When The Jetsons started airing in 1962, it was common to imagine the future as a world where everything could be solved with the push of a button. While most of the ideas were a bit corny and far-fetched, some of their predictions did eventually come true.
Think about it, what were considered far-out contraptions at the time like flat-screen tellies, conference calls and smartwatches are nowadays pretty standard stuff. 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.
Back in the 60’s, we were still trying to figure out how to open cans so if you had told someone that one day there would be a machine that injected designs into clothes, they would’ve laughed at you. We’re talking about direct to garment printing, better known as DTG, of course.
Out of all of the modern T-shirt printing techniques, direct to garment printing (DTG) is the newest and also the most approachable method for those who are not acquainted with the industry. Basically, DTG works like your office printer but instead of injecting ink directly onto paper, it does so on fabric.
It may not be teleportation but DTG did revolutionise the T-shirt manufacturing industry and in this blog post post we’ll explore how.
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.
Properties of DTG
Thanks to being the most modern of all printing techniques, DTG can do things that no other method can.
It prints directly into the fabric
Unlike other printing techniques that apply ink or vinyl on top of the material, DTG injects colour pigments into the fibres. For this reason, the feel of the final print is very soft to the touch.
Because of its potential with colour mixing, DTG is usually reserved for artwork that it’s considered too complex for other printing techniques. These printers can recreate gradients, colours and small details that screen printing can only dream of.
Easier to set up
Unlike screen printing, DTG is easier to set up because it requires fewer steps than the other techniques.
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.
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 also expect it to become more accessible.
Great for ‘Print on Demand’
DTG has got low setup costs so it works well with ‘on off prints.’ For this reason, DTG is the printing technique we use for out on demand services.
Colours fade away with time
While vibrant, DTG colours tend to fade away with time. This is why it is a particularly popular technique when creating vintage-looking T-shirts.
Not advisable when printing in bulk
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. In that case, it wouldn’t be very cost effective.
Works best with cotton garments
Because DTG works with water-based inks, it is not compatible with polyester garments or other types of materials that repel liquid. For the best possible results, it is always advised to use a 100% Cotton T-shirt. This doesn’t mean that a cotton/synthetic blend but as a general rule, the more cotton the T-shirt has then the more vibrant the end print will be.
A Brief History of DTG
Like we mentioned earlier, DTG is a new T-shirt printing technique. Specially, when compared to the ancient screen printing.
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 wouldn’t be until the mid 80’s, though, when printers 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 managed to solve the issue 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 upgrading the garment production process. By this time, screen printing was automated, but it had its limitations.
What we now consider the first DTG printer, was introduced in the 90’s and appropriately titled ‘Revolution.’ The prototype was created by a man called Matthew Rhome who filed for a patent and had it granted in 2000. This turned him into the father of Direct to Garment Printing.
Rhome currently works for Epson America and is in charge of direct to garment business development. Epson DTG printers are considered by some to be the best in the world.
There wouldn’t be much competition until 2004 when, during the Imprinted Sportswear Show (ISS) that was being held in Chicago, Mimaki introduced its prototype called GP-604. That same year two other companies, US Screens and Kormit, introduced their models.
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 Screens approached an ink manufacturer to develop white ink for their machine the Jet Pro. In November 2005 the new substance was completed and the company 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 US Screens went out of business.
With Rhome’s guidance, Epson released their F2000 DTG printer in 2014 and shook once again the printing world. Thanks to its revolutionary features, it soon became the best-selling DTG printer in the world.
DTG and dye-sublimation: What’s the difference?
These are two popular T-shirt printing techniques that are often times confused. In order to understand what makes them similar and what sets them apart, we must first talk about dye-sublimation.
It is a process done by a printer which uses heat to transfer ink onto different materials. It was named ‘sublimation’ because it was thought that the ink went from gas to solid state without becoming liquid but it was later revealed not to be true.
The process is simple. The printer re-creates a design on a transfer paper which is later transferred to the final surface with the help of heat. At first, it might seem like the colours are faint but it is when the heat is applied that these really come to life.
This printing method is mostly used when vivid pictures are needed. It also allows decorating not only clothes but other types of objects like mugs and mouse pads, as well. When it comes to garments, it can print over seams to give an ‘all-over’ look.
DTG VS Dye-Sublimation Printing
Now that we understand what these two printing techniques are about let’s see how they compare to each other.
As we mentioned, these two printing techniques tend to get confused. But as you’ll see in a bit, there’s more that sets them apart than what brings them together.
