The printed t-shirt is so much a part of modern life that most people don’t stop to consider its history. Printed t-shirts, however, did not just fall out of the sky; they came into existence through impressive technological innovations. The garment itself was originally intended to be a man’s undergarment, to be worn under his military uniform or suit. Soldiers and sailors serving during WWII would frequently wear nothing but a shirt and their uniform trousers when off-duty or during especially hot or dirty work days. The t-shirt as a stand-alone garment gained popularity among civilians in the years following the war.
Textile printing has a much longer history than the t-shirt. The oldest and most time-consuming method of textile printing is woodblock printing. This dates to 3rd century China and relies on a relief design carved into a block of wood, which is then dipped into ink and pressed onto the fabric. Other less labor-intensive techniques were developed during the Renaissance and through the Industrial Revolution.
The era of custom t-shirts began in the early 1950s, when several companies in Miami, Florida started decorating t-shirts with the names of local resorts and other tourist attractions. Screen-printing - the most common method used for t-shirt printing - came into vogue about the same time. In 1959, a new stretchy ink made possible a wider variety of designs and lettering styles. Plastisol and water-based Inks would later become the dominant textile ink for screen-printing and coating.
Today, custom t-shirts are used as a method of personal expression through which individuals can express their political and social views, advocate for causes, or simply amuse onlookers. The printed t-shirt is also a nearly indispensable part of most large businesses’ corporate marketing strategy, as t-shirts turn customers into “human billboards”. Improvements in printing technology coupled with the ease and convenience of online ordering have put custom-made t-shirts within the reach of just about any business, organization, or club - no matter what its size or budget.