Switching your print on demand supplier? Get in touch with us here

1. What is direct-to-garment printing (DTG printing)?

Direct to garment printing: Beginner's guide to custom apparel

Direct-to-garment printing offers one of the best ways for ecommerce retailers to sell customized clothing. DTG printing lets you create detailed designs with minimal setup, minimal environmental impact, and no minimum order requirements. However, like any printing method, DTG has advantages, limitations, and best uses. Read our guide to learn how direct-to-garment printing works, its pros and cons, and how to start selling DTG customized clothing.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Direct-to-garment printing uses special digital printers to spray water-based inks directly onto clothing such as t-shirts.

  • DTG printing creates detailed designs, requires minimal setup, uses eco-friendly inks, and allows orders in any quantity.

  • Drawbacks of DTG prints include fabric limitations, limited placement options, and expensive equipment ownership costs.

  • A DTG print on demand service lets you print apparel cost-efficiently without paying for equipment, inventory, or shipping.

What is direct-to-garment printing (DTG printing)?

Direct-to-garment printing is a clothing production method that uses specialized digital printers to imprint designs directly onto fabrics. It differs from clothing production methods that use an indirect medium to create designs, such as screen printing and heat transfer vinyl printing.

DTG printers take designs from digital files and spray them onto clothing fed into the printer. The DTG printing process employs water-based inks and clothes made of suitable fabrics such as cotton. Before printing, clothes are pre-treated and cured to ensure color quality and provide a flat printing surface. After printing, clothes are cured again to affix inks properly and promote design durability.

Ecommerce retailers use direct-to-garment printing to decorate apparel such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, and tote bags. The DTG printing process allows items to be printed in any order size, from a single unit up. DTG is preferred for retailers who want to offer customized designs in any quantity.

How does direct-to-garment printing work?

printing work

Direct-to-garment printing uses a four-step process:

  1. Digital art file preparation

  2. Garment pre-treating and curing

  3. Garment printing

  4. Ink curing

Here's what each step involves:

1. Digital art file preparation

The first step in the DTG printing process is creating a digital art file. Files can be created in graphics design programs such as Photoshop.

DTG software programs accept files in several formats. The best formats preserve background transparencies, such as PNG and TFF. Transparent backgrounds allow images to appear correctly against fabric colors. While DTG software may accept formats such as JPG that don't preserve transparency, this can result in your image being printed on a white background rather than the desired color.

DTG software can accept files in either red, green, and blue (RGB) or cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (CMYK) color models. RGB is designed for digital screen colors. It uses a three-color additive approach that supports a broader range of colors. CMYK is designed for printed colors. It uses a four-color subtractive approach that creates black by adding all colors together and white by removing all colors. CMYK can't reproduce the full range of RGB. However, CMYK works better for rendering colors accurately, especially on dark backgrounds, and many DTG printers and printing services use CMYK format. A way to blend the strengths of both formats is to design your file in RGB and convert it into CMYK before printing using a raster image processing (RIP) program. Some DTG printing services take this approach.

Image files should be at least 150 dots per inch (DPI) for good resolution. Highly detailed images will look better at 300 DPI or more.

2. Garment pre-treating and curing

Before garments go through a DTG printer, they get pre-treated and cured. The pre-treatment process involves applying a solution that helps white ink bond to the garment and provides a base layer for CMYK colors. This helps bring out both whites and colors more vividly. Additionally, it preserves colors through washings for more extended durability. It also prevents problems from printing white ink on dark garments. Pretreating is optional for light garments, but many printing services do it as a standard procedure and best practice.

After application, the pre-treatment solution gets cured with heat using a heat press or an air dryer. This keeps white ink from soaking into the garment and provides a flatter surface for printing other colors.

3. Garment printing

After pre-treating and curing, garments can be printed. Before a garment such as a t-shirt can be run through the printer, it must be placed on a flat platform, known as a platen or platten. This keeps the shirt in the right place in a flat position so that it's lined up correctly for printing. Features such as seams, stitches, ribbing, and zippers help align the garment correctly to the platen. Once it's lined up properly, the platen can be fed into the printer to begin printing.

4. Ink curing

Once a garment has been run through a DTG printer, the ink must be cured to ensure it sticks correctly and holds up through future washings. A heat press or a forced air dryer can cure the garment.

These steps can be performed once or repeated multiple times for a single design. Likewise, they can be repeated using multiple designs on a series of garments made from similar fabrics. This flexibility stems from the fact that DTG designs are stored digitally.

The pros of direct-to-garment printing

pros of DTG 2

The DTG printing process offers various benefits, giving it a distinct advantage over traditional printing methods such as screen printing. Some of the most significant benefits include the following:

  • Creates higher-quality print designs

  • Requires minimal setup time

  • Minimizes production waste and environmental impacts

  • No minimum order requirements

These benefits help explain why DTG has become such a popular method for printing customized t-shirts.

