Screenprinting vs. Digital Printing for T-Shirts

Silk Screen Printing:
Wikipedia defines Screenprinting as follows:

Screenprinting, silkscreening, or serigraphy is a printmaking technique that creates a sharp-edged image using a stencil. It is the most traditional and time-honored method of transffering an image onto a canvas. Wikipedia says: “It began as an industrial technology, and was adopted by American graphic artists in the early 1900s. It is currently popular both in fine arts and in commercial printing, where it is commonly used to print images on T-shirts, hats, CDs, DVDs, ceramics, glass, polyethylene, polypropylene, paper, metals, and wood. The Printer’s National Environmental Assistance Center says “Screen printing is arguably the most versatile of all printing processes”.

The strengths of silk screen printing are its quality, handmade feel, and versatility of printing mediums (that is to say you can print on many surfaces).

Advantages of Silk Screen Printing:

In a screen print, the ink is embedded directly into the fabric. This is because the fabric actually absorbs the ink and gets dyed that color. This results in a very smooth feel to the t-shirt wearer because nothing is added to the t-shirt as much as embedded within it.

The Handmade Aspect:
These days, the silk screening process can be facilitated through digital processes but it largely remains a labor intensive method which requires the active participation of the creator. As described in Wikipedia, “A screen is made of a piece of porous, finely woven fabric (originally silk, but typically made of polyester since the 1940s) stretched over a frame of aluminum or wood. Areas of the screen are blocked off with a non-permeable material to form a stencil, which is a positive of the image to be printed; that is, the open spaces are where the ink will appear.” Though this means the product is succeptible to human error or slight to extensive variation when created on the larger scale, it can be regarded as an advantage-in this day and age of computer-precision manufacturing-to maintain an aspect of the human element in the creative process.

Printable Area:
Unlike Digital printing which often is limited in dimension to traditional print (paper) sizes, screens can be made to custom size. Therefore, if you want your design to cover the entire t-shirt you can do so by creating a screen to the correct size. Keep in mind, however, that different t-shirt sizes will affect the outcome of your pattern or design.

Disadvantages of Silk Screen Printing:

Some argue that silk screening materials are readily available and affordable but this is somewhat of a misconception. Screenprinting requires a significant amount of start-up equipment, space, and time. Once the equipment and space are acquired it is true that the process can be relatively straight forward, but by no means is it affordable or readily available. Here are some specific reasons:

1. Time and Labor: Silk screening is a very time and labor intensive process. Firstly, it requires the creation of a physical “screen”. This process takes time to learn and is complicated by the list of required materials including the screen itself, photo emulsion chemicals, light boxes, etc…Furthermore, each individual color in a silk screen design has to be printed using its own individual screen. So, if your design were to have three colors then three individual screens would have to be made in order to create that design. It is true that a screen, once no longer needed, can be “wiped clean” but this does not always yield very good results.

2. The Equipment: silk screening equipment is not only space-consuming but also very expensive. Between the screens themselves, the inks, the lightboxes, the emulsion fluids, the canvas or t-shirts, and the space required to house all of these components, you’re not going to start your business on a budget.


1. Not reffering to feel, touch, or “hand” here. As mentioned above, silk screening is quite a process. Once a screen is made and unless you’re an expert, you can’t add to or modify the screen easily. If, for example, you wanted to make the same t-shirt for your yearly block party but this time change the year on it, you’d have to start from scratch.

2. Little or No Color Variation: Colors for screen prints are printed in solid shades. This means that there is no gradient or variation possible within the design since each and every color variation would require an entirely separate screen (so in order to achieve a simple black to white gradient, you could easily use 10 screens).

Note: See Page 6 to watch video on the screenprinting process.


Digital Printing:
Major advents in the digital t-shirt and accessory printing industry have been made over the past decade which have created a competitive edge on screenprinted products.

The Basics of Digital Printing:
There are two basic forms of digital printing: heat transfers and direct printing.

In a heat transfer, the image is printed on to a material (heat transfer paper) which is then heat-bonded to the garment. There are different brands of paper and more importantly different types of inks (click here for a brief description on ink options, including sublimation ink, for heat transfers), but in essence the method remains the same. It is almost as simple as printing out an image from your computer and placing it on a fabric only this process uses a “paper” that actually bonds the print onto the t-shirt through a heat activated process. This method is the most widely available option: in it’s simplest form, anyone with a computer, a printer, and an household iron can do it.

