13 Mar 2012

10 Ways To Make Custom Printed T-Shirts To Sell

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Who doesn’t printed love t-shirts? They’re cheap, comfortable and best of all, they make a statement. Whether you’re an entrepreneur looking for a business, an artistic stay-at-home mom or a teenager on your summer break, t-shirts are a great way to have fun expressing yourself and yes, to make money.

If you have no experience making printed t-shirts, some of the following methods will require a fair bit of experimenting to get things right. Costs can quickly add up with every mistake even if you’re using cheap wholesale t-shirts, so I suggest your first task is to rummage through your closet and garage and get out all those old tees to use as test samples. Even old flat pieces of rags can be used to test small areas of prints. If you make mistakes, then well, they’re rags anyway!

When you first start out making printed t-shrits, you’ll want to keep your production low, concentrating on learning the techniques covered here. You don’t want to overprint and have all your funds tied up in keeping stock. Also, what I like about creating tshirts in small quantities is that you’re free to use practically all sorts of paints and dyes. Now, purists will shudder to hear me say that, but the fact is even canned spray paints can be used to create wonderful effects.

We’ll be looking at 10 different methods of making printed t-shirts :

  1. Silk screen printing
  2. Hand painting
  3. Tie and Dye
  4. Stenciling and reverse stenciling
  5. Bleaching
  6. Airbrushing and spraying
  7. Stamping
  8. Iron ons
  9. Embroidery
  10. Online services

1. Silk screen printing
This is by far the most common method of printing t-shirts. Like every other skill, it’s fairly easy to pick up but can take years to master. It’s possible to set up a small tshirt printing workshop in your garage using this method. Depending on the complexity of your projects (detail and number of colors), a one man operation can print anywhere from 20 up to 200 t-shirts a day. The good thing about silk screening your own t-shirts is you can control almost every aspect of the quality of your designs.

This post isn’t intended to be an indepth tutorial on screen printing t-shirts, but I thought it might be a good idea to focus a bit on this method since it is the most common technique of printing t-shirts. So if you’re thinking of starting a silk screen t-shirt business, it’s good to learn the basics of the following skills :

  • building your own screen frames or blocks, including how to stretch the silk mesh across the frames with the appropriate tension. Building strong durable screen frames are crucial because you don’t want your screens to fall apart right in the middle of a production run. Not only will that mean messy repairs, but it will also screw up your delivery timing and affect ALL your other shirts because building a new screen will require re-calibration and registration of all your screens to make sure all the separate colors line up correctly. You can skip this part altogether and just buy ready-made silk screen frames. The advantage of getting ready-made screen frames is that the silk is usually applied onto the frame with equal tension all-round by a machine. This is one of the most difficult things to achieve when applying silk onto frames by yourself.

    Some links on how to make your own screen frames :

    How To Make A Silk Screen Frame
    Silk screen kits and supplies

    How To Make Your Own Silk Screen

    Screen preparation

  • transferring your design to your silk screen frames. The final quality of your prints will largely depend on this stage so if you really want to go into screen printed tshirts, you’ve got to pay attention to this process. This process requires a fair bit of experimenting with photo emulsion and a light box to get it right, but if once you learn the basic techniques, it’s basically a matter of refining your skill with hands-on practice.

    How to make a hand-drawn positive for exposure onto silk screen
    How to use computer generated art for silk screen exposure

    Screen exposure : Transferring your image to silk screen

  • color mixing. Colors can make or break your designs. You need to learn the how different inks and dyes work and how to mix them to create the specific hues that you need. There are lots of different inks and dyes in the market, but to start off, it’s easiest to use a mixture of print paster and ink. Just look at this page to see a wide selection of print pastes and inks. This is a skill that takes lots of time to perfect and requires a good eye for color.
  • printing. This is the fun part. You screen print tshirts by forcing ink or dye through your silk screen mesh onto tshirts with a squeegee. It’s best to start with one or two-color designs that can actually be printed manually on a work tabletop, but eventually, you will need to speed up the printing process and that will require investment in printing presses that allow mutiple colored screens to be attached to a “carousel” of clamps.

