Direct-to-garment printing (DTG printing) provides a fast, easy, cost-efficient way for ecommerce retailers to produce and sell customized t-shirts. But is it always the best way to make t-shirts? How does it stack up against screen printing? When should you use DTG vs. screen printing?
This article will compare DTG printing and screen printing so you can decide which method is best for your print on demand business needs. First, we'll look at DTG and screen printing individually to better understand how they work and their respective strengths and weaknesses. Then we'll compare them and evaluate when using DTG vs. screen printing makes sense.
Direct-to-garment printing uses special digital printers to spray water-based inks directly on t-shirts.
DTG produces high-resolution, visually sharp images by printing directly from digital files, minimizing set-up time and enabling t-shirts to be printed in any quantity.
Screen printing transfers inks to t-shirts through a mesh partially blocked by a stencil shaped to outline the desired image.
Screen printing can be used to produce t-shirt designs with a limited number of colors in large quantities, taking significant set-up time.
DTG printing has advantages over screen printing when it comes to handling multiple colors, capturing image resolution and sharpness, reproducing photographic images, shortening set-up time, producing t-shirts in single units or small quantities, and promoting sustainability.
Screen printing can be more efficient for large print runs of hundreds or thousands of t-shirt units, and screen-printed garments are more durable than DTG-printed t-shirts.
Direct-to-garment printing is a method of producing t-shirts that uses a special digital printer to apply water-based inks directly to fabric surfaces. It differs from other printing methods because it transfers inks directly to t-shirt surfaces without using a screen or paper as an intermediary.
DTG printing acquires images for printing from digital files. This enables DTG printers to produce virtually any color with a high degree of resolution and sharpness. DTG can print on popular t-shirt fabrics, including cotton, polyester, and cotton/polyester blends. It prints best on natural fabrics such as cotton.
DTG is eco-friendly because of its reliance on water-based inks and its ability to print on organic cotton. Because DTG prints from digital files, it can be used to print t-shirts in any quantity, including single units.
DTG printers can be expensive, with prices often upwards of $10,000. However, you don't have to own a DTG printer to use DTG printing services. This makes DTG printing affordable for any small business or entrepreneur.
DTG printing works by applying inks directly to t-shirt fabrics, in contrast to methods that apply inks indirectly using screens or paper. It does this by using a modified type of inkjet printer that can print water-based inks known as aqueous inks. To apply these inks, DTG printing uses a four-step process:
Prepare digital art files
Pretreat and cure the t-shirt
Print on the t-shirt
Cure the ink
Let's break down these steps:
DTG printers apply inks using a pattern based on a digital file. DTG printing software works best with formats such as PSD and PNG that support transparent backgrounds, but it also accepts other common graphics file formats such as JPG and TFF.
Graphics design programs such as Photoshop that use these programs usually use color models based on red, green, and blue (RGB). In contrast, DTG printers use models based on cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYB). To manage this format difference, DTG printing software uses Raster Imaging Processor (RIP) software to convert RGB files into CMYK files.
The type of ink used by DTG printers works best with natural fibers such as cotton, bamboo, and hemp. To ensure the ink displays correctly, DTG uses a pretreatment machine before printing a t-shirt. Pretreatment applies a liquid solution that keeps white ink from soaking into the shirt and discoloring it while also preventing it from smearing or mixing with colored inks.
After the pretreatment solution has been applied, it is cured with a heat press or air dryer to make the t-shirt printing surface flatter. Fibers such as cotton normally stick up. Curing flattens the fibers to provide a smoother surface for printing.
After pretreatment, t-shirts are readied for printing by placing them on a flat platform called a platen. The platen holds the t-shirt in place to keep it flat and aligned in the right spot for inks to be applied. T-shirts can be aligned correctly to platens by lining up their neck collar, shoulder seams, or side seams on shirts that have them. Once a t-shirt has been aligned on a paten, it can be printed by feeding the paten into the printer.
After a t-shirt has been printed, the ink must be cured to affix it to the garment properly and ensure durability through repeated washings. Curing may be done with a heat press or forced air dryer.
Screen printing, also known as silk screen printing, is a process of printing t-shirts that applies ink to shirts through a mesh partially blocked by a stencil to mark off the shape of the image. The placement of a mesh between the ink and t-shirt makes screen printing an indirect method of applying ink, in contrast to direct-to-garment printing.
During screen printing, a tool such as a blade or a squeegee fills the mesh holes with ink. The tool then does a reverse pass to press the ink through the areas not blocked by the stencil. Multiple colors require multiple stencils and screens.
