Why you need them, what kinds there are, how to design them, and where to get them.
You’re here to learn about custom t-shirts.
We’re here to tell you exactly what you need to know about them, in a little over 5000 words.
And let’s be clear: this is NOT an encyclopedia entry. If you want to know about the history of t-shirts, try Wikipedia.
But if you want a straightforward guide that will save you time, money, and effort, stay here.
Content in this Article
If you’re completely new to the t-shirt buying process, we recommend reading this guide all the way through. It’s not that long, and it beats googling a ton of different questions and sorting through the search results until you find individual good answers.
On the other hand, if you just need an answer to a specific question or help with a particular step, skim through our table of contents to jump straight to the relevant section.
1. Purpose: Do You Need Custom T-Shirts?
Most people choose custom t-shirts either for people outside their group – fans, customers, 5k participants – or for members of their group: employees in a company, members of a sports team, event staff, you name it. The benefits of custom t-shirts will depend on what you use them for, so let’s take a quick look at the two main options.
Why Use Promotional T-Shirts?
Using t-shirts for marketing is an intuitive way to get your message out – after all, everyone wears t-shirts. But how effective is it actually?
T-shirt marketing statistics are extraordinarily difficult to find, largely because the success of a t-shirt marketing campaign is going to depend on your organization and how you distribute your t-shirts.
But suppose someone ONLY did marketing through t-shirts – and generated $500K in revenue doing it?
That would be great evidence that t-shirt advertising works really, really well. And in fact, Sujan Patel did just that in 2013. (Since then he’s made a lot more and sold his company).
T-shirt marketing worked great for Sujan, because it let him project his brand out to tons of potential customers. That engenders trust – people are much more likely to be interested in a brand that they’ve seen around.
That may have worked well for Sujan, but what about for the average company or organization?
Let’s do some math.
You sell or give a t-shirt to someone – we’ll call him your customer. Say your customer wears your t-shirt on 5 days out of a year. That’s a conservative estimate – I know I have t-shirts I wear more often than that.
So on average, how many people will see your customer on those days? Let’s say 100 – it’s obviously going to be less than that if your customer spends all his time in a cabin in Colorado, but for customers who live in urban areas – like 81% of people in North America – many more than 100 people will see your customer every day.
That’s at least 500 impressions a year – for one t-shirt.
If you give out fifty, then you’re seeing 25,000 impressions a year. Not bad! But t-shirts last for many years – so your ad keeps on advertising, and five years down the road your t-shirt marketing strategy has generated around 125,000 impressions.
For a small business or organization, that’s huge!
And what’s more, it’s not that complicated or expensive. You could have some crazy idea, struggle to explain it, talk to a custom t-shirt company and have all the t-shirts you want sitting on your doorstep in 24 hours.
The Importance of Uniforms in an Organization
What about using t-shirts for your own employees or group members? Conventional wisdom holds that uniforms can affect the mindset of your group’s members.
We’ve all felt this to some degree or another before – wearing similar clothes marks us out as one of a group, translating to greater loyalty to that group.
And what’s more, everyone else will immediately be able to recognize your members or employees – convenient for many organizations and businesses, but absolutely crucial for event staff or summer camp counselors.
(And if you expect to be outside in the summer often, t-shirts are much more comfortable than other uniforms. Just saying.)
There’s one point, though, that both the previous sections are assuming:
People like to wear your t-shirt.
After all, who wants to wear a t-shirt which has weird colors, cliched messaging, or off-target design?
So for your custom t-shirt endeavor to be a success, you’ll need a clear grasp of custom t-shirt design.
2. Find the Perfect Custom T-Shirt Design
When it comes to custom t-shirt design, you’re not even limited by the bounds of your imagination! After all, you can always take advantage of someone else’s imagination. Whether you’re designing the t-shirt yourself or getting someone else to do it, there are several t-shirt design layout tips to consider during EVERY design process.
Start with the End
Imagine someone comes up to you and says, “I need you to make a t-shirt design – it’s either going to be for a heavy metal band, or for a kindergarten easter egg hunt. I haven’t decided yet.”
