Sep 212014

Photo of a T-ShirtThinking of  starting your own T-shirt business? Maybe selling them on eBay or Etsy? Then there’s a few things you’ll need to know before you get started. The first is how to make the shirts. Then you’ll need a business plan. And don’t forget some good designs to put on the shirts plus a way to keep coming up with those good ideas in the future.

So let’s start the discussion with the shirt making process. Did you know there are two ways to make a T-shirt? Thermal transfer and screen printing (also called silk screening). Each way has pros and cons. You’ll have to decide which is better for you.  Or maybe you’ll do both of them. Here’s how each one works.

The Thermal Transfer Process
An open heat press

This is the cheaper method to start up but costs more for materials in the long run . You can get all the equipment you need for about $500 including a  T-shirt press, a printer, transfer paper, and some shirts. Basically you print  your design on a piece of thermal transfer paper. Then you use a heat press to transfer the design from the paper to the shirt. Allow it to cool and you’re done.

The full details of the process go something like this. You make a design on your computer using Photoshop or some other graphic arts program. So yes, you will need some basic computer art skills. You then print your design using either an inkjet, dye-sublimation, or laserjet printer. There are different papers available depending on which you choose.

You will also have to use different types of transfers for white shirts and colored shirts. Whites use translucent, darks require opaque. Size matters too. You can do small prints with a regular letter size printer but if you want a full size graphic you’ll need to invest in an 11 x 17 large format printer. Once you’ve made your transfer you load it and your shirt into the press and clamp it shut for about a minute. When that’s done you remove the transfer paper and your shirt is ready.

It is worth noting that there is also a variation of this process which uses a plotter or vinyl cutter to contour cut designs that can be heat pressed onto a shirt. It’s fairly expensive and very technical so it’s beyond the scope of our “start up” article, but if you would like to know more about it you can check out a product called Thermoflex.

The Screen Printing Process
person doing screen printing

This is the more  expensive way to start a T-shirt business but it costs less for materials in the long run. You can get all the basic equipment you need for about $1200 including a screen press, exposure unit, flash dryer, screens, chemicals, and some shirts.  Basically you create your screen, load the screen and shirt into the press and run ink over it, then place it in the dryer.

The full process starts with you creating the screen. You can hand draw it or make it with the aid of a computer. You use your drawing to create a negative of the image you want to transfer on the screen by blocking off the portion you want to keep and then dissolve the screen where you want the ink to pass through. You will need to make a different screen for each color of ink you want to use.

Once your screen is made you load it into the screen press with the shirt underneath. With a squeegee you run ink over the screen to fill the areas where you want the ink to pass through. After that you flash dry the shirt if you’re adding another color or heat cure the shirt if it’s the final color.

A Business Plan

Now you know what you’ll need to get started and your basic manufacturing techniques. The next thing you’re going to want is a business plan. That plan should answer these 4 basic questions.

How much money can you make selling T-shirts? Once you’re fully operational you can make a shirt for $3 to $5 . You should try to sell them for no less than $14.99 each making a $10 profit. That may seem like a tremendous markup but remember you’re going to have to pay yourself a salary out of that money plus buy equipment upgrades. You may also want to plan on hiring a helper when things get going.

You should calculate the numbers you expect for a month worth of business. How many shirts will you sell, 100? Add together your cost of supplies and be sure to include a scrap rate. Calculate 105 shirts and 105 transfers (if screen printing calculate screens and bottles of ink). So you’d have sales of 100 x $14.95 = $1495 and costs of 105 x $5.00 = $525. $1495 – $525 = $970 in profit.

Play with the numbers and make a few plans. Consider how much you want to make. How much should you re-invest in the business? How much could you pay an employee and for how many hours a month?

And do not forget about your income taxes. Any time there is a “profit” line in your business plan, count on paying 25% of that in taxes.

Where can you buy equipment? For a T-tshirt press go to Amazon.  They have the largest selection and the most customer reviews. Those reviews are extremely important because they will help you avoid the junk out there. For screen printing equipment check out the starter packages on You can also look on Amazon for screen printing kits but they have a lot of children and hobby kits that you’ll have to sift through.

Where do you get supplies? In the beginning you can get your shirts and transfers as well as some screen printing chemicals at a local hobby store like Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. For wholesale shirts you should start accounts with Alpaha Shirt, One Stop, and American Apparel. For thermal transfers once again Amazon comes in handy,  but I also recommend Papilio Papers. Screen printing chemicals can be ordered from the that we mentioned above as well as Mclogan Supplies.

Where can you sell your shirts online?  I suggest you start the ecommerce portion of your business plan with eBay or Etsy and then get your own website. For now avoid Amazon because items without a UPC (barcode) are difficult to list there.

Starting your T-shirt business on eBay or Etsy is pretty simple. The key is to take good photographs of your shirts and write an accurate descriptions. You should also have a no questions asked return policy. Many times people will want to exchange their shirt for a different size. If you are completely unfamiliar with selling online you should check out this eBay selling Guide and this Etsy Selling Guide.

To start a website of your own you can hire a web designer or make it yourself. If you choose a web designer do not walk into some corporate design office and pay $5000. Hire a self-employed designer and get it done for $500. If you want to make it yourself you do not need to be a web designer. There are several ecommerce platforms you can use without much skill like Shopify.

Design Ideas

If you’re having trouble coming up with enough designs for the shirts there here are a few basic ideas that are always profitable. Try political slogans, current events, funny sayings, religious themes, cat and dog lover graphics, and just about anything to do with pirates, ninjas, or zombies.

To see what other sellers are doing check out Cafepress. To get some more ideas directly from buyers do a search for T-shirt on Pintrest. People are constantly posting things they find cool on there.

That should be enough to get your business started. But here’s one final bit of advice. Always respect the copyrighted work of others. Do not be tempted to start making knock off concert shirts or NFL jerseys. You will get suspended from eBay and Etsy very quickly. If it’s on your own site you will get sued. There are plenty of things you can make that are original. Maybe even something you’ll want to eventually copyright and brand yourself.

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