There are a couple of different methods to placing graphics onto a t-shirt; screen printing and heat press vinyl transfers. You are probably wondering which is better and the short answer is heat transfer vinyl tend to dominate. Heat press vinyl is bonded to the fabric and is more durable. Screen printing ink is directly applied to the t-shirt but can fade over time. There are of course many more differences between the two which will be explored in this article. Let’s get started!
Screen Printing Fades and Can Wash Out
Screen printing, while it uses special inks to create the permanent design you want, it will fade over time and with each successive washing. If you apply heat via iron or dryer after you have air-dried the screen-printed shirt first, the inks will become a little more permanent prior to the first washing.
However, that does not compare with vinyl transfers. Heat Transfer Vinyl (HTV) utilizes a special type of material that forms a very strong bond with the cloth of the t-shirt. The adhesive backing on much of the vinyl transfer material tends to fill in the spaces in the t-shirt fabric and quickly forms a seal between the vinyl material and the t-shirt material. You could wash this t-shirt thousands of times until it gets holes in it and the vinyl design would never come off. It doesn’t even crack because it is used to the heat necessary to adhere the vinyl to the t-shirt.
Vinyl Adds Texture, Whereas Screen Printing Does Not
Vinyl material adds texture, almost like puff paint or a similar surface. Some vinyl can even be glossy or metallic, giving the t-shirt a different sort of texture. You cannot get texture of any kind from screen printing no matter what you do. The screen printing just adds color and design in a controlled fashion via the screen, and the screen printing inks are liquid in nature with nothing in them to create texture.
Vinyl Is Cheaper to Set up and Use
Screen printing requires several framed screens, stretchers, tubs to collect the ink that seeps through the t-shirts, a rinsing tub, and a place to set the shirts down while they dry before you remove them from the screens. All of these supplies, even if you make the screens yourself, can add up to a lot in terms of cost. Unless you are going to create and sell shirts by the gross, screen printing is not exactly the way you want to set this up.
Vinyl, on the other hand, is relatively inexpensive. All you have to buy are shirts (or whatever other heat-resistant materials you want to use to transfer vinyl to) and the vinyl materials. A home iron is effective enough on the highest setting to effectively “print” your projects. However, if you want a super-duper commercial iron, you can purchase and use a professional heat press.
No Special Care Instructions Are Needed for Heat Press/ Iron-On Vinyl Items
If you screen print something, you have a lot of care instructions. It has to be washed inside out, no bleach. It has to be washed in cold water to avoid fading the screen printing inks. It should never be dry-cleaned either. Compare that to the special instructions for heat press and iron on vinyl items.
Vinyl printed items have no instructions beyond washing it in warm water (not hot). You can wash it in cold water too. It stands the numerous washings of time with virtually no care instructions at all. Some lower quality heat transfer vinyl material will crack and fade over time- so make sure the material you are purchasing is polyurethane (commonly abbreviated PU) and not a lower quality vinyl material.
Heat Transfer Vinyl Is for the Perfectionist and the “One-of-a-kind-er”
Heat transfer vinyl allows you to get letters, numbers, symbols, and perfect lines and shapes every time. Everything is exactly the right size, and multiples of the same design can be repeated. It is the ideal medium for people who want everything to be exactly perfect and exactly right. If you are a perfectionist, you have absolute control over how your vinyl transfer items turn out, something you do not have with screen printed items.
HTV is also for the crafter that loves creating “one-of-a-kind” items because the amount of work that goes into a vinyl design leaves one not fully motivated to repeat the same design. To put it another way, the time it takes to make a vinyl design, and the more complex the design is, the less likely most people want to repeat the process and attempt to get it exactly the same. Ergo, even repeating a design often produces slight differences, creating a unique item if you are willing to look very closely at two items that appear to be identical.
Heat Transfer Vinyl Has Shortcuts
There really are no shortcuts in screen printing. It is a process that operates only in a series of steps that have to be completed in order for your projects to turn out right. Compare that to HTV, where there are shortcuts.
HTV shortcuts include pre-cut letters, numbers, symbols, and shapes. Rather than buy the vinyl material and cut things out yourself, you can purchase the pre-cut items you need. Additionally, you can buy kits or sheets of vinyl designs already cut and assembled for use. You just lay a design sheet from a kit over the top of a shirt or other item to be printed, and then just iron/press. It is quickly and easily done with little to no effort on your part. You can also use a die-cutting machine with your HTV such as the Cricut Explore Air 2 or Maker model, Silhouette Cameo, or any other cutting machine on the market to cut out exact patterns of vinyl designs to be transferred onto your T-shirt.
Ready to Get Started?
If you have been debating making t-shirts and other items via one of these two processes, there are certainly enough resources out there. If you want to give vinyl t-shirt transfers a try, the supplies you need are as near as your laptop and online-only retailers. Royal Elements has numerous vinyl sheet options that allow you to print and cut on sheets the same size as 8.5″ x 11″ paper. You can (and should!) check out the products for vinyl t-shirt printing offered by Royal Elements such as printable t-shirt transfer paper for light and dark fabrics!