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.
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.
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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.
Designing and selling t-shirts is super easy! Just ask anyone who has ever stood in a sun-facing booth at an outdoor festival and watched 1,000 people walk right past their apparel without a glance.
Okay, it’s not always that bad. At least it doesn’t have to be. Some of our best apparel clients have been through those hard times and also had total sellout days. Business is fun! Yay, we are businessey!
Thankfully, there are several ways to increase your chances of designing apparel that sells. Here I’m going to focus on a few of the most crucial considerations. If you spot a theme, it’s because the common denominator in all this is to design with the apparel in mind.
Here are some things to be thinking about when designing for your apparel:
Fabric, Fabric, Fabric!
Screen printing on 100% cotton is a dream. If the garment is made well, it’s the best canvas for textile printing. It lays flat, it’s smooth, not too stretchy. It also feels great to wear.
These days it seems everyone wants some sort of blend. Blends are fine, but you should take into consideration that special inks and processes need to be used. This is because the dyes in polyester and other synthetics will release when heated to a high temperature (like when curing ink). What can happen is the dye will seep through the ink after curing, making the image look faded (called “dye migration”). Thankfully, there are special inks that cure at lower temps. Every time a screen printer prints on a new fabric blend, they need to test the print to make sure there won’t be dye migration and it won’t wash out. Keep this in mind when designing your apparel and understand the process will take longer if you want it to be right.
Also consider that the airy lightness of a blended t-shirt can be wasted if you print a huge, blocky design on it. We always recommend designing in finer lines and utilizing design that need less ink coverage.
Here’s a little fabric secret the manufacturers don’t advertise. Polyester doesn’t really breathe and it stains easily. So while that multi-blended tee feels so gooey soft in your hands it will:
make you sweat on a warm day
keep those armpit stains locked in
There’s a reason they wear cotton in the Middle East.
Hoodies and Buttons and Zippers, oh my
Any time you have a raised object on a garment, like a button, zipper or even a thick seam, it becomes a problem to solve for your screen printer (this is why we drink). Screens are flexible, but only to a point. So when the squeegee has to run over the top of a zipper, or really close to a button, it’s difficult to get an even, consistent print through the design.
The good news is, there are solutions for these things. For one, your printer can use a padded platen that has a hollow space to allow the objects to sink in, letting the squeegee run right over them, easy like Sunday morning. Even so, it can be a more time-consuming process, so allow for that and be receptive to suggestions on how to get the best results.
Making hoodies? Awesome. Find a good hoodie and design for it. Sure, you can throw any ol’ design into the middle of a zipper, but there are more fun things to do in life.
What’s the big deal about white ink on dark garments?
Printing white on dark shirts is always a challenge and it takes an experienced screen printer to get it right. While there are super bright white inks that show up well on dark garments, the printer will likely need to make two passes (two layers) to get that beautiful, bright white. This adds time to the process, because they will lay down one layer of ink as a base, “flash” it (cure just enough so it’s dry to the touch), then add a second layer before the final, full cure.
Tip: If you’re going for a vintage look, one pass of white can look awesome.
Another thing to consider when printing white on dark is the level of detail in your design. Tiny details that would show up perfectly in dark ink on light garments can get wiped out with white ink. When laying down that second layer of ink, those tiny details can get thicker and become a little mushy. If you’re super protective of those tiny details in your design, consider printing dark ink or doing a vintage look with one pass.
That old joke about size
Why does size matter? In screen printing, a screen is made for each color in an image. If you’re printing in just one color, only one screen will be needed. However, as soon as you ask for a different size, a new screen must be made.
When determining the best size of a design for our clients, we make a recommendation based on the smallest tee we’ll be printing. That size will then be used for everything from small to 3XL. You can imagine that the image can look a wee bit tiny on that 3XL. Consider whether you’ll be fine with that or will prefer a larger size for those big shirts.
These are only a handful of tips and I will share more in the future. Again, I hope you caught my theme here, which is to design for the apparel you’re going to have printed. In some cases, your design will work fine on multiple garment types, so you just want to be conscious of your options.
As always, ask your burning questions in the comments below and I’ll answer. You can also reach out on twitter, facebook or just email firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re here to help.
“She’s crafty, she’s gets around / She’s crafty, she’s always down / She’s crafty, she’s got a gripe / She’s crafty, and she’s just my type…” – Beastie Boys
At our house, we’re well into holiday craft season. Every year we do something crazy and new like a snowman made out of old cans (it never melts!). This year we dug around the print shop for ideas and rummaged out (surprise) handmade t-shirt decoration.
In addition to screen printing as a t-shirt decorating option, we also do some vinyl heat press work, typically for one-offs or very small orders. The vinyl is cut on a plotter from an Adobe Illustrator file, so it’s very exact. You just peel (weed) away the excess from the parts you want to keep and then press it on the shirt with gobs of heat and a ton of pressure. After a few orders, I noticed how much vinyl was left laying around, destined for the trash.
As I imagined this pile in the trash I thought, that just can’t happen.We save all our excess ink, so why are we throwing away all this excess vinyl? Crazy town. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure so they say. Whoever they are, they’re right. But what to do with the excess vinyl? Once it’s off the backing film, we can’t put it back through the plotter. Exactness is out the window. But to hell with exactness! What if we could make things without needing to be computer-precise for a change?
I smell a craft coming on.
When decorating shirts for a customer order, I like things orderly and organized. When doing a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants craft project, we all silently agreed upon the maxim, “When crafting, make as large a mess possible.” Goal achieved. The table was a mess of vinyl, markers, cardboard and beverages. The air was rife with the odor of creation (or maybe that was lemon ginger tea).
We all took very different approaches to masterminding our shirt designs. I went minimalist with 100% vinyl, Gwendolyn created a complex tree accompanied by cursive text and collar embellishment. Jenni laid down her signature happy font with colorful vinyl bulbs and H went full-on marker, inspired by his favorite holiday movie, The Santa Clause 2.
It was fun decorating these, even if it was one big experiment. The best part was not being so exact for a change. I love the crafty handmade look. We also learned a lot about using the excess vinyl – yes, there’s a right side up thing you have to watch out for – that not only gives us more ideas, but helps us better understand our process for making vinyl shirts for customers. That sounds super geeky, but it’s true.
Try it yourself!
If you want to do this at home, you don’t have to have vinyl or t-shirts laying around like a pro apparel shop. Everything you need is at your local craft store. Try Joann’s for iron-on vinyl (you don’t need to buy the fancy cricut machine, just use scissors) and get some dollar store tees (or again, Joann’s, Michaels, Ben Franklin, etc).
Go crazy. No, seriously. Don’t get hung up on perfection. Just have a good time. Send pics!