In direct printing, the ink is printed directly onto the t-shirt. It’s as if you customized a normal printer to accept a t-shirt instead of paper. These printers are quite costly, however, and are more likely to be found at professional print shops than in private or small-scale operations. Click here to learn more about direct printing or Direct to Garment Printing (DTG) as it is also known.

Advantages of Digital Printing:

The main advantages of digital printing over screenprinting are color and detail. You can create more vibrant, colorful, and detailed prints than on screenprinted products. Summed up, the strength of digital printing lies in its flexibility, order size variability, accessibility, and speed.

Digital printing, which includes direct printing and heat transfers, offers the most flexibility of any printing method in terms of color options and detail. Unlike screenpriting, colors are unlimited and gradients and shading are a snap.

Series or Order Size:
You can print off as little or as many prints as you want. Let’s say, for example, that you want to make a birthday t-shirt for your friend. You can print out a heat transfer or order a single shirt without the expensive set up fees that are associated with screenprinting (since an entire screen print has to be made). If you don’t like a part of the design in the final product it’s easy to go back to your digital file and correct any mistakes. Also, if your t-shirt turns out so well that you want to print a birthday t-shirt for everyone at the party, it is very easy to do so.

In this day and age people are likely to have some form of access to a computer. So, exceptions aside, most will already have (or have access to) the basic “materials” or equipment needed to design and produce t-shirts the digital way. The startup costs therefore are very low.

The whole process from design to finished product can take less than an hour if you know exactly what you want and have all the materials at home. Even with direct printing, which you will most likely have to outsource, t-shirts can be made and delivered in a very short time. (Note that whether with screenprinting or digital printing, bulk projects will take you longer to produce).

Disdvantages of Digital Printing:

The “Hand”:
“The Hand” (of a garment) is a common expression in the industry which refers to how a final printed t-shirt (or product) feels to the touch. Heat transfers score the lowest points on this scale, followed by direct printing, and finally screenprinting which scores the highest. Heat transfers tend to have a plastic feel to them when they are first printed but improve with wear and washing. With new technologies and better paper and transfer processes, however, the “hand” of transfers is becoming more acceptable.

Printable Areas:
Because digital printing is computer based, its format often echoes the dimensions of computer equipment. When you buy transfer paper, for example, it normally comes in 8.5 x 11 in. sheets which will fit in your printer. Though you can take the time to be creative and cut up your designs to fit on the entire t-shirt, it does not immediately lend itself to that use. Similarly, direct printing has its limitations on printable areas as it also has to go through its own “printer”.

Wear and Tear:
With time, wear, and washing any garment, printed in any format will show signs of use. It is generally accepted that digital printing methods, though they hold up quite well, show signs of fatigue sooner than screenprinted t-shirts.

-Simple video outlining the basic principle of the t-shirt heat transfer process:

Click here to learn more about screenprinting on Wikipedia.



  1. Very interesting article I enjoyed it. I like how you compare digital to silk screen. I prefer silk screen as it is more flexible.

  2. wim

    nice comparison, but what is about the screenprinting machine with a digital printer integrated, I have seen some on shows, can’t find them on the net right now, but that is a solution to ??

  3. akamundo

    nice comparison, but what is about the screenprinting machine with a digital printer integrated, I have seen some on shows, can’t find them on the net right now, but that is a solution to ??

    I believe you are referring to direct printing, as referred to in the paragraph under The Basics of Digital Printing. In fact, direct printing is more specifically known as Direct To Garment (DTG) printing. A DTG printer is not a modified silkscreen apparatus, it is essentially a modified version of a regular printer that accepts garments instead of paper.

    There is much debate on the subject of quality, durability, and “user-friendliness” of these machines. Long story short they are expensive and tend to be found in established companies rather than in casual to low-level production set-ups.

    For a visual of the apparatus, see

    Thank you for your comment. It has been useful and I will edit this post to make it more clear to the reader.


  4. Pingback: Screen Printing versus Digital Printing | Funny Shirts, Cool Shirts | Dir-T Shirt | Get Dir-T!

  5. Great post. I linked to this post for a blog post I had on my site. Thank you!

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