Screen printing became a popular method of producing t-shirts in the 1970s, and it remains widely used today. However, because it takes significant time to prepare stencils and screens, it is inefficient for smaller t-shirt print runs. Today it is increasingly reserved for larger print runs, while t-shirt manufacturers frequently turn to DTG for smaller print runs.
The screen printing process can be broken down into seven steps:
Prepare the screen and t-shirt for printing
Press ink through the screen
Here's what each step involves:
Today, screen printing designs usually are created by printing digital files onto transparent films made from substances such as acetate. The printed film becomes the basis of the stencil that will be created later in the process.
Once a design has been created, a screen corresponding to the required design and fabric can be selected. To prepare the screen for printing, a light-sensitive emulsion is applied to it. The emulsion will later harden when exposed to light, helping separate the areas of the screen that are hardened from the liquid ink over the areas where the design will be printed. If multiple colors are used, multiple screens must be prepared.
After the screen has been prepared, the emulsion can be exposed to light. The light will harden the emulsion around the liquid areas representing the design shape.
After the emulsion has been exposed long enough to harden, it will cover the areas of the screen surrounding the design. It then can be washed away, leaving a stencil in the shape of the design.
Now the screen is placed on a printing press, and the garment is placed on a printing board under the screen. For multiple colors, some printers are set up to rotate screens.
Now the screen is lowered onto the printing board. Ink gets inserted into the top of the screen. A blade or squeegee moves the ink down the screen and presses it through the stencil. This leaves the design on the t-shirt.
If multiple t-shirts are to be printed from the same stencil, this process must be repeated. After all the items have been printed, the emulsion can be removed, and the mesh can be reused.
After printing, the ink must be cured to preserve durability. This can be done with a heat gun, heat press, flash dryer, or conveyor dryer.
When should you use DTG vs. screen printing? The short answer is that DTG printing is better if you need short print runs, sharp images, or sustainability, while screen printing can be better for larger print runs and durability. To understand the rationale behind this and determine whether DTG is better for your specific situation, you should consider a number of factors, including:
Types of design
Here's what to consider in each of these areas:
The DTG production process gives it an advantage when it comes to shorter print runs. While screen printing can produce more t-shirts per hour, as many as 100 or more, this is offset by the preparation time it takes to set up. With DTG, you can take your digital design right to a printing service without setting up multiple stencils and screens.
DTG works better for detailed designs with multiple colors than screen printing. Screen printing works well for a small number of vivid colors, but it can't capture multi-color detail or photographic quality. It's best used for larger, less ornate designs.
DTG delivers better printing quality than screen printing. Because DTG prints directly from digital files, it produces designs in high resolution with sharp images. Screen printing produces bright colors but in large-scale detail, limiting the quality of your prints. DTG printing lets you create high-quality prints with a complete range of colors and designs.
DTG costs less than screen printing for smaller print runs. Setting up screen printing is costly, and the cost is only offset by ordering in bulk. Additionally, the more colors you use in your screen printing designs, the more expensive the cost will be. DTG printing has a low set-up cost and allows you to make a profit whether you're ordering a small batch of clothing or ordering in bulk. However, if you need hundreds or thousands of t-shirts printed at once, screen printing may be more cost-effective. You'll need to get actual quotes to weigh your options.
DTG provides more flexibility on order quantity. Screen printing often has minimum order requirements. DTG printing has no minimum order requirements and can be used to place small or large orders.
Screen printing can have an advantage in durability. Because screen printing uses thick ink layers and presses them into t-shirt fabric, it tends to uphold its original vibrancy and design through more washes. This also makes screen-printed t-shirts less vulnerable to sunlight than DTG shirts. However, DTG prints are also long-lasting.
DTG has an advantage in environmental friendliness. Screen printing is less sustainable and worse for the environment because it consumes more ink and often leads to overproduction, resulting in excess clothing being thrown away. DTG printing uses less ink, reduces the amount of waste produced, and expends less energy than screen printing technology, making it more eco-conscious. DTG printing aligns with Gelato's commitment to sustainability. We use responsibly sourced materials and local production to reduce carbon emissions.
By applying water-based inks directly to t-shirts from digital files, DTG produces sharper images in more colors than screen printing while shortening set-up time and enabling production in any quantity. Screen printing's mesh-based production method is inefficient for small print runs and works best for printing hundreds or thousands of shirts at a time. DTG t-shirts can be more durable, but they're also less environmentally sustainable. Screen printing is the more eco-friendly option.
Gelato enables local production of DTG t-shirt and customized product creation through the world's largest network for production on demand. Gelato produces personalized products in thirty-two countries, enabling creators and ecommerce sellers to scale their business and reach customers faster while reducing waste, costs, and carbon emissions. Get started with direct-to-garment printing today and sign up for Gelato's print on demand platform for free.