Do you want to get into the t-shirt business but aren’t sure how to make the best-quality shirts? Both screen printing and heat-transfer vinyl make excellent designs. But when you compare screen print vs vinyl, what exactly is the difference?
The main difference between screen printing and vinyl is that screen printing creates designs by pushing ink through stencils. Vinyl designs come from layering HTV cutouts and sticking them to fabric with heat. Creating vinyl designs has a lower learning curve but does not allow as much detail in the design.
In this article, you will learn how screen printing and vinyl designs work. You will discover the key differences between these methods. Finally, you will compare screen printing, vinyl, embroidery, and direct printing.
What is Screen Print on T-Shirts?
Screen printing on t-shirts is a method of printing that uses stencils and thick ink to create images on the fabric. This process gets its name from the fine mesh screen used in the process. Professional screen printers use chemically created stencils that fill in the negative space of a design, only allowing the ink through in the desired shape image.
Originally called silk screening, this art form has existed for thousands of years, way before the invention of the actual printing press! The concept of pushing ink through a stencil probably remains so popular because it lets you quickly replicate an image you like over and over again. After all, you can keep reusing the stencil once you make it.
At its core, screen printing has a simple, elegant setup. All you need is a mesh or silk screen stretched over a frame and some type of stencil to block out the negative space around your design. Home screen print artists often make these stencils using a Cricut and vinyl or cut out cardboard stencils by hand using a craft knife!
Once you have the screen and the stencil, you use a squeegee to force a thick kind of ink called plastisol ink across the stencil. The ink squeezes through the mesh onto the fabric of the shirt, except in the places where the stencil prevents ink from getting through the screen.
Modern screen printing gets way more complex than this, though. Professionals and even home business owners use a method for forming the stencils on top of the screens that works a lot like developing photos out of negatives in the old days. It requires chemical washes and exposure to special lights to cure the design. The cool thing about this process is that it allows the printer to turn more complex images, logos, and lettering into a screen print design.
You can use more than one color in a screen print design, but you do have to apply each shade of ink on a separate screen.
Professional printers often use large screen print machines with multiple arms to hold many screens at once, allowing more quickly adding additional colors to a shirt. At home, you may find it easier to limit your screen prints to just one or two colors.
What is Vinyl Printing on T-Shirts?
Vinyl printing uses shapes cut out of heat transfer vinyl to form lettering and images on shirts. This newer method for decorating shirts has gained extreme popularity for small business owners and DIY t-shirt artists, allowing much more flexibility for small-scale printing.
So, what exactly is heat transfer vinyl? First, you almost always see this name shortened to its abbreviation, HTV. Second, HTV consists of thin sheets of polyurethane with a heat-activated adhesive on one side.
You can get many kinds of HTV, including types meant to remain permanently fixed to outdoor objects, types that have glitter embedded in the vinyl, and even types that glow in the dark!
To create an HTV design on a shirt, you first need a digital form of your design mirrored in the graphic design program so that it will not end up backward on your shirt. You send this cutting pattern to an electronic cutting machine such as a Cricut, which uses a fine knife to cut out the shapes or letters. Then you have to weed away the extra vinyl that falls outside of your design–a tricky process you have to perform by hand.
Next, you have to arrange the vinyl shapes in the right place on the surface of the shirt, also by hand. Then you use a heat press to apply very high temperatures to the vinyl. This activates the adhesive on the back side of the vinyl, causing it to adhere permanently to the fabric of the shirt.
You can create multi-colored HTV designs by carefully piecing together sections of vinyl cut out of differently colored sheets of HTV or by layering pieces of HTV n top of each other. But it is much easier to stick to one or two-colored designs when using HTV.
