Heat Transfer vs. Screen Printing on T-Shirts and Promo Items

  • Jun 23, 2019

When it comes to customizing t-shirts and promotional items, there are two main ways to get a logo or other artwork onto the product: heat transfers and screen printing. While both methods essentially transfer an image onto fabric, there are plenty of differences and situations where one method might be more useful than the other. In addition to their advantages and disadvantages, the two designs come out quite differently, so customer preference also comes into play.

Heat Transfer

A much more recent innovation, heat transferring images to fabric has become more popular in the last 20 years. A heat transfer is the method of printing images onto t-shirts and other items using high-quality vinyl that is pressed onto the fabric with a heated press. Designs are printed onto high-quality paper using special inks that adhere to the material. These printed designs are then placed in the desired location, and a heated press is used to transfer the image or design onto the fabric.

Heat transfers are great for smaller print runs or jobs that involve many colors. This method of printing requires a special printer and quality of paper, as well as a heating press to set the design in place.

The Pros:

  • It’s easy to print images containing multiple colors and complex designs
  • Heat transfers are great for small orders
  • Allows you to easily customize different shirts

The Cons:

  • Not great for darker shirts, as the design cracks and fades easily
  • Designs don’t last as long as screen printed shirts
  • They look less professional
  • Stiffer printed design, and aren’t as precise
  • The colors aren’t as bright as screen printed shirts


Screen Printing

Screen printing is the method of transferring designs to t-shirts and promo items using actual screens. While original forms of this art date back to around 960 AD, screen printing in its current form was not discovered until the 1910s after several printers stumbled upon the modern emulsion process. It wasn’t until Andy Warhol began popularizing the practice in the 1960s that silkscreening, or screen printing, really started being used in the mainstream.

To get the desired effect, an emulsion layer is used to cover the entire screen. Then light is used to essentially “burn” the design out of this emulsion layer, so that the paint can pass through the screen in the shape of the desired look. Screen printers then add a smaller amount of paint to the top of the screen and use a squeegee to evenly layer the paint across it.

With screen printing, each color use in your design requires another screen to be utilized, so it can be much more time consuming to set up. However, screen printed art does last much longer than a heated press design will, and colors appear more vibrant. During the screen printing process, the ink actually becomes part of the fabric as it is cured into it.

The Pros:

  • Screen printing is very cost effective
  • The results are of a much higher quality than the heat transferred images
  • The designs are more durable and last longer
  • The colors are much more vibrant and bright, even on a darker colored fabric

The Cons:

  • Each color in the design requires the use of a separate screen
  • The process can be messy and time consuming up front
  • You’ll need to print many shirts at once with the same design for it to be a truly feasible solution. This is the reason there is typically a minimum order quantity (MOQ) on screen printed items.
  • Screen printing is not great with photo replication


While both methods offer solutions to getting a design onto a shirt or other product, screen printing and heat transfers are great for different reasons. If you are looking to print customized designs with different names, such as sports team uniforms, a heat transfer might be the most cost effective way to go. However, if you are looking a more durable design and have a larger order, screen printing is likely your best bet.