No matter what type of printing process you use to decorate a garment, one of the significant factors that determine how good the print turns out is your artwork. Let’s go through how to screen print t-shirts professionally! We can provide you with everything you need to create custom printed t-shirts.

Section 1: Artwork Separation

We work with vector format applications like Corel Draw & Adobe Illustrator. These applications are elementary to prepare your artwork files once you get the hang of it.

Accepted  Art File Types: 

Below are the file format for screen printing that we accept:

  • Illustrator (.AI)
  • CorelDRAW (.CDR)
  • Vector (.EPS)
  • Photoshop (.PSD)
  • PDF
  • JPEG
  • TIFF

We prefer .AI .CDR or .EPS file format for screen printing because vector image is easy to scale without affecting quality.

Let’s start, ensure your artwork for screen printing is set to the full dimensions that you want the final print to be. Do not make the printer resize, or take the chance that they will size it differently than you would like. You are in control of the design; therefore, the sizing should be something you set.  

The design we are going to use as an example is an illustration of Zeus that we created recently. We set canvas at 14″x17″, the design consists of 4 colors & the Color Mode is set to CMYK for print. CMYK stands for Cyan Magenta Yellow Black. Here’s a preview of the design:

Preparing-Your-Files-For-Screen-Printing

As you’ll see, we have the design on one layer & the t-shirt color on a separate layer. It is important because we want to keep the t-shirt color layer in the final file as a separate layer, so we’ll also keep this layer locked throughout the whole process. We have three toolbars open: Swatches, Layers & Pathfinder.

Let’s go through the separation process. The primary thing you would like to do is select all of your artwork (go to Select>All or hit Command+A) and make outlines out of your text. You can create outlines of the text by going to type>Create Outlines or by hitting Command+Shift+O.

Now your text gets converted into outlines; we have to convert all of the strokes to outlines & expand artwork into shapes. It is a two-part process. First, select all of the artwork & expand its Appearance by going to Object>Expand Appearance. Now, select all of the design again & go to Object>Expand. A box will pop-up, ensure you’ve Object, Fill & Stroke checked & then hit the OK button.

Professionally-Prepare-Your-Files-For-Screen-Printing

Now the artwork is fully expanded into shapes. We have to separate it all into colors, so select all of it & Ungroup it a few times (Object>Ungroup or Command+Shift+G). We usually do this a couple of times, select all again & do it again. The reason we do this is that sometimes things are grouped more than we think & if we’ve grouped items when we go to the next step, we’ll have some trouble getting it to work correctly.

Nothing visibly changes at this point. However, we are going to see some magic happen now. Select all of the artwork & then go to the Pathfinder tool & click on the Divide button, which is in the bottom left of the Pathfinder toolbar. What this does is flatten & separate all of your artwork by color, leaving you with tons & tons of fragmented shapes.

Professionally-create-Your-Files-For-Screen-Printing

Once we do this, we need to ungroup everything again. Now we just have to combine the pieces of every color into one solid shape. Since this is a four-color design, we’ll have four shapes in total when we are finished. In order to combine all pieces, we select all pieces for the first color with the Magic Wand tool. We can modify the settings of this tool by double-clicking its icon in the main Tools toolbar & we will be going for Fill Color since we are dealing with shapes & not strokes. Click on the first color we’d like to combine with the Magic Wand tool, and it will select all of the shapes containing that color.

Preparing-Files-For-Screen-Printing

As you see, we’ve chosen to select all of the gold-colored pieces. Next, we combine all of them into one shape using the Unify tool in the Pathfinder. Hold Alt key & then click the button to unify all of the pieces into one. The Expand button in the Pathfinder toolbar will be available once the tool is done working. Click the Expand button to finish the process & repeat it for each other color also.

Prepare-Files-For-Screen-Printing

After every color is combined into a shape, create a layer for each & distribute each shape to a layer. We usually put the lightest color on the bottom & work.

