Once Upon a Time, before we got into the t-shirt printing business, I made a t-shirt for my grandma. I think it was for her birthday. It said, “I’m not waiting until I get old, I’m going to wear purple NOW!”
It was an almost humorous take on the When I am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple poem. And it was almost good. I printed it on one of those inkjet iron-on transfers you can get at any craft store or the impulse shelf at Target. The design was not fantastic. To add insult to injury I printed it way too far down on the shirt and disturbingly off to the left. My grandma had her picture taken in it so I could see how she looked. Which was horrible. I’m pretty sure she only wore it that one time, for the photo.
That horrible image lasted a very long time. In fact, I got the shirt back many years later after she had passed away. It looks spectacularly shiny and new.
Why the Horribleness Lasted So Long
The long-lasting success of the aforementioned abominable print may mislead you to think that those inkjet transfers are perfect for making and selling t-shirts. Nopity, nopity, no.
The only reason the ironed-on image stayed in its pristine condition was the fact that my grandmother:
- never wore it again
- never had to wash it
- kept it in a box where no human would ever gaze upon it and subsequently turn to stone
Inkjet vs Screen Print: T-shirt Death Match!
Don’t get me wrong. I am not whole-handedly dismissing inkjet transfers. I’m only dismissing them with my thumb and part of my palm. Inkjet transfers are perfect for personal craft and hobby prints. They are relatively cheap and easy to use. If you have an inkjet printer and an iron, go forth and decorate apparel until you just can’t take all the colorful goodness that surrounds you.
But heads-up, seven-up. If you’re going to decorate apparel to sell, you have to take it up a few notches. Why? Let’s set two printed shirts side-by-side and see what happens after wearing and washing.
The shirt on the left is a screen-printed tee I bought at Taste of Chicago in 1995. The jazzy elephant shirt on the right is one I had done through a print-on-demand site, using an inkjet transfer. It’s about 2-3 years old.
The screen-printed Chicago shirt has been worn through 18 years of sweaty workouts, fixing the car, baby excretions, sleeping, and has soaked up countless UV rays. Thankfully, it has also been washed at least 1 more time than it’s been worn.
The jazzy elephant tee has been worn a few times. It’s been washed a bit.
Let’s look at them up close and see how the prints held up (click on each image to expand):
We can see that the older Chicago print has faded a bit. It’s degraded a little, too. But after 18 years and a lot of abuse, it’s held up pretty well, especially for an image with so many fine lines.
One the other side, our jazzy elephant print is really showing some deterioration. The color looks pretty good, but the image sure is breaking down fast.
Go Easy, Go Cheap!
Here’s my recommendation. If you’re looking to sell shirts and make big bucks and you don’t care what happens after the sale, you should go with inkjet transfers. They are cheap. They’re easy. And by the time your customers realize they bought a product that won’t last very long, you’ll already be kicking back with your huge profits.
On the flip side, screen printing takes more time. It’s more expensive in the short run. If (for some crazy reason) you care about what happens to your products after the sale, and you like your customers coming back, you might consider going the screen printing route.
If the design is something people want to buy and wear, chances are they aren’t going to store it in a box until they die.
Whichever way you go, always remember: Grandma is probably just being nice.