That would be ridiculous, right? (Unless the kindergarteners ARE the heavy metal band. Actually, that would still be pretty ridiculous).
And it would be ridiculous because every t-shirt ought to be made with its end user in mind. This may seem intuitive, but one of the common pitfalls of t-shirt design is someone deciding “I want custom t-shirts” without a clear idea of who exactly the t-shirts are for.
You have to ask yourself,
who do I want to wear this t-shirt?
My customers? Do they tend to be male or female? In their 20s or their 50s? What other interests are they likely to have? What kind of shirt would they like to wear?
Once you have a good idea of your end user, the design process will be much easier.
And the metalheads won’t get fluffy yellow duckling shirts.
Imagine Someone Wearing the T-Shirt
This is a big one.
Way too often, designers create their t-shirt art on a two dimensional surface, whether a computer screen or a sheet of paper, without considering that it will end up being displayed on a three dimensional surface: someone’s chest and torso.
This can have unplanned results, such as the design drawing attention to weird parts of the torso, or text being cut off when viewed from certain angles.
Typically you’ll want the weight of the design to be focused around the top or center of the torso, as that tends to be more flattering.
Also, make sure that you know what the background color of the t-shirt will be – this will drastically affect the look of the finished shirt, and a design that matches well with one hue won’t look good with another.
It doesn’t take much effort to sit back for a moment and imagine your shirt as it will be worn – you can make sure important parts of your design won’t be obscured!
Composition before Detail
For professional artists, this is second-nature.
But for those of us who have an idea for a t-shirt and don’t want to hire a professional artist, jumping into the details of the design without thinking about its composition first is a common pitfall.
And if you’re thinking, “Well, that’s great, but what is composition and how do I think about it?” then this is the video for you:
And while we’re talking about detail, don’t use too much. You want people to be able to “get” your design quickly!
Detail, of course, isn’t just about shape. It’s also about color, which is why you should take a good look at the next tip.
Best Practice for T-Shirt Colors
Colors can make or break the design.
If you need a refresher on how to match colors in general, use this handy infographic:
Remember, the more colors you use, the more expensive your shirt will be to print – which is why it’s often recommended that you avoid using more than 3 hues. You certainly can use more colors, but just bear in mind that it will make the printing process more and more complicate.
Your Essential Grab Bag of Technical Tips
Outside of general design advice, there are a few important words of wisdom for t-shirt designers to keep in mind.
You should typically convert your design’s colors to a PMS color profile before sending it off to be printed.
If you don’t know what that means, then here’s an explanation from Col Gray (and you should really watch the video, because he has an amazing Scottish accent):
Quick version: using a PMS color profile will ensure that your design is printed in exactly the same colors you want – no variations.
It’s also a good idea to make your artwork actual size. This will help you to visualize exactly how it will look on the shirt (as we mentioned above), but it will also avoid issues that might be caused by shrinking or expanding your design to fit on the shirt.
Though not absolutely necessary, it’s considered best practice to submit files for printing as vector images rather than raster images.
Because vector images are stored as lines and shapes, making them much easier to edit and resize than raster images, which are stored as pixels.
Some print shops may even require you to submit your artwork in vector form, for ease of editing.
T-Shirt Design Inspiration
Maybe you’re a designer who needs new ideas every day.
Or maybe you’re not a designer and have no idea where to start.
Either way, you find yourself in need of inspiration for your t-shirt. And Robert Loyale can help you with that:
But if you need even more ideas, take a look at this list of incredible t-shirt design resources:
- 99designs’ T-shirt Design Ideas
- Printsome’s T-shirt Design Inspiration
- Double D Promo’s Pinterest Collection
- 386 Best T-shirt Designs
- Rush Order Tee’s Inspirational T-shirt Designs
- 99designs’ Graphic T-shirt Designs
- T-shirt Design Ideas and Inspiration from Design Hill
- 100 Original Fun Designs On T-shirts For Geeks And Designers
- From Up North’s Cool T-shirt Designs
- 30+ Creative T-shirt Designs As Inspiration
- 40 Incredible T-shirt Concepts for Inspiration
- 30 Amazing T-Shirt Designs for Your Inspiration
- 26 Original and Creative T-shirt Designs
- 30 Really Cool T-shirt Designs
- Dose of Inspiration: 15 Creatively Conceived T-Shirt Designs
- 275 Picture Perfect Typography T-Shirt Designs
5 Design & Inspiration Websites:
Best T-Shirt Design Tools
When it comes to t-shirt design tools, you have several options.
