21 September 2015 ~ 0 Comments

18 Questions To Ask Yourself About Starting An Independent T-Shirt Line

Image Credit: Murat Livaneli

Image Credit: Murat Livaneli

Want to break into the t-shirt business with your own independent line? The answers to these 18 questions will give you the starter knowledge many newcomers wish they’d had all along.

Want to print a small, retail-grade run of your own t-shirts? Upload and print your design in our studio. Or, print your design on a wide variety of other products. See our full product list.

What’s Actually Involved In Starting A T-Shirt Business?

First, you need an idea that’s actually marketable.

What do you want your t-shirts to look like? What sort of designs will you specialize in? The key here is to write down as many ideas as humanly possible. The more ideas you have, the likelier you’ll be to come across something you’ll actually be able to sell.

Second, you’ll need to do some market research

Who do you want to sell to? What designs are they likely to be interested in purchasing? What does the competition look like? What sorts of prices will you need to charge in order to make a profit?

Google is your friend here. Do an intensive search, and read as much as you can about your target demographic and market.

Third, you need a business plan.

This is probably one of the most intensive steps in the process, mostly because of how many details you’ll need to account for:

  • How is it going to be structured? Most T-shirt companies start out as sole proprietorships, eventually changing to an LLC, LLP, or corporation as sales increase. Be sure to consult with a legal professional before making any solid decisions about this.
  • How do you plan to sell? Will you be a wholesaler, retailer, or both?
  • Who is your target demographic? Solidify this in your business plan.
  • How much money are you going to spend in the initial phase of your business? How will you break into the market?
  • One valuable piece of advice is to use software such as Business Plan Maker Pro to assist you with this process.

Fourth, create some designs

If you aren’t a designer yourself, write up descriptions of about five or six designs and then look for a skilled freelancer. Make sure the contract you sign with them gives you the rights to the T-shirt designs – get a lawyer involved to help you draft one up.  

Fifth, figure out your manufacturing process

A lot of clothing businesses in their early days start out by purchasing blank T-shirts from other manufacturers and printing them with their own equipment. Alternatively, you could also use a retail-grade, small-run printing service like ours. If you’re more interested designing than in getting into the printing business, a printing service is likely your best option, since it doesn’t require investing in printing equipment.

Sixth, figure out where you’ll store your shirts

In the early stages of your business, you’ll probably wind up storing your shirts in your garage, basement, or home office. Consider how much time and space you’ve got, and whether or not you want to package and ship them yourself. The trade-off? Shipping through a third-party will raise costs, but it will also allow you to focus more on design. More on shipping later.

Seventh, figure out pricing

This is based on a number of different factors, including but not limited to:

  • Competitor’s prices
  • Printing costs
  • Shipping costs
  • Marketing costs
  • Warehouse/storage costs
  • Cost of labor
  • Label/hangtag/equipment costs
  • Size of shirts
  • Fabric used in manufacturing
  • Printing methods

Ideally, you want to set a price that allows you to remain competitive yet still turn a profit. Pay close attention to what competing brands are charging, as well as your costs.

Eighth, Secure Your Licenses, And Figure Out Where You’ll Sell

Before you start selling, you’ll need two things:

  • A retailer’s license signifying that you’re a legitimate business.
  • A reseller’s permit if you’re planning to be a wholesaler. This will allow you to get wholesale prices on garments and supplies. Additionally, many retail outlets will not do business with you if you don’t have one.

Once you’ve addressed both of these matters, it’s time to decide if you’re going to be a wholesaler, retailer, or a mixture of the two. If you plan to sell your T-shirts as a retailer, then you’ll need your own website in addition to promotional materials for your business. You could also consider attending nearby events and festivals to set up a booth and sell your wares.

If you plan to sell your shirts to stores that target your market – such as local boutiques, gifts shops, specialty stores and retail chains – then you have some legwork to do. Starting with smaller shops in your town or city, call around to see if anyone’s interested in working with you. Be as thorough as possible here. It might be worthwhile to set up a website as a wholesaler as well, simply so you have somewhere to direct prospective partners seeking information about your business.

