How to start a t-shirt business in 6 easy steps

Custom t-shirts are an eternally popular fashion choice, providing creators with a blank canvas for their bespoke design ideas and everyday fashionistas the opportunity to produce customised, on-trend garments that reference their favourite movies, slogans, or games.

But gone are the days when t-shirts were just for fashion. Today, the custom t-shirt market is increasingly successful with brands and businesses. Many opt for custom t-shirts and hoodies to market events, showcase products, and increase brand authority. 

With so much demand, starting a t-shirt business is an excellent opportunity, whether you want to create additional monthly income or dive headfirst into an exciting new career. 

At Buytshirtsonline, we have many years of experience selling and creating custom t-shirts, so we’ve compiled this guide to help you start a t-shirt business from scratch. Read on for the 7 steps to consider when starting a t-shirt business and the best way to kickstart your t-shirt career on a reasonable budget.

A man peers over a screen printing machine

Table of contents

  1. Step 1: Plan your t-shirt business model
  2. Step 2: Choose your printer and supporting equipment
  3. Step 3: The best t-shirt printing method for your business
  4. Step 4: Choose your t-shirts for printing
  5. Step 5: Consider your design process
  6. Step 6: Sell your t-shirts!
  7. Why you should provide samples 
  8. Start your own t-shirt brand with Buytshirtsonline

Step 1: Plan your t-shirt business model 

Before creating your t-shirt business, it’s important to consider the niche you will occupy and who your target market is. A niche will help your t-shirt business stand out from others and make it easier to attract your target audience. 

If you are going to sell your custom designs, we recommend choosing a niche that is not too broad or vastly covered. However, it’s also important to choose a topic that is not so isolated that it will be unappreciated by your target audience. Alternatively, you can plan to transform your customer’s designs into t-shirts. 

Once you have decided on your target audience and the type of t-shirts you want to produce, you can establish your goals, identify potential opportunities and choose your equipment!

Step 2: Choose your printer and supporting equipment 

Anyone with an inkjet printer can transfer a design onto a T-shirt, applying heat to an A4-printed image to apply it directly to fabric. However, if you’ve made inkjet t-shirt designs before, you’ll know it won’t cut it in a professional context. 

Inkjet printing is slow and expensive, making it an unsuitable t-shirt printing method to base a business. Moreover, inkjet printers can’t print on white; they are designed to print on white surfaces, so they achieve white by simply printing nothing. This massively limits your creative ideas. 

Close-up of screen printing process. The user is pushing the ink through onto the t-shirt, the ink is plum, orange and yellow and reads 'tshirt print'

Can I create inkjet t-shirts with colours?

Full-colour prints, including white, can be produced with inkjet printers. However, they require a different kind of paper that you must manually cut to the required shape and heat-press onto the T-shirt. This process is labour-intensive, especially for large runs or where the outline shape of the print is anything other than rectangular. You can automate this process, but it requires more machinery, which can be expensive. 

With this in mind, you need a printer if you plan to sell multi-colour designs on any colour T-shirt and in any volume. 

Should I buy or lease a printer? 

If you choose to print your t-shirts, you must source your t-shirts, printing machines, inks, colours, packaging, storage and shipping materials and consider the premises to keep it all in.

You must also ensure there is room for yourself and any future staff. Of course, the volume of sales you expect to make will determine the amount of space you’ll need, but many start-up T-shirt printers are comfortable in a small commercial unit or even a spare room in a house.

With this in mind, acting as a t-shirt printing agency or facilitator is a more viable option for most start-up t-shirt businesses, especially if you are not in the position to invest in the above. To do this, you can set up an online or mail-order store, and when an order comes in, forward the details to a large-volume printer that will do the actual printing. Some printing companies will even complete the transaction to delivery as well. 

The advantage of this method is that it dramatically reduces start-up costs and eliminates the need for premises and time required to learn to use the equipment. In theory, you could run this kind of business from your kitchen table.

If you’re hoping to make money from selling the designs rather than any markup on the t-shirts, this could be your business model. There’s no reason why you have to do any creative or production work by yourself ­­– you could operate solely as a retailer and concentrate on marketing your wages. 

Step 3: The best t-shirt printing method for your business

Since inkjet printing has been eliminated from our list, you must now decide on the best type of t-shirt printing for your business. The t-shirt printing method you choose is a significant decision, as some methods lend themselves to short-run jobs, while others are better suited to bulk jobs with identical designs.

For most start-up t-shirt businesses, screen printing is the best printing option. It is time-efficient and cost-effective for bulk orders, as the same stencils can be used repeatedly. It also ensures high-quality results that last.

Once your business grows, you can occupy several market positions and consider acquiring a second or third type of printing technology. However, when starting, it’s best to concentrate on one kind of printing and gain a customer base using it.

Below, we’ve covered everything you need about screen printing and how to source it for your business.

Screen printer user holds up a finished test product. It is a plain black t-shirt which reads 'test print' three times, with an ombre of different colours, starting with blue, bleeding into red and orange, and finishing in yellow.

What is screen printing?

Screen printing is one of the most popular ways to print custom designs, logos and text onto t-shirts and other garments. 

The process uses a mesh screen and an ink-blocking stencil. Ink is evenly distributed through the stencil and transferred onto the fabric, creating a custom t-shirt design.

