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1. What is DTG printing?

What is DTG printing? Complete guide for 2024

Direct-to-Garment (DTG) printing is a game-changer in the custom apparel industry. This digital apparel printing technology is drastically redefining aspects such as quality, efficiency, and customization options in the industry. It provides a fast, easy, cost-efficient way for ecommerce retailers to produce and sell customized t-shirts and other apparel. If you're an artist or creator ready to make your mark in custom apparel, you're in the right place. 

In this post, we will explore the nitty-gritty of DTG printing, offering an in-depth understanding of how this digital printing technology is injecting renewed vigor into the custom apparel arena.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Direct-to-garment printing uses special digital printers to spray water-based inks directly on t-shirts. It 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.

  • The technology is eco-friendly, suitable for small quantities, and doesn't require ownership of a DTG printer.

  • The history of DTG printing dates back to the late 1990s, representing a shift from traditional printing methods.

  • DTG technology has evolved significantly, offering intricate full-color prints, faster production, and design freedom.

  • DTG printers range from entry-level to industrial models, all using water-based inks and capable of printing on various fabrics, especially cotton.

  • 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.

  • Factors to consider when choosing between DTG and screen printing include the production process, design types, printing quality, cost, order quantity, longevity, and environmental impact.

  • To get started with DTG printing, familiarize yourself with design software, experiment with colors, consider the material, invest in quality equipment, test prints, and maintain your printer.

  • Gelato offers a print on demand platform for DTG printing, enabling local production, faster customer reach, and reduced waste, costs, and carbon emissions.

What is DTG printing?

close-up of a DTG printer printing a vibrant design on a t-shirt

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.

History of DTG printing

Direct To Garment (DTG) printing is irrevocably shifting the paradigm in the world of custom apparel. Its roots can be traced back to the late 1990s, when the first attempts to print full-color images directly onto textiles took place. It was a transition from the traditional and time-consuming methods like screen printing that were previously predominantly used. The implementation of the process wasn’t nearly as simple or as efficient as it is now. But, it was a significant moment symbolizing that the custom apparel industry was ripe and ready for technological innovation. 

In its nascency, the process was fraught with obstructions such as the high cost, technological limitations, and slow production speed. Despite these drawbacks, innovators and risk-takers saw the immense potential that DTG printing held. As technologies improved and evolved, so did the DTG printing process. Advances in ink development, printing equipment, and design software have made DTG printing a practical and scalable solution. Today, it is hailed as a groundbreaking technique creating ripples of transformation in the custom apparel industry.

Advancements in technology

The continuous evolution of DTG technology directly reflects advancements in many sectors, including custom apparel. In particular, DTG printing has brought a significant revolution, which has not only enhanced the efficiency of apparel customization but also taken the quality, precision, and customization options to greater heights.

The highlights of this revolution include perfect full-color prints with intricate details, faster turnaround times due to the elimination of manual color separation and screens, and the complete freedom to create designs without color count limitations. The advancement of DTG printing technology indeed flipped the custom apparel industry on its head, making it possible to cater to individual personalization needs with superior quality outcomes and streamlined processes.

Benefits of DTG printing

a range of t-shirts with complex and colorful designs

Understanding the unique advantages of DTG printing can help you make an informed decision. Let’s delve into some of these advantages that are revolutionizing the custom apparel industry and boosting creativity: 

  • High-quality prints: DTG printing produces high-resolution prints with vivid colors and sharp details. It’s the best choice for intricate designs that require color grading or multiple hues.

  • Efficient for small orders: Unlike other printing methods, DTG is optimal for low-volume orders and one-offs. This efficiency makes it ideal for start-ups and small business owners.

  • Quick results: Since there's no need for setup as in screen printing, DTG printing can turn around orders in much less time.

  • Unlimited color choices: With DTG, you can incorporate any number of colors into your design without incurring additional costs.

  • Eco-friendly: DTG uses water-based inks which are gentler on the environment compared to the plastisol inks used in screen printing.

  • Customizable: As designs are digitally printed onto the garment, DTG allows for complete customization, perfect for brands or artists wanting to experiment with varying designs.

