Over the years I’ve made several forays into designing and t-shirt printing as an independent creative, and as a graphic designer working for clothing manufacturers. These days, the graphic t-shirt printing market is increasingly challenged. Both with the peak of oversaturated streetwear brands, and smaller labels unable to compete with the ‘fast fashion’ of mainstream chains. When I started out, the main two ways for a graphic designer to get an image onto a shirt was screen printing or using heat transfers (where an image is printing onto an adhesive sheet and applied to a garment with heat). While screen printing remains the industry standard in so many ways (more on that later), expensive production costs have always put it out of the reach of many designers. But in 2016 we now have a raft of new technologies, platforms and services geared towards cost-effective and accessible t-shirt printing. You may already be aware of some of the names like Zazzle and Direct-To-Garment printing (DTG), but you never really get a sense of what the product will be like until you’ve tried them. With dozens of companies this in itself can be costly and time-consuming. Thankfully for you Dear Reader, I’m here to cut through a few of the companies and technologies in the t-shirt printing and DTG industry, and save you the trouble. I’ve only used a few, so don’t consider this an exhaustive list, but it might give the uninitiated a good overview. In case each I’ll outline my experiences, and then the pros and cons. Readers should also consider for what purpose they’ll use such a service. It’s one thing if you just want to create a one-off garment as a gift or experiment, but quite another if you’re looking to start a t-shirt business. My experiences are based around trying to sell shirts, so the reviews are skewed to this aim.
1. Society 6 (USA)
Society 6 is an artist printing and fulfilment platform, and community. It enables creatives to print their work on a huge range of consumer products, from t-shirts to clocks, and takes care of the handling and shipping. Customers buy products from the artist’s storefront shop on the main Society 6 website, and there’s a strong social/community aspect to how the artists engage with each other. The Society 6 garments are created using a DTG printing process, which probably involves the use of a garment printer. So imagine your typical office printer, but feeding a t-shirt through it instead of sheets of paper. Files are supplied as jpegs or PNGs should you require transparency in the image. The upload and creation interface is smooth and quick, but Society 6 do not offer t-shirt creation tools making this service really only useful to designers or artists.
I’ve sold several prints as t-shirts, before I got to see one my partner ordered. With this type of digital DTG printing, the final result seems to always appears a little fuzzy and washed-out. This look can actually work well for certain prints, giving a slightly retro or textured feel to designs, but may not work well for anything sharp or bold – like typography for example. This is just part-and-parcel of the printing process, the garment absorbs the ink as it’s applied directly to it, so illustrations or designs with fine detail might get a bit lost. Works well for anything photo-based, as long as you’re not expecting sharp clarity. I used a design I had previous screen printed, a detailed illustration with vibrant yellow, black and greys. My design was uploaded as a PNG with transparency, and my partner ordered one in a ladies white tee. You can upload as many designs as you like with no constraints on colours or the nature of the image (gradients/effects/photography etc).
The base price (the product before any design is applied to it) for a t-shirt is quite high – around $21, and retails at a set price of $24 (about £20 in the UK) not including delivery, so the artist makes $2-3 dollars a shirt. This puts the price point close to products offered by established brands. A comparable t-shirt by Stussy or Cheap Monday retails for $30 (£24 in the UK). This means anything you create (in terms of trying to sell shirts), is automatically competing with garments with a higher quality of production. This is a point much of this article will return to.
My partner’s shirt arrived after within 5-7 days, which is quite a hefty turnaround if you’re running a t-shirt business (I’m in the UK, and Society 6 is based in the US though ships worldwide). Sent in plain packaging, the shirt itself was a lightweight American Apparel tee, and my print on it looked dull and already faded compared to the print. However she didn’t mind too much, as it fitted with the retro design. But once the shirt was put through a single cool wash, the t-shirt aged another 100 years. The print was completely shredded, and the image virtually unrecognisable. Though many platforms will give advice on how the shirts should be washed, at this price point customers will expect a garment as durable as a mainstream brand. It’s an unfair comparison as mainstream brands are likely producing shirts at volume in the Far East, using sweatshops or cheap labour allowing them to sell at a low price point. Yet in the Society 6 business model artists are only making around 10% from a sale. Customers may be attracted to the ‘Made in the USA’ prestige of using American Apparel clothing to print on, but the future of American Apparel itself seems uncertain. Add to this a few complaints I’ve received regarding Society 6’s customer service put this one at the bottom of the list.
Wide range of merchandise to print on, artist community and easy to use upload and management service. Also offers deals like free world shipping from time to time. Good for poster prints.
