Heat Transfer vs. Screen Printing on T-Shirts and Promo Items
Heat transfer vinyl (HTV) and screen printing are two processes for making promotional T-shirts or fabric items. If you want to make shirts branded for your company, these are usually the first two options you’ll come across. Here’s what you need to know about screen printing before you make your choice!
Printed promotional apparel is among one of the most popular categories of promo items. From casual to formal, outdoor to accessories, apparel is something everyone loves. This go-to choice turns your recipients into walking billboards for your brand!
When it comes to customizing t-shirts and other apparel items, there are two main ways to get a logo or other artwork onto the product: heat-transfer printing and screen printing. While both methods essentially transfer an image onto fabric, there are plenty of differences and situations where one method might be better suited than the other.
In addition to their advantages and disadvantages, the two designs come out quite differently, so customer preference also comes into play. Let’s take a closer look at these two imprint methods:
What is Heat-Transfer Printing?
A somewhat recent innovation, heat transferring images to fabric has become more popular in the last 20 years. A heat transfer uses a combination of heat and pressure to print images onto t-shirts and other items. There are two main kinds of heat transfer methods: vinyl and digital print. Both methods require the use of a heat-press machine. Here’s a 10 second video to show you:
How Does a Vinyl Heat Transfer Work?
The vinyl heat-transfer process uses a machine to cut out individual letters and designs from pieces of colored vinyl. The full image is then pieced together on the promo item and pressed with heat to transfer the image to the item. This method is best suited for printing sportswear jerseys, slogans, or small, multi-colored graphics.
How Does Digital Print Heat Transfer Work?
A digital print heat transfer is accomplished through a process much like a home printer. The full graphic image is designed on the computer and digitally printed onto high-quality paper using a special, solvent ink. When the paper is pressed to the promo item with heat, the ink adheres to the material and the graphic image transfers to the item. T-shirts and other garments printed using this method offer high-resolution images and are ideal for complex designs with many colors.
Heat transfers are great for smaller print runs or jobs that involve many colors. This method of printing requires a special printer and quality of paper, as well as a heating press to set the design in place.
o More cost-effective for smaller orders
o Easy to print images containing multiple colors and complex designs
o Affordable setup keeps costs down
o Produces high-quality images
o Allows you to easily customize different shirts
o Clean and environmentally friendly
o Not ideal for darker shirts
o Designs don’t last as long as screen printed shirts
o Results in a stiffer feel on the fabric
o Colors aren’t as bright as screen printed shirts
What Is Screen Printing on Shirts?
Screen printing basically uses screens and ink to transfer an image onto a t-shirt or promo item. While original forms of this art date back to around 960 AD, screen printing in its current form was not discovered until the 1910s after several printers stumbled upon the modern emulsion process. It wasn’t until Andy Warhol began popularizing the practice in the 1960s that screen printing (or silk screening as it’s also called) really started being used in the mainstream.
To get the desired effect, the screen is first cut to create what is essentially a stencil for the design. The ink is then spread over the screen with a squeegee, passing through the “stencil” to the t-shirt or promo item underneath. Only one color may be used for each screen, so for a design with multiple colors you will need multiple screens.
Screen printing shirts is a simple process. The printer starts by placing a reverse negative of the design on a silk screen.
During the printing process, the printer uses special ink to create the exact colors you want. They flatten the shirt, put it inside a metal press, put the screen down and add the ink, using a squeegee to apply it. Then, the printing company dries the T-shirts and inspects them to ensure the design looks perfect and is positioned in the right location.
This process can be more time-consuming for designs that have many colors; however, screen-printed art tends to last much longer than heat-pressed art. It also requires more chemicals and equipment for it to work.
Here’s a quick 8-second video to show you:
How Long Does Screen Printing Last?
Screen printing T-shirts create a durable, long-lasting design that can endure between 40 and 50 washes in the machine. The ink used for screen printing is extremely thick and penetrates the fabric deeply. Using the gentle cycle, washing the shirt inside out or hand-washing it can prolong the screen printing design even longer.
How Do Screen Printers Work?
It’s possible to screen print by hand or with a machine. With either method, the basics of the process are always the same:
- Create a design.