First, t-shirt printing websites often have design tools located in their site, giving you the ability to design your shirt right in your browser. If you’re a casual designer or only looking to design one t-shirt, this might be your best bet – and we’ll cover these sites more fully in Section 5, below.
For those who want to go more in depth into design, it may seem that there are a lot of t-shirt design tools out there – but we’d recommend against trying out any t-shirt design software offered for free.
As in so many things in life, you get what you pay for.
Instead, we’d suggest investing in either Adobe Illustrator or CorelDRAW Graphics Suite.
But which one is better? It depends.
Both are extremely capable tools that can handle even the most advanced and complicated designs. Corel, at around $200 a year, is a bit cheaper than Illustrator’s $240. Corel, however, is not supported on Macs. Both products can have steep learning curves, so if you’re already familiar with one it probably makes sense to double down on it.
If you’re familiar with neither, fear not: since these programs are so popular, there are plenty of tutorials out there to help supercharge your learning. Start with the official tutorials for CorelDRAW and Illustrator!
A Final Note
For many of you, design is either not your thing, or you don’t have time to do it properly. If this is the case, you might want to take advantage of in-house artists working for many t-shirt printing companies. Skip down to the section on choosing a printing company for more information!
You figured out your design. Congratulations! It’s not easy.
But now you have more questions, like “What kind of shirt should I buy?” “How many should I buy?” and “What sizes should I buy?”
Fortunately, we can help you with that…
…in the next section.
3. Ordering: Picking the Right Options for Your T-Shirt Order
So many choices.
What kinds of t-shirts are there? And how many should I get? And what sizes?
In this section, we’ll provide answers to all your questions.
T-Shirt Fabric Types: Staying Cool
If you’re not a professional t-shirt salesman, you may not be very familiar with the wide variety of different materials available for a shirt, nor what kind of shirt they’d be best for.
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. If you’re in a hurry, this 2 minute video covers the main t-shirt fabrics:
In the following sections, we’ll take a look at each of the main types of t-shirt fabrics in more detail – as well as cover a few that aren’t in the video.
The Advantages of Cotton Clothes (and some disadvantages!)
Cotton is one of the most popular t-shirt fabric choices, and it’s easy to see why. It’s soft and smooth on your skin, and depending on the weave and thickness, it can be quite breathable, letting airflow cool you down.
Depending on the type of cotton (more on that later) it’s also quite sturdy and very difficult to tear – always an advantage!
Cotton is easy and forgiving to wash – though it can shrink considerably, depending on its quality.
And finally, cotton is very easy to print on – an essential point for custom t-shirts!
On the other hand, cotton is uniquely absorbent – it can collect up to 25 times its own weight of water – and dries slowly. This means that on a hot day it can cause you to quickly appear very sweaty, while if you’re exerting yourself on a cold day it can trap clammy moisture next to you.
When t-shirt shopping, it’s also helpful to know the different types of cotton, as this can drastically affect the quality of the shirt:
- Slub Cotton – Made by deliberately twisting the cotton strands, leading to a unique, textured fabric. It tends to be lower quality due to a slightly rougher feel and lower strength, but the textured, naturalistic look can be appealing.
- Combed Cotton – during fiber processing, fine brushes comb the cotton to remove short strands and straighten long ones, making for a stronger and smoother fabric. This technique may or may not be combined with ring-spinning:
- Ring-Spun Cotton – During the spinning process, cotton strands are twisted and thinned into stronger and more durable fibers – making for a stronger (though more expensive) fabric.
- Organic Cotton – more expensive than regular cotton, but grown with great care to minimize environmental footprint.