- Extensive colour options. There are almost no limits when it comes to colouring for these two printing techniques.
- Ability to recreate details. Both techniques have the capacity to recreate intricate details.
- Best suited for small orders. Dye-sublimation and DTG require the same setup for producing one or many units. Unlike screen printing, ordering in bulk* won’t give you a discount per unit. Basically, the printing process takes a while and producing several orders wouldn’t be effective.
- Types of inks. They both used water-based inks. Although they’re specialised for each technique.
* Note: Learn more about ordering in bulk, here.
Now that we know what’s similar about them. Let’s take a look at what sets them apart.
- Design placement. It is very limited what you can do with DTG while dye-Sublimation lets you place the design pretty much anywhere you want.
- Printing. While they both allow for vibrant colours and intricate details, the printing process is different. DTG prints directly on the garment while dye-sublimation prints onto the transfer paper which is later transferred to the fabric through heat.
- Types of fabrics. DTG works best with cotton because it absorbs liquid the best. A 100% cotton T-shirt with a tight weave will always be the optimal choice. While dye-sublimation must work with polyester so the pigments can adhere to the material.
- Treatment of inks. Dye-sublimation printing uses heat to turn the pigments of the ink into gas which permeates the fabric and solidifies into the fibres. While DTG prints onto the material and its fibres absorb the ink.
Number of colours. They both allow to create very colourful prints but while DTG works with just four (CMYK), dye-sublimation printers can go up to eight colour models.
- Printing onto coloured garments. In order for the technique to work, dye-sublimation must be done exclusively on white garments. Simply because there is no white ink for this technique but there is for DTG. With the right preparation (a layer of white ink) DTG can be applied onto any coloured garment.
- Versatility. DTG has been designed to print onto garments and T-shirts more specifically. While, dye-sublimation, since it has to be applied to transfer paper first, can be printed onto almost anything.
So, which one is better?
There’s no printing technique that is better than others. Ultimately what makes a technique ‘the ideal one’ is the ultimate purpose you want to give the garment. If what you need is a colourful all-over print, and you don’t mind wearing a polyester T-shirt, then, by all means, go with dye-sublimation. But if you want a pure cotton garment with a detailed design on the front chest, then your technique should be DTG.
Artwork and Design
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.
Note: Keep in mind that for these screen captures I’m using Photoshop CS6 so the tools and processes may vary depending on if you own a different version of the software.
Artwork should be at least 150 dpi
We’ve mentioned this many times before, but we’ll keep saying it because wrong artwork resolution it’s still the number one problem when it comes to printing files.
If you’re not sure about the resolution of your artwork then follow these steps:
- Open your image in Photoshop
- On the drop-down menu, click on ‘image size’ (you can also use the command alt + cmd + i)
The new window will give you information on pixels dimension and the physical size of the document, but the one we’re looking for is the last slot which is the ‘resolution’. In the case pictured above, the resolution is way too low for it to print properly. 72 dpi images are designed for the web so they can download faster not for printing.
Adjust the resolution of the image
There are certain scenarios where you’ll be able to adjust the resolution of an image.
First of all, it is important for you to know that the resolution is always proportional to the size. Meaning that if you change a number of pixels in the image, the final size will change as well. In order to maintain the quality, the more pixels, then the smaller the final image will be.
In the above example, when we change the image from a 72 to a 300 pixels resolution, the image goes from being 50 cm wide to being 12 cm wide.
If the resolution of the image can’t be improved without making major damage to the original file or ending up with a teeny, tiny image then you’re better off looking for different artwork.
For more more information on image sizes and resolutions, head over to the Adobe Forums where they explain it better than I
Files should always be saved as CMYK and not RGB
CMYK and RGB are the ‘languages’ images use to tell their final destination how the colour information should be handled. These are:
It is a subtractive colour model used for printing. Its letters stand for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black) which are the inks used to print in this process. This process is called subtractive because it ‘subtracts’ brightness from white.
It is an additive colour model used mainly on screens. RGB stands for red, green and blue. The combination of these tones creates the variety you see on screen. RGB can produce colours that are brighter and more vibrant than those of CMYK.
Changing RGB into CMYK
The reason why artworks for DTG printing should be saved as CMYK is that this is the preferred colour format for printing.
If you so happen to send an RGB artwork to a printer, then you’d realise that they’d still do their work. Is not like they would suddenly explode or anything. Any printer can handle them, but more often than the colours will end up looking dull and faded.