Ninth, start marketing

Once you’ve nailed down the details of how and where you plan to sell, the next step is to start promoting your new business. Having a website doesn’t mean customers are going to flock to you. You need to make sure you have a solid understanding of search engines, list building and email marketing, establish yourself on social networks, and understand where your customers are online. It’s also a good idea to work with a web designer to make your site as user-friendly as possible once the funds are available.

Also, wear your shirts wherever and whenever you can.

And last but certainly not least, don’t let yourself get discouraged

Starting a business isn’t easy, nor is it something that everyone has the drive to do. If you’re truly determined to have your T-shirt business succeed, you need to stick with it.

Shipping & Handling

What’s Involved In Shipping T-shirts?

That depends on the size of your business. Starting out, shipping a T-shirt isn’t that much different from shipping any other parcel or package. Simply slip the shirts into an envelope, corrugated box, or whatever other packaging you deem suitable, and send it out. It may be worth your while to use shrinkwrapped plastic, poly bags or poly mailers. Consider also including some promotional materials with the packaging – a few stickers or a flier, for example.

The United States Postal Service has a number of different shipping options that can be found on their website; flat rate priority is a decent choice for a business that’s just getting on its feet.

Once you start getting larger-volume orders, you can either cut a deal with USPS or switch over to a service like FedEx.

What Size Packaging Should I Use?

For single shirts, 9×12 or 10×13 poly mailers, tyvek bags, or corrugated boxes will suffice. You may also consider 10×15 for larger orders.

What Shipping Software Should I Use?

Generally speaking, when you’re first starting out and money is tight, there’s nothing wrong with using the software assistant for the United States Postal Service. After all, it’s free. As your business picks up steam and you begin to receive more orders, however, it’s worth your while to switch to a platform like Endicia or Stamps.com.

The reason for this is that as you get to higher-volume orders, free services will no longer be sufficient for your needs. You’ll start to find entering shipping details through them either too complicated, too time-consuming, or too tedious.

What’s The Cheapest Way To Ship?

The United States Postal Service’s standard overland delivery. You can get free shipping supplies from any USPS location; at that point it’s simply a matter of filling in the shipping details and attaching the necessary stamps. You can also order plastic envelopes and other plastic materials on websites like eBay for much cheaper than you’d find them at retail.

You can also use Tyvek bags from USPS or order them through Uline.

Believe it or not, shipping using first class can actually save you money, because you can print the postage and label from your computer, rather than having to go to the post office.

What Are Some Of The Pros And Cons Of Each T-shirt Printing Technique?

Screen Printing

This method uses mesh screens to transfer paint onto the fabric through a stencil.

Pros: It is widely considered the most professional printing method for designs limited to a relatively small number of colors, because the colors are solid, the designs are durable, and the result resembles what you will find in most mass-produced t-shirts. This is why we use screen printing for most orders size 6 or larger, if the design is suitable for screen printing.

Cons: Every color requires a separate screen and template. Gradients, shading, complex colors, and photorealism aren’t possible.

Direct to Garment

This method uses advanced printing technology to print the image or design directly onto the fabric.

Pros: Capable of printing in a wide variety of colors, allowing for gradients, shading, photorealism, and photographs. Advanced direct to garment technology also allows for printing onto darker fabrics. The designs are durable and won’t crack or fade, since the pigment is printed directly onto the fabric. This is why we use direct to garment printing, powered by Kornit, for all smaller orders, and any designs with complex color requirements.

Cons: Direct to garment printers themselves (not the t-shirts printed with them) are relatively expensive, and thus inaccessible to the consumer market.

Heatpress/Inkjet/Laser Transfers

These methods involve printing an image onto special sheets of wax-like paper, and then using heat to transfer the image to the fabric.

Pros: Capable of printing in a wide variety of colors, similar in that respect to direct to garment printing.

