The custom t-shirt printing market is expected to grow by 11% per year through 2030. And with online tools to help you print and sell your tee designs, it’s never been easier to start a t-shirt business.
By selecting a target audience and designing t-shirts that delight customers, you can create popular clothing at a low cost.
This guide explains how to start an online shirt business that brings in extra monthly income.
How to start a t-shirt business
- Choose a niche
- Source quality material and t-shirt printing options
- Create t-shirt designs
- Mock up your t-shirts
- Validate your t-shirt designs
- Set up your online shirt store
1. Choose a niche
Successful online t-shirt businesses find ways to stand out from the crowd. One of the best strategies for differentiating your products from competitors’ is by catering to a specific audience or interest group.
Choosing a t-shirt niche can help your online shirt business attract these motivated customers.
Generally, niches like “t-shirts with funny slogans” are too broad for a new business to successfully compete. Instead, look for sub-niches and use keyword research tools to find phrases that your target audience is searching for. For example, sub-niches in the funny t-shirts category might be “t-shirts with slogans about doctors” or “funny t-shirts for dog owners.”
Here are a few ways to estimate the value of entering a niche:
- Scan this list of popular hobbies on Wikipedia for inspiration.
- Use the Facebook IQ Audience Insights tool to gauge the size of your niche on social media.
- Visit a niche’s subreddit and check the subscriber count and level of engagement.
- Consider your own interests and the communities you belong to.
Once you find a niche, create a business plan that lays out opportunities to sell custom t-shirts to your niche audience.
2. Source quality material and t-shirt printing options
Not all t-shirts are the same. Different printing methods produce different results. With shirt quality paramount to your brand’s reputation, educating yourself on stock is essential.
It can be tempting to partner with budget supplier and sacrifice quality for higher profit margins. But consider how product quality impacts a customer’s decision to make a second purchase or recommend your shirts to other people.
Choosing a quality t-shirt encompasses several factors, including fit, sizing, material, softness, and weight. Once you narrow down your choices, order some samples to make an informed final decision.
3. Create t-shirt designs
After selecting a shirt supplier, you might choose to develop original graphic tees. Here are a few ways to get a head start:
Find the bestselling designs and niches
If you’re struggling to come up with t-shirt design ideas, look at what’s popular and currently selling well on graphic t-shirt marketplaces such as:
Another research tip is to use Google Trends to gain a sense of the topics people are currently interested in. Use trending subjects as inspiration for your t-shirt designs.
Hire a designer
Once you have a general idea for t-shirt designs, start sketching some drafts. If you know how to use graphic design software, you likely can produce great designs yourself. However, it might make more sense to enlist some help.
There are several online sources for finding suitable graphic designer, including design communities, freelance networks, and t-shirt design marketplaces:
Dribbble is a design community that’s home to lots of talent. Search for styles you like, then message the designer to see if they’re available for your project.
Behance hosts portfolios from creators around the world who specialize in illustrations and graphic design.
General freelance networks like Upwork also contain listings of artists and illustrators. Find a qualified t-shirt designer, then check their past job successes and portfolio to see if they’re a match for your project. If you like someone, you can reach out through the platform and hire them on the spot.
T-shirt design marketplaces
Instead of hiring a designer, you can purchase pre-made designs your t-shirt business. This route saves on upfront costs, but means that other stores are likely selling your designs, so it may be harder for your store to stand out. Check out the following t-shirt graphic marketplaces:
- Tshirt Factory has a variety of vector images, from old school to punk designs.
- Creative Market has more than three million graphics and templates.
- Graphic River offers royalty-free Photoshop vectors and icon packs.
Keep in mind, you may need to purchase a commercial license for your images before you can use them on your t-shirts.
💡 Need a logo for your t-shirts? Shopify has a free custom logo maker.
4. Mock-up your t-shirts
Once you have final designs, the next step for your t-shirt business will be to produce mockup images. Mockups help you and your customers see what the final design will look like when it’s printed on a shirt.
You can create mockups using web software or with an image editor like Adobe Photoshop.
