Should I Screen Print or Decorate with Vinyl?  |

Ready to start decorating garments? There are many ways you can go about decorating garments — embroidery, screen printing, vinyl, etc. How do you decide which one is best for you? Let’s focus on screen printing and vinyl to distinguish which method will fit your business.

camp print on press

Photo by Symmetree Clothing.


According to Oxford Languages, screen printing (a.k.a. silkscreen printing) is the act of “forc[ing] ink or metal on to (a surface) through a prepared screen of fine material so as to create a picture or pattern.”

That definition makes screen printing sound simple. Here’s a brief summary of the process:

  1. Create artwork in a program like Adobe Illustrator
  2. Print artwork on film
  3. Coat screens with emulsion
  4. Expose film to screen
  5. Wash out stencil
  6. Place screen on press and slather ink on it
  7. Push or pull a squeegee across the screen
  8. Cure the garment
  9. Clean up screen with chemicals

That is a BRIEF summary of the screen printing process (the full process has many more steps and involvement required on your end). It’ll be helpful to have a basic understanding of the process when we discuss picking which method is best for you.

shirt on heat press

Photo by Salt and Pine Co.


First off, different types of vinyl printing exist (sign vinyl, adhesive vinyl, heat transfer vinyl, etc). We’ll be focusing on heat transfer vinyl. Heat transfer vinyl is “a type of vinyl used to decorate apparel, bags, and other soft goods; heat transfer vinyl is printed onto an item using heat and pressure over a short period of time,” according to Stahls’, a heat press manufacturer. 

The vinyl decorating and cutting process is quite simple, compared to screen printing. First, learn and create the art in a graphics program. Next, a vinyl cutter cuts out the design on heat transfer vinyl. You remove the excess vinyl (this step is called weeding) around the design. Place the vinyl on the garment. With a heat press, you’ll adhere the decoration to the garment. 

card print on black shirt

Photo by Golden Press Studio.


Picking one of the printing methods will depend on your targeted audience. First consideration — order volumes. Are you printing for customers who want one to 12 shirts? Or will you be consistently printing orders of 12+ garments? If you’re printing small orders, go with vinyl. It’s so much quicker — press a button to cut the vinyl, weed it, place on shirt, press, done. Going through the whole screen printing process to print a handful of shirts is not worth your time. On the flip side, if you’re printing 30 shirt orders often, decorating with vinyl will hold you up. It’s much more efficient to create one screen that can be used for 30 shirts or a 1,000 shirts.

Another factor that’ll determine which method you choose is the amount of colors you’ll be printing. Mainly printing one-color prints? Vinyl is perfect. Planning on making multicolor prints? Screen printing is the way to go. Decorating multicolor prints with vinyl is challenging because you’re unable to register the print like you could on a press. Eyeballing the placement of each part of the design means there’s a higher likelihood of producing inconsistent decorations. 

Lastly, what does your space look like? Screen printing requires a lot of space because you need an area to print shirts and a place for your darkroom. Vinyl does not require a large area for printing since it only requires a few pieces of equipment. 

In the end, it mainly boils down to who you are decorating for. Are you printing piles and piles of shirts for employees at local businesses? Screen printing is the way to go. 

Are you starting an Etsy shop and are receiving a few orders each day? Start with vinyl. If your shop grows to where you're printing larger volumes, you can always expand into screen printing and invest in the equipment and supplies.

 Reasons to Use Vinyl Reasons to Screen Print
Printing orders less than 12 pieces Printing orders of more than 12 pieces
Printing one-color designs Printing multicolor designs
Have little space Have lots of space


person putting tape on a screen

Photo by Stark Screen Printing.


If you have decided to start screen printing, you’re going to need several things like a press, a flash dryer, exposure unit, film, squeegees, screens, ink, emulsion, cleaning chemicals, and more. To make your life a little easier, you could invest in a kit like the Semi-Pro Screen Printing Kit, which has all the equipment and supplies needed to get started. 


To decorate with a heat transfer vinyl, you’ll need a vinyl cutter, graphic software, a heat press, a weeding hook, and vinyl. Kits also exist for heat transfer vinyls, or you can go about picking and choosing your own setup. 


Starting a new adventure means learning new skills. For screen printing, we suggest checking out the following articles and videos:

For vinyl printing, check out Stahl’s YouTube channel and blog. They provide a ton of great information about the process and nuances within vinyl printing.

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