Cons: Most implementations result in designs that consist of thick sheets which may be uncomfortable to wear and are susceptible to cracking and fading. The cloth is also the brightest part of the design, meaning that these methods are usually only suitable for printing onto white t-shirts. For these reasons, we don’t use these methods at BlueCotton.

Vinyl Heat Transfer

Sheets of single-color vinyl are machine-cut and adhered to the garment with heat.

Pros: Solid colors and durability, similar in these respects to screen printing.

Cons: Each shirt requires individual set up, making vinyl an unsuitable option for larger print runs when compared with screen printing. In comparison to direct to garment printing, vinyl is not as versatile in color capabilities: gradients and photorealism are not possible. As a result, either screen printing or direct to garment printing is almost always a better option, and we don’t offer it here.


Images are printed onto transfer sheets and then applied to the surface through a heat press, resulting in near-sublimation of the pigment as it transfers from the sheet to the surface.

Pros: Versatile colors that won’t crack or fade, similar in this way to direct to garment printing.

Cons: The science behind dye-sublimation requires surfaces made of polyester or polymers. It is not suitable for cotton or blended fabrics. The expense of the equipment and energy required to operate it results in higher-priced garments. Dye-sublimation is also incapable of printing onto dark fabrics. For these reasons, we don’t use dye-sublimation at BlueCotton.

Trademark/Copyright Questions

If you are seeking legal advice, please speak with a lawyer. The following should not be considered legal advice. BlueCotton does not permit the use of trademarked or copyrighted symbols or words in the design studio, except by the intellectual property owner.

Can I Be Sued For Selling T-shirts?

It’s certainly possible that you could be, if you’re selling a shirt that overtly slanders another person, or that uses intellectual property that is not your own. Most companies and brands will start with a cease and desist letter, and only take legal action against you if you ignore it, but this does not eliminate the possibility of being sued outright.

What’s The Difference Between Copyright and Trademark?

A Trademark primarily protects marketable assets related to a brand – “words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of the goods,” according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Registering a trademark generally requires that a business pay a small fee and contact the trademark office – but first, you need to carry out a trademark search to ensure your business’s name isn’t already listed.

It’s usually better to have a lawyer present to assist with this process.

Copyright, meanwhile, protects original artistic or intellectual works – such as T-shirt designs. The copyright to your designs is generally held to be yours when you create them, but you can also apply to have your copyright federally-registered, giving you the ability to sue anyone who infringes upon it in federal court.

To learn more about copyright law, go here.

To learn more about trademark law, go here.

How Do I Copyright My Shirt Designs?

Believe it or not, as long as you created the designs yourself, under law, they automatically belong to you under the Berne Convention. However, you may also want to consider registering your designs with an official copyright office such as the Library of Congress. That way, you may be eligible for restitution and attorney’s fees if you end up having to litigate against an infringing party.

Can I Quote Famous People From History/Movies/Books etc On My Shirts?

If the quote has passed into the public domain (see when that happens here) you should be covered legally. In any other circumstance, you are in the fuzzy realm of possible Fair Use, where an entity that holds the copyright can certainly take you to court, but may or may not have a case. The law is extremely gray here, and it is safest to err on the side of not using a quote, certainly not without talking to a lawyer. Again, BlueCotton does not permit the use of any copyrighted or trademarked material in your design, and is not to be held liable for such use without our knowledge.

How Do I Get Licensing Rights For The Sale Of Copyrighted Designs (Bands, Celebrities, etc.)?

The best way would be to speak with the copyright holder. In the case of celebrities and public figures, this involves contacting them (or their agent) directly. The law states that every person has the right to their own likeness, with politicians as the only exception to this rule.

For bands, it’s a similar process, except that you’ll need to contact the artist’s management (often a record label of some kind) and negotiate with them. This is often quite costly, as band merchandise is extremely lucrative. Simply getting a license will cost a great deal; purchasing exclusivity could cost you six or seven figures.

What you SHOULDN’T do is purchase licenses from a wholesaler to resell them – that’s a sure ticket to litigation.

