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Branded tee shirts have been the number one promotional product sold for the past five  years, accounting for 15% of all categories in 2018. To put that into perspective, last year our industry claimed $24.7 Billion in total sales, which means over 3.6 BILLION DOLLARS were spent on branded tee shirts alone (thank you Google calculator). 


A little hard to wrap your head around that kind of number on just a tee shirt?  Stop what you’re doing, go into your closet and check your dresser drawers, and count the number of random tee shirts you have.  Then think about the number of tee shirts you see around you every day… it’s not really that surprising when you actually start to notice just how many you see out there.  Oh, and we apologize in advance that if you haven’t noticed before, you’re definitely going to notice after reading this.  


Tee shirts are literally a walking billboard for your brand, an easy sell or giveaway for all occasions and events, and we want to get you just as amped up about the endless possibilities your brand has in this category as we are!  In this edition of our Speaking Promo series, we’ll fill you in on the main tee shirt fabrics, the sub-fabrics inside of said fabrics, and the pros and cons of printing on each.


100% COTTON – Ahhhh, cotton.  The fabric of our lives.  This continues to be the number one fabrication choice, mostly because they are affordable and yield great print results.  There are various weights, with the most common weight being a 6.1oz, followed by 5.4oz, which usually has a more breathable and softer feel to it.  The downfall to this option is that cotton shrinks. Period. Industry standard for shrinkage allowance is 10%, and let’s be honest, none of us actually take the time to hang dry a tee shirt.  These are typically the best option if buying in large quantities on a lower budget, usually as a give away item at an event. Cotton isn’t a one-fabric-fits-all, however, so when it comes to choosing your 100% cotton tee, you have options.  Top brands that have a wide variety of colors and sizes in 100% cotton tees are Gildan, Hanes, Anvil and Port & Company.  


100% COMBED COTTON – Combed cotton is a softer cotton due to a special treatment the cotton fibers are given before they’re spun into yarn.  The extra love combed cotton is given makes it slightly more expensive than basic cotton, but the soft hand is more than worth the pennies. 


100% ORGANIC COTTON – Love the environment?  We do too. Organic cotton production maintains soil fertility, meaning it’s produced without toxins, pesticides or synthetic fertilizer known to harm the environment.  While essentially any color can be created while maintaining organic qualities, the two colors born from the seed naturally are green and brown, which is why you’ll see these typically offered in shades of both.  A light tan or off-white color is the usual go-to, and all organic cotton is regulated by the FDA before it’s able to be sold. Are they more expensive than the cotton types above? They sure are, but you get to print your brand on a tee shirt while contributing to the good of our planet at the same time, and we think that’s pretty cool.


HOW TO PRINT  100% cotton is a screen-printer’s dream, and since cotton is a natural fiber with texture, 100% cotton absorbs ink like no other, making the risk of bleeding or dye migration is almost non-existent.  Have you ever seen a red tee shirt with a light pink imprint and you’re pretty positive it’s supposed to be a white imprint? That’s dye migration, and we’re not a fan. Overall, cotton is super easy to work with, leaving the printing possibilities seemingly endless.  


SCREEN-PRINTING  This is the most common way of printing on tee shirts (and sweatshirts alike) and uses one of three types of ink: Plastisol Ink, Water Based Ink or Discharge Ink.  


Plastisol Ink is a plastic-based ink designed to print on apparel, making it the industry standard for screen-printing.  Upside?  It’s the least expensive, easy to use and since plastisol ink lays on top of the fabric, colors tend to be the brightest.  Downside? It prints thick, making it heavy, and will usually have an almost-rough feel to it. Because of this, plastisol ink eventually breaks down, meaning it will eventually crack and peel off with continuous washes.  


Water Based Ink literally soaks into the fabric of the shirt when printing, resulting in a super soft imprint that feels as if it’s a part of the shirt itself (well, it essentially is).  It’s most commonly used in retail printing, and water-based inks have the lowest impact on the environment as they don’t contain any toxins or other harmful ingredients. Upside?  Besides knowing you’re saving the planet one printed tee at a time, the imprint lasts as long as the shirt, with no chance of peeling or cracking.  Downside? Water-based inks by themselves don’t offer a high opacity, or coverage, so the colors can range from bright (when printing on light colors) to almost faded (when printing on dark shirts).  


