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How to Start a T-shirt Printing Business

T-shirts have been a staple of fashion since the 1950s. It’s one type of clothing that pretty much everyone owns. 

The popularity of T-shirts is one reason they are a common go-to product for new entrepreneurs. The industry also offers a low barrier to entry, as it doesn’t require much investment to start your own T-shirt business.

So if you’re interested in breaking into the T-shirt printing industry, here’s everything you need to know to get started.

A little background

The origin of T-shirts dates back to the late 1800s when labourers would cut their jumpsuits in half to stay cool in the summer. Then in 1913, the U.S. Navy began issuing T-shirts as standard undershirts.

But they didn’t gain popularity as an outer garment until the 1950s. That’s when they were famously worn by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). 

At the time, it was a real fashion statement to wear just a T-shirt. But since then, T-shirts have become ubiquitous.

While simply wearing a T-shirt is no longer a fashion statement, today, they can still make an impact with the slogans or images they are adorned with.

Is it still profitable to run a T-shirt business?

If the last 60 years are any indication, T-shirts are one type of clothing that never goes out of fashion. According to some of the latest market research, the T-shirt printing industry has been steadily growing, and that trend is expected to continue in the coming years.

Here are a few of the reasons for the positive outlook:

  • New developments in printing technologies are reducing the time and cost to produce T-shirts.
  • While T-shirts are worn by people of all ages, they are especially popular among youth as a way to show their individuality.
  • T-shirts are a popular promotional tool for companies to hand out at events.
  • Demand is expected to rapidly increase in emerging markets like India and China, driven by an increase in e-commerce and changing fashion awareness among these consumers.

Market research sources: Research and Markets, Credence Research

But even with this positive news in mind, you might still be asking yourself whether you’ll be able to turn a profit when going up against all the existing competition.

That’s a fair question because there are plenty of T-shirt printing businesses out there. Some simple Google searching will show you that there are companies offering T-shirts in almost every imaginable variety. On top of that, there are businesses that make it simple for customers to design their own custom T-shirts.

Despite this stiff competition, it is possible to set yourself apart from the rest and carve out a segment of the market for yourself.

Let’s go over some of the best ways to do that.

How to start your custom T-shirt business

Here is a step-by-step guide that will help you get your T-shirt printing business up and running and can increase your chances of success.

Find a niche

Focusing on a niche market can help you attract customers. That’s because instead of competing with every other T-shirt printing company, focusing on a niche helps set you apart. It also gives you a better chance of becoming known as the go-to supplier for customers in that niche.

So what is a niche when it comes to T-shirts? To get you thinking, here are some examples: 

  • Careers (teachers, nurses, engineers)
  • Hobbies (fishing, travel, videogames)
  • Pet owners and animal lovers (dogs, cats, horses)
  • Family (parents, spouses, expecting mothers)
  • Local (such as featuring a landmark or place name)

One thing to keep in mind is there are some benefits to focusing on a general category for your business that includes many specific niches. 

For example, let’s say you plan on making some T-shirts for teachers. In that case, you can probably just slightly tweak your designs to offer a range of T-shirts, each aimed at a specific type of teacher.

Here are some more tips on choosing the right niche:

  • Consider choosing a niche that people are particularly passionate about. The niches listed above are all good examples. Since people tend to be passionate about their careers, pets, family, etc., they’re more likely to purchase a shirt that shows off that aspect of their lives. 
  • Consider choosing a niche that you’re already a part of. This will help you better understand your audience. This makes it easier to design shirts that will appeal to them.
  • Check out this long list of hobbies on Wikipedia for more ideas.
  • Look at what’s trending on social media platforms such as Twitter. Memes, current events, and social causes are some examples of trending topics that can help draw attention to your shirts.

Create some designs

This will be one of the most important steps in starting a T-shirt business, so be ready to spend some time brainstorming, experimenting, and going back to the drawing board.

Get inspired

While you probably want to create something original or unique with your T-shirt designs, there’s nothing wrong with looking at existing designs to find some inspiration. So check out some of the T-shirts available from these websites.

When on these sites, try using the option to view the “best selling” T-shirts to make sure you’re getting inspiration from the most popular products.

Keep it simple

There are a couple of benefits to aiming for simplicity when designing your shirts. First of all, simple designs can appeal to a wider audience. Think about some of the most iconic and best-selling T-shirts of all time, and how they kept it simple. (I heart NY, I’m with stupid, or the “Have a nice day” smiley face.) 

By avoiding excessive design elements or colours, you can avoid turning off some of your potential customers. Also, intricate designs or those that include many colours can limit your options when it comes to T-shirt printing methods.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

If you have some T-shirt ideas but not a lot of confidence in your graphic design skills, consider getting help from a professional designer. Freelancing sites like the ones below can be a great source for finding design help that suits your budget.

Design-specific freelancing sites

General freelancing sites

Make some mockups

Once you have some designs in mind, you should create some T-shirt mockups. This involves using photo editing software to put your design on an image of a T-shirt or a model wearing a T-shirt.