Screen Print vs Vinyl: Key Points
|Excellent durability because the ink embeds below the surface of the fabric.
|Decent durability but less than screen printing
|Very high quality, allowing for easy color mixing and raised ink design.
|Good quality with crisply defined lines in images, but limited colors.
|Allows complex images depending on the number of screens used
|Works best with simpler designs
|Using the same screens and stencils for large print runs allows for easy, consistent replication of designs
|HTV does not provide great consistency since the vinyl pieces require hand setting for every shirt
|Cost efficient for large print runs
|Cost efficient for small batches of shirts or custom orders
|Should not fade during the shirt's lifespan
|May start to fade around the shirt’s 50th wash
|Better than vinyl, but not the best printing choice for multi-color prints
|Works better with one or two colors of vinyl
|Easy and vibrant
|Set-Up Time and Cost
|Takes several hours of set up time but costs less to begin
|Takes little set up time but costs more to begin with
|Best for bulk orders that allow you to reuse the stencilled screens many times
|Best for small or custom orders
|Great for cotton or polyester, though what press temperatures will vary
|Very limited but possible with special inks
|Pretty much unlimited with thousands of types and textures of HTV available
|Detailed designs for prints of runs of 25 shirts or more
|Simpler designs for small orders of under 15 shirts
|Average Cost Per Shirt
What is the Difference Between Screen Print and Vinyl?
While vinyl and screen print can create amazing prints on a t-shirt, each method has its own strengths and weaknesses. Here you can get a quick overview of how vinyl compares to screen printing in terms of durability, cost, setup time, etc.
Both screen printing and HTV offer pretty excellent design durability, though screen prints will take longer.
One of the first questions your customers will ask about a t-shirt is how long the print will last. (Or, if you plan to make shirts for yourself and your family, you may want to know for yourself!). The answer is that most of the time, a screen print has greater durability because its ink soaks into the substrate of the fabric, while HTV remains on the surface of the fabric.
That said, a well-made screen print shirt should last through at least 50 washes without cracking, given proper care. (For example, you should not dry clean a screen-printed shirt and always turn your tees inside out before washing at home!).
A properly set HTV shirt should hold up through at least 40 washes before corners of the design start to peel up or crack.
Both screen print and vinyl shirts provide good quality designs, but screen print shirts generally have slightly better quality.
Screen print shirts allow you to use more colors and mix up whatever shades you like to create vibrant hues. Plus, this type of printing forms a thick, raised layer of ink on the fabric that looks super high-quality.
On the other hand, HTV lets you make very sharply defined images with crisp lines. Plus, you can get interesting textures by using special types of HTV, such as matte vs shiny or glitter vs plain colors.
The downside to vinyl shirts is that they do not have as vibrant colors as screen printing. The vinyl can also feel stiff to the touch, whereas a screen print image has more flexibility.
Screen print shirts allow far more complexity than HTV shirts. This is because you have to cut out individual shapes for every element of a vinyl design. With screen printing, you use a color separator program in your graphic design software to break an image into its component colors. Then you make a screen for each color and layer one color on top of another to create a more elaborate design.
This means you can create more elaborate screen print designs, depending on the number of stencils and screens you want to prep.
That said, screen print does not allow the level of complexity you would get from using a printing method such as DTG. It is difficult to translate a color photo into a screen print, for example. But you can create more complicated images more easily using screen printing than HTV.
Vinyl designs do not allow a huge amount of complexity. Weeding out very detailed designs takes a long time and a lot of patience. Plus, adding additional colors is only possible if you stack one piece of HTV on top of another to add a second color to the design.
It is much easier to replicate consistent screen print designs than it is to recreate the same vinyl design over and over. This is because you can reuse the same screens to make hundreds of shirts when screen printing, but you have to put together all the HTV pieces by hand for every shirt you want to make using vinyl.
Screen printing is more cost-efficient for bulk printing, but vinyl is much more cost-efficient for small-scale printing.
It takes long to prep the screens for one screen print design. But once you put in those hours, you can reuse the screens a hundred times to make a hundred shirts quickly. Plus, you can keep reusing the ink shades you mixed up to get consistent replicas of that tone design without wasting any leftover ink.
