Today, t-shirts have become extremely popular and people of all ages, be it kids, teens, adults or older people are sporting t-shirts. T-shirts have come a long way in the last century. They have undergone a sea change and have gone from being worn as an undergarment to style statements. Today, the styles of t-shirts available are unlimited.
History Of Printing Designs On T-Shirts
So, how did the humble t-shirt which had a modest beginning as a garment to be worn under uniforms gain cult stardom and become the “most worn” piece of clothing of all generations?
The history of t-shirts can be traced back to the WWII, where it was designed as an undergarment for soldiers to wear under their uniform or suit. Later, the t-shirt became popular among civilians after the war and started appearing as regular standalone wear.
The history of textile printing is older that dates back to times much earlier than the t-shirt itself. The oldest method of printing on textiles is woodblock printing, which dates back to the 3rd century to China. Later, other methods of printing emerged during the Renaissance period and the Industrial Revolution.
The concept of silkscreen t-shirt printing was introduced to Europe from Asia, 300 years ago and customized t-shirts made an appearance around the early 50s when many businesses in Miami began printing t-shirts with the various tourist attractions and names of resorts. This was the time when screen printing came into existence.
When the process of silk screen printing was first introduced, printing was not done on clothing, it was in fact invented for producing wallpaper. Later, new inks like water-based inks and plastisol became popular for printing and coating on textiles.
It was in the 60s when the multiple printing carousel was invented and t-shirt printing skyrocketed that printing multiple colors on t-shirts came into existence. T-shirt printing grew by leaps and bounds with designers creating unimaginable designs and creations that took the fashion world by storm.
In the 70s large brands like Disney, Coca-Cola, etc. began using printed t-shirts as a means of advertising and the concept caught on like wildfire. In the 2000s, “statement” t-shirts and t-shirts with political and humorous messages started being popularized by celebrities and became a way of promoting local businesses, events and charity causes.
Even today, the ubiquitous t-shirt is considered cool and fashionable and custom printed t-shirts have become a means of personal expression for people of all ages.
Why Is It Difficult Printing On T-Shirts And Other Apparel?
Several times, printing on t-shirts and other apparel can be difficult due to varied reasons such as:
Printing Techniques Used To Print On T-Shirts
The most popular methods used for t-shirt printing are:
Screen printing, also known as silkscreen printing is the most common and most preferred method used for t-shirt printing. If you are looking to print high-quality t-shirt designs, then the screen printing method is the best, as it allows you to replicate the design the best.
The screen printing technique requires a template or a stencil that must be created of the design, which is then put in place by a screen made of nylon mesh. Ink is then flooded onto the nylon screen and pressed down with a squeegee or sponge to ensure that the ink spreads uniformly over the screen.
The excess ink is then wiped off and the screen is then removed and the design that has been printed is cured and dried.
Screen printing is the best t-shirt printing process, especially if you are looking to mass produce your t-shirts. However, if you want a unique custom designed t-shirt in single or very small quantities, then screen printing may not be a viable option. Screen printing is also not ideal for complex designs using multicolors.
Direct To Garment (DTG) Printing
DTG printing is fairly a new t-shirt printing technique where the printing is done directly on the garment. DTG printing requires a textile printer, which essentially works like a paper printer and ink. The design is first created and uploaded to the computer, which is then printed onto the t-shirt by the DTG printer.
DTG printing produces excellent quality of printing, especially if the design is very complex and it allows you to print in multicolor. This allows you to get a very soft print as the ink is very thin and does not create thick layers on the t-shirt. However, the quality and reproduction of DTG printing are best on white garments.
The DTG printer is quite expensive, which makes this method of printing unsuitable for home use. However, if you plan to print a lot of t-shirts, then a DTG printer may be a good option. Also, DTG printing is not very durable and the printing may last for less than a year.
Dye sublimation printing is an ideal technique for printing on light fabrics such as 100% polyester. This method works best for all-over printing and you can transform your entire t-shirt into a canvas. The sublimation process needs a special liquid dye, which dries up when used on the polyester fabric and solidifies.
When heat and pressure are applied, sublimation occurs i.e. the liquid dye turns into gas. The molecules of the fabric expand and the gas permeates into the gaps in the cloth and when the heat is removed the molecules contract again.
