A Quick Guide to Fabric Printing for Your T-Shirt Printing Business

 

    
 

Table of Contents

Thinking of getting a custom-printed t-shirt? Fabric printing allows you to take an ordinary, plain t-shirt and make it something special, with a fun design, a sweet message, or something to commemorate a special occasion.

But first, you have to know how to print. Even if you don’t personally print your textiles, it’s helpful to know what fabrics and what methods pair well together. That way, your end result will look its very best.

Here’s a look at some of the most common printing methods, common fabric options, and how to mix and match for the best result.

Main Textile Printing Methods

Printing is printing, right? Not so fast. There are several different types of printing methods available to choose from, and each one gives you a slightly different result. Here are some of the most common options and what you get from each.

  • Block Printing

Block printing is a printing technique that’s been around for more than two thousand years. It originated in ancient China and remained the most common printing method in East Asia for books and images until the 1800s.

The technique gets its name from the use of a hand-cut block, usually wood or linoleum. Blocks are carved with the design standing out in relief, using copper strips to create fine lines. When the designs include large areas, these are recessed and space is filled with hard wool felt. Each block has pitch pins coinciding with points in the pattern to facilitate successive lays.

When you want to print, you’ll need a table covered in a thick sheet of synthetic rubber (to prevent slipping) to which the fabric is affixed. Color is applied evenly to the block and stamped on the fabric, in much the same way you would stamp a piece of paper.

  • Roller Printing

Roller printing, also called direct printing, is a technique invented by Thomas Bell in Scotland in 1783. It’s actually one of the oldest methods of mechanized printing. It quickly outpaced hand printing thanks to its usefulness for large batches of fabric.

In roller printing, the desired design is engraved on copper rollers, with a separate roller for each color. Rollers are mounted against a large main cylinder. Fabric travels between the engraved roller and the transfer rollers (rollers partially immersed in printing paste). After fabric runs through the rollers, blades scrape away excess paste and the fabric dries.

  • Screenprinting

Chances are, you’ve heard of screen printing before. Most of us have drawers full of cheap screen-printed t-shirts. Often called silk-screening, this is one of the most popular printing techniques currently available in textiles.

There’s a bit of contest about when and where screen printing originated. It’s thought to come from the dynastic ages between 960 to 1270 A.D. in China, 4th century India, or 3000 B.C. Egypt. Either way, it didn’t take hold in Europe until silk mesh became popular due to East Asian trade in the 18th century.

Screen printing has come a long way since then, though it remains one of the most versatile printing processes.

The process involves taking mesh stretched over a frame and burning it to create a stencil. The stenciled area remains open, while the non-stenciled area is filled with non-porous material. This creates areas where ink can and cannot penetrate.

The stencil is then laid over the desired textile and filled with ink, at which point the printer uses a squeegee to help push the ink into the desired area.

  • DTG (Direct to Garment) Printing

Imagine the process your home or office printer goes through each time it prints words or an image on a sheet of paper. Direct-to-garment printing, or DTG, uses exactly the same process, but with a modified inkjet printer to handle fabric instead of paper.

Unlike other methods on this list, this technique is quite young--only twenty years or so. It’s only been around as long as inkjet printers. But when it was introduced, it revolutionized the fashion industry. It was cleaner, easier to set up, and produced a much clearer image than screen printing.

For this reason, DTG is recommended for complex designs or designs demanding a high degree of color variation.

  • Heat Transfer Printing Techniques

There are three main types of heat transfer printing techniques: dye sublimation printing, plastisol transfers, and heat transfer vinyl. All three rely on the same basic transfer process relying on transfer paper to place a design.

Dye sublimation printing applies a heat press to a sheet of transfer paper that has been printed with solidified inks. Heat vaporizes the inks and permeate the textile fibers, creating a perfect replica of the transfer image.

