Let’s face it: ordering custom t-shirts for the first time can be overwhelming.
If you’re not well versed in t-shirt brands, printing styles, or fabric types, it’s too easy to get lost in t-shirt jargon and default to ordering solely based on price-point, because, what’s the difference?
But this is exactly how you end up with boxy, ill-fitting t-shirts that get buried in the bottom of your drawer, never to see the light of day.
This custom t-shirt buyer’s guide will serve as your go-to reference for all things t-shirt related. We’ll cover everything from ink and fabric types to t-shirt recommendations to money-saving tips so that you’re fully equipped to order the perfect custom t-shirts.
Let's get into it.
At Real Thread, we're pretty well-known for printing with water-based and discharge inks, as opposed to plastisol inks, which are the industry standard.
Without getting too technical, you can think of water-based ink as an ink that sinks into the fabric of the t-shirt, rather than sitting on top of it. So it leaves an incredibly soft, breathable print that doesn't crack or peel over time.
Plastisol ink, on the other hand, yields an incredibly vibrant print result, but often has a rough, scratch-y feel to it, and begins to crack after a couple of washes.
Rather than spend too much time on plastisol ink, we'll look at the difference between Real Thread's two water-based print styles: SuperSoft and Bold.
At Real Thread, we’re known for our SuperSoft ink, a water-based ink that literally dyes the fabric of your t-shirt instead of sitting on top of it.
The ink removes the color of the fabric, replacing it with the color of the ink. The agent (known as discharge) only removes the color in the cotton though, meaning that 100% cotton t-shirts lend themselves to bright prints, while blends tend to have a cool, naturally vintage look.
SuperSoft is the right choice for you when you want a print that is incredibly soft and breathable. The print lasts a long time and is extremely comfortable.
Our Bold ink is a high-opacity water-based ink that creates a slightly thicker print than SuperSoft. It has a bit of a feel to it, but results in an exceptionally vibrant print across all colors and fabric types.
Bold ink is the best option when you want incredibly vibrant colors that seem to jump off the shirt. It’s a bit heavier in feel than SuperSoft, but by no means scratchy or uncomfortable
It works on absolutely any shirt fabric, meaning your results will be consistent, right down the Pantone you’ve selected for your design.
The fabric makeup of the t-shirt you choose is going to have a major effect on the look and feel of your t-shirt.
When printing with water-based inks, each ink reacts differently with each different fabric type, so it’s helpful to understand how this process works.
When thinking of fabrics, there are three major categories:
We can spend a lot of time digging into the details* of each of these three fabric types, but for right now, let's focus on the two most important factors: how each fabric type feels, and how it looks.
*For a deep-dive into fabric types, be sure to check out How to Choose the Best T-Shirt Material: Guide to Fabric Blends
In terms of feel, you can generally think of them in this order:
This isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions. The brand you decide to use will play a big role in softness and quality as well (more on that to come), but generally, this order holds true.
Like we mentioned earlier, when printing with our Bold Ink, you'll get the same print result regardless of fabric type. When printing with our SuperSoft ink, though, the print result will vary widely based on which fabric type you choose.
As you can see, the vibrancy of the ink varies widely across fabric types — showing up at it’s brightest on 100% cotton, and looking rather heathered on tri-blends.
Note: At Real Thread, we’ll always show you a hi-res mockup of your order before we print, so you’ll know exactly what kind of print result to expect.
Hemp t-shirts are widely regarded as one of the most eco-friendly t-shirts our there. Not only is hemp insanely comfortable to wear, but it's also actively saving the planet by absorbing carbon dioxide. Not to mention it's very durable, to expect to keep your hemp t-shirt for a long time.
Bamboo is becoming more popular as a material for t-shirts because of its anti-bacterial and moisture-wicking qualities. These t-shirts are a good choice for a workout or run. They can keep the temperature down and make a hot summer day a little easier to bear.
Viscose is a type of rayon, so it’s produced from wood pulp. It has some of the same qualities as rayon, but it’s also similar to bamboo in being great for a workout because of its natural moisture-wicking qualities.
If you’re new to custom t-shirts, the question of which t-shirt to print on can be daunting. There are literally thousands of garment options available to you.
To help, we put together a short list of some of the most popular t-shirts we print on, and a quick overview of each.
The Next Level 3600 is a great introduction to premium t-shirts. It’s slim fit and an affordable price have made it one of the most popular t-shirts we print on.
