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Choosing the Perfect T-Shirt for Screen Printing

Posted by Jack Kilian on April 26, 2023 5:56:11 PM CDT

With any design medium, it’s fair to say that the canvas is one of the most important parts of any project, including digital printing t shirt  As it happens, the process of screen printing is absolutely no different!  When preparing to set up an order, choosing your canvas, or garment in this case, is a critical first step that will have a big impact on the final result.  Luckily, there are thousands of options available these days, and if you continue reading on, we’ll be touching upon a few key points that will help you make the best choice for your screen printed apparel.  

Fabric Type

The material any shirt consists of will always be one of the most significant factors to consider when making your selection.  This is the substrate on which the screen print ink will be applied, and naturally this can affect everything about the print from the hand (also known as the “feel” or “weight”), to the vibrancy and coloration of the image.  Below we’ll review the primary materials that most tee shirts are made from, including blends of varying amounts as well.  Each material and blend offer their own unique pros & cons, both in terms of the garment itself, and when looked at through the lens of custom screen printing.  




Cotton has been used in the manufacture of garments for thousands of years, and continues to be ubiquitous in the world of apparel.  It is very popular for its softness, natural quality, durability, and the fact that it’s often a little easier on the wallet.  When it comes to decorating tee shirts, a 100% cotton substrate provides the widest array of different techniques and ink possibilities that can be successfully applied, opening a plethora of doors for those looking to achieve everything from the most simple to the most unique specialty prints.  However, not all cotton shirts are created equal, and there are actually two different categories they can fall into based on how they are manufactured.  


The most basic cotton shirts are made with carded open end (or COE) fibers.  These shirts are generally regarded as very solid, dependable, heavyweight tees, but the other face of this coin is that they can be found to be a little less soft than some of their counterparts.  This is due to the very slight, almost “fuzzy” nature of the fibers used.  All things considered, especially cost, these shirts are still of excellent value.


Often described as a little more higher-end, softer and lighter variations of the standard cotton shirt are made with combed ring spun cotton.  This manufacturing process uses longer fibers oriented in a more uniform, parallel fashion, avoiding the majority of any fibrous “fuzz” and offering a very smooth face to screen print on.


Polyester & Poly Cotton Blends


Around the 1950’s, a new material emerged in the apparel manufacturing field as a contender for cotton tee shirts - polyester.  In years since, this material can now be found (either as the primary fabric, or as a component in a blend) in so many different types of clothing items from athletic & race wear, hoodies & sweatshirts, to standard tee shirts.  


This synthetic material offers lightweight & moisture wicking properties, along with durability and being less prone to wrinkling or shrinking.  Its unique composition also provides stain resistance, being made from a less absorbent fiber.  




A logical continuation of the marriage of polyester & cotton, triblends add another synthetic component called rayon.  Shirts constructed in this tri-blended manner are the epitome of softness & long-lasting shape, resisting stretching, shrinking, degrading, staining & wrinkling.  So far it seems like all pluses from these synthetic technological advancements, but there are some other factors to account for as well.


Printing on Synthetics & Blends


While the addition of synthetic fibers offers a great many benefits, it does also add some challenges to the screen printing process, as standard plastisol ink can react much differently when compared to cotton tees.  The prime difference shows itself as an unwanted process called dye migration.  Dye migration is an interaction during which small dye particles move from the synthetic fibers in the garment into the screen print ink, causing a change in tint or color of the imprint.  This interaction occurs only after heat-curing screen printed shirts due the temperatures involved, and so it is not immediately evident when the shirts are being screened.  Luckily, screen print ink technology has developed several work-arounds (in the form of different, special underbases) that your decorator can use to avoid this issue, thus ensuring polyester & blended clothing items can be a great choice for your custom apparel!




Equally as important as the material of the substrate, the color of your apparel items can totally make or break the appearance and message or “tone” you’re going for with your printed apparel project.


The most popular tee shirt colors circulating these days are fairly basic but tried & true: white, black, red, navy, royal, & grays are just a few of the most common.  


Printing on White vs Color Tees


Of all of the shirt colors out there, white is the easiest to screen print on, as it provides excellent vibrancy and can be a great contrast with your design.  Additionally, ensuring the print colors match what’s intended is a breeze, and does not require an underbase.  


What is an underbase anyway?  Briefly mentioned earlier, an underbase is a bottom layer of ink very commonly used when printing on colored shirts - this provides a white background that the actual print colors sit on top of, providing the same vibrancy and color matching capabilities as if printing on a white shirt.  On synthetic and blend materials, they may also be used to negate the potential for dye migration.  In some cases however, you may choose to opt of using an underbase on colored shirts.  This lowers the vibrancy of the print colors, and is a great tool for creating a faded, distressed, or vintage look!  