You do not save money by producing more of the same design when using vinyl, though. You do better if you make a small print run, ideally less than ten. This makes HTV the best choice for custom-order shirts where you may want to make just seven shirts with a cute saying for a wedding shower, for example.
You have to go through all the same time-consuming steps to make each shirt in a batch of ten HTV shirts. There is no shortcut around cutting out, weeding, and hand-applying the vinyl shapes to every shirt!
Good-quality screen prints should never fade until after the shirt wears out, but viny often starts to crack or fade around its 50th wash.
This does depend on the quality of the shirt and the care you give it, though. Properly cared-for shirts should last through dozens of washes without any damage.
Screen printing and HTV designs work best with fewer colors, though screen print can incorporate multi-colored designs more easily than HTV.
You can use multiple colors in a screen print by layering the colors on one at a time using separate screens and stencils for each shade. This process takes longer than a one-color design because you have to let the ink cure between each additional color application. But it works, and artists love the vivid colors created by applying each separately!
Working with more than two or three colors of HTV in one design gets tricky. First, you need to separate each color in your digital image into its own puzzle piece so you can cut the shapes out of the right sheet of vinyl. Second, you will have to piece all the colors back together into the image you want after cutting them out!
The bottom line here is that neither screen printing nor vinyl works great for multi-color prints, but screen printing works significantly better.
You can color blend with screen printing but not with vinyl.
You can blend colors for your screen print in several ways, including by using a computerized paint mixer to get exactly the right shade of ink before you start, by blending shades on the stencil as you apply the ink, and even by using half-tones to create an image that looks more 3D.
While you can’t merge two pieces of vinyl to blend colors, you can buy HTV in pretty much any shade or tint imaginable.
Set-up Time and Cost
Screen printing requires way more setup time than vinyl shirts, but vinyl equipment costs more than basic screen printing tools when you start.
Here’s how it breaks down.
To get a screen print design ready, you have to:
- Create or edit a digital image, separating it into individual colors for a multi-color design.
- Spend at least a couple of hours transferring that design onto a mesh screen using an emulsion and light exposure.
- Rinse the screen to remove the emulsion except for the hardened stencil.
- Slot the stenciled screen into a rack in a screen print machine.
- Apply ink using a squeegee.
- Let the ink dry and then cure it with a heat press.
At the bare minimum, you need a mesh screen, plastisol ink, and a squeegee for this method, giving you a low start-up cost. But in terms of time, you need hours to several days just for one design!
To get a vinyl design ready, you need to:
- Create or edit the design you want in a graphic design program.
- Select the right kind of HTV to match your design.
- Send the design to your electronic cutting machine and wait as it cuts out the shapes.
- Peel away all the negative space bits of vinyl, leaving just your design.
- Apply the vinyl shapes to the shirt and use a heat press to seal them in place.
For a very simple HTV shirt, you can do everything from creating a design to applying the heat press in under an hour. But the catch is that you need some pricey equipment to get started, including an electronic cutting machine and a heat press. HTV does not come super cheaply, either.
Screen printed shirts work best in large quantities and vinyl shirts work best in small quantities.
It takes several hours to make the stenciled screens for one screen print. You would not want to go to all that trouble just to make one or two shirts! Instead, you can keep using the stencils to quickly recreate the design over and over.
In contrast, vinyl designs work perfectly for just one or two shirts. You do not want to try to replicate too many of the same designs, though, as it will get harder to keep them consistent. Plus, it takes the same time to make your 100th version of the design as it does to make your first one, so you do not save time or money by producing HTV shirts in bulk.
Screen printing works best on 100% cotton shirts, but you can apply a vinyl design to cotton and polyester shirts.
The plastisol ink used in screen printing will soak into cotton fibers most effectively. You can screen print on polyester, but only by including additives in ink and making the whole process more cumbersome.
HTV will adhere to either cotton, polyester, or even shirts that have a blend of the two materials! You will need to make sure you read the instructions that come with the vinyl to adjust your heat press temperature and timing for the different types of fabric, though.
