Thinking of starting a T-Shirt Design Business

As the price of modern technology continues to fall, aspiring designers are finding it increasingly possible to produce small quantities or even individually designed printed T-shirts.

A T-shirt design business can be a part-time venture for an additional source of income. It can also be a full-time career where you’re in charge of your own work, and prosperous work at that.

But how do you ensure that your T-shirt design venture is a success? That is what we will be discussing over the course of this article.

What Types of T-shirt Printing Are Possible?

There are several methods of T-shirt printing to be considered as you evaluate your business strategy. Each has its benefits, and each is preferred for certain circumstances. Choosing the right printing method is absolutely crucial.

Heat Transfer printing is arguably the most popular choice for small businesses. The process involves heat transfer to press an existing photo or design on to a fabric. While it certainly isn’t as lasting as other methods, transfer printing is great for small quantities and is much faster than, say, screen printing.

Heat transfer provides a smooth feel when the fabric is produced. You’ll certainly notice the difference in texture, but it also has a tendency to crack more often. The machinery required is relatively small and a good option for small scaled production.

One of the most important things to remember with transfer printing is the restrictions of pressing on to coloured garments. In general, most forms of transfer printing will focus on white T-shirts. This is due to the problems which arise when you try to press certain colours on to darker garments. Transferring yellow on to a blue garment would traditionally leave a greenish tone, for example.

Thankfully, there are now options available which cater for different coloured fabric printing.

Vinyl transfers are one of those additional options. Focused primarily on offering support for colour layering, vinyl pressing allows designers to use multiple colours and produce high quality final prints.

The process is centred on embellishing a garment. To use it will require a vinyl cutter which allows you to cut out a logo or design from a specific sheet. The design is then pressed through usual heat transfer means.

The process isn’t really geared towards mass production, and is actually better suited for single print T-shirts. It’s a fairly new method, and not the cheapest, but the quality of output is high – perfect for lettering. Vinyl transfer print is suitable if you’re looking for a one-off print with distinct contrasting colours.

The third process that we’re going to look at is known as sublimation printing.

Sublimation is typically used to print on to light coloured synthetic surfaces. It’s the process of ink turning directly in to gas under heating, and this makes for a relatively improved output as opposed to traditional heat transfer printing. However due to the limited availability and demand for synthetic clothing I would advise caution when considering basing your T-shirt business on sublimation printing.

You'll find that T-shirts printed through sublimation don’t feel the same as transfer printed fabrics. This is because the toners used are applied below the surface of the substrate.

The major difference which separates sublimation printing lies in the way that the inks are sensitive to heat. To achieve the desired effect, special toners are used and a transfer sheet will be produced. This transfer sheet can be applied to a variety of different fabrics. However, if you’re going to use sublimation, you should restrict it to synthetic fabric such as polyester and acrylic.

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Choosing the Right T-shirt Printing Equipment

The heat press is arguably the most important component of any T-shirt printing business. Without a high quality model, you’ll find your final prints lacking colour and/or clarity. It’s very important to gauge both the heat and pressure of your transfers. Picking the right heat press will ensure consistency throughout. So what are your options?

For the absolute beginners and those with space to consider, the Clam Type Press is a great choice. It has a small frame so you won’t find it consuming half of your living room. On the next step up is the Swing Press, which is a modified design. This improves speed and accuracy of printing by allowing easier access to the T-shirt you are printing.

If you’re looking to mass produce, you’d be well advised to invest in a Pneumatic Press. These machines are more expensive but they work more efficiently with precise heat and pressure application. Companies such as Xpres and Target Transfers supply full ranges of heat presses.

Once you have a quality heat press, the next step is to invest in an efficient printer. And now you’re faced with the golden question – ink jet or laser?