Thankfully, with Photoshop, it is very simple to convert an image from RGB to CMYK:
- Click on ‘image’ on the menu above
- Head over to ‘mode’
- Click on ‘CMYK Colour’
If your artwork has very bright colours this process might take the brightness out of them.
Calibrate your monitor
Even if the file has been carefully been handled as CMYK, there are times when the colours on the screen won’t look as the ones in print. If you want to make sure that the colours you see on the monitor are the ones that will be printed, then you have to calibrate your monitor.
Calibrating your monitor will ensure that the colours on the screen are loyal to the ones of the file and you won’t receive any surprises. ‘Surprise’ is the most feared word in the printing industry.
For specific information on how to calibrate your monitor, check out the following article by Digital Trends.
Make sure the image has got a transparent background
Open the image in Photoshop. If the background appears as a white and grey checked pattern then it is transparent, if not then it’s got a coloured background.
The easiest way to get rid of backgrounds is by using the Wand tool:
- Convert the ‘Background Layer’ into a ‘Layer 0’ by double-clicking on it (this will allow you to make changes to it);
- Activate the Wand tool by clicking on its icon or hitting the key ‘W’;
- Hit the ‘Delete’ key to erase the selected background;
- If there is still some background, repeat the process until it’s all gone;
- There are times where a few pixels will remain on the edges of the screen, if this is the case then you can zoom in and use the Wand tool again or change to the Eraser which will take you longer but will do a more precise job.
Often times after using the wand tool there will be tiny pixels surrounding the figure. Depending on how many they are they can make the final job look very botched.
As amazing as DTG might be, it is not a big fan of transparencies. Especially when it is done onto dark garments. Depending on the printer, this one might print a big white rectangle where the transparency is supposed to be and that’s not the final intention.
We understand as transparencies as:
- Drop shadow effect
- Faded edges
- Glow effect
- Reduced opacity
These are all pretty popular effects that can be achieved in Photoshop which is why people might be tempted to apply them, but just because you can it doesn’t mean you should – especially when it comes to DTG!
Again, another one we talk about very frequently around here but bears repeating because a lot of people still get it wrong! The main reason to rasterize layer types is so that there are no ‘surprises’ with the final work because if the final printer doesn’t have the same font as you, their software will automatically replace yours with a default one – completely changing your design.
How to rasterize a type later on Photoshop:
On Photoshop, it is really easy to do. Just click on ‘Type’ in the main menu, click, and click again on ‘Rasterize Type Layer’. It’s that simple.
Finally, artworks that are created on Photoshop and meant to be printed via DTG must be saved as either EPS, PDF, PSD or PNG.
DTG Step by Step
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
For the most part, DTG uses water-based inks. These used to be very expensive, but over time, manufacturers have been able to optimise the production process and hence lower the price.
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.
As you may notice, the process it is pretty straightforward and that is one of the reasons why people prefer this printing method over others. It usually has fewer steps.
Step 1 – Pretreatment
In order to guarantee 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.
Step 2 – Dry
In order for the pre-treatment liquid to do its job, it must dry properly. 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 garment is fully dry before continuing.
Step 3 – Prepare graphics
The design is prepared for printing. Using the RIP software or another specialised program like ‘artwork creator.’ If the garment is dark, this is the moment where that extra layer of white ink is added.
Like screen printing, if we want to print onto dark garments, we have to create an ‘underbase’ of white ink to work on top of later. This is the moment when the white layer is set up.
Step 4 – 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.
This part of the process varies depending on the printer. The most advanced will come with its own device to stabilise the garment while the most simple models will require you to use some sort of cardboard to create a flat, sturdy surface where the machine can do its work.
Step 5 – Print
Hit the “power” button and print!
Step 6 – Curation of the garment
It’s not enough to just let the T-shirt dry, in order for the ink to properly set it has to be cured. This is usually done with a heat press. A silicon paper is put between the garment and the press and it has to be left there for around 90 seconds.
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 top of printing them, she would also iron and tidy everything 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.
T-shirt Printing for Designers
Thanks to our five years of experience in the apparel-printing industry, we are able to offer a service catered towards the needs of designers and creative directors. Printsome’s apparel-printing services are perfect for streetwear collections, T-shirt lines and merchandise, among many other possibilities.
From the moment you get in touch, one of our ‘printing experts’ will answer all of your questions and find efficient solutions to your needs. It is our mission to help your career flourish. Thanks to high-quality garments and cutting-edge printing techniques, we can produce almost any design. Printing T-shirts has never been this easy.
Why worry about inventory or logistics when we can take care of that? We deal with the boring stuff so you have more time to do what you love. To find out more, simply visit our website.