Learn the magic in different print methods in custom apparel

Custom apparel has came a long way in the past decade with many new technologies, affordability, and even capabilities. With many options to choose from, it can get overwhelming. You have screen printing, embroidery, DTF (Direct to Film), DTG (Direct to Garment), Sublimation and HTV (Heat Transfer Vinyl). Each can produce a custom shirt, but all with there own differences and limitations. When getting custom apparel done, it is good to understand what each is so you can make a better decision in choosing your apparel decorator. So lets cover some basics on them.


This is probably the most widely used form of custom apparel and for some good reasons. It has been used for decades and shirts that were produced decades ago are still being worn. You can even find screen printed shirts from the 80’s that are being sold on platforms like Etsy or eBay for more money then they originally sold for. Screen printing (when done properly) can last longer then the shirt itself.

Screen printing is done by screens being produced to create a stencil. Then ink is pressed through these screens to transfer the ink to the apparel to make the design. Some designs only need one screen (single color prints) while some can require up to 8 screens or more depending on the number of colors and detail in the design. This is because you have to have a screen from each color in the design. There are a few exceptions to this such as 4-color process printing were only four colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black) colors are used like a computer printer.

With the long life of screen printed apparel, it is a great choice in having custom apparel created. However, its not always the best choice due to setup costs. Because there is a decent amount of setup involved, it is not recommended for small amounts being produced. Most print shops have minimums ranging from 12-24 (or higher) piece minimums. So if you are needing good amount of pieces produced, then screen printing could be your best choice.


  • Long lasting prints.
  • Inexpensive.
  • Ideal for high volumes (12 or more).


  • Not ideal or cost effective for small quantities.
  • Limited colors (not a photo quality finish).
  • Longer setup time.


If you are looking for a more professional look on your apparel, then embroidery could be your best option. Of course this comes with limits. If you are needing something like your logo put on the left chest or shirts or jackets or even on hats, then embroidery could be your best choice. But if you are needing large designs done, then it will get pricey.

Like with screen printing, your design still has to be broke down into each color. This is done through a process called digitizing. Digitizing is when your design is separated out by color and also gives the embroidery machine a road map for the type, angle, density, location and length of each stitch. When you are placing an order for embroidery, you will commonly hear them mention about digitizing your design in which you can expect to pay anywhere from $15-$25 on average depending on the size of your design. However, if you have a large or very detailed design, this cost can go way up. Good news is that you usually will never have to pay for this again unless your make changes to your design.

Embroidery gives a look of depth and texture that other forms of customization just can’t touch. With the different types of stitching and angles, your design or logo can really pop. And when it comes to hats, in my opinion nothing looks better than embroidery. It is also affordable whether your are needing just one item or many. Yes, it can be slightly higher priced when compared to other options, but you are paying for that unique and professional look that embroidery offers.


  • Long lasting.
  • Many colors in design without extra costs.
  • High quality in both the look and feel.


  • Typically more expensive than other methods.
  • Not as many price breaks based on quantity.
  • Not all designs work well with embroidery.

DTF (Direct to Film)

DTF printers print the design in a mirrored and upside down format to a clear film. Once the print is finished, then a polyurethane resin powder is coated over the design. This film is then heated to melt the resin which becomes more plastic feeling but is what allows the print to bond with the apparel it will be transferred on. Once it is transferred using a heat press, it will have a finished look that resembles screen printing but usually has a more plastic feeling to it.

The big advantage is that you can get just one, five or more printed relatively quick and with many colors and even photo like qualities. However, they can be a little pricey on a per piece basis ranging from $15-$30 per shirt. But DTF has a couple advantages over sublimation. One big advantage of DTF over sublimation is that DTF has a white ink which allows for white details in the design. The resin backing along with the white ink allows DTF to be transferred to any color shirt. DTF is also able to be pressed on most all types of t-shirts.


  • Great for small quantities.
  • Has great detail and high colors
  • Quick turn around.


  • Slightly higher per piece cost.
  • Not as long lasting.
  • Slight plastic feel.


Sublimation has a lot of similarities to DTF. Quick turn arounds, higher details and broader color availabilities. The biggest differences are its limitations which can be a make or break in the decision making process. Unlike DTF, sublimation has no white ink nor a resin backing. Due to that, it is limited to the color of shirt you apply it to. If you are applying it to a white shirt, then your going to have a great looking shirt with a very soft feel to it. However, even using an off white shirt will alter the colors in the print or if you use a heather shirt, then the heather will show through the print. And you are limited to the types of shirts you can use and if your not a fan of polyester shirts, then you wont be happy.

The ink in sublimation dyes the threads in the fabric and polyester fabric retains the ink the best. Even using a 65/36 shirt can dull the design slightly and the higher the cotton percent gets, the worse that will get. The inks in dye-sub are also transparent which is why the color of the shirt will impact the print color of the design. But it does have a nice soft feel since you can’t even feel the ink and will last as long as the apparel since since you are dyeing the fabric.


  • Great for small quantities.
  • High detail and high colors.
  • quick turn around.
  • long lasting.


  • Slightly higher per piece cost.
  • No black or dark fabrics.

HTV (Heat Transfer Vinyl)

HTV is used a lot in one-off pieces and has a good turn around time. HTV is a special type on vinyl that has an adhesive coating on one side that is heat activated. The vinyl goes through a vinyl cutter (mirrored) to cut the design. It is then weeded to remove the unneeded areas and then heat pressed to the item. Because the vinyl is usually a solid color, multiple layers of vinyl are used to produce multi-color designs. However, HTV is capable of being printed on and then heat pressed on apparel giving a photo like image.

Printed HTV can fade after time from washing and general usage along with vinyl can just naturally not hold up as long and start to peel away from the fabric. Producing standard HTV designs can be time consuming but still has a decent turn around time. If you are wanting something made that will just be worn a couple of times and is inexpensive, then it can be a good choice. But pricing will vary on design, quantity, and the shop or person producing them.


  • Decent turn around.
  • Only effective for small quantities.


  • Time consuming.
  • Shorter life.
  • Plastic and stiffer feel.

DTG (Direct to Garment)

DTG has became popular over the past 5-10 years. It can produce high detailed prints and in a relatively quick turn around. Apparel pieces are fitted on a jig that is placed in a printer. The printers resemble a desktop printer on steroids and the shirt will slide in to the printer were the printer will print a white base and then the colors on a second pass. This is great for high detailed prints and offers a photo quality print. The biggest downfalls are that you are limited to shirt types because DTG needs high cotton of 80-100% cotton.


  • Quick turn around.
  • Very high detail prints.
  • Great for photos.
  • Long lasting print.


  • Material limitations.
  • Not good choice for large productions.

Now you should be able to see that not all methods are best suited for all situations. You will need to decide several things when you decide which way to go. How many are you needing produced? Is this a one day event or will these be worn time and time again? Are you needing little detail with only one or two colors or will it be high detailed needing unlimited colors? Are you needing a quick turnaround? These are all things you need to consider when ordering your custom apparel. SO take time and talk with your printer to see what they offer and what you best option would be. Many print shops offer multiple options and many may even tell you that they do not offer the best option for your needs and even point you in the right direction.

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