If you’re new to custom t-shirts and looking for a standard unisex tee to print on, we highly recommend it.
$7.19/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
This 100% cotton crewneck from Bella+Canvas is a t-shirt staple. Featuring a slim fit, huge amount of color options, and fabric made out of Bella+Canvas’ signature ring spun cotton, this t-shirt is worth considering for every t-shirt project.
The Canvas 3001 is very comparable to the Next Level 3600, but it’s fit is a bit slimmer, and it’s offered in over 60 color options.
$7.36/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
The Next Level 6210, stitched together with their premium CVC cotton/polyester blend, is a super soft crowd favorite. With its great fit, soft feel, and low price point, the Next Level 6210 is a great option for a soft t-shirt with a somewhat vintage feel.
$7.28/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
The American Apparel BB401 is the original premium custom t-shirt. Any time you wanted a t-shirt that was bound to make people notice, this was the choice.
After a couple of tumultuous years, American Apparel is back to producing these beauties as good as ever.
$10.82/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
When it comes to softness, Canvas 3001 is the créme de la créme. Trust us, once you put this t-shirt on, you will not want to take it off. With a modern, slim fit, crew neck and Bella+Canvas’ signature tri-blend material, choosing to print on this shirt is one of the best choices you can make.
$9.58/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
Alternative Apparel is known for exceptionally high-quality t-shirts, and this crewneck tee is no exception. Made with 100% organic cotton, the 6005 is a perfect every day tee for the eco-conscious. Side stitching gives the shirts a nice, slim retail-quality fit.
$10.89/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
The 64051 from Royal Apparel is particularly unique in that it's stitched together with 60% hemp and 40% organic cotton. We touched on hemp earlier so we won't go too in detail here, but just know that if you're looking to go eco-friendly, there's perhaps no better fabric to pick than hemp.
$12.99/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
Ordering women’s t-shirts is notoriously tricky. So, before we get into product recommendations for women’s t-shirts, we wanted to share a couple of pro-tips you’ll want to keep in mind when ordering women’s shirts.
Women’s tees notoriously run small, no matter what your body size is. This bring the case, we always encourage people to order a size larger than they normally would, regardless of body size. If you’re typically a small, consider ordering a size medium, or even a large if you want a loose, comfy fit.
Checking the dimensions of a t-shirt style can be really helpful when making a decision. Also, make sure you compare the women’s size chart to the unisex companion shirt to see what size you should wear. Since unisex sizing is more true to size, that’s the best place to start.
Doing your research and ordering a blank sample of a shirt you’re considering can be incredibly helpful in the buying process. That way, you can understand the fit and feel of a shirt for yourself.
We’re happy to provide you with any sample you need here at Real Thread. T-shirts and tanks will cost $15 per sample, and hoodies and sweaters will typically be around $30.
With that said, let's get into product recommendations!
The 8413 from Bella+Canvas is far and away one of the softest women's t-shirts out there. It's made out of Bella+Canvas' signature tri-blend material, giving it a cool, naturally heathered look.
The fit is a little bit tighter than a lot of shirts, so if you do select this one, you may want to consider ordering a size larger than your normal fit.
$8.96/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
The American Apparel 2102 is a tried-and-true classic in women's custom t-shirts. Stitched together with American Apparel's signature Fine Jersey fabric, this t-shirt has a snug, fashion fit. Like most American Apparel shirts, it's going to have a pretty slim fit, so you'll want to keep that in mind when ordering.
This shirt is made in the USA, but it also has a counterpart, the 2102W, that's produced outside of the US and offered at a lower price point.
$10.30/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
The Bella 6400 has quickly become one of our most popular women's cut t-shirts. Named the Relaxed Jersey Short Sleeve Tee, this shirt has a loose, relaxed fit compared to other women’s t-shirts. It fits a wider variety of sizes and body types, so if you're looking for a women's shirt that works for everyone, this will be your best option.
$7.28 - $10.43/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
The Next Level 3900, also known as the Boyfriend Tee, has always been one of our most popular women's cut t-shirts. Known for it's soft feel and wide array of color options, it's easy to see why this shirt is such a favorite. Like other women's cut shirts, the 3900 tends to have a snug fit, so ordering one size bigger than usual may be a good idea.