High base price makes it unsuitable for a dedicated t-shirt business. Long turnaround/delivery if you’re based outside the US. Print appeared sub-standard and lasted one wash, with customer having to discard the garment a day later.
2. Streetshirts (UK)
This is a service I’ve just recently used, initially for my London Boroughs Basketball concept I wrote about last week. Streetshirts specialises in digital garment printing and fulfilment, placing it closer to services such as Zazzle (and dozens of services springing up on an almost-daily basis). As it’s so much many other services out there, I think this review will cover a broad sweep of digital t-shirt printing companies.
Streetshirts doesn’t offer a storefront for users, it merely handles the production. The site seems geared towards both casual users looking for personalised gifts, and design entrepreneurs seeking a e-commerce fulfilment partner. It claims to produce ‘High Street quality shirts’ and print ‘on a white label basis for many other websites, working completely behind-the-scenes’. The process uses digital DTG printers much like Society 6, but at least Streetshirts details what they are.
Much is made of the zero set-up costs and overheads that screen printing involves. The company also boasts of it’s extensive eco and ethical policies, which are duly impressive. Based in the UK, they still offer worldwide shipping. The site is also trialling a plugin which allows integration with e-commerce platform Shopify.
As well as printing your existing designs, Streetshirts also incorporates a ‘t-shirt designer’ into its artwork upload/management interface for original creations on the site itself. Unlike Society 6 it allows users to upload vector-based artwork in SVG form. But though the interface claims to be ‘award winning’ I found the interface slow, cumbersome and frustrating. There’s no way to save uploaded designs and products unless they are actually purchased, and you can’t delete or manage what you do upload unless you log out and end the session, therefore starting over again.
So unless you’re using it only to make a fun birthday present or leaving gift for Bill over in HR, I’m not sure how one would create a whole t-shirt empire with it. You would have to crete your designs elsewhere, wait until someone purchases it, upload and apply the design to the shirt using the interface, complete a purchase and then you could use the design again. Or, upload and purchase every shirt you’re going to use so you can access the designs again?!
The other problem is when using vector artwork, you have to apply colour within the t-shirt designer interface, based on set colours offered by Spreadshirt. What this meant in my case, is the colour of the actual shirt differed from the colour in my designs. I actually had to go back and re-colour my original artwork to match the shirt.
The base price is again quite high, the cheapest blank t-shirt coming in at £9.99 ($12-$13). So if you want to make say, a fiver on each shirt that puts your price point right in the same ballpark as a Nike shirt (anywhere from £9.99 – £25), then add to that a standard delivery cost of £3.95. Meaning even if you only made £1 a shirt, it would still cost your customers £15. By way of comparison Nike shirts are durable, will benefit from a superior print process (like screen printing), and have considerable brand cache. This does not mean anyone who makes an app is automatically competing with Apple, but in terms of trying to create a t-shirt printing business these are considerations when asking people to part with their hard-earned cash.
I created a shirt and took advantage of a lost-cost seller delivery option, and was surprised to see it arrive within two days. Customers will expect products between 3-5 days, so this is great news. The t-shirt itself was a heavy Gildan cotton tee. The print on it unfortunately suffered a little from the same washed out feel as the Society 6 ones. Again in the context of my Haringey Basketball design (pics below) based on vintage varsity tees, this kind of works, but this is quite far from ‘High Street quality’ in my estimation. It was definitely satisfactory, but at that price point your customers may expect a little more.
Once worn I put it through a cool wash and tumble-dried. I vaguely remember somewhere on the Streetshirts site advising that the shirts shouldn’t be tumble-dried, but I believe that would be a huge barrier to sales so wanted to see the result. The shirt fared much better than the Society 6 shirt (which wasn’t dried), but the print suffered nonetheless. The colour has began to fade and the white below the print is coming through already. Still, the shirt looks decent enough and is a good enough quality for small-run promo items. Though the site claims to print from £2.99 upwards, this is only applicable if you’re ordering over 1000 items, which would make you a crazy person.
DTG t-shirt printing is suitable for small runs, and small on-demand sales. Printing DTG at that volume would take an absolute age, which is why screen printing is really the only viable option for large runs. So all in all not quite good enough for a viable t-shirt printing business, but great if you and a few friends are doing a charity fundraiser.
Very fast turnaround, OK quality print, very ethical business practises. Great for personalised gifts or small-run promo garments.
Print definitely not ‘High St quality’, cumbersome website interface, inability to save or manage designs.