- Pima / Supima Cotton – considered the highest quality cotton, due to its extraordinarily long strands making it the strongest and softest cotton out there.
POLYESTER CLOTHING PROS AND CONS
Coming in just behind cotton for popularity, polyester is the yang to cotton’s yin.
A synthetic fiber, polyester is very strong. Unlike cotton, it’s quite wrinkle resistant and dries quickly, making it a frequent choice for durable workwear or athletic clothes – though it’s not enormously breathable.
It also tends to be less expensive than high-end cotton, which is a bit of a double-edged sword – less of a pain to your wallet, but in some circles it can mark you as cheap.
When it comes to printing, there are still plenty of printing methods (see below) that work for polyester, but not as many as for cotton: some methods involve high levels of heat, which will scorch the polyester.
Fortunately, you don’t always have to choose between polyester and cotton…
Fabric manufacturers quickly realized that they could combine polyester and cotton to split the difference between their advantages and disadvantages – many different blends are available, but the most common are 65% cotton to 35% polyester, or 50% each.
Another natural fiber, linen is made with fibers from the flax plant. Compared to cotton, it’s lightweight, twice as strong, dries quickly, and is very breathable.
So why is cotton more popular? For one thing, linen’s superior breathability means that it won’t keep you warm.
For another, it wrinkles very easily.
This combination of advantages and disadvantages means that linen is typically best used as outside summer wear, particularly in hot climates.
A combination of natural fibers, rayon is soft, inexpensive, breathable, and quickly transfers moisture away from the body to be evaporated, making it a frequent choice for athletic clothing.
It also drapes very well over the body, benefiting the comfort level and overall appearance.
On the downside, it will wrinkle and tends to wear out quicker than other fabrics, particularly if frequently rubbed or abraded. In fact, it’s typically recommended that rayon not be tumble-dried, since this speeds the degeneration of the fabric.
Doing poly-cotton one better, triblends add a third fabric to the mix. The most common third fabric is rayon, typically in a 50% cotton, 25% polyester, 25% rayon blend.
Triblends are designed to balance the different qualities of their components, mixing the perfect combination of strength, durability, and comfort.
As might be expected, this can make them a more expensive option – but depending on your priorities, they can definitely be worth it.
Best Fabric for T-Shirt Printing: A Final Tip
So with all the options to choose from, what’s the best fabric to make shirts?
It does depend on what kind of temperature and moisture level you expect shirt-wearers to experience. But when it comes to custom printed t-shirts, there is one final point you need to know:
Synthetic fibers, such as polyester and rayon, are harder to dye than natural ones, such as cotton.
This difference can have a noticeable effect on the final look of your t-shirt! What’s more, fabrics that are a blend of natural and synthetic fibers will often give your design a “heathered” look, as the natural fibers accept the dye and the synthetic fibers largely resist it.
Consequently, t-shirt designs are most commonly printed on 100% cotton or blends with a high concentration of natural fibers – but it is definitely possible to print on other fabrics!
T-Shirt Sizes: Keeping it Simple
When trying to decide what t-shirt sizes to order, you have several options.
If you know all the people that you’re ordering for – for example, the members of a club, or students on a trip – then you can simply ask them to send you their sizes. There will always be a few that don’t get the memo, but for a small group you can usually guess their sizes pretty accurately.
What if you can’t contact the people who are going to wear your shirt? This will be the case for very large groups, for events, or for t-shirts you plan to sell to your customers.
The best advice here is to use your common sense.
To return to an earlier example, kindergarteners and metalheads will not need the same size t-shirts.
Think about your target audience – the average man will be larger than the average woman, jocks tend to be larger than nerds, etc. Are these t-shirts intended for adults only, for children only, or for both?
If you really have no idea, or are aiming your t-shirt at a very general audience, then the following breakdown of the most commonly sold t-shirt sizes may be helpful:
Infographic from realthread.com
For an order of 100 shirts, you might get 2 XS, 20 S, 29 M, 28 L, 16 XL, and 5 2XL – or skew the numbers a bit based on your target audience.