Types of DTG printers in the market and the materials and inks used in them

Pushing the boundaries of custom apparel, the evolution of Direct to Garment (DTG) printing technology has led to the development of a multitude of advanced and high-performance printers. The right DTG printer for you, however, depends largely on the nature of your business, your professional requirements, and your budget. 

Firstly, we have entry-level DTG printers, perfect for beginners or smaller businesses. These are cost-effective options and include models like the Epson SureColor F2100 and the Brother GTX Pro. They offer high-quality printing, albeit at a slightly slower speed and with a more modest color gamut. 

Next up, the mid-level DTG printers like the Anajet mPower and the M2 from ColDesi are a practical choice for those who require faster turnaround times. They offer more consistency in prints and a wider color range. 

Finally, for industry pros handling large volume orders, industrial DTG printers such as the Kornit Avalanche HD6 and Epson F3070 come with the highest production speed, top print quality, and best consistency. 

Regardless of the type, all DTG printers use water-based inks, which are more environmentally friendly. These inks are specially formulated to work on both light and dark-themed garments while giving artists the liberty to design with an unlimited set of colors. As for materials, DTG printing is incredibly versatile, being able to print on a broad spectrum of fabrics, with 100% cotton being the most preferred due to its ability to absorb water-based inks better. Cotton blends and polyester can also be used with equally satisfying results.

How does DTG printing work?

the DTG printing process

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:

  1. Prepare digital art files

  2. Pretreat and cure the t-shirt

  3. Print on the t-shirt

  4. Cure the ink

Let's break down these steps:

1. Preparing digital art files

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.

2. Pretreating and curing t-shirts

According to All Print Heads, 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.

3. Printing on t-shirts

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.

4. Curing ink

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.

DTG vs. screen printing: Which printing method is better?

DTG and screen printing

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, let's briefly look at screen printing.

Screen printing: An overview

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.

How does screen printing work?

The screen printing process can be broken down into seven steps:

  1. Creating a design: This involves printing digital files onto transparent films made from substances such as acetate. The printed film becomes the basis of the stencil that is created later in the process.

  2. Preparing the screen: 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.

  3. Exposing emulsion: 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.

  4. Creating the stencil: 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.

  5. Preparing the screen and t-shirt for printing: 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.

  6. Pressing ink through the screen: The screen is lowered onto the printing board, loaded with ink, and then swiped by a blade to press the ink through the stencil onto the t-shirt, which is repeated for multiple tees, and then the emulsion is removed for the mesh to be reused.

  7. Curing ink: 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.

Now that we are aware of how screen printing is done, you should consider a number of factors to decide between DTG printing and screen printing, including:

  • Production process

  • Types of design

  • Printing quality

  • Cost

  • Order quantity

  • Longevity

  • Environmental impact

Here's what to consider in each of these areas:

Production process

production processing

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.

Types of design

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.

Printing quality

print quality

According to Forbes Advisor, 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.

Order quantity

order quantity

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.

Environmental impact

impact of environment

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.

Tips for getting started with DTG printing

Are you excited to dive into the world of direct-to-garment (DTG) printing? Here are some practical DTG printing tips to help get you started on the right foot: 

  1. Understand your design software: Knowledge of popular graphic design software like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop is crucial. Invest some time to learn how to create gorgeous, detailed designs.

  2. Experiment with colors and textures: DTG printing excels with designs that have many colors and complex designs. So, go ahead and experiment with your palette. Complex gradients, large detailed images, and intricate designs can all be achieved effortlessly.

  3. Consider the material: DTG printing performs best on 100% cotton material. If you plan on printing on a blend, keep in mind that the ink may not adhere as well to the non-cotton fibers.

  4. Invest in quality equipment: While this might seem evident, it's worth repeating. Quality machines will deliver superior results and stand the test of time.

  5. Test prints: Before mass printing, always make a test print. This will ensure that your design appears exactly how you imagined on the fabric.

  6. Maintenance is key: Regular maintenance of your DTG printer will ensure its longevity and keep it running smoothly. Regular cleaning can prevent clogs and other common problems.

Create high-quality DTG prints with Gelato

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. DTG t-shirts are more durable, but they're also less environmentally sustainable.

Gelato enables local production of DTG t-shirts and customized product creation through the world's largest network for print on demand. Gelato produces personalized products in 32 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.


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Create high-quality DTG prints with Gelato