T-shirt mockup templates for Photoshop come with multiple layers that let you change the color of the shirt and apply your own design that will blend with the shirt’s creases, folds, and contours.
There are also web-based mockup software that will let you create similar images without having to download Photoshop:
If you don’t like the idea of creating digital mockups, you can always order samples of your shirts and take product photos.
5. Validate your t-shirt designs id="Validate-your-designs"
Before you invest in your new business idea, test the popularity of your designs. There are many ways to validate design popularity before you sell your t-shirts online.
Common methods for validating your design ideas include:
Reach out to personal social networks
Post a preview of your designs to your social media accounts and on feeds that your potential customers visit. Be careful when asking the thoughts of friends and family, however. Their opinions can come with a favorable bias.
Despite the community’s general aversion to marketing, Reddit is still one of the best places to get honest feedback on your designs. Through this process, you may earn yourself some future customers and gain some free marketing along the way.
Crowdfunding sites have made it easier to test, validate, and collect money upfront for new business ideas. Launching a crowdfunding campaign can be time-consuming and requires preparation. However, if you have a particularly novel t-shirt business idea, crowdfunding might be for you.
🎧 Here’s why you should test your t-shirt designs before you invest.
6. Set up your online shirt store
With t-shirt designs commissioned, mock-ups created, and feedback acquired, it’s time to build your online store.
If you’re using a print-on-demand service to produce your tees, it’s easy to integrate your products with a Shopify store. Customers can visit your store to browse shirts. Once they make a purchase, print-on-demand apps will produce and ship the items.
Try these t-shirt printing apps that integrate directly with Shopify stores:
💡 Need advice on building your store? Here’s a step-by-step guide.
5 considerations for starting a t-shirt business
Today, there’s a tool for every stage of running a t-shirt business, from designing and printing to shipping.
For many, the really difficult part of is building a brand that stands out from the competition.
Here are five things to consider when designing your t-shirt business strategy:
- T-shirt printing techniques
1. T-shirt printing techniques
There are three popular methods for printing t-shirts. Deciding which one to use will partially depend on your product pricing strategy.
Whether you invest in your own printer or use a local supplier, it’s worth knowing how each printing technique works.
Screen printing is an old technique that has stood the test of time for business owners who design and sell t-shirts online and in stores.
As one of the most popular methods for printing, screen printing can produce durable and long-lasting results. It also lets you print on products like canvas items, mugs, hats, and other things to make and sell if you want to expand your product line.
However, a labor-intensive initial setup means screen printing is most cost-effective when printing in bulk. Screen printing also poses issues when it comes to complex designs or designs with more than four to five colors, as each color increases costs and production time.
Heat transfers exist in several forms. For example, you may have seen basic heat-transfer paper at your local office supply store.
Although this method makes it easy to print designs from your home computer and transfer them with an iron, a more complicated process is needed when running a small business. The more advanced form of heat transfer is called plastisol transfer and is printed by professional printers on special, high-quality heat-transfer paper.
The advantage of heat transfers is the ability to order a stack of prints from your local printer and transfer them to your t-shirts with a commercial heat press machine as you receive orders. Heat transfers can produce full-color images onto t-shirts relatively easily and quickly, helping to make them an affordable option for small batches.
Though affordable in the long run, a heat press machine can be a large upfront cost. Also, the do-it-yourself approach requires you to invest more time making the t-shirts and the final result can be lower quality and less durable than shirts that use other forms of printing.
The direct-to-garment printing process operates like an ink-jet printer. It’s common in t-shirt printing businesses because it prints ink directly onto the t-shirt and can produce full-color images with accuracy.
DTG printing produces quality printing on par with screen printing, and is seen as more premium than heat transfer. Because it operates like an ink-jet printer, there are no setup costs, unlike screen printing. This means it’s easy and cost-effective to print small orders.
The major disadvantage of direct-to-garment printing is the lack of volume discount for large orders, as it takes the same amount of time to print each shirt.