(For groups outside the United States, check out these statistics compiled by DizzyJam).
Also, be aware that not all t-shirts come in all sizes – some manufacturers skip XS t-shirts since they’re so uncommon, while others go all the way out to 4XL or 5XL.
Custom T-Shirt Styles: A Guide to a Complex World
What’s the best style of t-shirt to feature your design?
It’s a question you’ll have to ask yourself eventually as you progress toward your custom t-shirt goal.
There are an incredible number of t-shirt styles out there, and it can be quite a chore sorting through them all for the perfect fit (see what we did there?).
To help you find the right style for your custom t-shirt quickly and easily, in the following graphics we’ve broken down the main styles according to three main areas: necks, sleeves, and fits.
- Round / Crewneck
- Henley / Y-neck
- U Neck / Scoop Neck
- Cap Sleeve
- Short Sleeve
- ¾ Sleeve
- Long Sleeve
- Raglan or Baseball Sleeve
You’re ready to order. You’ve got your design, you’ve picked out a shirt for it, and you know how many you want.
Now you just need to get them printed.
And the next section will help you understand how that process works.
4. Printing: Know Your T-Shirt Printing Options
Understanding the different t-shirt printing methods is more important than you might think.
There are a variety of different options, each with their own pros and cons. They may be more or less expensive, do better or worse on different shirt materials, or fit well with some designs but not with others.
Having even a basic knowledge of these methods will go a long way toward helping you choose your best option – but if you want to go even more in depth, you can watch this video:
Not interested in all the details? Then read the following section for the basic overview.
Different Types of T-Shirt Printing Methods
The main t-shirt printing options are:
Printing T-Shirts with the Transfer Paper Method
In our opinion, this is the best method of printing t-shirts.
The design is printed digitally onto sheets of transfer paper, which are then printed onto the individual shirts using a heat press.
This is a clean, efficient, and straightforward process, unlike some of the other options on this list. It also supports a full range of colors without becoming excessively complicated, making it an excellent pick for intricate designs with a wide range of color.
One disadvantage it has, though, is that it only works on materials than aren’t sensitive to high heat – 100% polyester, for example, might start to scorch or burn in the heat press.
Screen Printing T-Shirts
Screen printing is considered the most common t-shirt printing method, at least in terms of the number of shirts made by it.
In screen printing, the design is split into stencils, or “screens”, one for each color that the design uses. Ink is then applied to the shirt using the stencil, printing all of one color into the design. Subsequent ink and screen combinations fill in the other colors.
Since each screen can be used practically infinitely, this makes screen printing ideal for larger quantities of t-shirts.
Only one screen is required, rather than hundreds of sheets of transfer paper.
On the other hand, screen printing is considerably less cost-effective it it’s only intended for a few shirts – it’s not worthwhile to go through the trouble of making a special stencil for only five shirts.
Furthermore, each color that a screen-printed design uses will require yet another screen – which means that complicated, multi-color designs are not a great fit for screen printing.
It should also be noted that not all screen printing inks work the same way.
Most will set on the surface of the shirt, but water-based inks soak into the shirt – and discharge inks not only soak into the shirt, but remove whatever dye is already present, making them a great choice for printing on dark fabrics.
Direct to Garment (DTG) Printing
Skipping over screens and transfer paper sheets completely, direct to garment printing uses inkjet technology to print directly onto the fabric – no extra steps.
This allows for very high-quality, complex, and multi-colored designs to be easily printed.
If you see a t-shirt with a photographic quality of design, it was probably printed through the direct to garment method.
Unlike screen printing, it can also easily run small orders – though for large orders of simple designs, screen printing will most likely be quicker.
Finally, DTG printing has several other limitations. It’s easier to apply to lighter fabrics than to darker ones, and it also is designed for natural materials like cotton, rather than synthetic fabrics like polyester.
The Sublimation Printing Process
At first glance, it can be hard to tell the difference between heat transfer and sublimation printing.
They both involve printing your design onto special paper, and then heat pressing it into the shirt.