Both printer technologies have their pros and cons. Ink jet devices are much cheaper to buy than their laser counterparts. The advantage of ink jet printers is that they produce bright colour with vibrant contrast. The downside is that the ink can be expensive. The texture of the print from an inkjet printer is different to T-shirts that have been commercially printed

Can you accept a slightly less professional texture, in exchange for a reduced set up cost and brighter colour? If so, an ink jet brand is the printer for you.

Laser printers, on the other hand, are renowned for producing prints which will last for a much longer period of time. They aren’t blessed with the same bright colour output, and they’re also more expensive.

The huge incentive of laser printing is that the fabric will retain a more natural feel. In other words, it won’t feel as if you’ve pressed a design on to it. For professional output, this is extremely appealing.

In terms of brand names, you’ll find that the major printer brands (Hewlet Packard, Canon, Epson) will have a printer in their range that will meet your requirements.

For sublimation printing, you may need to invest in a different kind of printer – along with special inks. Xpres produce their own brand of Subli-Print sublimation inks. These are specifically catered for the heat sensitivity that the sublimation process requires. It’s possible to buy a low budget printer from a dealer like Epson, and by making use of the sublimation inks; you should be able to use it for your purpose.

Finally, if you’re interested in the vinyl manufacturing option, you will need an actual vinyl cutter. These can be pretty expensive to obtain, but a good cutter is absolutely paramount to your success in the vinyl market.

Roland and Stika provide a large range of cutters, from the absolute bottom range of the market – usually for hobbyists – to those who require giant 24 inch cuts.

Obviously, if you’re going to be focused on T-shirt printing, you won’t need the widest cut size. A vinyl cutter with an 8 inch range should fulfil your basic needs – providing that you don’t dip in to the XXXL market!

Finding the right T-shirt Supplier

Put T-shirts or polo-shirts in to Google and dozens of suppliers will be returned, but how do you decide who to buy from?

Generally speaking, it’s best to stick to the products from tried and tested manufactures. Companies such as Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Gildan are all proven distribution outlets and you can view their catalogues online.

You don’t have to take the online route to managing your suppliers. But there’s no doubt that the convenience of being able to order when its convenient for you, day or night, can be very useful.

Make sure that you’re working with an established wholesaler or distributor. There are plenty of web sites that offer cheap T-shirts but the absence of a telephone number, hastily written content and difficult to use web sites often say a great deal about the business behind the web site. You’ll need a service that meets your standards on a regular basis - not a one hit wonder company.

Don’t be drawn in to any snap decisions when choosing your supplier. Many dealers will offer competitive prices but expect large orders.

Buying in bulk has its advantages, but it certainly isn’t the way to go if you’re just starting your business. Try to find a supplier which offers competitive prices without the obligation to buy a minimum quantity at once. Stock that you can’t sell is stock or return, you can’t make profit from. There’s no good in having a house full of unwanted T-shirts - no matter how good the deal looked on paper.

Running Your T-shirt Design Business

The first step you’ll have to take to launch your printing business on the right track is quite obviously to purchase the equipment. While we’ve already touched on the expenses of certain cogs in the system, we haven’t really considered the overall price.

If you’re starting out, you should seriously consider the idea of purchasing a “starter pack”. They can be found across many websites, although once again, XPres provide a great solution for UK based clients.

For around £2500, you can get yourself a basic package with all the equipment necessary to launch your printing business. This includes a printer, a digital cutter, weeder, silicon paper, and an extensive support program to aid those first few weeks. You also get free installation advice for the deal.

Naturally, depending on what equipment you’ve decided to build your business around, you may need to invest in a different package. For example, those looking to take the vinyl approach will need to obtain a special vinyl cutter, and the price range for these starts at £250. Be warned though, the more expensive machines will charge way upwards of that mark!

All of the equipment that we’ve discussed is relatively lasting in its life span. You won’t be replacing heat presses every month, nor will you be re-ordering printers on an annual basis.

An important point to consider is the actual pricing strategy that you’ll be employing once the business is off the ground. Your focus is naturally to generate profit, but it can be a little tricky to find the right price quota if you’re just getting started.

