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.
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.
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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.
T-shirts are one of the best ways to get your company’s name into the world. Probably the best.
Of course I would say that, I’m a t-shirt person. If I were a billboard person, I might tell you to plaster your marketing message on Sunset Boulevard. But I’m a t-shirt expert so I’ll stick to that.
Okay, besides having a built-in motivation for evangelizing about t-shirts, I do have some solid reasons (and experience) to back it up. Pull up a chair and let Sparky lay it down for you.
Billboards rank pretty high on the visibility scale. Literally. So that’s wonderful, but one problem with billboards is that they’re stationary. You have to pin your hopes on people going by them and looking up (instead of texting, like 34% of drivers).
A T-shirt is fantastic for marketing visibility because the person wearing it is a moving billboard. Your marketing message is seen at the mall, the grocery store, the gym, and a bar, potentially all on the same day – for the same money. We’ll chat more about money in a moment.
Plus, it’s much more comfortable to wear a t-shirt than steel scaffolding and lights. You’ll have to trust me on that.
More Bang for Your Buck
Do you know how much custom printed t-shirts cost? Most people don’t. That’s because prices can range widely. All the variables in your design, colors, printing method, and quality of shirt make it hard to give a generic example. You can probably guess that my advice to you is to not go cheap. Of course you should squeeze the most value you can out of the deal. Just make sure you get the best quality you can afford. If you wind up with a box of shirts nobody wants to wear, you just blew your marketing budget on expensive dust rags.
When you factor your costs for your t-shirt marketing campaign, think about this: You pay for it once, but it keeps on sending your message for years.
Everybody Wears T-shirts
Quick, name someone you know who doesn’t wear t-shirts.
Okay, I know. There’s always that one stubborn holdout who swears, “I never wear t-shirts.” Hmm. Right. Well, the toilet has to be cleaned sometime, yes? I’ve never personally cleaned a toilet in a VanHeusen button down. I’ve cleaned one with a VanHeusen… okay, perhaps a story for another time.
Whether or not there are these rare t-shirt-eschewing humans walking among us, admit it: T-shirts are frikkin’ everywhere. According to a survey, about 81% of the US population will wear a t-shirt by the time of the next presidential election. So it makes sense that you should put your marketing message on them.
Don’t Just Brand it. Make it Cool!
There are certain brands and logos that people will always wear on a t-shirt. Coca-Cola. Apple. Orange Crush. Vans. Those lucky brands, right?
There are even a few local brands that can get away with a logo-only tee, like that burrito truck that’s always slammed at lunchtime.
If you aren’t one of those brands (be honest with yourself), you can’t just stick your logo on a shirt and expect it to get the same mileage. As a marketing manager, you might get tipsy over the idea of wearing the Harvey’s Insurance logo on your chest. Harvey might. Maybe his mother. The rest of the world, not so much.
So you have to come up with an idea for your shirt that goes beyond plastering a logo on cotton. Make it interesting and fun, something other people would actually wear. That’s a tall order, I know. Think about your customer base and what they might find funny or just cool. Be careful with humor, though. Stay away from religious, sexist, racist, or political jokes. Even if you think your customer base will find it funny, tread carefully there. Your company’s name will be on it, and you don’t always get to pick who wears it.
Which reminds me – yes, do put your company logo on the shirt. Just don’t make it the centerpiece unless you’re an established brand. Sorry, Harvey.
Because We’ve Been There
Over the years, we’ve made too many marketing mistakes to count. We learned the hard way. These days, in our custom t-shirt business, we see plenty of really smart people about to make the same mistakes. Thankfully, we’re always ready to draw from our personal lunch box of stupid and help them make a better choice. Well, we try.
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