Anyone with an inkjet printer can put a design on a T-shirt. You can buy special sheets of A4 paper onto which you print the image, then you use heat (usually a normal domestic iron) to apply the image to the t-shirt.
Thousands of people do this every day. But some of them might be inspired to take things further and form their own businesses selling T-shirts online, at fairs or events, via mail order or for a certain group of customers. It might be to supplement an existing income; or it could be the start of a whole new full-time career. Either way, this article is for those people. It’s not meant to be an in-depth technical guide – T-shirt printing has many technologies and the number is growing – it’s designed to cover the best way to get started on a reasonable budget.
1. First Up: You’re Going to Need a Printer
If you’ve made a few inkjet designs, you’ll have quickly realised that it’s not going to cut it in a professional context. For a start, it’s slow and expensive, which rules it out as a viable machine on which to base a business.
But another reason is that it doesn’t print white. Office printers are designed to print onto white surfaces, so they achieve white by simply printing nothing, and the whole spectrum of colours and the entire range of darkness to brightness can be achieved by changing the amounts of black and (usually) cyan, magenta and yellow. Full colour prints (including white) can be achieved, but they require a different kind of paper which you have to cut to the required shape and heat-press onto the T-shirt. It’s labour intensive, especially for large runs or where the outline shape of the print is anything other than rectangular (this process can be automated, but you’ll need even more machinery, which can be expensive).
So if you’re planning on selling multi-colour designs on any colour T-shirt and in any kind of volume, you’ll have to get a printer. But this can mean one of two things:
buying or leasing the equipment required to print your own T-shirts; or
Both are viable options, as we’ll see.
Getting Your Own Equipment
We’ll deal with the types of printer later, but essentially you will have to source:
your printing machine(s) and colours;
your packaging, storage and shipping materials; and
some premises to keep it all in
and still have room for yourself and any future staff. Clearly the volume of sales you expect to make will determine the amount of space you’ll need, but many startup T-shirt printers are comfortable in a small commercial unit or even a spare room in a house.
Outsourcing Your Printing
Another option is to effectively act as a T-shirt printing agency or facilitator. You can set up an online or mail-order store and when an order comes in, forward the details to a large-volume printer who will do the actual printing. Some printing companies will even complete the transaction all the way to delivery as well.
The clear advantage of this method is that it greatly reduces the start-up costs and eliminates the need for premises and time required to learn to use the equipment. You could in theory run this kind of business from your kitchen table.
If you’re hoping to make your money from selling the designs rather than any mark-up on the T-shirts themselves, this could be the business model for you. There’s no reason why any of the creative or production work has to be done by you – you could operate solely as a retailer and concentrate on marketing your wares.
2. Printing Techniques
Since we’ve eliminated the inkjet from our list, we need to look at the different types of T-shirt printers and what are their pros and cons. The type you choose is a major decision because some lend themselves to short-run jobs and others are better suited to bulk jobs, that is, where there are multiple identical designs. If you’re growing a T-shirt company from scratch, you’ll need to pay attention to the kind of work you’re hoping to do, and what your typical customer will look like, as a professional printing machine is not a trivial expense.
However, don’t forget that as you grow and diversify your business, you might be in a position to own two or three types of machine, each of which will be optimal for a certain type of job.
Screen printing in some form has been a favourite means of creating images on T-shirts and other things (such as posters) for centuries. It essentially uses a stencil of the image you require set over a mesh that holds the shape of the stencil in place. When ink is spread over the whole mesh, it only goes through the parts with the exposed mesh and leaves an image on the material.
Screen printing can be done by hand, using a type of squeegee to spread the ink, or it can be done using machines, either flat or on a rotating drum.
The most popular way to get the original image onto the mesh is by using a process similar to photography – projecting the image onto a photoreactive coating and then processing the screen to remove the exposed parts, thus creating a “negative” image. The shapes can be formed using other techniques, such as using pre-formed stencils (e.g. for lettering) or cutting shapes out manually, but these techniques have limited commercial potential.
The biggest advantage of screen printing is that it’s relatively cheap for large batches because the same stencil can be used over and over again. It can give good results in large, bold images. Also, you can print in any colour you can imagine, so white on black is not a problem.
