Apparel Decoration Overview

Apparel Decoration Overview
2019-12-07 Shirts and Signs
In Knowledge Base

How are custom shirts made? What are my options for apparel decoration?

There are many different ways to customize apparel, and each method has its own advantages and drawbacks. Choosing the best decoration method for your project is a matter of considering the type of apparel you’re customizing, the desired artwork, and the advantages and drawbacks of the various decoration methods.

This is something your local custom apparel shop should guide you through, but it’s nice to understand some of your options ahead of time, and why a shop may guide you in a certain direction.

Here’s a brief overview of each decoration technique, and what you should consider when evaluating your project:

Screen Printing

WSB, Shirts, 4 Color Process Print

Screen Printing is a method of adding graphics to a garment using ink pushed through a mesh screen with a squeegee. First, the artwork is separated out into it’s component colors and then put onto a film positive. Each film positive represents a discreet color from the original graphic. These are then transferred onto an emulsion substrate on the screen to create sort of a stencil for the ink to pass through. As you can see, this makes screen printing ideal for designs that have mostly solid color areas. Halftones can be used to create the illusion of one color fading into another, and CMYK (that’s Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key/Black) halftones can be used to simulate a wide range of colors. Here are some examples of the possible results that can be achieved with screen printing:

Advantages of Screen Printing

  1. Versatile
    Screen printing is the most common method of decorating apparel because it looks great and can reproduce a wide range of artwork and designs.
  2. Perfect for High-Quantity Orders
    Since screen printing uses a stencil-like system for printing, it is intended for use in producing many nearly identical prints at a time.  This makes it great for outfitting employees, teams, and members of your club, church, or other organization.
  3. Relatively Inexpensive
    Since screen printing is ideal for high-quantity print runs when you place an order for a large number of garments you can reap the benefits of economies of scale.  This makes screen printing a great fit (no pun intended) for uniforms as well as for producing a profitable merchandise stream you can offer to your clients or members.

Disadvantages of Screen Printing

  1. Gets expensive when printing many colors
    When you are printing 4 or more colors the time required to set up and maintain proper registration during printing is increased and therefore so does the job costs.
  2. Difficult to reproduce some artwork
    Certain kinds of artwork are not suited to screen-printing, particularly designs with a very high number of colors or photograph-like detail.  While there are methods to simulate full-color printing with screen-printing, there are trade-offs to the achievable level-of-detail.

How to Get the Best Results from your Screen Printed Order

  1. Keep your design to 3 or 4 colors maximum.
  2. The more pieces you can order at one time the lower your cost-per-piece.
  3. Printing on a darker color shirt may require and under-base layer for the other colors to stand off of the background garment color.


Embroidery is the process of using thread to stitch a design directly onto a garment.  Embroidery is a durable and professional way to decorate apparel, and is especially suited for certain kinds of garments like collared “polo” shirts, dress shirts, and other professional-grade apparel.

Advantages of Embroidery

  1. Looks Professional
    Embroidery is common on high end garments such as “polos” (collared shirts), quarter-zips, and jackets.  It has a more refined look than screen printing and conveys a higher-class image to your clients.
  2. Ideal for Low-Quantity Orders
    Modern embroidery equipment makes it an ideal method for small-batch runs of apparel – even for as few as a single piece.
  3. Relatively Inexpensive
    Thanks to the low-overhead of set-up that makes embroidery great for low-quantity orders it is also an inexpensive way to decorate apparel for smaller (chest or sleeve) sized artwork.

Disadvantages of Embroidery

  1. Difficult to Reproduce Very Fine Details
    Since embroidery is done by stitching threads into a garment there is a limit to the amount of fine detail that can be achieved.  Text generally can’t be smaller than about a tenth of an inch at minimum, and at that size your font options are very limited in order to remain legible.
  2. Large Designs can be Expensive to Embroider
    One of the biggest factors in embroidery cost is the stitch count for the design being embroidered.  This is due not only to the amount of thread required, but more so to the amount of time required to stitch each piece.  So for larger designs with a higher stitch-count the increased time per piece adds to the order’s cost.

How to Get the Best Results from your Embroidery Order

  1. Embroidery is suited for smaller-quantity orders.
  2. Use smaller designs for embroidery if you need to keep your costs down.
  3. Embroidery goes best on nicer, high-end apparel.

This article is a work in progress, and will be updated with more soon.