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February 18, 2022

DTG, Vinyl, Dye Sublimation or Screen Printing: What’s the best t-shirt printing method?

By: Peter Gregory

Got a mind blowing design for a t-shirt? Great! Time to move that design from computer to cotton!

There are lots of different ways to apply a graphic design to a blank t-shirt. In this guide, we’ll explain the difference between screen printing, vinyl transfers, dye sublimation and DTG digital printing. You’ll learn the pros, cons and limitations of each print method so that you can shop around with confidence and pick the very best option for your business. 

Why does the t-shirt print method matter?

There are some technical reasons to choose one print method over another, but the biggest reason is probably product quality. The way in which a blank t-shirt gets printed has a massive impact on the durability, comfort and finish of the product you’re trying to sell…

  • Durability: T-shirt fabric is constantly moving and stretching. It’s also getting washed on a regular basis, and in the summer time it gets exposed to lots of heat and sunlight. You need a durable, long-lasting print method that’s going to stand up to these kinds of conditions. 
  • Comfort: T-shirts are also quite an intimate item. They sit against the wearer’s skin for hours on end, so you have to make sure that the t-shirt continues to feel comfortable throughout the day. Not all print methods will ‘breathe’ well, especially if your design has lots of big patches of colour.
  • Finish: The final look and feel of a t-shirt is important, too. You want sharp graphics, vivid colours and crisp, unbroken lines. You might want a textured matte finish or a high-gloss embossed feel on your graphic work, or you might want it to feel exactly the same as the raw t-shirt. The print method is what determines the finish you get. 

The more you know about the basic differences between dye sublimation, digital printing, screen printing and vinyl transfer, the better your product will be … it’s that simple! 

Dye Sub, DTG Vinyl or Screen Printing: which is better? 

There is no perfect t-shirt printing method. Every method is good in certain situations and bad in others. A lot of it depends on the blank t-shirt you want to use and how you want the finished product to perform. For instance…

  • Dye sublimation lasts longer than screen printing. A dye-sublimated design will last as long as the t-shirt does, because the ink is embedded into the threads of the tee’s fabric. Over time, screen-printed ink can chip and fade. 
  • If speed is important, then Direct-to-Garment digital printing is better than screen printing. With screen printing, you need to first make a stencil for every individual colour you want to use in your design; this setup process can take a long time. It can also be quite hard to find a company with a screen printer that can handle more than 4 colours (6 platen machines are much rarer than 4 platen machines). Direct to garment is a much better choice if you’re in a hurry.
  • If you’re printing onto dark t-shirts, then screen printing is better than dye sublimation. This is because screen printing ink coats the outside of t-shirt fabric. Dye sublimation stains the threads of the tee, but it can’t overwrite the colour that’s already there. If you print on a navy, grey or black t-shirt, screen printing or DTG is a much better choice for you.
  • Sublimation doesn’t work on cotton t-shirts. The sublimation process only works on polyester fabrics. If you’re selling pure cotton tees, then you will be forced to use either DTG, screen printing or vinyl.

T-shirt print picker

So, with all of the different options available, how do you choose? Well, we have good news for you: we’ve made a t-shirt print method picker which you can download and keep! 

On this grid, you can see what each print method will and won’t do. Depending on what’s important to your business and to your customer, you’ll be able to pick the right print method in a matter of seconds:

This checklist will give you a steer, but it’s no replacement for actually holding a physical product in your hands.If in doubt, try to get a few t-shirt samples made up. That way, you can see and feel the difference for yourself.

Dye Sublimation

When you dye sublimate a t-shirt, you get a permanent design that never rubs off. Your design will last as long as the t-shirt does, because dye sub ink stains the individual fibres that make up your t-shirt. 

The whole process of dye sublimation relies on special inks that are designed to vaporise at a high temperature. First, your design gets printed onto your blank garment. Next, the garment gets heated up until the dye sub ink transforms from a solid into a gas. This coloured gas is thin enough to penetrate the fibres in the individual threads of your t-shirt, and stain them with whatever colour you choose. When the t-shirt cools down again, the ink solidifies and you’re left with a permanent design that looks great for years to come. 

There are a few issues with dye sublimation. You can’t print white, which means that you can’t sublimate on dark shirts. It’s a bit like trying to paint with watercolours on black paper — the artwork just won’t show through . If you want to use dye sub as your tee printing method, you need a white, light grey or pastel-coloured shirt. 

Dye sublimation also doesn’t work on cotton t-shirts. The special ink will only bond to polyester. If your tee is a poly-cotton blend of at least 70% polyester you should be OK, but check with your printer first. 

Vinyl Transfer

Vinyl transfers are like die-cut stickers for your t-shirt. With vinyl, you place your transfer directly onto the fabric of your shirt, then apply heat to get it to stick. Some transfers use heat-activated adhesives, and others will need to be ‘melted’ onto the garment. Either way, your vinyl graphic will sit on top of the fibres of your t-shirt. It won’t penetrate the fibres like dye sublimation. 

If you want to print every t-shirt yourself, you could do it using vinyl transfers. You would either need to work with an online vinyl transfer company (someone who can die-cut your vinyl for you and send you a ‘sticker sheet’ of transfers), or you would need to invest in a cutting plotter or cutting machine to die-cut your decals yourself. You would then need a t-shirt heat press to bond the vinyl to each shirt.  

Vinyl is a great way to get vivid, punchy colours onto a dark t-shirt. It’s also a very cost-effective option if you’re working with small designs like pocket details and sleeve decals, because you can squeeze lots of die-cut decals onto a single sheet of vinyl. 

Screen Printing 

Screen printing works by cutting out a stencil on a very fine mesh sheet known as a silkscreen. You place that stencil on top of your blank tee, then paint your ink across the stencil to decorate your shirt. 

Screen printing gives a softer finish than vinyl, and it works on any type of t-shirt (cotton, poly or blends). It also allows you to print bright colours onto dark tees. If it’s cured correctly, a screen printed t-shirt will look sharp for years.

Screen printing generally only lets you print a 4-colour or 6-colour design, depending on the machinery that your printer is using. It also takes time to set up your kit for the first t-shirt. Every silkscreen needs to be created individually and calibrated, which takes time. As soon as the setup process is complete, you can produce a lot of high-quality tees at speed. 

DTG Digital Printing

With DTG, or Direct-To-Garment, printing, you can pack as many colours as you want onto a t-shirt, and you can achieve high levels of detail too. DTG is a very good compromise between the speed of dye sublimation and the vibrancy and versatility of screen printing. 

There’s very little setup work involved in DTG printing. All you need to do is spray your garment with a pre-treatment spray , then print it on a special printer. After the printer has finished, you heat the garment, and the ink and treatment form a permanent bond with your t-shirt’s fabric. The whole process of spraying, printing and cooking a shirt takes a couple of minutes.

DTG and screen printing deliver very different finishes, so if you’re trying to choose between the two options, get your hands on a sample of each. Your t-shirt will breathe and feel differently depending on which print method you choose.

That’s it for this week! Now that you understand the difference between the main printing methods, you’ll be able to go and get quotes from a few different printers. 

And when it’s time to get your labels sorted, give us a call!

If you’re brand-new to the t-shirt printing game, we recommend you take a look at our guide to picking the best blank t-shirts. Our blank tees guide explains everything you need to know about investing in blank t-shirts, and can help you avoid costly mistakes. 

Thanks for reading!

Pete

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