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Can a T-shirt printed with just a single color really be worth more than one decorated with a dozen? Today’s market for printed apparel says it certainly can.

Can a T-shirt printed with just a single color really be worth more than one decorated with a dozen? Today’s market for printed apparel says it certainly can.

I discovered this trend, much to my surprise, during a recent online investigation of retail prices for screen-printed shirts. A careful review of the top ten, highest priced, best-selling shirts showed how fashion trends, mixed with innovative garments, niche-specific branding, and unexpected designs, produce high-end shirts that can command hefty prices. And all of it is possible by using only one screen from the shop floor.

If everyone were able to obtain such results so easily, we’d all be in the business of printing single-color designs on T-shirts. So here’s the question we must answer: What makes one garment designed with a single-color graphic worth more than $50 at retail while another sells for a fraction of that?


Perceived value

The designs that grab the premium retail prices are those that convey a high perceived value. This concept, according to my findings, is more important than how many colors are present in a garment graphic—and it’s ultimately what allows one printed T-shirt to command a price ten times higher than another, even though both are produced the same way.

I created a simple spreadsheet to aid in my research. On it, I listed the number of colors on the printed T-shirts and the amounts charged to direct consumers. My review revealed that, in many cases, no correlation existed between the number of colors in a print and the end product’s cost. The shirts ranged from less than $5 to more than $55 apiece, and the expensive garments actually seemed to have designs with fewer colors than the cheapest shirts, which typically sported eight-color prints.

Such a scenario contradicts conventional wisdom, but it’s commonplace in fashion marketing, where manufacturers strive to produce goods that are similar to what is currently popular, yet are original at the same time. We can mimic large-scale, popular brands—but with a high-production mindset—and present our original work to a percentage of our more fashionable clients, who will pay more to look a little trendy.


The plan

Planning for fashion marketing requires an important shift in mentality. It must be genuine and authentic to work with any consistency in sales. Let’s start with what I call the pre-objection stage. Visualize the objections that clients will have to higher costs and deal with the issues before you implement your marketing plan. You won’t be able to predict every objection, because printers and artists tend not to think from the customer’s view.

A printer’s first thought usually is that a one-color print is a one-color print and represents the same amount of production time. Why should it be worth more?

An artist’s view commonly is that the design is just another simple, distressed piece for athletic wear. How could it be worth so much more than another one?

The customer’s viewpoint comes primarily from a financial standpoint: “This is what I budgeted for these shirts.” Or you might hear, “This is what my customers are willing to pay.”

You must educate customers by explaining why the prints are worth more. Demonstrate how the customers can persuade their clients to accept the values and benefits of the new garments. You need to believe in and be excited about the value in the garment to really sell it. Such a situation is very similar to an artist talking to potential buyers about a painting—breaking down the message and explaining how it fits into what other people are buying.

You may wish to address some production details once you’ve shown excitement and comfort in selling trendy fashion prints to clients at a higher price. The details you provide about the production end complement a hands-on approach to selling and can aid you tremendously in the negotiation of value.

Very successful brands that sell high-priced, single-color prints consistently use the following collection of elements to form a foundation: ownership of the garment, high-impact artwork, surprising printing location and technique, and a refusal of limitations. Let’s examine the specifics of each.


Ownership of the garment

According to my research, the shirts that maintained a great following at a high price point all featured elements that indicated the garments were original. You can achieve the same results in a variety of ways.

Private label This costs 25-75 cents per shirt, depending on volume and the necessary service steps. You can purchase garments without tags and heat-transfer a label onto the shirt. Check with your local garment mill to see what is available. Unique locations for labels can be appealing as a valued look, such as on a sleeve hem, a wraparound on the neck or sleeve fabric on the inside, side-seam tags, and even metal, flock, or leather heat-applied or sewn-in brand identifiers. Clients who are willing to pay a premium need to see that the shirt looks different from a typical garment that anyone can buy. This step directly supports the feeling of exclusiveness.

Custom dyes and color effects The highest priced shirts on my list were ones that had custom colors and wash effects, including grinding and/or distressing to the shirts’ seams. Many of these effects are easy and cost-effective to recreate, especially in a shop that’s equipped with an inexpensive washer and dryer. You won’t find a must-do list here. Some shirts featured several special effects, and others had very little. The idea is to differentiate the shirt from others on the market and increase the softness and vintage look.

The softer, the better Research shows that special effects that increase the perceived softness of a garment increase its value. Can we wash or process a low-cost garment to magnify its softness? Fabric softeners and washing techniques can do the trick and add a special effect at the same time. Enzyme wash is a popular one. Only use unscented products.

