And then some, Printsome style…
Back in the 60’s when The Jetsons started airing, it was common to imagine the future as a click it and (Pop!) it will microwave into awesomeness type of utopia. While most of it was a bit corny and far-fetched, some of their predictions did eventually come true. Think about it, 3D printing, conference calls and smartwatches; what were far-out contraptions for the time, have become pretty standard stuff nowadays.
Our outfits may not be as flashy and we don’t fly with a jet-pack to work, but we do (in a way) live in that future.
Such is the case, personalising T-shirts with direct to garment printing (DTG). Back then we were still trying to optimise the process of opening cans if you had told someone one day there would be a machine that injected photorealistic designs into clothes they would’ve laughed at you.
It may not allow us to teleport, but DTG revolutionised the T-shirt manufacturing industry and we’ll explore everything you need to know about it in this post.
What is Direct to Garment Printing (DTG)?
The direct to garment (DTG) printer is the more sophisticated cousin of your office’s inkjet printer and it pretty much works the same way.
The process is quite self-explanatory, basically, the ink gets injected directly into the material. The only difference being that instead of paper a DTG printer works on fabric.
A Brief History of DTG
Compared to the millenary screen printing, DTG is a newborn baby in the world of apparel customisation.
The history of DTG starts with injecting printers which takes us back to the 50’s when experts first started to develop the technology. It wasn’t until the mid 80’s, though, when the technology first became available to the public. The reason why it took so long to hit the market was that they couldn’t figure out a way for the heads not to become clogged with dry paint. Eventually, they did and workplaces were never the same again.
It wasn’t long until some wondered if it would be possible to print onto something other than paper. Fabrics and T-shirts manufacturers were particularly interested since they were looking into optimising the printing of garments. By this time, screen printing was automated, but it had its limitations.
It wouldn’t be until 2004 that direct to garment printing was formally introduced into the world. During the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) show that was being held in Minneapolis, Two companies US Screens and Mimaki introduced their prototypes. The model by US Screens was called T-Jet and it was based on a Japanese printer that had been designed to print onto 3D objects like blocks and wood and the one introduced by Mimaki was called GP-604. The new introductions had a great reception, but there was a problem: when the machines printed onto white, it looked amazing, but when they printed on a black garment, not so much. That’s because white ink hadn’t been invented yet.
Realising this problem, US Screen approached an ink manufacturer to develop white ink. In November 2005 the white ink was completed and US Screen got a one-year exclusive contract with the manufacturer. It completely changed the way T-shirts were printed.
Even though it was revolutionary, the Jet Pro proved too expensive to manufacture and production was ceased in 2008 and then later in 2009 U.S. Screens went out of business.
Properties of DTG
DTG stands out from other printing techniques for several reasons:
Ink is injected into the fabric
Unlike other printing techniques that apply ink or vinyl on top of the material, DTG injects colour pigments into the fibres. This means that when you touch the finished product you won’t feel a different texture and over time it won’t fade* or tear as easily.
* Wash your garments on a cold cycle and turn them inside out to preserve the vibrancy of the prints for as long as possible.
Easier to set up
Unlike screen printing, DTG is easier to set up because it requires fewer steps than the other techniques.
It is expensive
The problem with direct to garment printing is that it is insanely expensive. A single machine can cost anywhere from £10,000 to £200,000 or maybe even more. We have to remind ourselves that it is a technology that has been around for barely 10 years and therefore hasn’t had the time to develop that much. As it becomes more specialised, we can expect it to also become more accessible.
Great for one-off T-shirt printing
As cool and as simple as it sounds, it is not the best for those designers looking to customise T-shirts in bulk. It ends up being a long and tedious process as every single tee takes up various minutes to print there is not very cost effective.
No limits when it comes to colouring
You can print any design that your heart desires thanks to the power to reproduce the full-colour spectrum with no limitation on the number of tones you can select on a single job.
Intricate designs are welcome
Because it is able to reproduce intricate details, DTG can make some of the highest quality T-shirts out there. It is worth noting though that the higher the quality settings are on the printer then the longer it will take it to produce. It is up to every printer to decide what is the most cost-effective ratio between quality and speed.
