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Iron-On vs. Screen Printing: Choosing the Right Method

August 1, 2017  |  
Iron-On vs Screen Printing

When you want to customize your apparel or print your logo and marketing slogan on shirts and other garments, there are two ways you can do so: iron-on and screen printing. Both are effective ways to personalize clothing, getting your desired image or branding on fabric items.

Both iron-on and screen printing yield similar results. However, they do have some stark differences that make one better than the other in certain situations. From cost comparisons to durability and quality, we distinguish iron-on and screen printing to help you choose the right method for your needs.

Custom iron-on on a t-shirt

What is Screen Printing?

Screen printing, also called silk screening, is an age-old technique that uses a mesh screen laid over a stencil to transfer the design onto fabric. Ink is then spread over the screen using a squeegee and pushed through the stencil, creating the desired print. Throughout the process, the garment is laid flat inside a metal press as the screen printer passes the ink through the stencil. The result is a thick, raised design on the fabric.
While screen printing is an easy process, it can get time-consuming. One reason is that each screen can only be used for one color. So when printing a design with multiple colors, the printer will need to work with several screens to achieve the final design. Screen printing also uses a lot of chemicals and equipment.

What is Heat-Transfer/Iron-On Printing?

Iron-on printing, also called heat transfer printing, is a more recent innovation. It uses a heat-press machine that combines heat and pressure to transfer images onto garments. There are two methods used for heat-transfer printing, namely vinyl and digital print.
The former, vinyl heat transfer, uses a machine to cut out individual pieces of colored vinyl to create the full design. The vinyl has an adhesive coating, which is activated when exposed to heat. Once cut out, the vinyl pieces are gathered and pieced together onto the fabric and then pressed with heat to transfer the image permanently.
Digital heat transfer, on the other hand, prints the design onto high-quality paper and special ink. After printing, the design is heat-pressed onto the fabric, allowing the ink to adhere. Digital iron-on printing is faster and more efficient than the vinyl heat transfer method.
As for the final look, iron-on or heat transfer printing creates a design that has a plastic look and feel. The image is slightly raised and has crisp edges, creating a nice effect on the fabric.

Screen Printing vs Heat-Transfer: Which is Better?

Both screen printing and heat transfer printing are good methods to customize your shirts and other fabric garments. Depending on your individual needs and preference, though, one might work better than the other.
When choosing between the two, consider your priorities when it comes to design, quality, quantity, durability, cost, and the type of fabric you’re looking to print on.

  • You should choose heat-transfer printing if you:
    ● Have a complex and detailed design
    ● Are incorporating more than three colors in your image
    ● Are printing on light-colored fabric
    ● Prefer an environmentally friendly printing solution
    ● Are printing less than 100 garments
  • Alternatively, consider screen printing if you:
    ● Have a simple design that only uses one to two colors
    ● Are printing on dark-colored fabric
    ● Are printing more than 100 garments
    ● Want the design to be longer-lasting and higher resolution

Cost Comparison

Custom iron-ons are great if you are the DIY type. They are hands-on, which is always more fun, and less expensive than screen printing when you are doing a small run. If you need more than 100 custom shirts, then you may want to consider screen printing, but if you need fewer shirts than that and some time on your hands, then iron-ons are the way to go.

You also want to use iron-ons to customize a piece of clothing that you already own. Usually, screen printers will provide shirts at an added cost or make you purchase the shirts from them. If you already have a shirt, then all you need is the iron-on. Alternatively, you could just source cheap clothing at a second-hand shop and use an iron-on to upcycle some classic items.

When you want to create a small run of shirts or when you want to celebrate an event, we feel that iron-ons are the way to go. Printing on one or two shirts can be very costly due to set-up fees. So if you want to supply over 100 colorful shirts for a charity event, then you would want to consider screen printing.

Even if you are doing a larger run of shirts, if you only have a small logo, then you may want to use custom iron-ons as well since you can fit many iron-ons onto a single sheet and reduce the cost significantly.