The last step is picking the PMS colors, and these are universal color swatches that the printer will use to print the design. In the Swatches toolbar, now click on the button near the top right as shown in the image below & go down to Open Swatch Library>Color Books>PANTONE Solid Coated. This will open a Pantone Swatch window where we can choose the PMS colors to replace the current colors.

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We recommend picking up a set of Pantone Color Bridge swatch books; they are the most accurate way for us to pick the colors. The color settings & brightness of the screen can influence the colors we see in the Swatches toolbar, which can cause us to choose colors that we do not want for the design. One swatch can vary much from another, so this is a critical step. We try to match the colors we’ve used in the design on the screen with colors in the Pantone books. When we’ve them all selected, we try & line them up in the book so we can physically see if those colors go well together. Sometimes, we need to make adjustments & this process allows us to get the colors we want.

After choosing the desired colors from the swatch books, we use the Find feature in the Pantone Swatch window to select the proper colors. Click on the upper right-hand button & then on “Show Find Field” to display this field. Before we click on each swatch, select the art for the color we’re going to replace. Then, once we find the PMS color, we can click on it & it’ll replace the current color. The PMS color can look different on screen from what we see in the Pantone Color Bridge swatch books, which is why they are essential. The color in the book is what we will ultimately get. For example, after choosing our four Pantone colors & setting them for each layer, we can see a very noticeable difference in colors between what we had before & after.

Prepare-Files-For-your-Screen-Print

The colors we ended up within the final print were closer to what we have chosen in the Pantone swatches, which is due to the fact that we changed the mind a bit as we were selecting the swatches. Since we used a book, we were able to choose the right colors for what we ultimately wanted the design to look like. Also, note that in the image above, we’ve named each layer with the Pantone color that is used for that layer.

That’s it! Our artwork file is good for print. Now we will do a quick mockup to show sizing & placement on a t shirt.


Section 2: Mockups

The mockup is a simple step but is no less important than file separation. Most of the designs are centered on the chest of the t-shirt. However, you may wish to have the artwork printed elsewhere. Regardless, doing the mockup gives an idea that what you are looking for.

There are tons of mockup templates available on the internet; you can find a ton just by doing a quick Google search. However, it is always best to try & find a mockup template that utilizes the brand you will be printing on. We use a standard mockup template. Here is a collection of free t-shirt templates that may come in handy during the mockup phase.

Here’s the standard mockup that we use. Our tees are tag-less & have a logo print on the sleeve, so we’ve to ensure to include these in the mockup and also the PMS colors for these print locations.

It’s easy, right? You can package up all files and send them to us—so that we can bring them to life.

Let’s Recap Quickly

Here’s a quick recap of the steps that we did for the entire process:

  1. Set canvas to the correct size and make sure the Color Mode is CMYK.
  2. Create outlines & expand the artwork.
  3. Ungroup & Divide it afterward using the Pathfinder.
  4. Use the Magic Wand to choose the fragments of color & then Unify them through the Pathfinder. Repeat for every color of the artwork.
  5. Distribute each color shape to a layer, choose a PMS color through the Swatches toolbar & name each layer with the PMS color.
  6. Create a mockup of the design on a t-shirt template.

And you are done! It may take a little while the first time through. However, once you get the hang of it, the process will become faster each time. We hope this tutorial helps you. We’ve been refining the process since day one, and we find that this is the best & quickest way to ensure that your artistic vision is well-communicated to the printers.

IMPORTANT: Maximum Print Size

Please aware that not all t-shirts are sewn exactly the same. These dimensions are to be used for reference as a “safe” zone for avoiding potential issues of printing on any seams or edges. Be sure to check the specific product page for the “Size Guide” particular to the garment.

NOTE: Any print that goes over a seam may lead to imperfections in print. (Which can be very cool-looking, if you are into that.)

Max-Print-Size-for-T-shirt

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