    Here are a selection of videos to help you learn about screen printing t-shirts :

    Learn how to screen print your own t-shirts

    How to silk screen

  • curing your prints. Different types of ink and dyes (eg. dyes that create puffy or rubberized dyes) require different curing processes. This may involve anything from simply air drying to using flash dryers that dramatically speed up the drying process.

    More videos to help you get acquainted with how to dry your ink :

    Screen printing with a hand-held flash dryer

    Screen printing flash dryer

While it’s possible to do everything yourself – from building your screen blocks to creating your own stencils and actual printing – many of these tasks can be outsourced to specialists. Outsourcing may cost a bit more but can dramatically cut down on time and wastage. Many t-shirt printers eventually hire staff to handle the printing processes because they need to devote their time to the creative and administrative aspects of their tshirt business.

2. Hand painting
Hand painting t-shirts are the easiest way to create t-shirts to sell. Your canvas is the t-shirt itself and your tools are your creativity, imagination, hands and paint materials. If you’ve got an artistic streak in you, then hand-painting t-shirts will allow you lots of room to express yourself and share your thoughts throught art that other people can wear! There’s nothing to stop you from using any and every available medium for your hand-painted t-shirts for example :

  • T-shirt dyes
  • Acryllic paints
  • Spray cans
  • Enamel paints
  • T-shirt crayons
  • Permanent colored markers

What you DO want to make sure is that the paint you use remains color fast and will not wash off in the laundry. The worst thing that can happen is your colors start to run and staining all of your customers others clothes. The only way around this is to test-wash your hand-painted t-shirts. You might also want to test-wash your hand-painted t-shirts over a period of time to gauge how long each type of paint will last. This can vary depending on your technique and brand of paint used.

The obvious advantage to hand-painting t-shirts is that each t-shirt will be uniquely different. There WILL be “imperfections” – as is the case with any hand-painted craft – but these imperfections by themselves are proof to buyers that they are getting uniquely created “one-of-a-kind” t-shirts. Another advantage to producing hand-painted items is that you are allowed a wee bit more leeway in how you charge for each t-shirt.

Here are couple of examples of hand-painted t-shirts :

Watch a couple of videos on hand painting t-shirts :

Hand painting a t-shirt

Brush painting on a t-shirt

3. Tie and Dye

Tie and Dye are popular with folks who love wearing bright color-patterned t-shirts. There are countless ways to fold a t-shirt which is then tied or bound with string or rubber bands. When dye is applied to the t-shirt, the tied areas restrict the dye from penetrating the fabric’s fibres and the results is a mesmerizing array of colors in wonderful patterns.

The great thing about tie and dye t-shirts is that NO two shirts will ever look alike, so if you’re thinking of “UNIQUE” as a selling point, then this is really it. Your customers will love knowing that their t-shirt is truly a one-and-only creation.

Learning how to tie and dye and be really fun. Practice with lots of old t-shirts because you’ll want to know how different types of fabric react and produce different patterned hues when applied with different concentrations of dye. While tie and dye is usually thought of as a kiddie craft, I assure you that with a bit of creativity, lots of dunking and experimenting and elbow grease, you CAN make money selling bright, beautiful tie and dye t-shirts.

Great looking tie and dye t-shirts
More tie and dye t-shirt examples
The tie and dye process

Ready to start tien’ n dyen’? Then here are a couple more resources and videos :

Learn how to make tie and dye masterpieces
Learn how to tie and dye t-shirts

How to tie-dye t-shirts

Tie dye circle patterns

4. Stenciling and reverse stencil

Stencilling is sort of the poor man’s version of silk screening. Instead of transferring stencils onto silk screens, images or patterns are simplified and cut out on paper. The stencil is then taped onto the t-shirt and paint applied onto the stencil. The stencil will only allow the paint onto the exposed areas – thereby creating your image on the t-shirt. Reverse stencilling is simply the reverse technique where your stencil blocks the main image from being painted.