This is where evaluating the business approach of your rivals is going to be so crucial. Depending on whether you enter the market with high end related T-shirts, or the cheaper novelty set – You need to get your price right.

How much money do you expect to receive in return for your business venture? Are you more interested in increased sales than the money in your back pocket? Your own personal situation is once again crucial to establishing a pricing strategy for the business. Don’t lose sight of your original intentions.

Getting your T-shirt Design Business to Succeed

Where would a T-shirt printing business be if it didn’t have any customers? Nowhere, is the answer. Without selling your products, you won’t be getting anywhere too soon. So where can you focus your marketing to increase sales?

Following the boom of user generated content, MySpace has developed in to a hot spot of niche business activity. A brief search will provide dozens of T-shirt trading businesses, all seeking to gain the attention of a growing audience.

You can look at this in two ways. Either it’s a saturated market and already exploited, or it’s offering something rewarding and exists for a reason.

EBay, on the other hand, does just that. By creating a store on the world’s number one auction site, you can plunge yourself straight in to a market where you KNOW that customers are visiting with the mind to part with their hard earned cash. Be prepared to face competition – and eBay charges. There is a cost to advertise your products and a commission to eBay when each T-shirt is sold.

You can alternatively build your own commerce store. This provides full creative license to present your product as you wish, but it also involves a greater depth of involvement on the site maintenance side.

Sell to friends. Hey, if they’re your friends, they better like you enough to get your aspiring enterprise off the ground!

Not every sales transaction has to be initiated by the customer. If you’re absolutely certain that your T-shirt design is a success story waiting to happen, don’t dwell on it. Approach a proper retail outlet and pitch the idea of selling them your product. In most cases, this will lead to rejection – although not necessarily down to lack of quality. Try to find an outlet which specialises in the field that your T-shirt is catered to. Maybe you could even design a shirt with a company in mind?

Don’t rule out the wonderfully profitable business of acting as a provider to T-shirt requests. It’s the one area when you can really inflate your prices and make maximum gain. The explosion of Stag and Hen nights and weekends has created a huge demand for customised and personalised T-shirts.

Protecting Your T-shirt Design

So you’ve perfected your latest T-shirt through painstaking hours of endless adjustments…and somebody’s stolen it. That can’t be fair, can it? No, it can’t be.

Protecting your work is one of those steps which many businesses will completely ignore through inconvenience. But those very same businesses could eventually be left to resent the decision. How do you protect your designs?

It’s possible to trademark your designs, but ultimately, a huge deficit in your budget. A more viable option is to copyright them. If you notice anybody stealing your work – most commonly practiced on sites such as CafePress where they don’t have to own their own equipment – it’s possible to send a C&D (Cease and Desist) to the support team of the website. This should invite an investigation in to the activity and providing that you can prove that the design has been unlawfully stolen, you’ll be entitled to every last penny back.

Copywriting is protective in the sense that it stops people taking your work and re-distributing it directly. But it can’t be relied on for issues where somebody has modified it significantly.

These are murky waters for your T-shirt design business, but the lenience is partly down to the fact that many designs are unknowingly similar. We all take inspiration from somewhere, and unless a design is clearly and obviously stolen, it can be very hard to prove in the legal sense – and expensive too.

Getting advice for your T-shirt Design Business

It’s a lonely world when you start up a business and can’t get it up and running. That’s why the Internet can be so beneficial for getting useful insight from the people who are already successful.

Be sure to check out for an active range of tips, support and general advice.


Running any business, through commercial or hobbyist intentions, is going to take a lot of hard work and a lengthy display of commitment.

If you’re setting out on the road to become the next T-shirt printing guru, have a look around at what your rivals are producing. Use your creative talents and ask yourself how you can do it better. With the inspiration driving you on and the determination to make a success of your hard work, there’s no reason why this writer can’t be wearing your first T-shirt sometime soon. Good luck!



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