Who doesn’t like t-shirts? The ultimate give away at tradeshows, sporting teams and entertainment events, or as recognition for participating in a corporate or non-profit event. They serve to both advertise the event and reward the recipient for their participation. You can even sell them or use them as thanks for donations! Who could ask for more? If you have ever been put in charge of ordering t-shirts for an event, you might find yourself in the awkward position of not knowing where to turn for help. You, my friend, have come to the right place. Here are some basic steps that need to take place:
1. Develop the Design
Pretty much all of the top-notch online print services have design capabilities, images, and fonts built into their sites but it’s limited and might not offer the look you desire. However, you can be certain their materials are copyright free (or you won’t be held responsible if it isn’t). You could even use the service to sketch the design and then fine tune using your own software. Conversely, you can start out with your own software and then just upload the image(s) onto their service.
When I set about designing a couple of t-shirts for my kids for Christmas, I started from scratch with a scanner, and Illustrator CS4. Your best bet is to keep the image as vector art, so you can scale it without loss of definition. The PNG file format works well in this situation. Make sure to convert any fonts in the design to outlines as well, since the vendor probably won’t have the same fonts, or use what they have on top of your design.
2. Consider the Colors
Just like in printing on paper, the fewer colors you use lowers the cost per shirt. The same applies with printing front and back. Some printers now let you print on the sleeves as well as on other parts of the shirt, so if it makes sense for the design, go right ahead. And don’t forget, the shirt is a color too. Consider that when developing your design.
3. Determine Sizes & Quantities
The logic here is pretty straightforward. The more shirts you print, the cheaper each shirt becomes. Make sure to check with the manufacturer for available colors and sizes. This is important when printing shirts for large events, especially with children’s sizes. Contact the vendor, they usually will be happy to send you a product catalog with color samples and size ranges. If you are printing a very small run (less than 6 typically), you will need to  have your shirts digitally printed. The downside is that they cost a little more. But the big upside is that they will print full color for no additional cost. So get those pictures of grandma out and go crazy.
4. Place the order and put your feet up!
The services will typically generate a quote based on your specifications and you can see what the cost will be for your project. You can make changes to sizes and quantities there to tweak the best deal. This is also a good opportunity to compare prices with other services. Turnaround time is usually 2 weeks. Some services have free delivery, others are tacked on at checkout. Some offer an actual printed sample for large orders (you should request one if you have the time).

Here are the ones I looked at when creating my own custom tees (in alpha order):

BlueCottonPros: Simple, easy, fast, manage designs with ease, everything happens one one screen
Cons: Expensive
I have to say I like this site, if the cost wasn’t so prohibitive 
I may have used them.

Custom Ink
Pros: Simple, easy, fast
Cons: Can’t manage designs, older designer app
I have used these guys for years and they are great at what they do. They aren’t the cheapest, but their prices are fair, they have great customer service, 2-week guaranteed turnaround and free shipping. I wish I could manage my designs, however. They also allowed me to print everything, as long as I confirmed the shirts were to be used as gifts.

Pros: Good for people wanting to sell their designs/products
Cons: Confusing web site, designer app not as good as others
Note: You need to agree that your designs are not copyrighted (which is fine, but one doesn’t always know). Also, the site focuses on the design, so you have to apply the design to a product (like a t-shirt or mug)
Pros: Simple, easy, manageable designs, costs inline with CustomInk
Cons: None, really
Note: If I was allowed to print both of them, I probably would have. They were very nice about the copyright issue and did the necessary research for me. I did get one shirt done by them that they determined had no copyright issue.

If you do want to create and sell your own exclusive line of t-shirts (or designs), do look at Spreadshirt as well as CafePress and others you can find through Google. There are also other companies where you can enter your designs in competitions where the winners get their own print run or you will get paid for your designs, etc. Look at ThreadlessSnorgTees and others. So, go out there and start creating!

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