The biggest advantage to this method is obviously the savings in money. Hand printed stencils produce a slightly rough edged look that many people desire. There are however quite a number of disadvantages to this method. It’s time consuming and the stencils usually cannot be used for more than a dozen prints without some sort of deterioration in quality of the stencil as well as image. However, if you’re thinking of printing one-off custom t-shirts for customers, then this is a very cost effective method.

Creating stencils to paint on t-shirts
Stencil for spray painting – quick and fun
Decorate and personalize t-shirts for kids

The best way to get an idea on how stencilling is done is to watch it :

Stencil your own t-shirt

Reverse Stencil

5. Bleaching

I really love this method of making t-shirts. Bleaching t-shirts is actually the reverse of screen printing. In screen printing, you apply dye onto t-shirts via the opening in silk screen or hand made stencils. To bleach t-shirts, you REMOVE the dye pigment from the t-shirt by applying either a bleach solution or discharge paste to the opening in a stencil. Think about it as controlled staining. If you don’t want to use a stencil, you can paint the bleach paste directly onto your tee, but that’s a wee bit risky. What I love about this method is that it can be used to produce great effects depending on what you use to mask the bleach/paste and how you apply it.

More information and videos about t-shirt bleaching :

Types of discharge paste

T-shirt designs created with stencils and bleach
A great introduction and non-messy way to create bleach t-shirt designs
T-shirt designs with stencils and bleach
Controlled bleaching with discharge paste

Bleach paste t-shirt

Bleach your own punk rock tees

6. Airbrushing and spraying

This t-shirt creation method is an extension of the hand-painting method (#2). Airbrushing and spraying on t-shirts requires a fair degree of skill and experience because mistakes usually mean money down the drain. However, the benefits of airbrushed t-shirts are obvious. Each creation has that hand crafted “masterpiece” look so buyers can proudly proclaim that their tee is a unique one-of-a-kind. Remember again that if you’ve built a reputation and name around your artwork, air-brushed t-shirt masterpieces can sell for a lot of money. Learning the basic of air-brushing is easy. It’s getting the subtle nuances and color blending that can take years to get right. If you’ve been airbrushing for some time, you might want to consider t-shirts as an alternative (and lucrative) way to make money. However, if you’ve never held an airbrush before, fret not. Airbrushing is taught in many art schools as a short course. There are also lots of how-to videos and books that teach you the art of airbrushing. To get you started, here are a couple of links and videos to help spark the airbrush t-shirt artist in you :

Learn how to air brush
Air brushing basics

Air brushing letters on a t-shirt

Airbrushing with stencils

7. Stamping
We’ve all done this in craft class although we never used t-shirts as our canvas. This is the most basic of t-shirt printing techniques. Using any object with a flat surface that can be applied with ink or dye as a stamp – cut veggie, leaves, twigs, string, rubber stamps, your hands and feet etc. – dip them in fabric dye and just stamp out a pattern or design on the t-shirt. Stamping is easy and even your kids can join in to help create “limited edition” designs that you can sell. Obviously the biggest drawback to this technique is that it can easily go wrong and you end up with a messy print job, but if you practice on old rags, you should get the hang of it. You can customize your stamped t-shirts by stamping the buyer’s name on it.

Great videos to learn creative ways to stamp t-shirts :

Making a fireworks t-shirt
Making a slam-dunk design on t-shirt
Thumbprinting on a t-shirt
Friendly face t-shirt

More information and ideas for stamping in the following links :
Fabric stamping tips and techniques
Decorating t-shirts with rubber stamps

8. Iron-ons
One of the easiest ways to create designs for t-shirts if to print them on iron-on transfers and heat transfer them to the t-shirt. The great thing about iron-on designs are that they are relatively easy to produce. If you’re skilled at graphic design, then you already have a big advantage. You don’t need any sewing skills and you don’t have to learn the exacting skills of screen printing. The biggest disadvantage of iron-ons is that they can have a very short life-span if the t-shirts they are on are subject to vigorous wear and wash as opposed to screen printed shirts where the dye penetrates the fabric’s fibers permanently. The other small downside to iron-ons is that you will require special equipment to produce your designs although most of this will be a one-time cost. The consumables (iron-on transfer sheets) can be purchased as and when you need them.