The last thing a visitor wants to see in your catalog is a poorly plagiarized shirt design. Your designs don’t necessarily need to be complex—in fact, many of the bestselling graphic tees are simple. However, they do need to be original.
To ensure quality prints for your shirt-selling business, your design files should be at least 300 pixels per inch (dpi or ppi), have a transparent background, and be large enough to cover the actual print area of the t-shirt. Just note that your specifications will vary depending on the printer and printing technique used.
The next most important factor in starting an online t-shirt business is product quality. You can disappoint a customer once, but they won't return to your store. A pattern that fades and cracks or a t-shirt that shrinks and rips won’t create loyal customers.
Higher quality t-shirts might cost more to produce but can also command higher prices. Remember to base your product quality decisions on expected profit margin, not the product costs.
A strong, interesting brand is vital for starting a shirt business online. Your brand will tie together all of your choices, including your niche, designs, and shirt quality. From your t-shirt business name to the logo you use, building a unique and likable brand is important in a high-competition industry.
When customers have a choice of stores to shop from, businesses with a distinctive presence are more likely to capture attention. If you’ve chosen a niche for your online t-shirt business that embodies a certain lifestyle, you can incorporate it into your marketing and website to speak to these customers.
T-shirt businesses can buy and hold inventory, taking advantage of bulk pricing and local printers. Or, they can use a print-on-demand service to take inventory management and shipping off their plate. You also can opt for a mix of both.
By holding your own inventory for your online shirt selling business, you can sell in-person, which could help improve your profit margins. With print-on-demand, you take on less risk because your production depends on your orders. Weigh the pros and cons before you start. If you’re unsure, print-on-demand is a good idea for smaller businesses.
Of course, if you have the budget, you can also invest in a printer and make your own in-house clothing line.
An online t-shirt business success story
Many entrepreneurs have been successful in starting a shirt-selling business. For example, Ryan McCarthy, founder of Imouri (formerly Sugoi), has used Shopify to run his anime-inspired t-shirt printing business since 2016.
Ryan decided to create his t-shirt business when he couldn’t find anime-themed clothing that fit his personal style. He quietly launched what he thought would be a small clothing business, which has since turned into a six-figure print-on-demand apparel company selling streetwear inspired by Japanese pop culture and anime.
His secret to successfully starting a clothing line? Identifying winning designs early on by using Reddit and paid ads to test products.
Start your t-shirt business today
It's never been easier to express your creativity and sell t-shirts online
Whatever niche you choose to serve, and however ambitious you decide to be with your quality and designs, a t-shirt store can be a great first ecommerce business for new entrepreneurs.
Shopify can help you start selling and control your costs. Connect your store to a t-shirt printer in minutes and launch a catalog that your customers will love.
Illustration by Alice Mollon
Starting a t-shirt business FAQ
Is a t-shirt business profitable?
T-shirts are a staple around the world, with global apparel sales reaching $1.79 trillion in 2024. Creating an online t-shirt business can be profitable thanks to low startup costs compared to other business opportunities.
How much does it cost to start a t-shirt business?
Starting a t-shirt business from home requires little investment. Print-on-demand services offer product manufacturing and shipping, and only charge vendors for products when they're sold. That means fewer overhead costs and little risk of overstocking.
What should I do before selling t-shirts?
- Conduct market research on a niche and find a passionate community.
- Come up with a t-shirt company name.
- Make a business logo and set up an online shop.
- Create your own t-shirt designs.
- Set up your social media accounts.
- Run paid ads for your online t-shirt business site.
- Do blog outreach and free promotions with influencers.
How much can you make selling t-shirts?
The amount you make selling t-shirts depends on factors including your chosen niche, production methods, pricing, and marketing strategy.
How can I start my own t-shirt business with few upfront costs?
If you want to start a t-shirt business without an initial investment, create a Shopify store and integrate a print-on-demand app such as Printful.
Do you need a business license to sell t-shirts online?
Typically, you do not need a business license to sell t-shirts online. You may need a resale license to buy clothing from a distributor without sales tax. Check with your local revenue or finance department to learn more.