This can help you better understand how your designs will look once they are printed, and the mockups will also be useful when it comes time to market your shirts. The easiest way to do it is to use one of the many T-shirt mockup generators available online. 

One great example is SmartMockUps. This site offers a variety of T-shirt mockups that you can use for free. It also offers “premium” mockups, which include additional features such as the ability to change the background, but the free options will be perfectly suitable for most cases.

Alternatively, if you are already working with a professional graphic designer, they should be able to create a custom T-shirt mockup to your specifications. Or if you are comfortable with Adobe Photoshop, you can download free templates that will let you create your own mockups.

Custom T-shirt printing options

Here are some of the options you should consider for how to get your custom T-shirts printed.

Outsourcing your printing

While it is possible and relatively inexpensive to start T-shirt printing yourself, outsourcing your printing may be a better option. This is especially true when you’re just starting a T-shirt business.

There’s no need to make investments in equipment, worry about excess inventory, or spend time finding a workspace when there are many options for printing and dropshipping services.

But before we go further, here are a couple of basic definitions:

Print-on-demand: A method of order fulfillment that involves your shirts only being printed after you receive an order. 

Dropshipping: A method of supply chain management where products are sent directly from your supplier to the buyer. It offers the benefit of faster delivery, and no need to deal with shipping items yourself. Most print-on-demand services provide drop shipping as standard.

Print-on-demand services

There is a range of print-on-demand services that make it simple to sell your custom T-shirt designs online. 

They offer several benefits, including eliminating the need to make an initial investment in inventory and preventing you from ever getting stuck with unsold items.

Another benefit is it makes it practical to offer a wide range of unique products. This is because there is no issue if a particular product doesn’t sell or only sells in small quantities.

Some examples of print-on-demand services include:

Most of these sites will let you connect your online store to their service. So when a customer places an order on your site, it automatically gets sent to your supplier, and they’ll handle the rest.

Typically, these print-on-demand services put a base price on the item (for example, Printful has T-shirts starting at $7.95) and then you set your profit by deciding how much to mark up the prices.

Do your own quality control

  • When using a print-on-demand and dropshipping service, start by ordering some sample shirts for yourself to test the quality.
  • Ensure you’re satisfied with all aspects of the shirts, taking into consideration the material, printing method, printing quality, fit, and sizing.

Dropshipping vs. holding inventory

While dropshipping offers a convenient option for your startup T-shirt business, there are some benefits to stocking your own inventory. They include:

  • It makes it easier to sell your T-shirts in person, such as at events related to your niche.
  • You can take advantage of bulk pricing when purchasing shirts from a supplier.
  • It makes it easier to ensure the quality of every item you ship.

So you’ll have to think about how important these advantages are to you. And keep in mind you can always use a combination of dropshipping and stocking your own inventory.

Using local T-shirt printing vendors 

Alternatively, you can research T-shirt printing vendors in your area. This can offer the benefit of reduced shipping prices. It also offers you the opportunity to work more closely with your supplier and ensure the products consistently meet all of your needs.

T-shirt printing methods

Whether you plan on using a print-on-demand service, a local printer, or printing shirts yourself, it’s useful to understand the pros and cons of different T-shirt making methods.

Screen printing 

Screen printing is the most well-known method for printing designs on T-shirts. It involves pushing ink through a mesh screen that acts as a template for the design. For more details on the process check out this screen printing tutorial video

Screen printing benefits

  • Offers high durability and vivid colours because it uses thicker inks than other methods
  • Well-suited to producing large quantities of the same design (So you may be able to get deals for high volume orders from printing companies)
  • Can be used with most fabrics
  • Can be performed by hand or by a machine

Screen printing drawbacks

  • The process can be messy due to ink spillage
  • Difficult for beginners
  • Not well-suited to very complex designs or designs with many colours
  • Requires a large space that is both dark and free of dust

DTG (Direct-to-Garment) Printing

DTG printing, also sometimes called digital printing, uses inkjet technology to print designs directly onto T-shirts. One of its major benefits is how easy it is to start printing. As opposed to screen printing, which requires a setup process for each new design, you can simply load a shirt into the DTG machine and start printing. To see the process in action, check out this DTG printing tutorial.

DTG printing benefits

  • Can produce complex designs with no limits on colours
  • Well-suited to printing small batches of many different designs
  • DTG machines don’t take up much space and are less messy than screen printing

DTG printing drawbacks

  • Does not work with all fabrics. DTG printing is designed for use on 100 percent cotton or fabrics with high amounts of cotton. 
  • DTG machines are expensive. The best-selling DTG printers start at about $10,000 and range up to $250,000.
  • The prints are not as durable as with screen printing and tend to fade over time.

Heat transfer printing

Heat transfer printing uses sheets of transfer material that are placed on top of the garment and then heat-pressed to apply the design. There are several different techniques that fall into the category of heat transfer printing, but one of the most popular is dye-sublimation printing.

