How Custom T shirts are printed is a unique process that takes a few quality steps that need to be precise in order to print the highest quality custom t-shirt. These steps take time and contrary to popular belief we cannot simply snap our fingers and “Poof” here is your t-shirt order. These few steps take time if done right and some of them are time sensitive steps which makes the process that much more challenging.
How custom t shirts are printed – artwork
A quality custom t-shirt starts with the proper artwork. This is really the corner stone of every great t-shirt because if the artwork isn’t right nothing that follows will be successful.
Ideal artwork will be in a vector format which would be a file created in Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw. Vector artwork is scalable and doesn’t pixelate and can be color separated by a keystroke on the computer. Photoshop has gained in popularity but the output is still raster. Raster images can best be described as flat. They can’t be scalable without pixelating and they can’t be color separated. File types that are raster are jpeg, bitmap, tiff, and png in most cases to name a few.
The imporance of vector artwork is that the output on the custom t-shirts has crisp lines and no detail is lost.
how custom t shirts are printed – film positives
Once the color separations take place on the computer the artwork is then colored black and then printed on vellum paper or laser film. Film is ideal because images come out more black and they are more durable for cataloging for ongoing clients. On the film you want the image to be as black as possible.
Once the film positive is print the next step is to burn the screen.
how custom t shirts are printed – screen burning
burning the screen is a very crucial step in the custom t-shirt process because the artwork and ink determine the correct mesh for the job. Most t-shirt companies will have screens that has a mesh count ranging from 35 microns to 305 microns or more. The lower the number the more ink gets pushed through the screen but less detail. The higher the mesh the less ink gets pushed through but more detail is exposed. Good screen printing shops know which screen is right for the job and a lot of times that can be tricky when a job calls for white ink. White ink is the thickest ink and needs to go on thick to prevent garment color from showing through the ink. So a low mesh is ideal but sometimes a customer has a design with high detail and wants white ink on a black shirt. Knowing the right screen mesh that allows both ink saturation and detail is crucial to having a happy customer.
To burn a screen the film positive is attached to the bottom of the screen. The screen has been coated in a light senstive emulsion. The screen is then placed on a light table for 2-6 minutes depending on mesh count. The black image on the film is then unable to be penetrated by the light while the rest of the of the emulsion is hitting direct light. When the mesh is burned the screen is then taken to a washout booth where it gets hose off. The black image on the film that prevented light from shining through then breaks down and is washed out of the film leaving the graphic exposed.
How custom t-shirts are printed – printing press
There are two kinds of screen printing presses. Manual presses and automatic presses.
Manual presses mean the the printer is pullling the squeegee over the screened image by hand every print on every shirt. An automatic press means that a machine is pulling the squeegee of ink of the screened image.
A manual operater is responspible for placing the shirts on the press, printing them, then taking them off the press and putting them in the dryer. An automatic press operater is responsible for setting the shirts on the press and taking the shirts off the press and putting them in the dryer. Manual presses are a slower operation with a more historic detail to every shirt and are the most cost effective and popular presses. Automatic presses are built for speed. They can print exactly what a manual press can so there is no limits to how many colors are in a design or detail, an automatic press just does it 4 times faster.
Once the shirts are printed they are sent through a conveyor dryer where they will reach temperatures of 330 degrees. This cures the ink and bonds it to the shirt. Screen printing is the most durable printing method for custom t-shirts and the largest manufacturers output their brand using the screen printing method.
It’s a fun business and Kirkwood Trading Company has been printing the highest quality custom t-shirts in Saint Louis Missouri for over 20 years. We print both small order runs of 12 shirt minimums and larger runs of shirts of a few thousand. If you are in the market for custom t-shirts you can contact us anytime and we’ll be happy to answer any questions or provide a free price quote. We also offer our customers the option to design their shirts online.
Thanks for reading.