I had the idea for writing this post a couple of weeks ago, but then I picked up Twenty Bits from Dan Cedarholm, and his first tip is about making a T-shirt. That solidified that I needed to write this post.
I’m a computer person. I spend 95% of my days in a simple T-Shirt. I do have some plain shirts, but most of mine have sort of graphic on them. I guess my obsession with them started in college when I would get about 12 a year in college for my cheerleading team. Each shirt would have a different design on it.
Once I got out of college and started running my own high school team, I was in charge of making the shirts for those team. I started to learn about brands, as well as printing and designing the shirts. The more I did that, the more I learned about how different cuts and fabrics feel. As with most things in my life, once intrigued, I dove into the research of what was best.
I had once found it in American Apparel Tri-Blend shirts, but then the company (for good reasons) went out of business. I’ve had to do some research to stay up on what works best in my opinion. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over my decades of making shirts. Hopefully, it might help some people.
About shirts, fabrics, and cuts
First thing to talk about when it comes to a shirt is the weight. T-shirts come in many different weights. Some are light weight and some are heavy weight. Light weight shirts are great for working out and summer days, but some say they aren’t warm enough for winter months. Heavy weight shirts wear on the body and sometimes feel stiff and hard to move in. Which shirt weight you want will depend on what you are looking for. My preference usually tends towards the lighter shirts, as I use these mostly as a base layer and will put stuff over top.
Fabric is another factor of how a shirt fits. There are shirts that are 100% cotton and various blends. There is also a thing called ring spun cotton. Different blends will have different textures and different stretch patterns. Depending on the shirt, my preference is either a 60 / 40 cotton poly blend or a ring spun cotton option.
The last little piece to talk about is the cut. Some shirts have longer arms, some are longer in the torso. There is also the whole notion of unisex vs men’s and women’s shirts. All of this is a factor. As someone who made cheerleading shirts for mostly women, the female cut shirts were a big deal.
Shirts and brands I trust
Whenever I go to print a shirt I start with a design idea, but I’ll talk about that later. Once the design is determined, the next step is to find the shirt. There are several go to brands that are great places to start. Next Level is one of the brands that I use a bunch of the time. There Tri-Blend shirts tend to be my favorite on the market. These shirts are light and very flexible. They fit naturally over the body and are super comfortable to wear. These shirts are also in the relatively affordable price range for making a bunch.
Another shirt that I love—but have not been able to get a big enough quantity to do some screen printing on—is The Blanks from Cotton Bureau. I enjoy the fit of their shirts so much. They are probably the most comfortable shirts I own. I usually get them with one the designs, but I do have a couple of blanks I’ve gotten throughout the years. These shirts are breathable, a pretty great weight (not too light, not too heavy), and seem to wear really well. The downside, they are expensive and hard to get a hold of.
Other brands that I have a passing familiarity with in terms of shirt include: Bella, Guildan, and Fruit of the Loom. None of these shirts have really impressed me enough to point where I look for them when I first start creating a shirt.
If none of these options really match what you’re doing, work with a representative of the printing shop to figure out what they would recommend. These people spend much more time than you building out shirts. They know the brands they have in stock, and if you are able to answer the weight and style questions, they are usually pretty good at helping you find your options.
Ink, Colors, and Locations
Another factor in the cost of a T-shirt is the number of colors and locations. I’m not a screen printer, but as I understand it, colors are layered on. Each layer requires its own screen. Creating a screen has a cost. Changing which screen is on the machine has a cost. If you want to print more than just on the front—for example putting a logo mark on the back of the neck—you have to pay for another screen and another print. All of these costs go into your final shirt design. For this reason, most of my shirts are single color, single location prints.
One T-shirt is light. 100 T-shirts starts to get heavier. When trying to make an economical T-shirt, shipping can really add up. For this reason, if I’m making a smaller number of shirts, it might make more sense to find a local screen printer than pay for shipping, even if the cost per shirt is higher. You can just search for “Screen Printing Near Me” and find some good results. Most shops will give you a quote if you know the shirt, colors, and locations of prints.
The shop that I’ve used the most recently is the Golden Road Ink. I worked with a sales rep named Kyle, but he has since moved on. They had good connections to get the shirts I wanted, had pretty quick turn around (even doing a couple of super fast jobs for me), and reasonable pricing. They are a Bay Area local place. Currently, I’m not in the Bay Area, and I don’t have a new printer where I am now, yet.
I have in the past used Threadbird. This is the shop that Dan Cederholm uses. Depending on the number of shirts you are doing and the features you want, I’ve found that with the shipping they aren’t always at the same cost level of getting it done locally, but they do VERY good work.
Some places will take a rough sketch and turn it into a design for you. I’m a little more controlling than that. My designs are usually illustrator vector files. This allows me to really have control over what I’m doing. I will shrink it down the actual size of the print to make sure details still match what I want. Remember, you need to have a design that works on all the sizes of the shirts you are making. If you are making an XXS and an XXXL you might want to have two different sizes of the same print (though this will add cost). The chest area is different on each of these sizes. What might take up the whole shirt on the XXS will be a patch in the center of the XXXL.
Another point worth making, CONVERT all TEXT to OUTLINES. If you are using a special font, your printers may not have it. They may choose one that is recommended, and it may look close enough for you or it may not.
Hopefully, this article will be helpful to others, but even if it isn’t, maybe it will remind me not to make the same mistakes I’ve made when making shirts in the past. It’s not exactly a how-to do this; it’s more of a how-to think about making shirts.