Discharge Ink (Discharge Printing) is also a water-based ink, only as it absorbs into the fabric, it’s stripping the fabric of its original color and replacing it with the intended ink color.  It’s created by adding a ‘discharge agent’ that removes the dyes so it can work it’s magic, and was designed to achieve the results of water-based inks on dark garments.  Upside?  Same perks as a water-based ink used on it’s own, but gives you the ability to use this method on any shirt color your heart desires.  Downside? Because the ink is interacting with the existing dyes of the fabric, the results of each shirt printed can vary, meaning every shirt printed in the batch won’t necessarily be EXACTLY the same.  


*Other types of decorating methods for 100% cotton are heat transfers, sublimation (except with combed / ring-spun cotton) and DTG (direct-to-garment), defined in our previous blog, Speaking Promo – Volume 3, 


50/50 (50% COTTON / 50% POLYESTER ) – Historically the second choice in tees, these are great for the same reasons as 100% cotton tees, only are more breathable. While they might be slightly higher in cost, the polyester keeps the shrinkage to a minimum, they have a softer feel and are a lighter weight (similar to the 5.4oz mentioned above) and the polyester allows for additional color options in heathered and neons. Top brands offering an abundant selection of colors and sizes is the same as above, as most 100% cotton brands have a 50/50 blend alternative.


HOW TO PRINT – Because the polyester adds a trickier printing component, screen printing using plastisol inks, sublimation, or DTG are going to be the way to go with 50/50 blended tees.


TRI-BLEND – Tri-Blend tees have been an up and coming fabrication for years now, and as the economy continues to rise, consumers want to spend more on quality than ever before.  Tri-blends, commonly referred to as ‘fashion tees’ are made up of 50% Polyester, 25% Cotton, 25% Rayon, and are soft. Like, really, really soft. The added rayon and polyester give tri-blend tee shirts a little bit of stretch along with added softness, making them incredibly comfortable to wear.  While this fabric is sold at a higher price point than 100% cotton or a 50/50 blend, they primarily offer a unisex size which adhears to the retail trend of a slimmer fit for men and looser fit for women, which is a huge bonus.  If you are looking for the most buttery soft, heavenly, want-to-wrap-your- body-from-head-to-toe-and-cuddle-up-in-this-fabric kind of tee shirt, tri-blends are absolutely the right choice.  Not to mention, tri-blends have the highest retention rate by consumers, meaning they are less likely to toss this tee aside and more likely to wear it more often, giving your walking billboard the utmost optimization for brand recognition everywhere.  Popularized by American Apparel, other common brands for tri-blend tee shirts are Bella+Canvas, Next Level and Alternative Apparel.


HOW TO PRINT – Printing on a tee shirt that has 3 very different fabrications makes for one heck of a tee shirt as far as comfort and fit, but it creates a lot of challenges from the printing perspective.  The rayon in tri-blends adds a stretch, which is great for those wearing it, but not so great for a printer. The stretch sometimes compromises the way it sticks to the pallet it’s being printed on, and can mess with the registration of the screen, causing distortion. Rayon also burns at high temperatures, so running it through the dryer used to cure the ink can scorch the shirt.  When polyester is heated at high temperatures, they dye turns to gas, causing dye migration. As we said previously, we do not like dye migration. The solution? Water based inks. There are a few additional components to printing on tri-blends, but we can take care of the rest for you. 


Stay tuned for more of our education series, where we’ll take deep dives into the various art files and coloring systems mentioned, as well as decorating methods, apparel fabrics, and so much more as our capabilities to amplify your image continue to evolve. 


For more ideas on how we can help you amplify your image, go to brand-on.us/contact-us/ where you can also subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest on sales, product releases, industry news and more.  Don’t forget to follow us on instagram using the handle @brand_on.life – all the cool kids are doing it.