You can create special effects with screen printing by using specialized inks or with vinyl by using textured or uniquely colored sheets of HTV. That said, it is more common to use special effects with vinyl than with screen printing.
You can find thousands of colors, textures, and types of HTV for t-shirts. These include everything from camo-colored vinyl to glow-in-the-dark, glitter, or metallic HTV.
Screen printing is best for shirts using designs with intricate details or multiple colors, but vinyl is best for shirts with one or two-color designs.
Screen printing is best for print runs when you need at least 20 of the same design. Vinyl works best when you need less than 15 of the same shirt.
HTV works on multiple types of cloth, but screen printing works best on 100% cotton shirts.
Average Cost Per Shirt
The average cost for a screen print t-shirt is between $20-$30, while the average cost for a vinyl shirt is around $10 for a pre-made shirt or $30 for a custom-order shirt.
The cost to the printer can vary a lot depending on the complexity of the design and the number of shirts ordered at once. Screen printing gets cheaper per shirt the more shirts you add to each print run. Vinyl does not because you have to go through all the same steps for every individual shirt.
Is it Better to Screen Print or Heat Transfer?
Whether it is better to screen print or heat transfer for a shirt depends on if you want super high quality or easy customization.
The pros of screen printing are:
- It has beautiful, vibrant colors unmatched by any other printing style.
- It has better durability than any other type of t-shirt printing.
- It allows you to blend colors and create multi-colored designs.
- It gets cheaper when you produce shirts in bulk
- It does not cost a lot to get started.
The cons are:
- It takes a long time to set up a screen print design.
- It is not cost-effective to sue for custom orders or small-scale orders.
The pros of HTV heat press shirts are:
- You can quickly set up new designs, making it a great solution for small or custom orders.
- You can use tons of special effects like glitter r metallic vinyl
- The digital cut-out images will have crisp lines and clear definition.
- It is much easier to master HTV shirt designs than to learn how to screen print.
The cons are:
- Vinyl does not look as vibrant as screen printing.
- It has great durability but will not hold up as long as screen printing
- The HTV can feel stiff on the fabric of the shirt.
What is Better, Vinyl or Embroidery?
Embroidered designs on apparel have a higher quality than vinyl designs, but vinyl costs a lot less and can prove the more practical choice.
Embroidery designs use digitally manipulated thread to form satiny, raised thread designs on the surface of a shirt. This feels soft and looks elegant. On the other hand, custom embroidery costs a lot!
Vinyl designs cost much less to produce, so you can order custom vinyl work more cheaply. This makes shirts decorated with HTV the better choice for things like giveaways at a company party or matching shirts for your daughter’s cheerleading team.
Vinyl Printing vs Digital Printing
Vinyl shirts usually look more high-quality than digital printing shirts. This is because HTV has a raised design, while digital printing soaks into the shirt and looks cheaper.
The big advantage of digital or DTG (direct to garment) printing is that you can print anything directly onto the fabric. The disadvantage is that this form of printing does not look very vibrant and often does not last long.
Plus, you can create HTV shirts at home, but you have to buy expensive commercial printers to create DTG shirts.
Screen Print vs Vinyl vs Sublimation
Screen printing and sublimation can create durable, high-quality designs, though they use very different methods.
Sublimation printing uses heat to chemically bond a synthetic dye with polyester fibers. It only works on polyester but can create highly detailed, multi-color, and super durable images on a shirt.
It does not have the artistic quality or quite the same vibrancy of color as screen printing but has rapidly gained popularity as one of the best methods of shirt printing available.
You can use both screen printing and vinyl to add amazing designs to shirts, but each method has its own pros and cons. Screen printing has an artistic, vibrant appearance that makes it one of the best-quality ways to print shirts. Vinyl shirts made using heat-transfer vinyl have more flexibility because you can quickly set up new designs, but they do not work well with complex or multi-color images.
The bottom line is that screen printing does create better-quality shirts than vinyl. But HTV is much easier for the beginner and cheaper to produce in small or custom orders.