CAD Cut Vinyl Printing
In vinyl printing, a special soft cloth is cut into designs or shapes and transferred onto the t-shirt. The design is then fixed onto the t-shirt by using the heat press process. Vinyl printing allows you to produce t-shirts in large numbers and you can also print one-off designs.
Vinyl cut printing is usually used for printing graphics, slogans and sportswear. With this technique, you can create vibrant and colorful designs.
Transfer Paper Printing
This method is also known as heat press printing and in this technique, the image of the design is permanently transferred from one surface to another. This method was originally used for printing on ceramics.
In the transfer paper technique, the design is first printed on a special transfer paper and using a heat press machine, the heat softens the dye on the paper and the design gets transferred to the fabric. However, this technique does not work very well on dark-colored fabrics as the dye is translucent. Nevertheless, t-shirts using the heat press technique are quite durable.
What Is A Heat Press?
A machine that is designed to imprint a graphic or a design on a t-shirt by making use of heat and pressure for a certain period of time is known as a heat press. Heat presses are mainly used to print designs on fabrics; however, special heat presses can be used to print on caps, plates or even mugs.
There are different types of heat presses available – manual, semi-automatic and automatic. The heat press makes use of a flat platen that applies both heat and pressure to the material.
Most of the heat press machines today, make use of an upper heating element made of aluminum with a heating rod that is cast into the aluminum or it has a heating wire that is attached to the element.
Newer heat press machines make use of digital technology which allows greater and more precise control of the timing and heat and pressure levels. In the case of vacuum presses, air pressure is utilized to provide the required force to achieve high PSI.
How To Use A Heat Press?
The heat press uses both heat, as well as pressure, to print the design or graphic on the t-shirt. This method of printing can also be used for printing on other materials such as jigsaw puzzles, caps, mugs and plates. The heat press can be operated or you also have automatic models that also produce high-quality printing.
The heat press machine has a heating platen that comprises an aluminum heating element. The heat press makes use of special transfer paper and specific types of inks. The machine is heated up to a specific temperature and the hot platen is pressed onto the transfer paper, which contains the design made in the special ink for a specific duration of time.
The heat and the pressure of the heat press cause the ink to be embedded into the fabric or material that is being printed. The pressed ink embeds on to the surface of the t-shirt or any other material and the design is formed through the layers of the fabric.
The different types of heat press machines are the clamshell type, swing-away type, drawer type and vacuum operated heat press.
To print using the heat press, you require special transfer paper and sublimation inks. Typically, a transfer paper comprises a base paper that is coated with a silicone release layer which has an additional transfer release layer on the top. This layer can accept high-resolution images including large photos and text.
The upper layer is sensitive to heat and when exposed to a heat source such as a heat press or an iron, the upper layer melts. The image or the transfer is released from the backing base paper and melts into the t-shirt fabric and gets printed on it.
The amount of heat applied and duration of heat is very important for the printing to be successful. You must also ensure that the transfer paper being used has a smooth, non-absorbent surface.
Types of Heat Presses
Most popular types of heat press:
Flatbed Heat Press
Flatbed heat presses usually have a tabletop surface that is rigid and allows transfers onto materials such as wood, floor mats, ceramic tiles, sheet metal, pre-cut fabrics and carpet tiles. They are also excellent machines for customization of apparel and for printing all-over t-shirts. There are various types of flatbed heat presses and the variants include:
Clamshell Heat Press (EHP)
The clamshell heat press has a unique design and has a hinge between the top and bottom platens that allows it to be opened and closed like a clamshell. The material to be printed and the design are placed on the lower platen.
The upper platen is closed and the required pressure and temperature are applied. The heat press offers single-step operation; additionally, the machine is portable and requires lesser workspace. These heat presses are quite reliable machines and do not require a lot of effort to work with.
The clamshell can be further classified as manual and automatic. Clamshells are suitable for printing various items like t-shirts, mugs and boxes. However, the drawback of the clamshell heat press is that it does not do a good job of printing on thicker materials and garments due to the manner in which the pressure is applied. Advantages of Clamshell Heat Press:
Swing Away Or Swinger Heat Press (ESP)
The construction of the swinger heat press allows the upper platen to rotate away sideways from the bottom one. This swinging action allows you to get complete access to the bottom platen and you can arrange the material and design easily without the fear of it getting burned by the upper platen.
