerned. But I don’t think we’re in any real trouble. I have reasons!
Reason #1: There’s Room for Everyone
When you’re sitting at your booth across from three other vegan t-shirt vendors, watching the 47th person walk right past you, you’re probably not thinking that there’s room for everyone. And yes, I know you were counting.
Here’s the thing, though. Would you say that the market for vegan cheese is oversaturated? How about craft beer? I certainly don’t see evidence of either. In fact, Facebook is filled with people in various groups shouting about their favorite vegan cheese. One person is over the moon about Follow Your Heart, but hates Miyoko’s. Another has never heard of either one (shocking but true), but they love this really obscure local cheese. That’s how it works.
When I walk through festivals, I see that just about everyone is either wearing or carrying a vegan t-shirt they bought. In groups of friends and family, I see several different vegan apparel brands. The secret is, people like what they like. Sometimes (many times, actually) you can’t change their minds. So don’t try and don’t sweat it. Just be you, don’t copy trends and be proud of your stuff. Which brings me to…
Reason #2: You are a Precious and Unique Flower
You are! Well, I really hope you are at least trying to be. Because the alternative is copying someone else’s style and people can spot that a mile away. Don’t be that brand.
Mom’s advice was spot on: Be yourself. That doesn’t just apply to your t-shirt designs, that means everything you do. Literally everything about your brand has to be uniquely you. From your booth to your products, to your personality, the best thing you can do is stay true to who you are. Are you a big hunk of ripped apart grunge, a militant vegan with no apologies about your farm sanctuary neck tattoo? Be. That. Thing. If that’s not you, if you’re a soft and sweet, My Little Pony of veganism, then don’t try to be that other thing. You’ll be fighting an inner battle the whole time and it will show in both your designs and the way you interact with customers. Awkward.
You don’t have to be blind to trends or ignore updates in fashion completely. Just make sure that when you spot something you want to try, it fits into your unique brand.
So figure out what you are, who you are, and go be that thing. When you stand apart from the crowd, people will want what you have, I promise. And some people won’t. I promise.
Reason #3: It’s Really, Really Hard to Maintain an Apparel Brand
Selling t-shirts is one of those things that’s easy to think about, and maybe even easy enough to start, but sticking with it over the long haul is rarer than vegan menu items at a Fogo de Chão. Maybe you noticed that those t-shirts everyone was flocking to at the last Vegan Beer Fest aren’t around anymore. Don’t worry so much about new apparel brands popping up. Many of them won’t be around in a year, but you will be.
You just have to be super strategic about your business and read #2 again.
I think it’s safe to say that despite the blossoming volume of vegan t-shirt brands, the market can never really be too full. Take yourself down to SHIRTCON 1 and breathe a little easier.