The world absolutely abounds with graphic tees and other apparel. Over the years, you may have even noticed different trends in the quality, consistency, and longevity of those graphically-printed items. Obviously, technology has improved and changed over time; new methods have been developed, and existing methods have improved.
Two of the most common means of printing a design onto a fabric – whether it’s a tee shirt, a sweatshirt, a pair of pants, a canvas tote, or something else entirely – are screen printing and heat transfer. What are they, how do they work, what are their pros and cons, and which one is better? Let’s dig in and discuss.
What is Screen Printing and How Does it Work?
Screen printing hails from the 10th century, when it was first developed in China, making it one of the oldest methods of printing a design onto a piece of apparel. The actual process is simple and elegant but also lengthy and time-consuming to set up. How does it work?
First, a design is produced. This design can be a single color or multiple colors but generally needs to be blocks of individual colors rather than complex gradients and other patterns. You’ll see why once you know how it all works.
The design is broken down into each color’s layout. A stencil is created using the color as negative space and is inscribed on a screen. The screen is a very fine mesh that allows ink through but keeps it relatively contained more than a normal stencil would. It’s also fitted to a frame to maintain position when stencils are swapped out, so the alignment of each screen of the design is the same. So, a simple design with three colors would require three screens, one for each color.
The actual act of screen printing can only happen once the screens are produced. Each item – shirt, tote, or whatever else – is laid out under the frame. The first screen is fitted over the item, positioning the design. The appropriate color of ink is then squeegeed over the top. This ink soaks into the fabric of the item, dyeing it the appropriate color. Once this sets or is cured (depending on the kind of ink used), the stencil is removed, and the next one is laid down. The next color is applied and cured, and the process repeats for however many colors there are.
What are the pros and cons of screen printing?
Screen printing has some very strong benefits which have allowed it to survive over a thousand years of active use without being entirely replaced by more modern printing methods.
The biggest benefit is that the printed designs are as strong and durable as the inks used on the fabric in question. They can be some of the longest-lasting prints, and while any ink can break down with sunlight and chemical exposure or be damaged by bleach, they are very durable.
Screen printing also doesn’t adhere anything to the fabric but dye, and thus doesn’t potentially damage the fabric. Inks run a huge array of different kinds and formulas as long as they can be squeezed through a screen. This includes a variety of eco-friendly inks, largely water-based, that, while slightly harder to use than plastisol inks, are much better for the environment.
Screen printing is also generally pretty fast to perform once it’s set up. This makes it ideal for mid-range bulk orders. It’s not ideal for single individually-customized items because of the labor and materials cost of producing the screens. It’s also not the best for massive runs of hundreds of thousands or millions of items because screens can wear out over time, though not as rapidly as stencils would.
Unfortunately, there are a few drawbacks. Screens have a limit to how small their holes can be, which limits the fine detail of screen-printed designs. They also don’t work as well for designs with many different colors. The more complex the design and the smaller the details, the fuzzier it can end up being. Finally, screen printing setup can be expensive, though operation is cheap.
What is Heat Transfer and How Does it Work?
A good metaphor for describing heat transfer is actually similar to temporary tattoos. If you’ve ever used one, they’re a design printed in reverse on a piece of paper. You apply the tattoo to your skin and moisten it, holding it in place, and the liquid raises the tattoo design from the paper, leaving it adhered to your skin until it eventually rubs away.
Heat transfer is a similar process, except instead of just liquid, it uses heat and pressure. Your design is usually created in a kind of software. It is then printed in reverse onto a special piece of heat-reactive paper using a kind of solvent ink or vinyl.
Since heat transfer these days is generally done using computers in a process called digital heat transfer printing, you can make rather complex, multi-colored designs with a lot of details. It’s also all done in one layer rather than in multiple, individually-colored layers like screen printing.
What are the pros and cons of heat transfer?
Heat transfer has a few pros and a few cons that position it firmly in a particular role in apparel printing. First, the pros.
Heat transfer is rather easy to set up and get rolling, even for a single-item design. A graphic designer can put together a design entirely digitally, and it can be printed all in one go; no manual dexterity in creating a screen, no emulsions or other chemicals involved, just heat transfer paper and ink. This makes it less labor-intensive and more cost-effective, especially for small orders, individual items, and short print runs.
Heat transfer also allows for gradients, fine details, and patterns with relatively high-resolution designs. You aren’t limited the way you are with other printing methods. Further, because heat transfer is one-directional and isn’t soaking into the full depth of the item, you don’t need to worry about bleed-through, and it’s more effective for smaller areas on an item, like a breast pocket or on an unusual item like a hat or mug.
Heat transfer does have some defined drawbacks, however. Heat transfer literally applies a layer of vinyl to the surface of an item, and that leaves it feeling reinforced and stiff, which can be uncomfortable depending on what and where the printing is.
