Complete Guide to DIY T-Shirt Printing

Having an eye-catching t-shirt design or statement shirt can give a great boost to your confidence. You can easily get the attention of your friends, strangers you meet at any place or even a hot girl or guy glancing your way because of your shirt. You may have thought on some occasions that you could have also made your own t-shirt designs or printed out your own fancy statements. The good news is you can actually do your own t-shirt printing and pour all your imagination and creativity into the shirts that you have. Instead of bringing shirts to a printing shop and having to limit your design and printing possibilities, doing the printing on your own can save you money, time and can let you discover your inner print artist. There are many T-shirt printing methods you can explore, and we’ll tackle the easiest ones that can be performed at your own home.

Screen Printing

Perhaps the easiest and most affordable t-shirt printing method you can perform on your own is screen printing. As a brief background, screen printing is perhaps the oldest of all the printing methods we know of today. This printing method flourished in Europe in the 18th century, but some historians and archeologists point out its origins to as far as ancient China. With its rich history of usage, it is no wonder why print professionals at MeowPrint T-Shirt Printing recognize screen printing as a popular printing method due to its reliability and cost efficiency. This method is still widely used among commercial and private printers. 

The Screen Printing Process

Regardless of the screen printing done mechanically or by hand, the tools and materials remain the same. For one, you will need the ink with different colors associated with your design. A fine mesh silk screen comes next. The screen usually stretched within a frame. You’ll also need a squeegee and a photo emulsion kit. The rest of these materials complete the requirements, but can come with variations: brushes, acetate or any transparent material to print the design, a UV lamp or any strong source of light and pressurized water. 

The general steps of screen printing are as follows:

  • Prepare the design – the design must be in solid black and printed on a transparent film to block off the light.
  • Prepare the screen(s) – you may need several different layers depending on how many individual colors your design has. The screen printing process has a limitation of processing only a few color combinations, so make the design simple.Each color must be on a different layer or screen.
  • Cover the screen evenly with emulsion – this simple step is important because the quality of the print output depends on the even distribution of emulsion throughout the entire design.
  • Let the screen dry in a cool, dark room – the reason is because the emulsion is a photosensitive substance and the wrong exposure to light can ruin it.
  • Place the design on the screen to create the stencil – use a soft adhesive (a masking tape will do) that does not rip off the emulsion and place the screen under a lamp or strong light source. This will harden the uncovered part of the design while the rest of the covered area remains soft. Let the process complete until the screen is dry and remove the placed design using some water until what remains is the hardened negative component.
  • Place the screen on top of the garment and start printing – a flat surface will be needed for this process. Place a generous amount of ink on top of the screen and use a squeegee to evenly distribute the ink across the surface. If done by hand, you should be careful to apply even pressure and even amounts of ink. You can repeat the process until all the colors are incorporated into the shirt. Carefully remove the screen and let your printed shirt dry out under the sun or a strong light source.

Transfer Printing

This is another type of printing that is intended for mass production and t-shirt printing businesses. The concept of the process is to print the design on a non-textile surface and then transfer that printed design onto the fabric using another process. This is why it is called transfer printing. Most transfer prints are done using a type of vinyl which is later sealed onto the shirt fabric using a heat press.

You’ll need a vinyl cutter and heat press for vinyl transfer printing. A vinyl cutter is a piece of equipment connecting to a computer through a USB cable or internet, which receives the cut file data from the software you installed on your computer. A drag knife cuts the T-shirt design details into the transfer vinyl.

On the other hand, a heat press ensures even pressure and heat distribution across the heat transfer vinyl design. A household iron is an alternative. Still, it requires a lot of effort, takes longer, and the heat distribution might be uneven. With a heat press, the material seals properly for a perfect T-shirt print.

Heat transfer T-shirt printed designs are ideal for on-the-spot printing and small orders, perfect for a startup business. Your clients can pick the T-shirt color and size they desire and then print them on demand.

You don’t have to wait for customers to buy ready-to-wear printed shirts in your shop or garage. You only print when an order comes in. With heat transfer T-shirt printing, you can sell shirts and other printed fabrics at a higher profit margin than other printing methods. In addition, you also prevent an oversupply of printed shirts.

Transfer Printing Process

There are many different types of transfer printing methods, so we’ll discuss the commonly used methods for commercial printing – litho transfer and CAD cut vinyl transfer. The litho transfer follows the concept of lithography, where you print on a flat surface treated to repel the ink, except for the areas meant to be used for printing. By using a special heat transfer paper to where the design is printed, the details of the design’s artwork are well retained because paper is a better substrate than fabric, which doesn’t allow the ink to spread. The process is more like applying a sticker, removing the non-adhesive part without the design, while the designed parts are branded onto the fabric through the application of heat.

The CAD cut vinyl transfer follows the same heat transfer method, but the design creation is through the use of a computer. CAD, or computer-aided design, uses the computer and a specialized machine to automatically cut the design, leaving no room for manual cutting errors.

The design must be saved as a vector file, so there can be limitations on the designs it can make. Once the design is cut by the machine, the excess vinyl outside of the design is manually removed, and the design is sealed on the shirt using heat.

Direct to Garment (DTG) Printing

Direct to garment printing is the latest printing method using modern printing technology and something the younger generation of garment printing business owners are more acquainted with. The concept of DTG works very much like an office printer where instead of printing on paper, the printing is done directly on the shirt. DTG is known for its versatility because it can print complex artworks and recreates minute details, colors and gradients that are hard to achieve using other t-shirt printing methods.

DTG Printing Process

The DTG printing process is pretty straightforward. Most of the process requires less manual intervention in the actual printing process, so errors are less likely to happen. The basic steps of DTG printing basically follow these steps:

  • Design creation – you can save the designs using pixel-based images and use more detailed and realistic images. Be sure to make the design high-resolution and save the file in the highest possible quality of more than 300 dpi
  • Shirt pretreatment – this is done if the shirt to be printed on is black or dark-colored. A pretreatment liquid can make the ink attach easier to the fibers of the T-shirt. This can be done by hand, but the latest t-shirt printer models already incorporate automatic pretreatment for dark colored shirts.
  • Prepare the artwork – there are several software for design preparation when it comes to shirt printing, but most t-shirt printers come with an interface that allows you to set your print settings and preferences
  • Load the T-shirt onto the DTG printer and print – older DTG printers might require you to put cardboard under the shirt to create a flat solid surface for printing. Newer and more advanced printers have their own built-in garment stabilizers for a seamless process. Once the t-shirt is loaded, press the print button and wait for the printing to be done.
  • Let the printed garment cure – it is not just enough to let the t-shirt dry after printing. Curing is a necessary step in order for the ink to properly set. Use a heat press and insert silicon paper between the garment and the pressure and heat for at least 1 minute. The printed shirt is now ready.

There are different printing methods that you can do yourself. Depending on your preference and resources, you can choose from screen printing, transfer printing and direct to garment printing. Being able to create and print designs on your own shirt gives you the sense of achievement and satisfaction of bringing new life to your shirt and improving your fashion style and self image.

Greg Trim

John is a small business blogger with a focus on technology and innovation. With over 7 years of experience covering the latest trends in the small business world, John has a reputation for being a knowledgeable, forward-thinking and tech-savvy blogger. He has a keen understanding of the intersection between technology and small business, and is able to explain the latest tools and strategies in a clear, relatable and actionable way for his readers. John has interviewed industry experts and covered major technology events such as the Consumer Electronics Show and the SXSW Interactive conference. He is also an active small business owner and entrepreneur, which gives him a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing small business owners in the digital age. His blog is known for providing valuable insights and tips on how to leverage technology to grow and scale a small business.