How To

How to make short-run t-shirts

By November 19, 2021 November 22nd, 2021 No Comments

When it comes to selling clothing and making money – quantity is king. The more you buy, the lower your cost, the more you can markup and make. But of course the more you buy, the bigger your initial investment.

Take, for example, the cost to buy a Bella & Canvas t-shirt from CustomInk with a one-color imprint (which, is likely not the most competitive pricing, but it provides an easy example).

Certainly looks good, doesn’t it? But this best-case scenario assumes you will sell every single shirt, there will be no loss and you have the exact right mix of sizes. It’s also for only one design on one style of t-shirt.

For “Steve the Bike Guy,” the bicycle shop owned by my husband and me, the challenge of cost and quantity (storage is an issue) had largely prevented us from offering t-shirts and other clothing. Until we decided to print our own clothing using an industrial press and custom heat transfers.

We understood that going in this direction was a compromise as we love the look, feel and durability of a true screen printed shirt, but the benefits were that we’d be able to offer different designs using multiple colors, in both unisex and women’s cuts, while also limiting how much inventory we had to have on hand. The added benefit was that we could be more selective about the t-shirts we chose to imprint, opting for clothing that was made in the United States or the Americas.

After researching several manufacturers, we selected FM Expressions for our imprints both because the pricing was reasonable and we liked the quality. We selected the “Full Athletic” formula which can be used on a broad range of fabrics including 100% polyester and 100% cotton, while recognizing the final product can feel plastic-y, particularly for designs with a lot of coverage. Other formulas, such as the vintage one color feel and look much softer. Click here to read about the formulas.

It should be noted, that commercially-printed, custom heat transfers, are very different than what you will find at the craft store. One big difference is they can only be applied using an industrial press that both achieve the proper temperature (between 300ºF and 375ºF for the FMexpressions imprints) and pressure for the time required. The press we use is a Hix basix b-400 manual (no digital gauges) heat press we bought at an estate sale. You can see it in action at the bottom of this post.

Preparing the artwork for printing, we created a “gang sheet” of designs which, when received, we could cut out and use on the various shirts. In this first round, we included 9″ and 7″ versions of the “Road Race Stripe” thinking we’d want to use the smaller versions on women’s shirts. We discovered that the 7″ always looked too small, while the 9″ never looked too big.

The original 12.75×19 Gang Sheet for Steve the Bike Guy cost $368 for 24 sheets which gave us 288 separate imprints ($1.27 per imprint).

If there is one thing you take away from this post it’s this – size matters. Take your time to get the size of your imprint correct, because just a few inches can make the difference between a shirt looking great, or not.

For the t-shirts, we turned to ClothingShop Online, where we could buy small quantities of t-shirts from US manufacturer USA Bayside, as well as Bella & Canvas which dyes and cuts pieces in Los Angeles before shipping to Central America for sewing. The added benefit of our short-run strategy is we can limit the amount of waste by only buying what we need.

Ganging sheets also allow us to expand our offered designs, even as we created designs for event-specific uses, as when preparing for the Shop’s winter fat bike event.

Customer requests for a road version of the STBG Race Flag design were satisfied with this printing.

How, you may ask, do the imprints hold up? It is a plastic-type finish, so there is a risk of the design cracking. As he wears these t-shirts every day for work, Steve the Bike Guy has done a great job of wear testing the shirts. Below is a 100% cotton t-shirt that has been worn, washed, and dried at least once a week for the last year. The color hasn’t faded much, but the imprint does feel dry, and while there is some cracking, it’s minimal and similar to that found on some of his other favorite shirts.

One way to help customers extend the life of their t-shirts is to recommend they tumble dry low, or better yet, hang dry (something that won’t be happening any time in our house, but we can always suggest).

An unexpected benefit of our short-run strategy has been finding new ways to use some of the imprints that may have been too small for their original use including beer cooler sleeves.

Our dog inspecting the work.

Between the heat press and the cost of the imprints, producing short-run t-shirts is not without expense, but it’s a long-term strategy that works for STBG.

Team STBG in our short-run t-shirts.