Plastisol transfer refers to the specific type of ink, plastisol, used in the technique. Plastisol is a PVC formula which, when in ink form, can be applied to textiles for vivid colors. Like sublimation, it relies on a sheet of transfer paper and a heat press to apply and cure the ink to the garment. It’s more complex than other heat transfer techniques, but the results are striking.

Finally, heat transfer vinyl (HTV), uses a specialty vinyl material with a heat-activated adhesive backing. With a heat press, the vinyl permanently affixes to your garment. Printers use HTV, a vinyl cutter to craft their pattern from HTV, a heat press to apply it, a weeding tool to cut away excess vinyl, and a cover sheet to protect the vinyl from direct heat.

  • Handspray Painting, Airbrushing

Think of airbrush painting like spray painting for garments, because that’s exactly what it is. The technique combines paint and air to create a fine mist which settles over fabric in the desired pattern through a stencil.

As techniques go, this is one of the easiest, and it can be used on pretty much any fabric that tolerates paint.

What Materials are Suitable for Printing?

Which technique is the right fit for your project? That depends on the fabric you plan to use. Or, conversely, the fabric you use will limit your available printing options.

In fabric printing, it’s all about liquid absorption. The better a fabric absorbs liquids, the easier it is to print, and the manner in which it absorbs liquids makes a fabric more suitable to some printing techniques over others.

Generally, natural fabrics are better for printing than synthetic. This is for one simple reason: synthetic fabrics usually involve some amount of plastic, which is an oil and thus repels water. This makes it a great choice for moisture-wicking, but it’s your worst enemy when printing textiles.

That said, some printing techniques actually require synthetic fabrics to work. Heat transfers are a great example--since you’re attaching heated plastic, a plastic-based fabric accepts the transfer best.

Printing Method Compatibility Compared

To keep it simple, here’s a breakdown based on the type of fabric in question.

Fabric 

Method(s) 

Quality 

Bulk Printing 

Cotton 

Block printing, roller printing, screenprinting, DTG

High

Yes

Viscose 

Heat transfers

Medium

No

Wool 

Roller printing, screenprinting, DTG

Medium to High

Yes

Silk 

Screen printing

High

Yes

Polyamide Lycra 

DTG, screen printing

High

Yes

Polyester 

Any type of heat transfer, sublimation

High

No

Rayon 

Sublimation

Low

No

Mixed Fabrics 

Depends on the blend percentage

Low

No

What’s the Best Fabric For…

If you’re interested in a certain technique over a certain fabric, here’s a quick breakdown of the fabric types that are best for certain printing techniques:

  • Block Printing: cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo, polyester and, in some cases, nylon (avoid animal-based fibers like silk and wool)
  • Roller Printing: cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo, polyester, wool
  • Screenprinting: cotton, wool, silk, polyamide lycra
  • DTG (Direct to Garment) Printingpolyamide lycra, wool, cotton
  • Heat Transfer Printing Techniques: synthetic fabrics (polyester, viscose)
  • Handspray Painting, Airbrushing: any fabric that accepts paint, though natural fibers absorb liquid better

Mixed fabrics are tricky to work with--it depends on the blend and the percentage blend. Blends with a high cotton percentage can be treated like cotton with certain printing techniques, but the higher the polyester percentage, the more moisture-resistant the fabric is.

Beginners’ Tips for Custom Printing

Let’s say you want to embark on a custom printing project. Where do you begin?

In most cases, you choose the garment first, which makes the fabric the right starting point. From there, you can think about what dyes work best with a given fabric type, what technique is best for the dye and material, the right colors for your chosen material-technique combination, and, of course, the cost.

Choosing the Right Fabric

Since most people begin their printing projects by selecting a garment, we recommend starting with a fabric rather than a printing technique. This will help ensure you get a cut and style you like which can then be customized based on your project.

In general, natural fibers are more broadly adaptable to printing techniques than synthetic fibers. Natural fibers like cotton, wool, or silk are produced by plants or animals in nature, whereas synthetic fibers are man-made.

