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An Introduction to Direct-to-Garment Printing

Direct-to-Garment (DTG) printing has evolved rapidly since it was first introduced in 1996. The first DTG printer was a thermal print head imaging device that was adapted to print t-shirts. In 1998, Brother, a leading DTG manufacturer, began developing their first DTG printers.

However, it would not be until 2005 that Brother would debut its product at a trade show in Atlantic City. Since then, DTG printing has seen exponential growth in popularity as it helps smaller shops match their larger competitors’ ability to print on-demand.

Direct-to-Garment printers were designed to help accommodate the demand for low-run, high-quantity color apparel printing. Before direct-to-garment printing customers only had screen printing as a decoration printing option.  While screen printing has low unit and material costs, the true costs are derived from the setup of the job. This makes low run, high color quantity orders a nightmare for screen printing as the unit costs are very high. DTG printers were not designed to replace screen printing by any means, but to be a complementary decoration method that opens new doors for sales. 

DTG printers are capable of printing on any color garment and require no minimum amount of prints to order due to the speed with which you can change the design to be printed.  DTG’s true limitation comes to what products can be printed due to the ink being water-based. Since the DTG ink is water-based it is primarily used to print onto 100% cotton and other natural garments like bamboo, canvas, or hemp.  Synthetic moisture-wicking materials like polyester do not print well, or at all, due to the fact that the material cannot absorb liquid ink. 

Before a shirt can be decorated using a DTG printer the garment must first be pre-treated.  Pre-treat, a glue-like substance that allows the ink to adhere to the garment, is laid over the print area on the garment either by hand or with the help of an automated pre-treating machine.  The garment is then cured on a heat press to remove all moisture and create a printable surface.  

The shirt is then loaded onto the platen on the printer and the artwork is sent to the printer through a computer.  Inside the printer are two sets of printheads that move left and right over the garment to lay the ink down onto the print surface.  One set of printheads are used to lay down white ink, while the other heads are used to lay down color. The printer will first lay down a white underbase and then a highlight coat of white ink before laying down color. Using CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) ink cartridges the printer is able to create full-color images just like your inkjet printer at home.  After the shirt is printed it must be cured once more in order to lock in the print.

One of the major advantages of DTG printing is the fact that the artwork does not require special formatting like screen printing and embroidery. Since the artwork can be easily switched to print a new garment, DTG print shops can offer smaller runs of products and even single prints.  Also, DTG printers are capable of full-color, photo quality printing, something that screen printing is incapable of. All these qualities make DTG the go-to printing method for small-to-medium online print shops, and even smaller printing stores.

DTG printing, like all decoration methods, is not without its drawbacks.  Obviously the available product line is limited to cotton products and some blends.  In addition to a limited product line, the cost of DTG ink is quite high especially when compared to the inks used in screen printing. Some designs might only have less than a dollar in ink costs while other artwork will cost over $5 to print.  These high variations in print costs make pricing DTG jobs more difficult than other decoration methods. Lastly, you have to worry about opacity with DTG printing, especially on darker garments. While fully capable of printing on darker garments, there are many possible complications with them. 

Like any decoration method, the DTG printing process has many variables that must be right in order to create a high-quality custom product.  It starts with the pretreat: the mixture must be the correct ratio, it must be fresh, it must coat the garment evenly, the proper amount must be sprayed, and it must cure completely on a heat press.  If any of these pretreat variables is not right, then it will be an uphill battle to create a high-quality, custom-printed product. Once the garment has been printed the press operator must lay down the right amount of white, and then color ink. If too much white ink is laid down, then the colors will not blend right. If there is too little, then the print will look faded.  The equipment and environment are also variables to consider and should be controlled as much as possible. Humidity in the print room and freshness of the ink used for printing can drastically affect how well the printer prints. Also, DTG printers have important regular maintenance that must be kept up with. Each machine is different, but product decorator’s should follow all manufacturer’s instructions regarding maintenance.

It is important to do a lot of test printing onto different brands and types of garments to see what works best before offering DTG printing to customers.  Some brands simply print better than others due to where or how the garments were manufactured. Typically, the better quality shirts will print better, and the lower quality shirts will not print well. While value t-shirts are nice options for keeping costs low, it is recommended that you use better to premium products for DTG printing.  The print will come out looking much nicer and the customer will receive a product that feels better too.

Moving forward, technological advancements will only further enhance the abilities of DTG printers.  The ability to offer full color prints on a variety of colored garments make it a popular method and valuable to many different types of decoration businesses.  It is important to understand that it is not meant to replace screen printing, but be a complimentary decoration solution. With its growing popularity, as well as the proliferation of online sales, DTG printing is sure to continue on its upward trajectory.  

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