Creates high-quality, intricate prints

DTG printing supports high-quality, detailed prints in a complete range of colors. Direct-to-garment printing delivers top-quality designs because it prints shapes and colors directly from digital files. This delivers the exact resolution and sharpness you'd see on a computer screen or high-definition TV screen. As a result, you can see intricate details and photographic quality on DTG-printed t-shirts and apparel.

This delivers more detail and color than screen printing can achieve. Screen printing can only handle a small number of colors because of the setup involved, which requires a separate screen per color. While screen printing can deliver a few colors in vivid hues, it can't handle many colors or fine details. DTG can handle any number of colors in fine-grained detail.

Requires minimal setup

DTG printing requires minimal setup, unlike screen printing. Once you have your digital files set up, all you have to do is start placing shirts on platens and feeding them into the printer. If you're using a DTG printing service, they'll do this for you. Some printers have rotating platens to speed up the process.

This is quicker and more efficient than methods that require extensive setup. Screen printing requires you to set up a separate screen and stencil for each color. With DTG, you can just send the design to your printing service.

Minimizes production waste and environmental impacts

pros of DTG

The eco-conscious DTG process is energy efficient and minimizes waste. The inks used in DTG printing are generally water-based, making them free of toxic chemicals and safer for workers to handle. Because DTG supports print on demand (POD), you only produce as many products as you need to fulfill your orders. This avoids wasted materials and unnecessary shipping that can contribute to carbon emissions.

DTG also employs natural materials. Most DTG shirts are made of cotton or cotton blends. Some shirts are made from organic cotton and grown using eco-friendly methods.

No order minimum requirements

For ecommerce retailers, another significant advantage of DTG is that you don't have to order minimum quantities or products or require customers to do so. Because DTG production is as simple as printing a digital file, you can print as few or as many units as you want or even single orders.

This is a significant difference between DTG and screen printing. Screen printing takes so long to set up that it's only efficient for minimum bulk orders. This isn't suitable for offering customized orders in small quantities. With DTG, you can allow customers to print their custom designs on single garments.

The cons of direct-to-garment printing

cons of DTG 2

While direct-to-garment printing has numerous advantages and can be ideal for some ecommerce retailers, it's not suitable for all situations. Some of the cons of DTG printing include the following:

  • Fabric limitations

  • Limited design placement options

  • Costly printer ownership costs

  • Bulk order inefficiency

These drawbacks may make DTG less ideal than other solutions for certain situations. Let's look more closely at some factors that may affect whether direct-to-garment printing is right in a specific scenario:

Fabric limitations

The direct-to-garment printing process has some fabric limitations, although these can vary by printer. DTG works best on cotton. It is ideally suited to 100% cotton garments. It can handle some cotton/polyester blends but generally needs at least 50% cotton to achieve high-quality, vibrant colors. For high-polyester fabrics, you may be better off using other printing methods, such as sublimation printing (all-over printing) or heat transfer vinyl printing. However, these methods have drawbacks, so weigh your pros and cons.

Limited design placement options

DTG printing requires holding the garment in a specific position fixed to the platen. This limits your design placement options. You can't easily put designs on locations such as seams or zippers.

In contrast, all-over printing (AOP printing), also called sublimation printing, uses a heating process that turns inks into gas and lets them soak into fabric. This allows designs to be placed anywhere on a garment. DTG doesn't lend itself easily to all-over printing.

DTG printers are costly

cons of DTG

Owning a direct-to-garment printer can be very costly. DTG printers cost tens of thousands of dollars and up. This is an expensive and sizable investment. It's not cost-effective unless you plan to produce in bulk or produce shirts for other retailers.

However, this con only applies if you want to own a DTG printer. You can bypass this issue using a print on demand supplier offering DTG printing services. This effectively spreads the cost of DTG equipment between many customers, so you don't bear the burden of ownership. You only pay a small fee for printing your garments with your POD service.

Start creating high-quality prints with DTG printing

By relying on specialized digital printing equipment, DTG delivers several benefits that offer an advantage over other methods, such as screen printing. DTG offers high-resolution, sharp print quality in a rich range of colors and photographic detail. Minimal setup is required once a file is prepared, especially if you use a POD printing service. DTG water-based inks are eco-friendly, and natural cotton fabric minimizes environmental impact. You're not bound by order minimums, freeing you to offer customized designs in any quantity.

Direct-to-garment printing isn't suitable for all situations. If you're printing on pure or high-polyester fabric, if you need to do all-over printing, or if you need to print large bulk orders, other methods may be more appropriate. But if you want to offer customized designs on cotton or high-cotton polyester blends, DTG is your most cost-efficient option.

Gelato's print on demand platform makes it easy to offer customers customized, high-quality t-shirts, clothes, and apparel online. With the world's largest POD network, Gelato produces garments locally on demand in 32 countries, cutting carbon emissions and lowering costs for ecommerce retailers. Sign up for Gelato today to start creating custom products for your customers.


Next steps

Start a successful store with Gelato