You will need the following :

  • Software (to design your t-shirt or other iron-on transfer)
  • Printer
  • Iron (or heat transfer press)
  • Transfer paper (tips, types, sources)

Another advantage of iron-on transfers is that you can concentrate on producing just the designs on iron-on transfer sheets and sell them to your customers. You don’t have to worry about keeping t-shirts in stock and you can send your iron-on transfers by envelope (make sure to use a cardboard backing so the iron-on sheet won’t get crumpled or damaged at the edges). Remember to include detailed instructions on how to transfer the designs on to t-shirts – or you’ll be getting loads of complaints.

Here are some links and videos to learn more about t-shirt iron-on transfers :

Learning to print iron-on transfers for t-shirts

A great series of videos on iron-ons for t-shirts
FREE designs you can use on iron-on transfers

Types of iron-on transfers

How to create iron-on transfer

9. Embroidery

Embroidery isn’t the most cost effective way of creating designs for t-shirts (not your regular comfy cotton t-shirts anyway). You can hand embroider designs on t-shirts by hand but that would be a very time consuming task. These days, embroidery machines are more commonly used to stitch on logos and small designs for corporate identity. Other than t-shirts, embroidery can be used to personalize caps, bags, shoes etc. It’s also possible to embroider iron-on patches that you can either sell as is or transfer to t-shirts. The biggest drawback to embroidery is that you will require an embroidery machine or at the very least a heavy duty sewing machine and this will cost you money. You will then need to familiarize yourself with operating the machine.

The basic art of hand embroidery
How to create embroidered patches
How to tackle t-shirt embroidery

Embroidery sewing machine

Promo for six needle embroidery machine

10. Online services

9 ways to make tshirts to sell

9 ways to make tshirts to sell

9 ways to make tshirts to sell

Thanks to the wonder of modern technology and the Internet, there’s a way to make t-shirts to sell without learning any of the methods above or even touching a t-shirt. Cafepress.com, Zazzle.com and Printfection.com are websites that allow users to upload their own designs to be printed on a wide array of t-shirts. These companies handle the printing, shipping and payment process so people like you and me and concentrate on what we do best – creating really great designs.

You can create a design, upload it and request it to be printed on the t-shirt of your choice for you own consumption, but many people make good money with online stores hosted by these companies. However, lest you think that it’s all just a “plug and play” way to make money, it’s not. They take care of the backend processes and even give you free basic stores to plug your t-shirts and products, but marketing and promoting your store is entirely your responsibility. So even though you can set up a store with literally thousands of designs ready to go within a month, your most critical responsibility is to drive traffic there. Traffic is the key to success with online t-shirt sites.

Like any other business, running your own Cafepress, Zazzle or Printfection t-shirt store is a challenge. You’ve got to be prepared to put in hard work and patience to make money, but many a successful Cafepress store owner will tell you that it’s worth every minute of your life and every ounce of sweat you invest.


So there you have it, a long list of ways you can make t-shirts to sell. Where and how to sell them you ask? That’s a good question that will take another long post to answer. In the meantime, Googling “how to sell t-shirts” should give you about a half-million answers.

I’ve always been passionate about t-shirts so this is right up my alley. I’ve tried all of the methods except for one (embroidery), so I know that you’re going to have loads of fun learning and enjoying the satisfaction of seeing your designs come to life on a t-shirt.

I also have a couple of online t-shirt stores. If you liked this post, I’d like to invite you to visit my latest store and pick up a tee (or two or dozen..)

Happy t-shirt making!


About the Author

Music lover of all genres. Full-Time Insomniac.