It’s amazing how much work is put into the production of a single T-shirt. We all wear our own or see other people’s T-shirts sporting prints on a daily basis, but who could claim that they’re aware of the actual work and care that goes into manufacturing a single item? A day in production spent at a T-shirt printing company shed light on how the print goes on the tee.
The T-shirt producing industry – similar to other sectors of manufacturing – sees everyone involved rise very early. The gates on the shop floor open at 6am, so the alarm bells of most people involved chime at around 4am.
Before a T-shirt produced at a print-on-demand company eventually gets delivered to the person who ordered it, a good many tricks and ruses of professional experts need to be applied out first. Instructed by computer software, the exact position of where the design foil is supposed to be placed on the T-shirt is determined. Then, customised plot printers kitted out with small knives release different colour layers from plotting several differently coloured plotting foils in the next step. At bigger print-on-demand companies, this leads to a print foil consumption in the size of a football field in a matter of a day. A very colourful field at that, considering that the average apparel printing company has about 60 different colours at its disposal.
In the next step, nimble hands weed out what has been pre-punched by the plotter. A production helper uses a small needle – manually – to rid the foil of all the parts not supposed to feature on the T-shirt. Each print colour takes up about 20” x 20” of foil, which, at the end of the day, makes the football-field-sized consumption of print foil ever so much more plausible.
Some of the bigger sized print-on-demand companies offer around 200 different pieces of clothing and accessories. These lie in wait in the storage rooms of warehouses, all waiting to be adorned with graphic designs and text slogans. And if you consider that every item is individually crafted by a member of staff, you can imagine that these need to cover quite a lot of warehouse ground when looking for the exact item requested by the customer.
Seeing product and design become one is quite an impressive process. This is what inadvertently happens in the next step. The T-shirt press applies a pressure of 4 bar at a temperature of 160°C to help product and design become an inseparable unit. Thanks to the experienced eye of a production helper, the result of this ultimately definitive step is sure to be a happy one.
Before the final product gets sent out to the eagerly expectant customer, a fresh set of eyes has a final look at the finished print during quality control. Here the focus is on the flawless production and correct positioning of the design, and the fabric of the product itself is probed for flaws one last time. Having passed this test, the product is then dispatched. The production helper folds it neatly to fit the plastic wrapping, and it is then passed on to the delivery service provider, who, complete with delivery note and invoice, boxes it before being sent on its way. A couple of days later, the customer receives a parcel with aforementioned content.
For a number of years, digital direct printing (DD) has revolutionised the T-shirt printing industry. In contrast to flex or flock print, digital direct can display fine colour gradients perfectly. Flex and flock printing is carried out by applying heat to press the design on the fabric, whereas DD sprays the designs immediately onto the product before entering a continuously running press. The procedure here is similar to that of an inkjet printer, only for textiles. In the whole print-on-demand industry, hundreds of gallons of ink are used on a daily basis to turn creative ideas into wearable threads.
Digital-direct printing has indeed revolutionised the industry to some degree. But it needs to be said that the results gleaned from the traditional print methods still stand out in terms of quality, so that the meticulous work and attention put into creating an individual item look well worth the effort. One thing’s for sure, though: having spent a day in production on site of a print-on-demand provider will sustainably change the way you look at T-shirts.