Different decoration methods for t shirts

Following on from my previous post about promotional t-shirts I thought it would be good to look at the different methods that are used to decorate T Shirts, as well as some of the pro’s and con’s of each of these methods.

We often get requests from customers who have come up with their own designs and want to produce them onto t shirts,  often they are unaware of the different decoration methods available, including some of the limitations of each method and the costs involved.

I hope that this post can serve to shed some light on the different decoration methods available, and whilst not an exhaustive list it includes the most popular methods involved in t shirt decoration today.

Screen Printing T Shirts

Screen printing is the most popular way of decorating T Shirts, screen printing is a process that involves separating each colour in the design and then applying these separately onto the T-shirts by forcing the ink through a mesh screen.  A screen has to be made for each colour in the design, and an additional screen has to be made if the design is to be produced onto a black t-shirt.

Due to the costs involved in making the screens, this method is not suitable for producing small runs, but on large volumes it is the cheapest most cost-effective decoration method available.


  • Cheapest method to produce large quantities of t-shirts
  • Can be produced on any colour of T Shirt


  • Set up cost for producing each screen (a screen required for each colour in design)
  • Difficult to achieve gradients and tones in designs
  • Only suitable for larger quantities
Mesh screen for screen printing

A mesh screen used for screen printing

A big part of the cost in screen printing is the cost to produce the screens, however these can be re-used for repeat orders providing the design remains the same.  The cost for screen printing t-shirts will also be linked to the number of colours in the design, as each different colour has to be applied separately, so the fewer the colours the cheaper the cost.

Producing T Shirts using Garment Film (vinyl).

Garment film is a very popular method of producing t-shirts and especially suitable for low quantities, and designs with only a few colours and one offs.

Printed T Shirts Staffordshire

A T Shirt produced using garment film

In its most basic form it consists of cutting out a vectorised design or text from a roll of single colour garment film using a cutting machine.  Once the design has been cut the unwanted vinyl is removed, (weeded out) leaving only the design which is held in place by a carrier sheet.  The vinyl is then fused to the t shirt using a heat press at the correct temperature, time and pressure.  Multi coloured designs are produced by layering different colours of vinyl and pressing these separately onto the shirts, overlapping the previous colour if required.

Garment film is available in many different colours, including metallic, fluorescent and  textured finishes.


  • Suitable for low volumes including one offs
  • Low (if any) set up costs
  • Can be applied to almost any part of the t shirt
  • Metallic and special textured finishes can be achieved


  • Not suitable for highly colored complex designs
  • Certain types of garment film may not feel as nice to touch as screen printing on large areas
  • Gradients and tones cannot be produced

The costs involved in decorating t shirts using garment film is related to the amount of weeding out and number of presses per shirt. A single colour simple design can be applied in one press, but a complex multi coloured design may need lots of time-consuming weeding out, and several heat presses to produce.

Garment film is available in many different grades of quality we only use the best from the market leading suppliers

Printing T shirts using Dye Sublimation

The detail and colour reproduction that can be produced using dye sublimation is nothing short of stunning, and as the process actually dyes the fabric of the shirt there is no difference to feel of the shirt following decoration.

Dye sublimation involves using specialised dyes and intense heat to permanently dye the fabric of the t shirt, resulting in a highly vivid full colour decoration. Using dye sublimation photographic quality images can be produced as well as highly complex designs, featuring gradients and tones.

Dye sublimation printed shirt

A Dye sublimated t shirt

There are however two restrictions with dye sublimation, one is that this method can only be used on white or very light pastel coloured t shirts, and the other is that the t shirt must be made from 100% polyester.


  • Stunning colour reproduction
  • Full colour decoration (same price regardless of number of colours used)
  • Suitable for one offs and small volumes


  • Limited to white or very light pastel coloured t shirts
  • T Shirts must be 100% polyester (these are more expensive than regular cotton t shirts)

Most football shirts are produced using dye sublimation.

Printing T Shirts using Transfers

For some T shirt designs sometimes the best option is to produce them using a plastisol transfer.  Transfers are applied in the same way as garment film, but they can be produced in full colour allowing complex designs to be produced and applied easily.

printed t shirts using transfers

A full colour transfer

One of the biggest advantages to using transfers is where lots of the same design shirts are required but not needed all at once, in this case the transfers can be produced and stocked and then applied to the shirts as and when they are required.


  • Multi colour complex designs can be reproduced.
  • Can be used on any colour T shirts.
  • Transfers can stocked and T shirts produced in smaller batches or produced to order.


  • Larger transfers can feel a bit rubbery

Printing T Shirt using Direct to Garment Printers

Direct to garment printing (DTG) is a relatively new process used for t shirt decoration, and as the name suggests it involves printing the design directly onto the T Shirt.

The T Shirts are placed over a platen ensuring the area to be printed is flat and then printed in a similar fashion to the way a desktop printer prints.  In addition to the print there is a fusing agent applied to the t shirts, this adheres the print to the shirt after heat pressing the completed printed design.  If a black or dark-colored t shirt is required the direct to garment printer first prints a white ink base colour, and then the other colours are printed over this.

Direct to Garment printing is still a new evolving technology, and many of the early machines suffered from problems, especially with the white ink clogging  and causing issues.  Many of these issues have now been resolved and some of the latest t shirts we have seen are extremely impressive, with full colour designs possible, on low volumes and at a very attractive price point.

Direct to garment printing is a new and exciting technology and we anticipate it will have a big impact on the low volume, custom apparel decoration industry moving forward.


  • Impressive results ( although quality does vary from machine to machine)
  • Low volume complex full colour designs can be produced
  • Any colour T Shirt can be printed


  • Relatively new technology still some issues
  • Quality varies from machine to machine
  • Not widely adopted or available in the industry so prices have been inconsistent.

At Abalone Graphics we can advise you on any of these t shirt decorating processes and others, and we either offer them in-house, or use our trusted trade only partners, who are the leading experts within the custom apparel industry.


About Abalone Graphics Ltd

Abalone Graphics are a manufacturer and supplier of promotional products and work wear clothing, based in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. With a huge range of promotional merchandise Abalone Graphics provide a one stop solution for all promotional items including printed and embroidered clothing.
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