$6.99/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
The 6610 from Next Level is the cotton/polyester equivalent of the shirt we just described above, the 3900. It features the same snug fit, but an even softer feel. Given that it’s a blend, it's going to have a bit of natural heathering to it as well. Offered at a great price point, this shirt is a great option for any women's custom t-shirt project.
$6.88/shirt for a 1-color, 1-location print at 100 shirts.
Add on services have the ability to elevate your brand in a serious way. Adding small, custom features to your t-shirts show high attention to detail, give your brand an extra touchpoint, and frankly, they look downright cool.
Here's the rundown on three popular add-on services you may want to consider when wrapping up your custom t-shirt project.
Custom printed inside tags are a great way to give your brand an extra touchpoint in a stylish, memorable way. These tags feel really high-value and will go a long way in giving your t-shirts a more custom, retail-quality finish.
Turnaround time: +3 days for printing tags, +3 days for tag removal
Tag image size: up to 3” wide x 3” tall
20 - 49: +$2.00 for printing, +$2.00 for removal
50 - 199: +$0.75 for printing, +$0.60 for removal
200 - 999: +$0.60 for printing, +$0.55 for removal
1000 +: +$0.45 for printing, +$0.50 for removal
If you're interested in creating custom tags for your next t-shirt design, download our printed tag templates: set 1 and set 2.
Hem tags are another really good way to give your t-shirts an extra level of customization. This small addition adds a ton of value to your shirts and looks cool doing it.
Pro-tip: If you know you’ll use hem tags on future orders, order extras. We’ll keep them here at Real Thread and save them for your next order, saving time and getting you a better price break.
Turnaround time: +3 days for sewing, +2 weeks for manufacturing
Minimum order for manufacturing: 50 tags
20 - 49: +$2.00 for sewing on
50 - 199: +$0.60 for sewing, +3.90 for creation
200 - 999: +$0.55 for sewing, +$0.97 for creation
1000 +: +$0.50 for sewing, +$0.34 for creation
Make sure to download our free hem tag templates so you can create your own.
Foil printing is a great way to give your t-shirts an extra element of texture and shine. The foil adheres to your t-shirts with a special glue. The base of glue is printed on similarly to any screen print, then the foil is pressed on top after.
Turnaround time: +3 days
Color options: Gold, silver, black, red, blue, copper, green*
*For specific foil options like patterns or holographics, ask our team
20 - 49: +$4.00
50 - 199: +$2.00
200 - 999: +$1.75
1000 +: +$1.50
No matter what, t-shirts are going to be an investment, particularly if you’re looking for a t-shirt that your customers, prospects, or coworkers will actually enjoy wearing. That being said, there are a handful of money-saving tips that first-time t-shirt buyers might not be aware of.
There are loads of different t-shirt manufacturers out there. Like we mentioned earlier, there are literally thousands of products available — some coming at heftier price points than others. Whether it be for special reasons like Made-in-the-USA or organic fabric, t-shirts that look and feel comparable can have sizable price differences.
Brands like Bella+Canvas and Next Level are great options for an affordable t-shirt that feels high-end.
In screen printing, a new screen is created for each additional color or print location in a design, which requires additional materials and labor, increasing the price of your shirts. Keeping your color count and print locations low can end up saving you a good bit of money.
When buying t-shirts in bulk, you always want to be aware of the different price breaks and whether or not you’re close to one.
Say your company has 45 employees. You could order 45 t-shirts, but if you were to add on five more, you’d hit the 50 piece price break, which would actually end up making your order less expensive overall, and you’d have five extra shirts to give out to friends or customers.
Price breaks are at: 20, 36, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, and 5000+
Having your ducks in a row early on can save you a substantial amount. Avoiding rush charges by staying ahead of the game is probably the easiest way to ensure you don’t pay a premium for your t-shirts.
We know mistakes happen and sometimes your caught in a bind — that’s why we have our 2-day turnaround service, Lightning — but on the whole, being prepared and getting your order in on time will save you loads of money.
At Real Thread, our standard turnaround time is 7 business days plus transit time. And of course, when you are in a bind, we have a variety of rush options to make sure you get your t-shirts when you need them.
Getting a t-shirt order started at Real Thread is incredibly easy! Our online order tool makes it easy to upload your artwork and order online.
And of course, our team would love to assist! From design advice to t-shirt recommendations, we're here to guide you through every step of the way.