Most synthetic fibers are made of some form of plastic, which is primarily made of oil (that’s why synthetic fabric is so good at wicking moisture).

That said, some fabrics are not suitable to certain printing techniques. Animal fibers like silk and wool don’t work well with block printing, for instance, since the ink won’t bind well to the fabric texture.

On the other hand, some printing techniques demand certain fibers. Synthetic fibers tend to work well with heat transfer techniques, especially polyester, though rayon should be avoided for any heat transfer except sublimation.

Choosing the Right Dye

Choosing your dye depends on the technique and the fiber in question. Your primary concern with dye is colorfastness. In textile dyeing, colorfastness is a material’s resistance to fading or running, and clothing is said to be colorfast if its colors and dyes do not bleed or run.

If you’ve ever washed red socks with white shirts and wind up with pink shirts, you understand colorfastness.

The trick with printing is that some dyes are more colorfast with certain materials. Cotton, for example, has the best colorfastness with reactive dyes, as does viscose. Polyester most commonly relies on disperse ink, though this does not work well with high-speed printers used in DTG.

Polyamide lycra demands acid inks for the best color brilliance and fastness, while silk can work well with acid or reactive inks.

Mixed fabrics are a difficult beast, since they’re a blend of two fabrics that work best with different inks, and most printing techniques only allow for one type of ink. In general, if you have a 70%/30% mix (for example, 70% cotton and 30% polyester) you can use reactive inks. However, a 60%/40% blend limits color depth.

Selecting the Right Colors for the Perfect Finish

Finding the right color is more about knowing your color options based on the fabric and printing technique, and balancing the color you choose with the backdrop of the garment you selected.

In general, digital printing on polyester and other synthetics tends to print more vividly than natural fabrics, but natural fabrics are better for block printing or roller printing than synthetic.

Avoid any colors that are too close to your chosen garment color--similar dark colors or light colors will blend together if printed without enough contrast.

Cost

Finally, there’s the cost of your project. This will depend on the fabric you select and the technique you choose to print.

Some techniques, like transfer printing, are ideal for small runs, since you only get a single use out of a piece of transfer paper, and the material input required for a single garment makes the technique expensive. Digital printing techniques, like DGT, work well for large batches, which can lower your overall cost.

Also, keep in mind that some fabrics are pricier. Cotton is widely available, so it tends to be cheap. Wool is also widely available, but the hairier the wool (i.e. how many threads stick out) the pricier the project. Silk is difficult to produce and not widely available, so it’s among the most expensive materials.

Conclusion

If you’re thinking of fabric printing, keep in mind that it really is an art. It requires the right combination of material, dyes, and techniques to produce a great garment, and that will vary between one garment and the next.

 

References:

Aguirre, S. (2020, December 16). What Is Colorfastness in Clothing? The Spruce. https://www.thespruce.com/what-is-colorfastness-1900691

Block Printing 101: How to Block Print Fabric. (2020, June 26). Paper and Stitch. https://www.papernstitchblog.com/how-to-block-print-fabric/

CottonBee, G. z. (2019, June 3). Fabric printing methods – which printing technology to choose? CottonBee. https://ctnbee.com/blog/en/fabric-printing-methods-printing-technology-choose/


Hodakel, B. (2021, March 31). What is Viscose Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where. Sewport. https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/viscose-fabric

Roller printing | textile industry. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 31, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/technology/roller-printing

Textile—Printing. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 31, 2021, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/textile

The Beginner’s Guide to Block Printing So You Can Design Your Own Fabric. (2020, September 2). Craftsy. https://www.craftsy.com/post/block-printing-fabric/

What are plastics: PlasticsEurope. (n.d.). Plastics Europe. Retrieved March 31, 2021, from https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/about-plastics/what-are-plastics

What is Screen Printing? | Honor Society. (2017, November 3). Honor Society. https://www.honorsociety.org/articles/what-screen-printing