Gone are the days when screen printing was the only option for printing custom apparel. The printing industry is now home to several popular printing methods, each with its own pros and cons. But between ‘direct-to-garment printing this’ and ‘direct-to-film printing that,’ don’t you wish someone could simply direct you to the best printing method? We do!
The truth is, both direct-to-garment printing (DTG) and direct-to-film printing (DTF) are better equipped to crank out detailed t-shirts, hoodies, and even tote bags more effectively than screen printing ever could. However, there are clear differences between DTG prints and DTF prints that extend beyond the separate printing equipment and required techniques.
Here’s everything you need to know to decide between DTG vs. DTF for your printing needs!
Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing and direct-to-film (DTF) printing are popular printing methods for custom apparel and accessories.
DTG printing equipment involves modified inkjet technology that applies water-based inks directly to a garment.
DTF printing equipment places ink on a special transfer film that is then applied to a garment with a heat press.
When comparing the popular methods of DTG vs. DTF, it’s important to consider fabric limitations, print quality, and print durability.
As the name might suggest, direct-to-garment printing (DTG) is a printing method that applies ink directly to a garment. The best way to understand how DTG printing works is to think of a standard computer printer. A DTG printer uses the same inkjet technology as a standard printer but with water-based inks (called aqueous inks) rather than oil-based inks.
Like a standard printer, an apparel design is sent to a DTG printer via a digital art file. Next, a print supplier applies a pre-treatment solution to the entire garment to prevent white ink from soaking into the fabric or mixing with other inks. The solution is then cured with an air dryer or heat press to flatten the printing surface for a smoother finish.
Once the pre-treatment solution is cured, the garment is placed on a flat platform called a platen, which keeps the item in position. From here, a platen is fed through a DTG machine, just like a piece of paper through a printer. The machine applies the aqueous ink, and the garment is cured again with an air dryer or heat press to lock in the design.
Direct-to-film printing, referred to as DTF printing, is a more recent printing technique. Like DTG printing, DTF printing requires a digital art file to be sent to an inkjet printer — but that’s where the similarities between the printing processes end. DTF printers never print directly on garments and instead apply aqueous ink to a special transfer film.
From here, fixing powder is applied to the transfer film. Fixing powder makes the film adhesive so that the DTF ink design can be placed on the garment properly. Once the fixing powder is applied, the print supplier bonds the design to the garment with a heat press. The heat press cures the ink, and the garment is officially ready to wear (or sell online)!
When it comes to DTG vs. DTF, there are tons of advantages and drawbacks to consider before selecting a printing method for your needs. From logistics like production time and order quantity to preferences like print intricacy and comfortability, here’s a breakdown of how direct-to-garment printing stacks up against direct-to-film printing.
The first consideration when selecting between DTG vs. DTF is the cost of the necessary printing equipment. DTG printers range from $1,800 to upwards of $14,000 for a quality machine, though they tend to use less ink. In comparison, DTF printers tend to be below $10,000; however, they may require a greater ongoing investment for aqueous inks.
Fortunately, you can completely avoid such a large investment by partnering with a print on demand service! Print on demand, more commonly referred to as POD, is an alternative solution for DTG custom apparel, accessories, and home décor that requires no inventory or equipment. Your POD partner prints and packages the custom orders for you!
Pro Tip: Want to learn more about the print on demand business model to avoid steep printing costs? Check out this helpful blog post from Gelato!
Another key factor to consider when comparing DTG vs. DTF is print time. DTG printing tends to be a slower process than DTF printing, often due in part to the two-step curing process. A print supplier must first cure the DTG pretreatment solution before curing the ink design, which can take even longer using a forced air dryer instead of a heat press.
DTF printing, on the other hand, only requires one round of curing. Plus, DTF printers must use a heat press to bond the design instead of an air dryer, which can also speed up the process. If time is of the essence for your designs, you can limit the production time by working with a POD provider. With Gelato, your order ships in two to five business days!
The different ink applications for DTF vs. DTG means some fabrics are better suited for direct-to-film printing while others are more appropriate for direct-to-garment printing. DTF printing is suitable for a range of fabric types like nylon and fleece. For instance, a Classic Unisex Pullover Hoodie made of a preshrunk fleece knit fabric is ideal for a DTF print.
DTG printing is a bit more limited in terms of material types. Because DTG printing applies ink directly to the garment, the ink binds the best with natural fabrics, such as cotton garments. For instance, DTG printing can be used for heavyweight Premium Cotton Long-Sleeve T-Shirts and lightweight Cotton-Polyester Crewneck T-Shirts.
Pro Tip: Unsure which fabric is best for your custom designs? Check out this guide to polyester, cotton, and blended fabrics from Gelato!