However, if you’re doing one-off or short-run prints, it’s difficult to make it cost effective because a lot of work goes on before the print is made. Another drawback is that each colour is printed separately, so a number of different screens need to be made if the image isn’t monochrome. It also means that the coloured screens have to be aligned perfectly to avoid blurring and to achieve the desire colour blends.
Computer software is available to separate the colours in a given image, however, so not all of the drawbacks of yesteryear still apply.
Heat Transfer Printing
Professional heat transfer printing uses a vinyl printer and a heat press to transfer images to the T-shirt. This system is much better for short-run or one-off printing than screen printing because there’s hardly any preparation work to do. You can receive full colour designs by email and print them off in a few minutes.
Heat transfer can be used in combination with other techniques. For example you could screen print a company’s logo on fifty T-shirts and use heat transfer to print employees’ names or departments.
Do note, however, that heat transfer machines can be quite expensive to buy, which could represent a financial risk if you’ve not researched your potential market.
Direct to Garment (DTG) Printing
The current state-of-the-art in T-shirt printing is the direct to garment printer. The DTG is essentially an inkjet printer that’s modified for transporting flattened fabric rather than paper under its heads. The inks are different to those used in office inkjets, but the principle is identical. For the operator, there is no work to do between clicking “print” on the computer and packing the finished product.
While quality is ever-improving with these machines, running costs remain stubbornly high (as is the case with desktop printer consumables). While they are a relatively cheap and quick way to produce a one-off or short-run design, you don’t have to print many before screen printing, even with its extensive preparatory work, becomes more cost-effective.
The exception is probably for high-detailed, multi-coloured designs (e.g. photographs), where screen printing would struggle to faithfully reproduce the tones and the volume effect is lessened. But the nature of most cotton T-shirts means that super-high resolution would be pointless, so any improvements in resolution will only affect high-end materials.
Which is Best?
All three methods have their advantages and drawbacks, but essentially it all boils down to cost. How much you charge for your T-shirts will depend on the type of printing you are offering and the business model you intend to operate.
If you’re offering cost-effective bulk T-shirt printing, you’ll probably find screen printing is the best option. Materials are relatively inexpensive and although the prep work can take some time, you get payback from the fact that the screens are reusable once they’re made.
However, you might decide that your business offering is to provide super-quick turnaround (even same-day printing), in which case heat transfer or DTG will be best. As long as you pass the expense onto the customer, it’s no less of a great business model if your research shows there’s a market for it. Customers will generally be happy to pay more to get short-run or urgent work; this is true across all business sectors, from bespoke tailors to emergency plumbers.
As we’ve already said, if your business grows you can occupy several positions in the market, and this is when you can consider acquiring a second or third type of printing technology. But at the start, it’s probably best to concentrate on one type of printing and gain a customer base using it.
3. Your Raw Materials Matter
The raw materials of the T-shirt printer are simply ink and blank T-shirts. Like all products, they come in a range of qualities, and the quality of the materials will determine the status of your company in the eyes of your clients.
Are high-quality materials always essential? Not necessarily. If a customer wants twenty hen night T-shirts for the best possible price, you’re unlikely to win their custom if you offer only top quality T-shirts and super-washable inks. Chances are they’re probably only going to be worn once or twice, and they might never be washed and worn again, so you could get away with something cheaper.
A one-day corporate event might demand fair quality T-shirts and printing to give a good impression. But again, durability might not be important. It will all depend on the budget the client has.
When it comes to fashion or works uniform T-shirts, quality is at a premium. The tees and inks will need to be good quality so they look great wash after wash.
Sourcing Your Tees
You don’t need to have a stock of T-shirts when you’re starting out because we stock dozens of T-shirts in the full range of sizes at wholesale prices. It’s the perfect option when you’re starting out and you need to keep your stock to as close to zero as possible to optimise your cash flow. Later on in the evolution of your company you might want to start stocking your most popular brands, but it was a position we had to build up to; the most efficient way of growing a T-shirt business is to use external stockists.
