The Ultimate Guide to Buying Screen Printed Apparel

Stephanie Shea

Committing to an order of custom printed t-shirts, hoodies or polos is a big deal!  Once you print them, you own them.  It’s a commitment, and I understand your desire to learn everything you can before you place an order.  Born into a screenprinting shop, I spend most of my life hanging around vast buckets of ink, mountains of t-shirts, and giant printing presses.  I’m here to give you some background on printing, and if you have additional questions, shoot me an email.

Screenprinting (also called Silkscreening) takes an actual screen, covers it in a temporary liquid stencil (called emulsion), burns an image on it, and then sets it up on press where we push ink through the stencil.  Printing is a blend of art and science… but we like to think of it as mostly an art.  If you tried your hand at printing in Shop Class, that’s great- you understand the basics. But modern screenprinting uses modern methods- upgrading, digitizing and automating many of the manual parts of our process. The industry went from using hand-cut film positives to using printed film positives, and now we digitally image screens directly.  If that sounded overly technical and jargon-y, I’m sorry!  The point is, all our processes have been modernized, which allows us to print on fabric at an incredibly high resolution (tons of detail).

That being said, some of my favorite designs are some of the simplest.  We play with our logo and branding all the time- our two favorite shirts are our Contractor shirt, and our Vintage Americana shirt.  Each of those designs are less than 3 colors, printed in totally different styles, but they are our faves.  We used to print 95% of our orders vibrantly, and now we print about 50/50 vintage to vibrant- which is why we created this “vintage or vibrant” conversation piece for our clients.  Some designs are obviously meant to look worn and vintage, but everyone has a preference and you should definitely weigh-in with your salesperson (or in the comments section on a website order) to let us know which you prefer.  Our printing team thinks intuitively about what someone is trying to achieve with their design, and they ask, “Would I wear this?  Does this look good?  Could this be better?” instead of just printing everything the same way.  The idea of, “best shirt ever” is plastered all over our shop- and informs everything we do.  So don’t be afraid to keep it simple, but we’re also one of the most sophisticated high-end print shops in the country, so we’ve got your back if your design is full color and pushing the limits.

As your printer, we have to make some determinations about how big to set up your artwork.  That is one of the toughest calls to make because there are three things at play:  how much print area we have to work with on the smallest shirt you are ordering, the shape of the design, and the sizes of our coordinating equipment.  Raglans, racerbacks and branded apparel also add a layer of complexity because we don’t recommend printing over seams, and we would never print over an adidas, Nike, or Under Armour logo.  My expert opinion?  Lean on your designer to “size” your art, but when the proof comes through, take out a ruler and actually think about how big the logo is going to look.  If you are tech savvy, print the image out at the size we’re suggesting, and lay it over a shirt- that is the most comprehensive way to check the print sizing.  If the shape of the design is linear, we’ll probably make the design fairly wide and drop the placement down so it falls across the chest (not below).  If it’s a women’s design, we have some guidelines for placement but we’re very careful about how the logo will sit on the chest.  Deep V-necks create some consternation for us, but we generally will take your logo, speculate on the placement and then have someone try it on.  All women are built differently!

The most common problem with screenprinted goods is bleeding.  Think of the Philadelphia Phillies in their red training tee shirts- nobody wants to see a pink Phillies logo that used to be white.  Good printers know what inks to use to prevent that.  Every order is unique, and occasionally you may want to print something on a fabric we do not recommend for that specific use/design… if that’s the case, please hear us out.  It’s possible to design a distressed logo in a way that would inhibit us from printing an underbase, which prevents bleeding.  Think of underbases like sunblock; they are there to let you play as hard as you want without turning colors. Our expert tip:  let your printer look at your art, find out how you will use the apparel, and then suggest some items for you to pick from.  We only have your best interests at heart.  Or, if you are buying directly from our website, 100% cotton shirts are safe for any type of print.

Without going into my regularly scheduled diatribe about why cotton is everything and polyester is for nerds, I do want to share some tips about shrinking and washability.  At this point, all the shirts in our market are Preshrunk, BUT cotton/polyester blends definitely do perform with better longevity.  If your shirts are going to be worn outside every day, buy a 50/50 shirt like a Gildan G800 or a Port PC55.  Cotton is a natural fiber which will get softer over time, and doesn’t pill- but poly blends hold their color and shape better.  Open up your t-shirt drawer and take a look.  You will notice the shirts with little pills on them (like a sweater) are usually the blended ones; whereas the cotton shirts usually don’t- but they may have faded a bit depending on how much time you’ve spent in the sun.  The most basic, inexpensive cotton shirts are the Gildan G500 and the Port PC54- those are safe bets for outfitting a group because they come in mens, youth and ladies in a full range of sizes and colors.  From there, you can walk upward in quality to brands like Bella Canvas, Next Level, Alternative Apparel, and District.  Expert tip?  If you really aren’t sure about your choice on the shirt, order a blank sample to test drive before you buy them with your design.

Aside from the fabric for your apparel, the fit is equally as important.  If you see the words “fitted, junior, or retail fit” please beware… they are not likely to flatter folks who are not thin and/or young.  I wrote a whole piece about outfitting a diverse group of people which gives some suggestions for outfitting a diverse group of people.  If apparel is cut too narrow, it can take a good intention and make it into an embarrassing moment for someone.  Even folks you may consider “fit” may not want their gear form-fitting.  My advice?  Look for the words, “athletic, classic, or basic cut” to find items which won’t fit too tight.  

We’re here to help, feel free to reach out to  Since we do our printing right here in Philly, we are always putting our hands on new products- printing them, wash testing them, wearing them and forming opinions.  It’s an exciting time to be ensconced in the world of t-shirts.  The fabrics are getting nicer, the fits are becoming more flattering and the technologies for decorating are being developed at a breakneck speed.  I remember when Abercrombie, Gap and Tommy Hilfiger were the only ones who had access to beautiful ringspun t-shirts, but now we all do.  When we make shirts for our own team here at Ampro we used to use the entry-level basic tees because we tend to get ink all over them, but with the nicer fabrics available to us, even we have become t-shirt snobs.  Anything less than a Next Level Apparel #3600, and I hear complaints!  I love our t-shirt aficionados.

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For most orders we require a 12 piece minimum, and we do not generally decorate customer provided goods.
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