This is what anyone will need to get started with direct to garment printing.
For the most part, DTG uses water-based inks. These used to be very expensive, but over time, manufacturers have developed their techniques and have been able to lower the price.
No, it does not mean the program died — RIP stands for Raster Image Processor. While this software is not necessary, it does help a great deal when approaching DTG at a professional level. RIPs allow you to simplify printing workflow, maximises media, precisely match colours and control several printers from a single computer, among other things. Some of the most popular programs out there are Onyx, Colorburst, Image Print, EFI, Wasatch, Caldera and Ergosoft.
Unlike Cad Cut Vinyl and Screen Printing where images have to be divided into layers, direct to garment printing works with the artwork as a whole. This is good news for people who prefer to work with Photoshop instead of Illustrator. DTG printers accept both pixels and vectors. Ideally, an artwork for DTG should be saved as a type of file that preserves the quality of the image such as TIFF or PDF.
There are two ways to approach pretreatment in DTG: One, there’s a machine that does it automatically. Or two, one can always go manually. Either way what’s necessary is:
- Pretreatment liquid
- Pretreatment spray (or machine)
- Heat press (or some other device to dry the garment)
Of course, in order to DTG, you’ll need a DTG printer! Models, features and (not to mention) prices vary greatly so the model that’s ultimately used depends on the printer and her or his needs. Some of the most popular brands are Brother, ColDesi, Omniprint and Kornit. Most DTG printers can be divided into two types of categories:
- Based on existing printer engines
- Built from the ground up using existing print head technologies
Here are the steps and processes that need to be followed for direct to garment printing. As you may notice, it is pretty straightforward. One of the reasons why people prefer this printing method over others is that it has fewer steps than the rest.
1 – Pretreatment
In order to assure an optimum result, garments must be sprayed with a pretreatment liquid. This step is particularly crucial if the T-shirt is dark. The liquid allows the ink to really attach to the fibres for a vibrant result. Most printers use a special spraying gun to add the coat of pretreatment liquid, but some DTG printers also include the step. The following video shows how a professional printer treats a T-shirt before printing.
2 – Dry
To really set the pretreatment liquid on the garment, one must dry the item. Some just hang the T-shirt and wait while others simply put it on a heat-press for a few seconds. Whichever method is used, it is of the utmost importance to make sure the tee is fully dry before continuing with the process.
3 – Prepare graphics
Using a specialised program, the artwork is prepared. If the garment is dark, this is the moment where that extra layer of white ink is added.
3 – Load to the printer
Carefully, the garment must be loaded onto the machine. To have the best possible results, the garment must be completely flat. A single wrinkle could ruin the entire process.
4 – Print
Hit the “power” button and print!
Before we make a final conclusion on direct to garment printing, let’s take one final look at the advantages and disadvantages of the printing technique:
- Great for “on demand” production, because the setup costs are the same for one garment
- Great image quality by being able to recreate intricate details
- Easy to use — there’s no major learning curve involved
- It is able to print the full spectrum of colours
- Simple production as it doesn’t require that many steps
- Uses safe materials such as water-based inks
- It is a clean process when compared to screen printing which requires considerable amounts of water and ink
- DTG printers are expensive
- Not optimal for large orders since the printing process can be slow and production costs stack up
- Inks are delicate
- Doesn’t work on all types of T-shirts — garments used for DTG must have at least 50% cotton so it absorbs the pigments in the way it is supposed to
In an ideal world, Rosie would advise us on the best possible solution for our garment issues. On of printing them, she would iron them and tidy them up neatly in our wardrobe, but alas we don’t live in that planet and therefore must rely on our account managers to advice us on the best possible technique for our printing jobs. DTG seems like the perfect answer since is the new kid on the block, but only time will tell if it will expand and dominate the market or be remembered as a cool invention that could have been.
We’re always looking for improving our content so if there’s is any information missing that you think should be in this post or there is something wrong, then please let us know. You can write me directly at harald(@)printsome.com, leave us a comment below or reach us via any of our social media outlets.
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