What makes this technique special is that it uses a dye-based ink that turns into a gas when heated and then goes back into a solid state. This results in the ink becoming a part of the material as opposed to just a layer on top. 

To see the process for yourself, take a look at this dye sublimation tutorial.

Dye-sublimation printing benefits

  • Long-lasting
  • Enables “all-over printing”, meaning your design can cover the shirt from top to bottom.
  • The print is breathable and feels soft

Dye-sublimation printing drawbacks

  • Requires polyblend T-shirts (the more polyester in the material, the better the results)
  • Requires a heat press in addition to a printer

Validating your T-shirt business idea

There are a number of ways you can test your T-shirt company idea before investing much time or money. This will let you determine how much interest there is in your designs, and whether you should launch your business as it is, or make some tweaks before going further.

Ask Reddit for help 

Reddit is a great resource because of how popular it is. According to the latest statistics, Reddit is the 5th most visited website in the US, with over 430 million monthly active users. It also has over 1.2 million different subreddits that include almost every conceivable community or topic. That means with a little searching; you should be able to find a variety of subreddits that are related to your target audience.

For example, if you plan on making some shirts for dog owners, here are a couple of subreddits you could use:

  • Dogs: Meant for asking questions, sharing information, and learning about dog-centric topics. (1.5 million members)
  • German Shepherd Dogs: For all things German Shepherd Dogs. Guardians, breeders, enthusiasts, and general dog-lovers. (72,000 members)
  • Everything about Chihuahuas: A subreddit all about Chihuahuas. (31,000 members)

While Reddit communities usually frown on users making posts for self-promotion, they are useful for getting feedback on ideas. So be upfront about the reason you’re posting and simply ask if they like your designs.

Print-on-demand services and online marketplaces

As mentioned above, print-on-demand services will let you start selling shirts without any risk. So it is a great way to test out your designs.

Once you’ve got a printing service lined up, you can start posting your T-shirt mockups to online marketplaces such as: 

Branding your T-shirt business

Branding is another important step in starting a T-shirt business because it can help set you apart from the competition. That is especially important in the T-shirt market where consumers have a lot of companies to choose from. 

So what exactly is business branding? It’s the process of creating a unique identity for your business. 

It can include many different aspects of your company. That covers everything from the company name and logo to the design of your website and the products you offer.

Benefits of business branding

  • A strong brand gives customers something to relate to, as opposed to seeing your business as just another generic company.
  • It helps customers remember your business
  • It makes your business look more professional
  • It can help create a sense of familiarity with customers, and increase the chances that they come back to you in the future. 

The many aspects of branding

Here are some of the most important aspects that you can use to reinforce your brand.

  • Company name
  • Logo
  • Slogan
  • Product offering
  • Pricing
  • Customer relations
  • Colour scheme
  • Company website
  • Charitable initiatives

One key to making your branding as effective as possible is to keep it consistent. If you’ve decided on a niche for your T-shirt business, this can help guide you.

Always keep your target audience in mind and use an appropriate style, voice, and images to appeal to that audience.

For more tips, take a look at our business branding guide

Market your T-shirts

Once you’re ready to start selling your shirts, you are going to need a way to get them seen by as many potential customers as possible.

Here are a few of the best ways to do that.

Enlist some Instagram influencers

Instagram has become a go-to platform for fashion marketing. There’s no shortage of Instagram influencers who can instantly get your shirts seen by their many followers.

Taking advantage of that marketing power is easier than you might think. While you might have difficulty getting the help of mega-influencers with millions of followers, you shouldn’t overlook nano-influencers (which are defined as having 1,000-10,000 followers.)

Experts say that working with those smaller influencers can be more effective, because while they reach fewer people, they also have very targeted audiences. That means you have a better chance of having your T-shirts seen by people who will actually be interested in buying.

To find influencers, do an Instagram search for hashtags related to your niche. Then take a look at which accounts are using those tags, and which of those accounts have at least a 1,000 followers.

Then get in touch with these influencers and see if they will agree to post some images of your shirts in exchange for some freebies.

Facebook Advertising

Advertising on Facebook offers many benefits. For one, it can help you focus your efforts on your target audience, as you can control who sees your ads based on location, age, sex, income, marital status, interests, and more.

Another benefit is Facebook advertising is completely scalable to your business, as you can start with a minimum spend of $1 CAD. In addition, Facebook offers detailed analytics that enables you to see which of your ads are the most effective.

Attend events in your niche

Local events like craft shows and trade shows can be another great avenue for getting more eyes on your custom T-shirts. While selling online gives a wider reach, selling at events offers the benefit of face-to-face interaction with your potential customers.

Your online store will never be able to match the personal connection that comes from selling in person, which can translate to more loyal and passionate customers.

In addition, dealing with customers face-to-face can make it easier to learn which of your designs are best at catching people’s attention.

Get Started!

Now that you know the ins-and-outs of how to start a T-shirt business, it’s time to put these tips into action. Remember that one of the major benefits of the T-shirt printing industry is it doesn’t involve much risk to get started, so there’s nothing holding you back.

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