Iron-ons keep costs low and give you more freedom with the placement of your design. You can also get custom iron-on labels and brand your shirts to make them look like they were made by a professional designer. Get as creative as you want and start designing now!

Custom kids iron-on label on a clothing tag

Quality

When assessing the quality of iron-on and screen-printing methods, we look at how the image turns out, i.e. its resolution. Screen printing is able to create more vivid colors and enhance complex designs. The end result is a crisp image with bold colors — just how you intended. This quality is maintained even after several washes.

Iron-on printing also yields good-quality designs at first glance, but that quality doesn’t last very long. While the image looks high-resolution immediately after it’s transferred, the colors become less vivid over time, especially if the garment is exposed to frequent washing.

You should also consider the type of fabric you’re going to print on. Heat transfer yields more vibrant images on light-colored fabric, while screen printing can produce crisper images on dark-colored shirts.

Durability

Screen printing is more durable than iron-on printing. The design is able to maintain its quality and color resolution for a long time, even after several washes. This is because, in this process, the ink becomes part of the fabric as opposed to iron-on printing where the ink just sits on top of the garment.

Iron-on designs don’t hold up well to machine washing and drying and are prone to cracking and fading. At most, the quality of an iron-on design only lasts for up to 50 washes. Screen-printed designs, however, can last years and look just as good as when they were new.

Difficulty

The process of screen printing is generally more complex than that of heat transfer or iron-on printing. To print a design onto fabric, several materials are used, from the mesh screens and stencils to the special ink and machine. The equipment also requires a more tedious setup before the printing process can even begin.

On the contrary, the iron-on printing process is much simpler. It only requires a heat-press machine, vinyl paper or digital printer, your design, and a piece of fabric. There is little to no setup to begin the process. In fact, you can do this yourself with just a couple of materials and a clothes iron.

Speed

While the initial setup required to start screen printing is lengthy and tedious, the actual printing process is quite fast. After everything is set up, a screen printer is able to print the same design onto more than 100 garments in an hour.

In iron-on printing, you can begin the process immediately after you get your hands on the materials. However, you will have to work with one shirt or garment at a time, regardless if you’re transferring the same or different design onto each piece.

This slow process makes iron-on printing unsuitable for bulk printing. If you’re only looking to print a handful of shirts, then iron-on printing may work for you. But if you have more than a hundred shirts to work with, screen printing is much more cost- and time-efficient.

Multi-Colored Designs

Screen printing uses advanced machines and equipment to transfer your design onto a piece of fabric. Because of this, it is able to print more complex images and photographs — although the process for multi-colored designs may be more tedious. Screen-printed images are also of higher resolution and durability, able to retain their quality for much longer.

Iron-on transfers are a little less versatile. It can’t layer colors and only works best for one- to two-colored designs. The quality of the image comes out less vivid, but crisper and sharper in quality. But remember, iron-on images don’t last as long as screen-printed ones.

Screen Printing vs Heat-Transfer: Which is Better?

Both screen printing and heat transfer printing are good methods to customize your shirts and other fabric garments. Depending on your individual needs and preference, though, one might work better than the other.

When choosing between the two, consider your priorities when it comes to design, quality, quantity, durability, cost, and the type of fabric you’re looking to print on.

You should choose heat-transfer printing if you:

  • Have a complex and detailed design
  • Are incorporating more than three colors in your image
  • Are printing on light-colored fabric
  • Prefer an environmentally friendly printing solution
  • Are printing less than 100 garments

Alternatively, consider screen printing if you:

  • Have a simple design that only uses one to two colors
  • Are printing on dark-colored fabric
  • Are printing more than 100 garments
  • Want the design to be longer-lasting and higher resolution

Conclusion

Screen printing and iron-on or heat-transfer printing work best in different situations and applications. Before choosing the printing method for you, make sure you understand their differences and weigh the pros and cons of each. This will help you make the best choice that meets your requirements and priorities.