Based in Germany, Spreadshirt probably have the most accurate and honest company description as an ‘online retail company that enables customers to design and order custom apparel’, which is essentially what their service is. They don’t make too many claims about operating as a fulfilment service for sellers, and they seem to recognise the most feasible context of the service as a provider of ‘fun T-shirts, I love T-shirts, hen or stag T-shirts’. No one here is under any illusions that you’ll be the next Virgil Abloh with your hilarious spin on ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. And I think this approach actually benefits the service. The base price for their garments is again quite high – £10.99 ((about $14 US), but that doesn’t matter as much if you’re just making a personalised shirt for your best friends 30th birthday. Like Society 6, Spreadshirt have built a community around their products, allowing users to add their designs to a ‘marketplace’, and therefore earning commission when another artist uses their work.
As far as DTG services, Spreadshirt offer the widest range of technologies and as a result using their service produced the best t-shirt by far. With a quality comparable (and perhaps preferable) to a screen printed shirt. Whereas the other providers used one DTG process to print onto garments, Spreadshirt offers a few. There’s the standard digital printing much like Streetshirts and Society 6, but also ‘flex’, ‘flock’, ‘special’ and ‘thermal’ t-shirt printing. I won’t detail each process here, save the one I really like – ‘flex’ printing. This is a printing technique where the design is cut from a colored foil and then pressed onto the shirt under high heat, and produces great results with vector designs and artwork. It wouldn’t be suitable for anything photographic or overly complicated, but is great for lettering and typography, simple shapes and block colours. I’t’s what I used for my Bunbury Creative t-shirts pictured below.
The finish of the print is like smooth plastic, and I have other t-shirts produced with (what I assume is) the exact same method from brands like Obey. It’s durable, and wash-resistant. My shirt is about four years old, and has been through the wash countless times and still looks near enough new. It’s a shame the base price for the shirts is so high, as this is a genuinely viable process compared to screen printing.
Users can upload and save both designs and products, and the artwork interface/t-shirt designer is easy to use and fairly quick. Users can also open an e-shop through the site itself, and even use their own URL making it a fully-realised e-commerce solution. Sellers are notified of various special offers which can be passed on to customers as promotions.
The turnaround for orders is quite lengthy, about 7 days if I remember correctly, but with their brand positioning slightly more towards personalisation rather than fulfilment, this is less of an issue.
Wide range of print processes, high quality printing, ability to save designs and products, intuitive interface.
High product base price for would-be t-shirt printing businesses, long production turnaround.
5. Screen Printing
Lastly, I thought I’d add a bit about what is surely the daddy of t-shirt printing processes – screen printing. Now this isn’t a digital DTG technology, so I’m going off-road here. But in my estimation screen printing still remains the best, and really only viable option for someone looking to sell graphic clothing. Screen printing is a printing technique whereby a mesh is used to transfer ink onto a substrate (like a t-shirt), except in areas made impermeable to the ink by a blocking stencil (the ink is pushed through the design onto the shirt). This is typically done manually, but larger firms may use automated machines for printing. Screen printed shirts are durable, vibrant, professional, can be produced to exact colours and have a quality to them beyond digital processes. There’s also a slight cache around the process itself – it takes so much to create a good shirt it inherently justifies a higher price point. I’ve printed several shirts and spent a lot of time in a screen printing studio, and as far as the process goes nothings coming close.
But the reason the digital alternatives exist in the first place is due to the numerous challenges screen printing presents. Whether you’re intending on printing shirts yourself, through a designer or printing company, the set-up costs in all scenarios is to say the least daunting. Unless you’re doing the printing yourself, the only way to make it financially viable is to print in bulk. However large volumes are risky investments today. If you don’t find your audience, don’t sufficiently market your product or your design fails to catch on, you could be left with lots of stock and a lot of losses. This means you may need to go into this option with more of an overall business plan, to produce a good product on a budget and get a sufficient return.
But if you’re confident you’re at the vanguard of t-shirt printing, you can find decent deals and raft of companies to help you on your way. In the UK I’ve used Fifth Column a few times, and though expensive staff have a great deal of knowledge and resource behind them. Another costly, yet quality service is via the good folks at Awesome Merchandise, though the prices make this an option more suited to promotional or merchandise (as the name would imply). If you’re not comfortable with that amount of outlay, you might look into companies like ShirtBot in the US, an on-demand screen printing service.
On the whole I welcome the advances in digital garment printing. And it’s clear there’s a market there for people wanting to make one-off or small run shirts for a variety of uses. But in terms of establishing a t-shirt or apparel business, it seems like the old ways are still the best. A screen printing-based enterprise requires investment, commitment, consideration, risk, and ultimately that’s what makes the best design.
Disclaimer: these are just my subjective findings, and this article isn’t long enough to do every t-shirt printing service out there justice. So if you’ve experienced different, please leave a comment below.