Sublimation, however, uses ink that will turn to gas when heated, and then embed itself on any polyester-coated surface. When printing on t-shirts, this results in the most durable print job possible – sublimation inks, if applied properly, will barely fade at all.
So why doesn’t everyone use sublimation? Because it only works on 100% polyester (and it’s usually more expensive, since the equipment and inks are fairly pricey).
Vinyl T-Shirt Printing
Yet another printing method requiring a heat press, vinyl printing doesn’t use ink at all.
Instead, precision tools cut the design into sheets of colored vinyl, which are then pressed onto the shirt. The excess vinyl is then picked off, leaving the design.
*disclaimer: this has nothing to do with vinyl printing on t-shirts
Multiple different sheets can be used to create a multi-colored design, but it’s important not to use too much or the shirt will become progressively heavier and less flexible.
Vinyl’s great advantages, however, are that it won’t fade or crack over time, making it a great choice for smaller designs on higher-end t-shirts.
By now, you should have a much clearer understanding of your t-shirt printing options, and the pros and cons of each.
It’s time for the final step: choosing a printer.
5. Company: Choose the T-Shirt Company You’ll Love
Excellent! You’ve designed your t-shirt to fit your goals, chosen the right material and style, calculated how many of each size you’ll need, and learned about the best printing options for your project.
All this information will extraordinarily helpful as you choose which printer is the right fit for you.
However, there are a few more questions that you need to answer for yourself.
- How fast do I need my shirts?
- How much complexity am I willing to tolerate in the ordering process?
- How much customer support do I need/want?
- Do you want to see a test shirt before you order the full run?
- Do you want a company with a robust refund policy?
- And last but not least, what’s your budget?
Not all companies are created equal when it comes to quality, speed, simplicity, and customer support.
Where to Buy Custom T-Shirts
We get it; you don’t have tons of time to pour into researching the best company to order your t-shirts from.
That said, it’s worth taking a few extra steps to make sure you get the quality you’re paying for.
1. Do a quick google search for custom t-shirts, and list both national brands that catch your eye and local printing companies in your area. This will quickly give you a grasp of all your potential options.
2. Find reviews for these companies. For national brands, sites like ResellerRatings.com or TrustPilot.com can give you a good grasp of how well a company performs. For local companies, Google, Facebook, and Yelp reviews should tell you all you need to know – and if there aren’t many reviews, it signals that a company isn’t well established.
Call us biased, but we really think local companies offer a lot of advantages over giant corporations, particularly if you want personal support.
Since local printers also have less orders to fill, it’s harder for your project to get lost in the shuffle – and the printers have more motivation to treat you well, since your opinion of their work will determine whether you recommend your friends to them.
3. Once the reviews have narrowed your options down further, check the company’s websites for further information, staying alert for any danger signals. It’s probably worth your while get quotes from several different companies as well, since the price for your project may vary from printer to printer.
And if you’re wondering how much your project should cost you, the next section will give you a hand.
What do Custom T-Shirts Cost? aka: Keeping your Wallet Happy!
So how much are custom t-shirts, anyway?
As with so many things… it depends.
Specifically, custom t-shirts can cost anywhere from under $5 to over $20 per shirt, depending on five main factors:
- Type of Shirt. Good quality polos will cost more than low-quality basic cotton t-shirts.
- Quantity of Shirts. Most printing companies will discount prices for larger orders.
- Shirt Color. Darker shirts take more ink to make, and so are often more costly.
- Design Colors. In some methods, each color has to be printed separately, so more colors make the printing process more time-consuming.
- Image Placement. Larger Designs or multiple printing locations take more time and effort for the printer.
Make sure to read over different company’s pricing information carefully. One printer might seem much cheaper until you realize that they don’t offer free shipping. Others might have hidden fees of one kind or another.
Once again, it’s always a good idea to shop around and see how different printers compare to each other for your specific order.
We hope you found this guide helpful! It took some work to put together.
That said, we’re eager to make it even better and more useful to you all.
What information was most helpful to you? Did anything leave you confused or wanting to know more? Did we leave out something you find super important?
Let us know by writing a quick comment! We’ll read it and take it seriously.