Questions About T-shirt Design

What’s The Best Fabric For A T-shirt?

It’s really a matter of preference, both on your part and the part of the customer. 100% cotton is sometimes considered the most comfortable, but it’s also prone to extreme shrinkage. A 50/50 cotton/polyester blend is widely considered the way to go – but again, it depends on the types of t-shirts you’re selling and what they will be used for.

Real Simple has a glossary of T-shirt fabrics – have a read-through and see if you don’t have a better idea which type of fabric is the best fit for your shirts.

What’s A Good T-shirt Design?

This is obviously subjective question, since what makes a design ‘good’ is more about personal taste than anything else. Most business owners would recommend that you simply create shirts that you’d enjoy wearing. That said, there are a number of concrete principles involved in good design; the best shirt designs/styles would feasibly follow those principles.

How Much Does A T-shirt Weigh?

On average (and depending on the material type, volume, and print style), T-shirt weights are as follows:

  • Small: 3-6 oz.
  • Medium: 4.5-6.5 oz.
  • Large: 5-7 oz.
  • Xlarge: 6-7.5 oz.
  • 2Xlarge: 7-8.75 oz.  
  • 3Xlarge: 8-9.5 oz.

What T-Shirt Sizes Should I Stock? How Many Of Each Size?

It ultimately depends on your demographic, and it’s something you’ll have to learn from experience. Generally speaking, however, it’s a safe bet to skew towards larger sizes. While anyone can fit into clothes that’s a size or two too big, no one can fit into clothes that are too small. With that in mind, here’s a ratio (from small to xxl) that you can follow when first stocking your shirts; you can adjust it accordingly based on supply/demand:


So, say for example you were going to make 200 shirts:

You’d order 20 small, 40 medium, 60 large, 60 extra large, and 20 extra extra large.

What Does “CB Length” Mean?

Either center back length or collar to bottom length. It’s the vertical measure of a piece of clothing.

What Does GSM Mean?

Grams per square meter. Where T-shirts are concerned, it’s a measurement of the weight of the fabric that makes up an outfit.  Although higher GSM measurements often indicates higher quality shirts, GSM should never be used as the sole indicator of quality.

Miscellaneous Questions

What Is A PPAI Number?

PPAI stands for Promotional Products Association International, a non-profit trade organization for organizations in the promotional products industry – an industry that deals with products that happen to be branded. Some suppliers in the industry will require a PPAI number before they will work with a business that has a PPAI number.

What Is An ASI Number?

ASI stands for Advertising Specialty Institute. It serves generally the same market as the PPAI, and an ASI number serves the same purpose – it allows businesses that hold it to purchase promotional items and wholesale prices and sell them.

How Do PPAI/ASI Pricing Codes Work?

The first character on a pricing code determines the discount the holder will get:

  • A/P : 50%
  • B/Q : 45%
  • C/R : 40%
  • D/S : 35%
  • E/T : 30%
  • F/U : 25%
  • G/V : 20%
  • X : 0%

How Do I Go About Selling A T-shirt Line To A Larger Brand?

It isn’t easy, and it’s usually all about who you know. While it’s certainly possible to sell your line to a large, established brand – usually through persistence and meeting with higher-ups at said brand – it’s far likelier to happen if you have a contact on the inside who can help you get your foot in the door. You might also consider going to large conventions and expos, and chew the fat – there’s a good chance you’ll meet at least a few industry contacts along the way. Finally, larger brands will be more interested in talking to designers who have already had some proven success with their own line.

What’s A Good Price For A T-shirt Design?

A better question may be what price people are willing to PAY you for your work. If you’re an experienced, established designer whose name is well-known in the clothing industry, you’ll naturally be able to sell your designs for more than if you’re just an up-and-coming nobody.  

Of course, it also depends how good the designs are – higher quality designs will generally sell for more.

Want to print a small, retail-grade run of your own t-shirts? Upload and print your design in our studio. Or, print your design on a wide variety of other products. See our full product list.

Leave a Reply