The most popular ink in use today is plastisol, as it forms an opaque image with enough stretchiness to account for normal folding and creasing. Although it will last for many washes, it’s not eternal, and can start to dry out, crack and peel off eventually. If you’re starting out, plastisol is probably the best option as it’s relatively cheap and should lead to fewer returns as it’s easier to produce a good quality print using it. As your offering grows, you might want to start using metallic or water-based inks for specific orders, but these can involve more work.
4. Provide Samples and other Assurances
It’s impossible to gauge the quality and feel of a fabric and printing online or in a brochure, so be prepared to provide samples if the customer looks like they could show potential. Small companies are understandably nervous about sending samples to anyone who asks, especially if the potential order is small or a one-off. The person asking for the sample could, after all, simply say they don’t like it but keep it anyway.
Once solution is to print off several samples, i.e. with a standard image, and send them out as samples. Another is to send out the samples with the requested design but to make it clear that they must be returned or paid for (you could include pre-paid packaging if you like). You could also have some samples of the fabric itself and send them to requesting customers. The same applies to inks and printing techniques.
There’s a balance between protecting your business and giving customers too many hurdles to leap, but don’t forget to use your own discretion. If you suspect that someone is trying to pull a fast one, treat them with caution. If the potential order would be large and/or ongoing, it might be worth taking a risk.
You can, of course, simply offer a full money-back guarantee should the client not be satisfied with your work. You’ll be bound by the law when it comes to providing T-shirts of the quality requested, but as long as you make your “satisfaction guaranteed” policy clear, it offers reassurance.
In most cases, as a T-shirt printer you’ll simply be turning customers’ designs into T-shirts. But some manufacturers take this a step further and design their own T-shirts. Obviously this is quite a departure from the routine task of putting other people’s graphics onto fabric, but many businesses succeed without taking any designs from customers.
If you’re already a designer with pages of ideas, there’s no advice we can give you about design. But if you’re more interested in selling designed T-shirts, you’ll either need an in-house design team or some freelance designers to do the creative work.
Early on, you’ll need to make it clear what the financial arrangement is. If we assume you’ll be marketing and producing the T-shirts, you’re going to need to cover your expenses and turn a profit to make a living and to re-invest into the company. There are essentially three models for sharing the profits:
You pay the designer an amount for her time and take ownership of the design, meaning you take all the profits (risk: entirely yours).
All three are viable, but be prepared to renegotiate deals. If one designer becomes particularly popular, she might feel like she’s in a position to claim larger royalties or up-front charges. If they’re flying off the shelves and playing a big part in the company’s sustainability, the relationship will start to approach that of a partnership and it might be worth bringing the designer more closely into the company.
Make sure you stay on the right side of the law as regards copyright. This article isn’t detailed enough to cover all the ins and outs, but you basically need to beware of using other people’s work and profiting from it. Even using someone’s face can cause problems, as Topshop found out.
5. Selling T-Shirts
How you sell your T-shirts will depend on the clientele you’re trying to attract.
For a general clientele, an online store works well as long as it’s well run. Take the time to produce decent product shots, and consider using models if the style is appropriate.
Selling direct to business benefits from a more hands-on approach, attending trade fairs and putting ads in trade publications.
If you’re going for a specific niche (e.g. focusing on a genre of music or sport), make yourself known to influential people in that community and start to advertise in their niched media.
If you plan to produce T-shirts and then sell them (as opposed to printing to order), get stalls at fairs, festivals, markets and other events, so people can see the quality and deal with a human face. Make sure customers know the address of your website if you have one.
Below is an interview with Johnny Cupcakes, a hugely successful entrepreneur who started a t-shirt line back in 2008.
6. Should I Do It?
Printing T-shirts is an incredibly rewarding job, which can be lucrative if you’re prepared to put the hours in working the machines and marketing yourself well. Like baking cakes or wallpapering, it’s something that most people can do but a professional can do really well. Once you’ve got to grips with your machines and your materials, you’ll be rattling them off to a much higher standard than even the most committed hobbyist could manage.
It’s easier if you go for some kind of niche and concentrate your marketing on it. Becoming known as the T-shirt producer for that niche saves you a lot of time, money and energy in the long-run, and you’ll find that influential people in that niche will come to you first.
Once you have your basic production sorted out, you can invest in more machinery and expand into different or more general markets. If you keep producing good quality T-shirts, people will keep coming back to you.