How Does Heat-Transfer Vinyl Differ from Screen Printing?

When discussing various processes for decorating T-shirts, hoodies, polo shirts, jerseys, and other apparel, it’s easy to get confused, particularly if you are considering starting a new business. Should you start with screen printing? sublimation? DTG? DTF? HTV?

Recent blog posts in this series discussed the direct and transfer sublimation processes and compared the direct-to-garment (DTG) printing and direct-to-film (DTF) printing methods.

This post focuses on the heat-transfer vinyl (HTV) and screen-printing processes.  In a nutshell:

  • Screen printing is an industrial printing process that is still the most cost-effective method of decorating hundreds or thousands of garments for one order.
  • HTV is a process in which digitally cut adhesive-vinyl letters or graphics are heat-pressed onto one garment or a few garments at a time. No printing experience or knowledge is required.

Sometimes garments may be decorated with both processes. For example, dozens of team jerseys may be screen-printed with the team’s logo and colors. Then, the HTV process may be used to add each team member’s name and number to the jersey size that he or she will wear.

What is Heat Transfer Vinyl (HTV)?

This process involves digitally cutting graphics, letters, and logos from an adhesive-backed vinyl that can be permanently fused onto a garment with a heat press or iron. A carrier sheet holds the cut vinyl flat while it is pressed onto the garment. The sheet is peeled away after the garment is pressed. Some sheets (“hot peel”) are designed to be removed immediately after pressing. A “cold peel” carrier sheet is removed after the garment cools down after pressing.

The HTV vinyl doesn’t have to be printed before it is cut and pressed. Eye-catching graphics and letters can be created with a low-cost desktop vinyl cutter and sheets of colored, patterned, textured, and glittery HTV materials.  

However, many HTV materials are designed specifically to be printed with digital toner devices, solvent print-and-cut inkjet printers, or screen-printing presses before the designs are digitally cut.

Here are some pros and cons of HTV:

Variety of colors and special effects: Rolls or sheets of flexible heat-transfer vinyl are available in a huge range of colors and special effects. For example, you can buy vinyls that match specific team or brand colors or heat-transfer vinyls with metallic, neon, velvety, puffed, patterned, glittery, holographic, or reflective surfaces.

Popular fabric types: HTV transfers can be pressed onto garments made from cotton, polyester, and blends. Stretchier heat-transfer vinyl materials can be used for designs that will be applied to stretch fabrics such as Lycra and Spandex.

Low-cost-of-entry business: Apparel-decorating entrepreneurs don’t have to buy a lot of bulky equipment or master the intricacies of making screens for screen printing. Many enterprising individuals make heat-vinyl transfers with only a low-cost, desktop vinyl cutter and a heat press. Each in-stock garment can be customized and shipped shortly after the order is submitted online.

Intricate designs require manual labor: Before a design is pressed into a garment, some excess vinyl must be manually removed (“weeded”) from each digitally cut design. For example, a decorator might need to remove vinyl from the interior of an “O” or an “A” or a lacy pattern. High-volume HTV apparel decorating isn’t economical because the manual vinyl weeding process can be time-consuming

Plastic-like feel on fabric surface: Garments decorated with heat-transfer vinyl may have a stiff, plastic feel where the vinyl has been fused onto the fabric. This might not be a problem if the design is only a small logo on the chest area. But a big design that occupies most of the front or back of a T-shirt can feel uncomfortable, especially when the garment is new.

What is Screen-Printing?

Screen printing is a versatile process in which a squeegee pushes ink through the openings of a mesh screen created for each color of ink in the design.

Making a screen for each color is labor intensive, and errors that affect the print quality can be made during any step of the process.

First, a nylon or polyester mesh is stretched over a frame to keep the screen taut.

Then, a light-sensitive emulsion is applied to both sides of screen and given time to dry.

The process of creating the image on the screen begins when specialized software separates each color used in a digital design. Each color separation is inkjet-printed with opaque black ink onto a clear film, then placed inside the frame the holds the emulsion-coated frame.

When the emulsion-coated screen is exposed to a controlled intensity of light, the light hardens the emulsion on all areas of the screen except where the image is printed on black on the film separation.

Screens must be precisely prepared and aligned for each color that will be used in the design on the garment. Each garment must be loaded onto the press and precisely positioned so the color will be applied to the correct area of the shirt (e.g., back, front, sleeve) or the correct area of a multi-color design.

A squeegee is used to push each color of ink manually or automatically through the screens onto the garment  When the squeegee presses the ink into the screen, the ink flows through the mesh only where that particular color ink is designed to appear on the garment.

After each color of ink is applied, the inks on the garment must be fully dried (“cured”) so the inks don’t wash off when the garment is laundered.

Multi-station screen-printing presses use flash-curing units to dry each color before the garment moves from one color station to the next.

After the process is complete, the screens can be stored for repeat orders or cleaned for use in a different job.

Here are some pros and cons of screen printing:

Versatility in inks and materials: Screen printing can be used with many different types and viscosities of inks, including white inks that allow color graphics to be printed on different colors or garments, metallic inks, and paste-like silver inks that can conduct electric currents. Screen printing can also be used with hundreds of different types and thicknesses of fabrics, as well as hundreds of other flexible and rigid materials.

High-volume production: Once the screens have been prepared for each color in a design, the labor-cost-per-garment goes down as the quantity levels go up. Contract decorators may print 5,000 or more shirts for a client a month.

Lower ink costs: Screen printing inks are considerably less expensive than digital printing inks. This cost difference adds up when printing hundreds or thousands of garments.

Heat transfer vinyls: The screen-printing process can produce bulk heat-transfer vinyl graphics with whatever brand colors, surface textures, or special effects a customer might want. The transfers can be cut and shipped for application at various stores or in-plant printing facilities equipped with a heat press.

Automation: While manual screen-printing presses can be set up in a garage for small-scale production, the screen-printing process is most cost-effective when automated presses are used to automatically move a garment from one color-printing station to the next and automatically move the squeegee with the correct amount of pressure.

In recent years, equipment manufacturers have also made progress in reducing the time and labor required to produce separations, expose the screens, clean the screens, dry the inks, and fold and pack the garments for shipping.

Surface ink affects how the garment feels. Because the ink stays on the surface of the garment. screen-printed T-shirt can feel noticeably different than one that has been decorated with the sublimation or direct-to-garment printing processes.

Press prep and clean-up: Steps such as mixing inks, applying emulsions, reclaiming screens, and cleaning presses between jobs take time. Storing screens for repeat jobs consumes space.

Ordant Estimates Apparel Decorating Processes

Companies that produce and sell decorated garments must keep a close eye on their garment inventories, production costs, and estimating. All three factors can help you recommend the most cost-effective option to clients, while still remaining profitable on each process your shop offers.

The labor and production costs of adding graphics to 25-100 garments can vary dramatically, depending on the size and colors of the graphic and whether the garment is decorated with screen printing, HTV, DTG, or DTF.

Ordant’s AI-driven process for creating estimates for all types of print-production workflows makes it easier to track and compare the real per-piece cost of apparel whether you use screen printing, sublimation, HTV, DTG, DTF, or embroidery. Ordant’s resource planning module can help you see if you have sufficient garments in stock to complete an item being estimated by the requested date. To schedule a demonstration, visit

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