Heathered tees are another colored option you may want to consider.  These tee shirts are created with a special effect achieved by combining two or more interwoven colors of fibers, typically tonal / very close to one another.  Heathered shirts are another great way to get a subtle vintage look, right from the get-go.  Keep in mind that heathered tees are almost always blended materials, and not 100% cotton.  

Design Considerations

Besides simply thinking about what shirt colors might be popular, it’s even more important to make sure that the color that you’re choosing is a good fit for your branding or custom design.  Selecting a background that compliments or contrasts well with the colors in your screen printed design can go very far when it comes to determining the impact your custom apparel will have when viewed by others.  


From a marketing standpoint, brand recognition is absolutely key to making sure you’re easily picked out by your target audience & potential customers.  Naturally this carries

 over to your choice of promotional apparel, and you’ll generally want to stick fairly close to colorways that your customer base will already associate with your brand as seen on the internet, printed ads, TV, or other media.


If your project is more personal and /or  you don’t already have some kind of branding guidelines to follow, it can seem tricky to pick the right color from the vast amount of options out there.  In this case, one of the best ways to make your decision can be honing in on the desired emotion you want your custom apparel to elicit.  People tend to have similar reactions associated with certain colors, and you can use this to your benefit!  One very common example would be red & yellow used in the fast food & restaurant industry - together these colors can bring on an appetite and thoughts of a good tasting meal!  Purple can be an energizing color, and it has also been associated with royalty for centuries.  Blue can have a tranquil and calming effect, and can also make you think of loyalty or peace.  The psychology behind this method of choosing colors is extensive and proven - feel free to look around on the internet for more examples yourself if you like and you’ll see that the list goes on and on!




Another area to keep in mind when selecting a blank tee shirt for your screen print project is the size and fit of the garment.  Depending on how the items will be used, this consideration can inform how successfully the items will be received by the end user.  


Many decorators offer comprehensive but easy to read sizing charts that can show you the right imprint vs. garment size to help you pick something that will give you a clear, well defined print space that won’t be distorted when worn.  A quick example - you wouldn’t want a fashion tee with an overly large front imprint, or else it may end up being stretched a bit on the chest area when worn, due to that particular cut of tee’s tapered construction.  


Speaking of fashion tees, they are just one of many different cuts and fits of tee shirts on the market.  This is just another example of the myriad considerations required for picking the right garment for your order, but an experienced decorator will be able to guide you through this process and recommend excellent choices to compliment the vision you have for your screen print project.  


Brand & Quality

With any purchase big or small, the driving forces will always be cost & quality.  That said, there are plenty of apparel brands out there that have offerings to fit your desired ratio just right when it comes to picking a tee that’s perfect for your promotional or custom branded screen print order.  Longstanding screen printing operations will have experience imprinting on a great many brands and can recommend a style & provider to meet your needs for any given project.  You may wish to do some research of your own as well - a good place to start would be reviewing the products offered by some of the most reputable nationwide blanks vendors.  A very solid starting point to this list would include vendors highly regarded in the industry such as SanMar, S&S Activewear & Alphabroder, to name just a few.  Many well-established decorators have substantial relationships with these vendors, and those that do may have joint inbound shipping programs, potentially saving you from spending anything extra on freight costs to transport blanks to your desired printer.

We’ve jumped in and deep and got up close with the ins-and-outs of the thought process behind picking a great tee for any project, and here are some key takeaways to help you quickly make an informed decision on the garment for your upcoming screen print order.


  • 100% cotton tees are still considered the industry standard, have economical and quality options, and offer the widest range of applicable inks & specialty printing techniques.  Synthetics & blends are quality garments with many pros, and while they offer slightly less specialty print options, they are still very popular and fashionable for screen printing and retail.
  • The color possibilities are nearly endless for the blank tees you might be picking for screen printing, and this provides great opportunities for working in synergy between your branded & custom designs with the background they’re printed on.  Having the power to manipulate the impact of your special printed apparel is an unparalleled too,l whether it’s for promotional or more personal purposes.
  • Choosing the right fit and style of tee, as well as an appropriate imprint size, bring it all home as far as ensuring your custom apparel gives off the “tone” that will attract your ideal audience and customer base.  
  • You have a tee in mind for your project, from the material, to the color, to the cut - now you need to decide who to purchase it from.  There are a few “household names” in the industry that offer excellent variation, quality, customer service, and decorator relations for you to choose from.  Consider well-known vendors like AlphaBroder, S&S Activewear, and SanMar. 
  • The decorator you choose to work with should have the breadth of experience to help you make informed decisions every step of the way while deciding on the perfect T-shirt for putting your vision of the perfect screen printed apparel piece to life.  

Topics: tshirts

Jack Kilian

Written by Jack Kilian