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A t-shirt company is one of the fastest and least expensive types of merch business to set up. For many shirt makers, the designs are the hardest part: once you’ve got them, you can connect your store to a shirt printer or dropshipper in minutes. Entrepreneur Richard Lazazzera started a t-shirt business in 24 hours and on $24.

But it’s the bass guitar of e-commerce: starting’s easy, mastering it is deceptively hard. There are loads of options available, but that also means loads of bad ones. I’ll go over three of the most popular media, which you can either DIY or find a pro printer that specializes in.

Buying Blanks

Image by "NATRI"

Image by NATRI

But first, you need something to print on.

Balancing prices with shirt quality is paramount to your success. Unless you’re selling at dollar-store prices, users are going to expect something that’ll last a while.

In addition to the old standards, like Gildan and Anvil, several other companies, like Alstyle and American Apparel, make higher-quality alternatives. A thorough comparison can be found here. I’d go as far as to say it’s required reading for anyone considering t-shirt printing as a major venture.

If you’re planning a larger run of shirts, but considering multiple suppliers, make sure to order one shirt from each vendor you’re considering. The money you stand to lose on a crappy run more than outweighs the little you’d spend to test your options.

Screen Printing

Image by Phil Gradwell

Image by Phil Gradwell

The most common method of t-shirt printing, and the best balance of cost and durability: the dye permanently soaks into the fabric, so it can survive tons of re-washes. Also the method used by most pros, but take a close look at the individual company you go for, because quality will vary wildly.

DIY screen printing is done by straining ink or dye through a silk mesh with a squeegee. There’s a learning curve, but it’s possible to build a small workshop in your house that can produce up to a couple hundred shirts in a day. Here’s a video that takes you through the basics:

But there’s a big catch: each color requires a separate process. If you want to make a shirt with three colors, you have to go through the rigamarole three times, each color increasing your costs and production time.

You can learn to build your own screen frames and trim some figures off your expense sheet, but it’s not a good idea for an amateur: it’s easy to screw up, and a defective one can ruin a batch and force you to start the whole process again. Generally, screen printing is best for doing large quantities of a few designs.

Heat Transfers

Not the kind you buy at Wal Mart. The professional ones are called plastisol transfers and are printed on special paper. And instead of an iron, you’ll be using a commercial heat transfer machine, which can run from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Beware the ones on the lower end of the scale: they often have inconsistent temperatures in different places, leading to transfers that peel apart.

The economics of heat transfers are the opposite of screen printing: it’s best for small runs of t-shirts, but they can be more complex and colorful. So if you’re looking to offer customers a wide selection of different designs and print them to order, heat transfer is for you.

Direct-To-Garment Printing

Regular ones don’t look like this, but this is the only free-use image I could find. From Wikimedia Commons.

DTG printing is by far the most versatile form of screen-printing, and (beyond the cost of the ink) the only kind not to penalize you for colorful designs. …Or small orders, since it works just like printing on paper, eliminating a lot of the setup and tear-down time and letting you experiment as much as you want: think up a design, vector it up in Illustrator, and slap it on a shirt right from your computer.

The catch? DTG printers are expensive. ”New car” expensive. They also require environments with tightly-controlled temperatures and humidity, and the process gets very slow when you’re dealing with dark shirts or high resolutions. Probably shouldn’t consider DIY-ing this one unless you ‘ve got money to burn, but if you’re looking for a company to make your t-shirts, ones that do DTG might offer you the best quality.

Hand-Making

T-shirt dyes, acrylics, spray paint, enamel, and permanent markers all work as tools. You can also start with dark-colored t-shirts and “paint” on them with bleach, a method my mom’s used to make custom t-shirts for the last several years. Just make sure to do a shirt or two with each method you’re considering, then run it through the washer a few times to make sure it doesn’t run or fade too quickly.

We won’t get into tie-dye or airbrushing here, but those are always options too.

Christine K - Where's Bucky

You’ve seen these places. Image by Christine K.

The catch? Handmade t-shirt businesses are hard to scale up. But if you can use your craftsmanship as a selling point, and find an audience willing to pay the extra for it, you can turn a nice profit.

By the Way…

Shopify is a good platform for a newbie, but Etsy, BigCommerce, and WordPress with the WooCommerce extension are all valid alternatives. And if you really want to simplify the process of getting them printed to order by a pro, the Printful app (available for most ecommerce platforms) can connect your store directly to the company.

But that kind of nullifies the rest of the article, so maybe I should have said it first. Sorry.

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