The fit that your market demands Some shirts just don’t fit well. More expensive shirts tend to consist of spandex (even if they don’t say it on the tags) in order to conform to the wearer’s body and create the feel of a better fit. Fashion-forward clients are very interested in how a garment fits. Make sure you know its dimensions. What’s the in style right now? Look into long shirts with conforming shapes, thinner necks, and shoulder hems. Some manufacturers are surprisingly open to customizing garments—even in smaller quantities.


High-impact artwork

High-impact artwork makes a lasting impression on the viewer. A visually striking piece can be simple and harmonious or really edgy—something that creates a visceral reaction, such as a piece I created for a popular mixed martial arts fighter (Figure 1). This style of art is popular in that niche and worked well visually because of its hand-crafted appeal and dark imagery. Clients either like or loathe this style, but they rarely ignore it. If you want to sell high-value pieces or create your own brands, then find an artist who can develop a trendy piece with a dramatically original, hand-crafted feel—one that fits your target niche. If the process of realizing a high profit margin on a one-color print requires an investment on your part, spend the money on a talented artist. Be sure to review work samples, and always be upfront about payment and expectations.

The use of uncommon techniques is another way add value to artwork. Unconventional halftone patterns and vintage designs that echo a garment treatment give a premium feel to a simple garment (Figure 2). The gritty look and what I like to call the kindergarten look are popular these days with designs that are drawn completely by hand and purposefully made to look loose and playful (Figure 3). Designs created in watercolor, pastels, charcoal, ink brush, and multimedia can produce surprising combinations and lend an iconic, rustic, and vaguely medieval look to the artwork—even in just one color.

Earning appreciation for high-priced artwork sometimes means informing the client about the attention and effort that you’ve put into the design. Have you ever heard someone at a museum say “What’s the big deal with that Picasso painting? My daughter has been drawing stuff like that since kindergarten!” The point is that Picasso’s cubist works directly confronted the realistic paintings of others to create a different effect on the viewer. Having the understanding of what the artist is trying to accomplish adds value, whether or not you like a design. The value to the viewer stems from in the education behind the effort. T-shirt art won’t hang next to a Picasso in a museum, but knowing the terminology and being able to communicate it during a garment sale can help to establish a more significant price for your work.

An artist’s attention to detail helps define the difference between artwork of lower quality and artwork of high value. A graphic design intended for a high-fashion market should have an increased level of research and detail care attached to it. You can even sell very simple artwork at a higher cost when you use a design that’s researched, design-specific, and tested to be the best. The proper communication of the amount of care and development you assign to a project can increase its price.


Surprising location and technique

Successful marketing companies know that everyone loves surprises. Variety adds visual interest, and the unexpected often creates a demand where there previously was none. For example, take a heraldic crest design, distress it, and dull it so that it barely appears on the shirt. Then include a different, tribal-looking print merged across it (Figure 4). The contrast in styles creates visual tension and makes the shirt much more interesting than one that features only a simple tribal print. The added detail also ties into perceived value. For a final touch, print the design in unique location so that it wraps over the shoulder and sleeve of the shirt with the tribal image cutting across it diagonally. You now have an edgy design in an unexpected location and image clash that justifies a higher cost. Other ways to surprise and create interest with a single color are:

• repeated images that form patterns all over large areas of the shirt

• tattoo-type print locations on garments with images that collage together to form image clashes

• washed-out prints that fall off of the sides, collar, seams, or sleeves of the garment

• inks with glitters, textures, and differ- ent finishes (such as gel, suede, etc.) that contrast with the imagery or feel of the garment

• combinations of halftones and patterns to break up a single color in rhythms of different hues on the shirt


The proper mindset

Mentality is what separates the shops that consistently create high-priced, single-color prints from the bulk of other garment screen printers. They don’t believe in limitations, which creates an environment where they’re willing to reconstruct their production environment based on the needs of the print rather than always adjusting the design to fit the shop’s limitations. They make custom platens, screens, and squeegees when they need to print off of the edge of the shirt and all over one sleeve. They install washing machines and have thermally active labels produced for shirts that need custom tag prints with an enzyme wash and a grinding on the collar. And rather than adjust the art and force the print and shirt to conform, these screen printers opt for the difficult path that leads to a challenging print that’s more original.

The details of this single-color, high-price mentality may sound like a lot of artsy talk and fluff, but the customers who demand these prints are willing to pay for a higher level of service. They don’t care that the shirt is one color when they see examples and get excited about the possibilities. Not every order for single-color T-shirts pays big bucks, but if you make a priority of exciting your customers with new possibilities, you’ll be able to reap the rewards of a high-profit, one-color print.


The opinions and recommendations expressed in this column are Mr. Trimingham’s and not necessarily those of Screen Printing magazine. Thomas Trimingham has more than 16 years of experience in screen printing as an award-winning artist, separator, industry consultant, speaker, and author of more than 40 articles in industry magazines. He can be reached through his Website,







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