Though screen printing is often carried out by machinery, it can also be done by hand, using a squeegee to spread the ink. 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 pre-formed stencils (e.g. for lettering) or cutting shapes out manually, but these techniques have limited commercial potential.

The benefits of screen printing

Screen printing is cost-effective, time-efficient, and versatile, allowing you to create a wide range of designs and execute them with defined lines, sharp colours and excellent finishes. You can also print in any colour you imagine, so white on black is not a problem.

The drawbacks of screen printing

When screen printing an image with multiple colours, each colour must be printed separately. This means that several screens need to be created if the image isn’t monochrome, and the coloured screens have to be aligned perfectly to avoid blurring and achieve the desired colour blends. 

Moreover, if you’re doing one-off or short-run prints, it can be challenging to make it cost-effective due to how many screens you need to make. However, the screens are reusable once made, so you can easily make your time and money back.

Step 4: Choose your t-shirts for printing

The quality of your t-shirts will directly impact your company’s reputation, so it’s essential to choose wisely.

Of course, high-quality t-shirts are not always essential. For instance, if a customer wants twenty hen night t-shirts for the best possible price, you’re unlikely to win their custom if you only offer top quality t-shirts. At the same time, a one-day corporate event might demand fair-quality t-shirts and printing to give a good impression, depending on the client. 

However, when it comes to fashion or workwear, quality is essential for custom t-shirts, and your chosen fabric must be durable, comfortable, and able to withstand multiple washes.  

At Buytshirtsonline, we stock a fantastic range of premium t-shirts at wholesale prices, including wholesale t-shirts for men, women and children and unisex t-shirts. We’re confident you’ll find the perfect t-shirts for your business in our collections!

Plain black/charcoal t-shirt by Fruit of the Loom, a high-quality wholesale t-shirt brand. This tshirt is available in various sizes and colours and perfect for custom designs and printing.

Fruit of the Loom Valueweight T-Shirts

How many t-shirts do I need?

You don’t need to stock hundreds of t-shirts when you’re starting, as at Buytshirtsonline, we stock dozens of t-shirts in a wide range of sizes at wholesale prices, including t-shirts by leading brands like Fruit of the Loom, Gildan and Stanley/Stella. This is the perfect option for when you’re beginning and need to keep your stock as close to zero as possible to optimise your cash flow. 

As your company evolves, you might decide to start stocking your most popular brands. However, this is a position you will have to build up to, and the most efficient way of growing a t-shirt business from scratch is by using external stockists.

Step 5: Consider your design process

In most cases, as a t-shirt printer, you’ll transform customers’ bespoke designs and ideas into personalised garments. However, some manufacturers like to design their own t-shirts. This is quite a departure from 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. However, if you’re interested in selling your own t-shirt designs, you’ll need an in-house design team or freelance designers to do the creative work.

Man wearing a black t-shirt with a graffiti style gothic skeleton screen printed image

When discussing work with potential designers, you must make it clear what the financial arrangement is. You must also plan your budget, as you must market and produce the t-shirts, covering your expenses while turning a profit and reinvesting into the company.

You must also carefully consider copyright t-shirt design processes and staying on the right side of the law, especially if using other people’s work and profiting from it. Even using someone’s face can cause problems!

Step 6: Sell your t-shirts!

Finally, all that’s left to do is sell your t-shirts. How you sell your t-shirts will depend on the clientele you’re trying to attract. 

For most t-shirt businesses, an online store works well if it’s well run. Take the time to produce decent product shots, and consider using models if the style is appropriate. 

Selling directly to businesses benefits from a more hands-on approach, attending trade fairs and putting ads in trade publications. If you’re targeting a specific niche like a genre of music or sport, make yourself known to influential people in that community and start to advertise in their niched media.

Finally, if you plan to produce t-shirts and then sell them (as opposed to printing to order), we recommend booking stalls at fairs, festivals, markets and other events, so people can see the quality and deal with a human face. 

Image of a tshirt rack with shirts

Why you should provide samples

When shopping for t-shirts online, customers are much more likely to bulk order t-shirts if they can sample the quality. 

Small companies are understandably nervous about sending samples to anyone who asks, especially if the potential order is small or a one-off. After all, the person asking for the sample could say they don’t like it but keep it anyway.

One solution is to print off several samples with a standard image to be sent to potential customers upon request. Another is to send out the samples with the requested design but to clarify that they must be returned or paid for (you could include prepaid packaging if you like). You could also have fabric samples and send them to requesting customers. 

There’s a balance between protecting your business and giving customers too many hurdles to leap, but don’t forget to use your discretion. 

Home screen printing, from a birds eye view. A man is holding a blue t-shirt under the machine. The t-shirt reads 'dream big' and is emblazoned across a rocket

Start your own t-shirt brand with Buytshirtsonline

Starting your own t-shirt business is a fantastic way to earn extra income and can offer a rewarding career opportunity for those wanting to invest.

Though starting can seem daunting, selling t-shirts online can be simple with our six steps to starting a t-shirt business.

Want to get started? Create your business plan and explore our high-quality selection of wholesale t-shirts for your business. We also stock wholesale hoodies, sweatshirts and vests, so we’re confident you’ll find the perfect base for your business at Buytshirtsonline. 

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