- Choose a screen and mesh count.
- Expose the emulsion.
- Make a stencil.
- Prepare for printing.
- Apply the design.
- Dry and heat cure.
Screen printing is an efficient process that makes it easy to get shirts with promotional images or messaging for any business. When you reach out with a design idea, we’ll create a mock-up of it. With your approval, we’ll make it into a stencil on a mesh screen to complete the printing process.
o Screen printing is more cost effective for large quantities
o Results in a softer feel on fabrics
o Designs are more durable and last longer
o Allows for more vibrant colors, even on a dark-colored fabrics
o Limited to simple designs with few colors
o The process can be messy and time consuming up front
o Expensive to set up requiring higher minimums – not suitable for small orders
o Not ideal for photo replication
o Uses more chemicals and equipment than heat transfers
Heat Transfer vs. Screen Printing Quality
When it comes to printing quality, there are a couple ways to look at it: durability and resolution. While heat-pressed items yield a higher resolution image to start with, the image won’t last as long as one on a screen-printed item.
Freshly printed it will likely appear that the graphic produced using the heat transfer method is of better quality; however, over time graphics produced using the screen-printing method will appear of better quality.
During the screen-printing process, the ink actually becomes part of the fabric as opposed to a heat-pressed ink that just sits on top of the fabric. That’s why heat-transfers don’t hold up as well to machine washing and drying – they may crack and fade over time whereas screen prints tend to hold fast and true.
While screen prints may hold up better in the long run, you’re limited in the complexity of the design with screen prints. Heat transfers allow more freedom in color and sophistication making a more crisp-looking image (but keep in mind the crisp look will not last as long).
HTV vs. Screen Printing — Which Is Better?
Heat transfer vinyl is another option for putting designs onto T-shirts. Both methods offer pros and cons. For example, screen-printed shirts are more durable than HTV because they are made from ink. The ink goes into the shirt material, while an HTV design stays on the surface. This surface-level exposure makes the HTV design more likely to crack or fade during use and wash. A screen-printed shirt should last for numerous washes, if not the entire life of the shirt.
That said, HTV is an easier process than screen printing — so there is a benefit if you’re on a tight timeline! However, because HTV printing is easier and quicker, the results are often of lower quality compared to screen printing.
In terms of budget, both printing methods are often cost-effective in their own ways. Since screen-printed designs can be reused, they often outweigh the low cost of vinyl.
Which Printing Method is Best?
The printing method best for you depends on your individual needs. Consider your answers to following questions when deciding between the two:
• Does your imprint image have a complex, detailed design?
Yes = Heat transfer will cost-effectively produce the crispest image
• Does your imprint image contain more than two or three colors?
Yes = Heat transfer is the more cost-effective method
• What color is the t-shirt fabric you’re printing on?
Dark = Screen printing will produce the more vibrant imprint
Light = Heat transfer will produce the more vibrant image
• Does your target audience value environment-friendly products?
Yes = Heat transfer will add value
• How many shirts or promo items are you ordering?
Less than 500 = Heat transfer is the more cost-effective method
More than 500 = Screen printing is the more cost-effective method
• Does your target audience prefer longer-lasting clothing and promos or a higher-end appearance for the short-term?
Higher quality, short-term = Heat transfer is the best method for you
Lower resolution, lasting image = Screen printing is the best method for you
While both methods offer solutions to getting a design onto a t-shirt or other product, screen printing and heat transfers are each great for different reasons. If you are printing customized designs with different names (such as sports team uniforms), a heat transfer might be the most cost-effective way to go; however, if you are printing a larger order of the same image and want a more durable design, screen printing is likely your best bet.
It all depends on what you need and what’s important to your target audience.
Shop for Promotional Screen-Printed T-Shirts Today!
At ePromos, we create screen-printed, HTV and embroidered promotional T-shirts for companies. Whether you want to get a message out or commemorate an event, we can help. Shop our promotional apparel today or contact us for further assistance!
For more imprint method options, check out our glossary. And if you have any questions about heat transfer vs. screen printing or other imprint methods, give us a call! Our friendly and knowledgeable staff is happy to help you find the best possible imprint and item for your unique situation.
Updated August 16, 2022