All shirts are not created equal. When planning your custom shirt you need to decide what printing process you want to use for your design. Each process has its own pro's and con's for quality and cost. As a designer you need to understand these differences so you can design to your budget. The printing process you choose will also limit the print location, print size, print colors, and fabric material you can print on. In this article I will discuss SCREEN PRINTING versus DYE SUBLIMATION shirt printing processes, their costs, and how they affect your design decisions.
Lets start with the most common type of t-shirt printing. Screen printing is best for single color or limited color designs. Screen printing is limited to the size of the screen, usually a 14" x 16" max print area. Screen prints can be made on a variety of fabrics. Screen prints tend to fade and crack after several washes because the ink is layered onto the fabric. Screen printing has high initial set up fees but is the cheapest way to print in high quantities because once set up the printing process is easy. Screen printing is expensive when doing oversized prints in multiple locations using multiple colors. Shirt blanks are fairly inexpensive if you order in bulk but prices increase depending on the quality of shirt you want.
Screen Fees: $20-$50 per screen
Graphic Design Fees: $40-$100 per hour
Ink Charges: $2-$5 per print
Set up Fees: $15-$25 per location
Each color in your design requires a separate screen to be made. If you need to resize the design for a smaller shirt, you'll need another screen. When printing on dark color shirts you will also want a special screen for "White Underbase." This step drastically improves the color brightness in your print quality by providing a white background for your colors to print over. Each print location requires another set of screens for each color. Front, back, and sleeve print that's at least three screens, or six screens on a dark color shirt.
Graphics charges are a common expense in all custom clothing printing processes. This fee is normally an hourly charge for a graphic designer to prepare your image for printing. This fee varies depending on the complexity of your design. To save money, make it easy for the graphic designer to prepare your artwork by providing artwork in black ink on a clean white background. Most screen printers prefer to use graphics software like Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw. These vector graphics programs allow you to resize your design without losing image quality. Adobe Photoshop is common when using multiple color designs. You will want to scale the image to print size so it doesn't become pixelated. If you're familiar with these graphic design programs you can usually get the graphic design fee waived by preparing it for your screen printer.
Ink charges are based on the amount of ink used to print your design. Very large prints or multi color prints use more ink and are more expensive. Small pocket prints or sleeve prints use very little ink and cost less than one dollar per print. All-Over Prints and Jumbo Sized Screens use lots of ink and are a lot more difficult to print so expect to pay a lot more per shirt for ink charges.
Set up fees are labor charges for the screen printer to position each screen for your specific job. Each print location needs to be set up precisely to ensure each shirt is printed the same. Even if you use the same screen, anytime you want to change a color the screen needs to be cleaned and reset for the next print.
This specialized process embeds the ink or dye directly into the fabric. For best results, dye sublimation is usually done on sheets of material then cut and sewn into a shirt or other garment. As a designer this process gives you unlimited options on color, shading, and locations because dye sublimation prints cover the entire shirt. Dye sublimation must use 100% Polyester fabric to transfer the dye. Since dye sublimation embeds the ink into the fabric it is the best process for long lasting color brightness and durability. Graphic design for Dye sublimation requires a lot of planning because the garment is cut and sewn after printing. Dye sublimation can be done on pre-sewn garments however ink transfer around hem lines and edges may have discrepancies . Graphic design for dye sublimation is expensive but this process requires no screens and can use unlimited color choices. Shirts are expensive because they are cut and sewn specific to your order.
Graphic Design Fees: $40-$100 per hour
Set up Fees: $50-$100 per job
High quality graphics is the key to this printing process. Every detail of your artwork is exaggerated by the huge print size and the fine detail possible with dye sublimation printing. Graphic designers and printers who work with dye sublimation are rare because the process is intricate and the machinery is very expensive. Each sewing section panel (front body, back body, sleeves, etc) of your garment requires a separate graphic file and print out for every size. Expect to pay top dollar for custom jobs using dye sublimation, but the final product will be a head turning work of art with the right designer.
Adobe Illustrator is the preferred graphics software for this type of printing using file types AI or EPS. Adobe Photoshop is also used for photo realistic prints using file types PDF, PNG, or JPEG. Be sure to save files to highest quality, sized as large as your garment.
Set up is time consuming because multiple machines are required to make a single shirt. First the image is printed on a large format dye sublimation printer. The image is then transferred to the material for each sewing section. The material is then cut out and individually sewn together to create your custom garment.
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