The heat press is very easy and comfortable to use and can be used to print materials of any thicknesses. The swinger heat press offers more precision and provides uniform pressure when in operation.
This heat press machine is ideal for both professional, as well as home use. However, heat press machines are not portable and in fact, they are quite large and occupy a lot of space. Advantages of Swing Away Heat Press:
Draw Heat Press (EDP)
The draw heat press features a lower platen that is movable and can be pulled out like a drawer, which allows you access the complete workspace. This feature allows you to place the garments for printing easily and keeps you safe from being burnt by the heated upper platen.
However, when you use this heat press, you need to be very careful, so that the designs do not shift while the transfer is being done. Advantages of the Draw Heat Press:
Hybrid Heat Press
Some of the heat press models combine the design and style of two or three of the options i.e. swing away or draw heat press or clamshell and draw heat press or a combination of all the three. These are known as hybrid heat presses.
Rotary Heat Press
The choice of a heat press depends on the product required to be printed, the production requirements and the print size. If you need to print on 60-inch wide materials such as soft signage and banners, you will require a rotary heat press or drum machines. These machines are also used to print cut apparel parts and sports apparel.
These machines are more productive for sublimation printing when compared to platen machines and are advantageous when the volume of production is high. However, the rotary heat press cannot be used to print on rigid materials such as metal, ceramic tiles and wood.
Roll To Roll Type (ERT)
Roll to roll type heat press is used to print large fabric parts and continuous roll to roll fabrics, which are too large to be printed on the standard platen heat press.
Multifunctional Type (EMT)
The multifunctional roll to roll heat press can be used for sublimation printing on both sheet material, as well as roll material. Compared to a flatbed heat press machine, the multifunctional heat press is more convenient, high-speed and labor-saving.
The machine is suitable for printing on towels, apparels, non-woven fabrics, flags, banners, mousepads, blankets, etc. in piece or in roll where there is a continuous transfer of cloth. This method is suitable for large volume printing.
Small Format Type (EST)
Small format type, as the name suggests, is limited to usually under the A3 size as this form is printing is done sans any plates. The graphic required to be printed is directly printed onto the material unlike other forms of printing that requires metal plates.
The Role Of T-Shirt Quality In Quality Printing
The quality of the blank t-shirt is extremely important and plays a very important role in the quality of printing. The quality of the t-shirt is also important for the success of your brand.
The material of the t-shirt should be good quality and should not shrink when washed, as this will completely ruin the design that is printed on the t-shirt.
While cotton may be a popular material, look for a fabric that is soft as softer fabrics print better. It may be a good idea to use materials like cotton/polyester blends, ringspun cotton or even tri-blends (polyester, cotton and rayon) as the printed designs appear better and more vibrant.
Look for high-quality t-shirts which do not absorb the ink completely, the fabric should highlight the bright colors of the graphics and enhance the design.
Here are some important tips for printing t-shirts:
Washing T-Shirts Before Printing
It is a good idea to wash the t-shirt before printing the design on them, as the fabric from the store usually has sizing on it, which helps to make the fibers look very smooth. When you print on the fabric, the design is printed on the sizing and when you wash the fabric, later on, the sizing gets washed off and so does the print.
If you are not sure about the fabric of the t-shirt, it is a good idea to test a scrap of the fabric by rubbing ink into it, drying and curing it, and then washing the fabric.
Sample Presses If Possible
Before you actually print your design on the t-shirt or even on the transfer paper, it is a good idea to test it by printing on normal paper. Usually, transfer papers are quite expensive and you don’t really want to waste your money.
Printing a sample is important and lets you check if the design is aligned properly, is within the margins, if the colors are reproduced properly and how the artwork looks when it is actually printed. And, before you actually print the design on the t-shirt, it’s a good idea to do a test print with a fabric or any material that you can throw away.
A heat press is an extremely inexpensive way to create customized printed t-shirts and whether you’re starting your t-shirt business at home or in a workshop, the heat press machine will help to get your job done.
However, when selecting the best heat press machine, you should deliberate the result and the tool that will allow you to achieve your goal easily. There are so many heat press models out there and our buying guide is sure to help you find one that works best for you.