The T-shirt design category is beloved by 99designs’ staffers, designers and customers alike, and is one of the most popular categories on our site. After all, just about everyone has at least one t-shirt in their wardrobe…and can make room for one more. Whether you wear ‘em to support a favorite cause or to show the world who your favorite rock band or new startup is, t-shirts are a great way to look cool and express yourself.
One question we often hear from customers is some variation of “how the heck do I actually get my awesome new design onto a t-shirt?” So we thought we’d shed a bit of light on the various processes involved in printing that sweet t-shirt you (and your supporter) will love to wear. In no particular order, here are four methods to consider.
#1: STANDARD SCREEN PRINTING
This is the most common and widely available method of printing a design onto a t-shirt. The process begins by taking the artwork, separating each color and printing films (basically a photo positive on a clear material such as vellum) for each color. Each film is then used to create or “burn” a silk screen which has been coated with a light-sensitive emulsion. The silk screen is then used to print each color in sequence, until the artwork is reproduced onto the garment.
The size of the print is limited to the dimensional size of the screen, but is typically large enough to cover a good portion of the front (or back) of a t-shirt.
Want to keep it real and do it yourself? Bravo! If your design is fairly basic and doesn’t require a bazillion colors, there are some cool little screen printing kits available… check around online or go to your nearest art supply/ craft store and pick one up!
#2: OVERSIZED / LARGE FORMAT
They are generally printed using the same method as standard screen printing, but with larger screens.
T-shirts with jumbo graphics are becoming quite popular with more and more screen printers offering this type of printing, but expect to pay a bit more if you want to go big!
#3: ALL OVER PRINTING
Just as the name suggests, an all-over print covers the entire shirt, with artwork that prints over the seams, sometimes including the collar, the sleeves, the hem or all of the above. This is generally achieved by using a machine called a belt printer. Other methods include dye sublimation and super sized silk screening.
Although you can get some really cool results with this process, there are definitely some limitations to be aware of if you are considering an all over print:
- Visual inconsistencies: because the printing goes over the seams and collar, there are likely to be some minor visual inconsistencies. It’s a inherent trait of this type of printing and can actually end up looking pretty cool and unique!
- Limited number of colors: shops that do all over printing typically limit the number of colors you can use – a maximum of three different colors is pretty standard.
- Availability: many screen printing shops don’t offer belt printing.
- Cost: because this is a specialized type of printing offered by select shops, it is also considerably more expensive.
#4: INK JET/IRON-ON TRANSFERS
Need to make just a few t-shirts or even just one? Iron-on transfers are a simple and affordable option.
An iron-on transfer is special paper you print on using a standard home inkjet printer. You then lay it on the shirt and run a hot clothing iron on top of it, transferring the design to the t-shirt.
You can buy transfers at most art and craft stores as well as many office supply places.
Although cheap and readily available, iron on transfers have some limitations:
- Size: 8.5 x 11 is usually the maximum size for an iron-on transfer sheet (unless you can find a store that sells it in bulk).
- Fading: although you can achieve nice results this way, the print will fade quicker and will not be as vivid as a screen printed design.
So there you have it – four ways to get your design onto a t-shirt and onto the backs of your supporters, pronto. Stay tuned for a blog post coming soon featuring some of our favorite t-shirt design contests – in the meantime, for a bit of inspiration have a look at some of the cool contests customers have recently wrapped up!