For another thing, the durability of a heat transfer design is much worse than that of a dye-based method like screen printing. Because the vinyl ink is melted onto the surface of the item, it’s exposed to UV rays, physical damage, and damage from laundering.
If you’ve ever had an old shirt that, after many wear-and-wash cycles, the pattern has shrunk and torn holes around it or cracked and broken up and flaked off, that’s a heat transfer design breaking down. It’s less durable and more likely to shed things like microplastics into the water through laundering.
Finally, heat transfer falters for very large orders and print runs because it’s not as fast or as cost-effective to produce as a reusable stencil and basic inks.
Comparing Screen Printing and Heat Transfer
Let’s compare these two popular methods of printing apparel directly.
Screen Printing vs Heat Transfer: Costs
Screen printing has a higher initial setup cost but a lower cost to operate, making it better than heat transfer for medium to large orders.
Heat transfer, meanwhile, has a lower initial setup cost, making it better for one-off and small-order runs.
Screen Printing vs Heat Transfer: Durability
Screen printing designs are as durable as the base color dye on an item and thus can stay vibrant for a very long time. They can fade slightly over time, they can stain, and bleach can damage their designs, but that’s no different than even just a solid-colored item.
In stark contrast, heat transfer printing is much more susceptible to damage. It can break apart fibers around the design because it puts stress points in strange places. Laundering and even just use can put stress on the pattern and crack it, leaving it unsightly, and this kind of damage can’t be repaired.
Screen Printing vs Heat Transfer: Resolution
One of the biggest drawbacks to screen printing is the limitation of the physical screens used for transferring the design to the item. While the colors are very vibrant, the resolution of detail and the complexity of designs are limited by physicality. You generally can’t do more complex designs involving tiny details or gradient colors.
Heat transfer, by contrast, has less vibrant colors but a higher resolution and ability to do complex designs. The fact that it can also apply these designs to small areas like shirt pockets, sleeves, and hats also makes it a more flexible and better option for certain kinds of apparel and items.
Screen Printing vs Heat Transfer: Eco-Friendliness
Screen printing has been used for centuries, and while we acknowledge that the ancient world wasn’t necessarily concerned with the environment, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Industrial Revolution and the blatant disregard for the ecosystem of our planet that came later.
Screen printing is moderately eco-friendly. It doesn’t use strange plastics. The screens are made using a special emulsion that can be chemically removed, so the screens themselves are reusable to a decent degree. There’s always going to be some wasted ink, but modern developments in long-lived water-based inks are making this extremely sustainable.
Note that some people consider screen printing to be worse in some respects because of the number of chemicals involved in the process. This comes primarily from an outdated view of screen printing. These days, both the number and the hazard of the chemicals involved are cut back as much as possible. Hobbyists can safely screen print in their bathrooms; that’s how safe it is.
Conversely, heat transfer is among the worst kinds of apparel printing. It’s better for objects that don’t see a lot of wear and laundering, like hats, totes, or solid objects like mugs, than it is for shirts and pants. For those items, the vinyl cracking and falling apart, as well as leading to a shorter shelf-life of the item and the inability to recycle, are all combined into being a generally awful method for the climate.
THAT SAID, all is not lost. There are a handful of interesting developments in heat transfer printing that have been cropping up in the last few years. These include using recycled vinyl for printing or using alternative materials like coffee grounds or cork instead of vinyl, which can make it moderately more environmentally sustainable.
Which Should You Choose: Screen Printing or Heat Transfer?
When you’re trying to decide between these two methods of printing, there’s no one best answer. It all depends on your goals, your policies, your design, and your print run.
Generally, you should use screen printing if:
- Your design is simple, using bright and vibrant colors.
- You want a long-lasting and durable design.
- You value the texture of the item.
- You’re highly concerned with the environmental impact of the printing process.
- You need more than a few hundred copies of the item.
On the other hand, heat transfer is better if:
- You are making less than a few hundred copies of the item in question.
- Your design is very intricate, with small details or blended colors.
- You need each item to be individualized, such as with a recipient’s name.
- Your items are meant to be used in the short term and don’t need long-term durability.
Here at Ethix Merch, we heavily value the environmental impact of products and want to make everything we offer as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible. Our products are created using a variety of different printing methods, and great pains are taken to guarantee that they’re done as ethically as possible. Feel free to browse our storefront; nearly any product you find can be customized, and we’re more than happy to discuss the details and sustainability of the entire process. That goes all the way down, too; we aren’t just focused on the printing but also the labor of creating the products and even the source of the materials used to make them. Seriously, we’d love to talk about it, so just drop us a line.
Daniel Cardozo, CEO of Ethix Merch, is a passionate advocate for ethical promotional products. With a mission to transform global supply chains, he serves on the Labor 411 Foundation and Advertising Specialty Institute’s Promo for the Planet Advisory Board. Daniel is dedicated to empowering socially and environmentally-conscious consumers.