Once you compare the matter of fabric, it’s time to consider how the order quantities supported by DTG vs. DTF differs… but in this case, it’s a tie! Unlike traditional screen printing, either printing process is suitable for orders as small as one t-shirt to as large as one thousand tote bags. This is especially true if you partner with a POD service like Gelato!
Up next in the battle between DTG prints and DTF prints is print color. Both printing methods use the CMYK color model, or a palette of primary colors consisting of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. However, much like the printing process itself, this is where the similarities between DTG print color and DTF print color come to an end.
No matter the color of the garment, DTF prints always include white ink for the base, which can enhance the color vibrancy of the transferred design elements. In comparison, DTG prints only include a white base if the design is printed on a black or colorful garment. A white base ink will not be used for DTG printing on light garments.
Another key difference between DTG vs. DTF print color is how the colored ink is applied to the garment. Because a DTG printer sprays the ink directly onto a garment rather than a transfer film, the garment can absorb — and dull — some of the ink. Therefore, DTG full-color prints or prints with multiple colors best suit light fabrics.
So, if there’s a difference between print color for DTG printers and DTF printers, is there also a difference in print intricacy? Yes — but not in the way you may think! Just because DTG printing may absorb some of the aqueous ink, that doesn’t mean it impacts design precision. In fact, DTG printing is often preferred for its print quality and intricate details!
Direct-to-garment prints are applied directly to an item, which means your details remain crisp, whether you’re printing photos or intricate designs. Though DTF printing still offers great print quality, a degree of precision is lost as the design travels from the transfer film to the garment surface. DTG is the overall winner in the print quality category.
Though you may not expect different printing methods to have varying print comfortability, you’d be surprised just how different a DTG t-shirt feels against the skin compared to a DTF t-shirt. DTG inks are applied directly to the garment without a fixing powder, which gives the garment an incredibly soft and lightweight feel.
In comparison, the sticky powder adhesive that’s used for DTF inks can feel thicker or heavier once it’s been cured. So, it’s not uncommon for DTF t-shirts to have a heavier, plasticky feel on the skin. DTF t-shirts can also appear stiffer across the chest and back, especially if they feature a large-scale design that’s prone to wrinkling.
Now that we’ve weighed the vibrancy, intricacy, and comfortability of direct-to-garment prints against direct-to-film prints, it’s time to break down the print durability of the final product. Both DTF and DTG produce durable prints; however, the heavier weight of direct-to-film designs can make them more prone to cracking or fading over time.
Last but certainly not least, how does the sustainability of direct-to-garment printing compare to direct-to-film printing? Both DTF and DTG prints use water-based inks and are available in minimal order quantities to avoid waste from excess inventory. However, it’s no competition: DTG printing is more environmentally friendly by far!
DTF printing consumes far more white ink, which can impact the sustainability (and profitability) of your business. On the other hand, DTG uses far less ink and overall printing materials. Even though DTG prints are heat pressed twice, the designs are printed directly onto the garment. So, there is never DTG waste from excess materials like transfer film.
We’ve tackled nearly a dozen considerations for DTG vs. DTF printing — how will you use this information to choose the right printing method? Unless you work with a print on demand service, a large investment is unavoidable for either. So, when you look beyond the production costs for DTG and DTF, your decision boils down to your unique needs.
Let’s begin with fabric and color preferences. DTF is compatible with a wider variety of fabrics, whereas DTG is better suited for organic fabrics like cotton or bamboo. DTF printing is also known to be more vibrant, regardless of the garment color. However, DTG full-color designs can be just as bold when printed on a lighter-colored garment.
Up next, let’s consider design detail and durability. While both printing methods can produce relatively complex designs, DTG is the overall winner in this category. Because DTG prints are applied directly to the garment, they can reproduce detailed designs with ease and precision. DTG prints can even last a bit longer than DTF prints!
Lastly, consider the sustainability of the printing method. Though both printing processes utilize water-based ink and produce garments on a per-order basis, only DTG printing eliminates excess waste. With no film or screen necessary, direct-to-garment printing is a more sustainable solution than DTF printing and traditional screen printing.
When it comes to creating high-quality, custom designs, both direct-to-garment printing and direct-to-film printing are viable options for vibrant apparel, accessories, and home décor. Yet, if you were to stack DTG up against DTF, direct-to-garment printing comes out on top nearly every time! DTG printing creates intricate designs with a soft comfortability and long-lasting durability.
Want to get involved with direct-to-garment printing but are wary of the steep expenses? Skip past the initial investment and partner with a print on demand provider like Gelato instead! Gelato leverages the top DTG machines in production networks located around the globe. We help you create custom DTG pieces that meet your design goals — and your budget — with just a few clicks.
What are you waiting for? Design and sell custom direct-to-garment printed products with Gelato print on demand!