Back in the Seventies, we started printing t-shirts by hand. Dried them in the Kilburn launderette and then sold them outside local gigs. That passion very quickly became how we earned our living. At the time, if you wanted to print t-shirts on a commercial basis, screen printing was the recognised method. We became experts in it and, over the years, have screen printed literally millions of garments. These days, we often get asked about DTG printing and screen printing and how to choose between the two.
Whilst the finished garments may often appear very similar – after all, a printed tee is a printed tee to most people – the two processes have significant differences. These differences have an impact on the cost of your project and, perhaps more importantly, what you can actually print. How the ink hits the cloth may not be something you’ve given a great deal of thought, but it is important. We’ve put together a short comparison of the two techniques.
Before we go too much further, it’s worth defining the terms. So, let’s begin with the basics, a brief explanation of what each process involves.
DTG (Direct to Garment) Printing
DTG works in the same way as an inkjet printer, just like the ones in your office and home. The ink is simply applied to pre-treated fabric instead of paper. Injection printers were invented in the Fifties and were commonplace by the Eighties. It was a natural step for people to look at other applications for the technology. The first commercially available DTG printer appeared in the Nineties, invented by Matthew Rhome. Quite aptly named ‘Revolution’, it offered new possibilities – the birth of digital direct, straight to garment printing.
Screen printing has been with us for thousands of years and remains the most popular way of customising clothes. The essential elements of the process have endured, although there have been huge technical advances in the machinery used by screen printers. Nowadays, our state of the art machines can produce hundreds of printed t-shirts in a single hour. The screen printing process itself involves transferring a stencilled design onto the garment using a mesh screen, ink and squeegee. Each colour of the design requires a different screen.
It’s true to say that DTG and screen printing are both methods of getting your design printed onto a t-shirt. However, which one is the most suitable and which you choose will depend on a number of factors.
Blanks. The blank, undecorated apparel that you pick may have a bearing on which printing method is chosen (or even possible). Direct to Garment printing works best on 100% cotton garments and this is what we recommend. Anything less runs the risk of poor results. The ink used with DTG is water based and thinner than that used in screen printing. This has environmental advantages and also facilitates designs with greater levels of detail, but it also means that the ink may not be properly absorbed by manmade materials such as polyester.
Colours. Screen printed designs tend to be more vibrant, something that can really jump off the fabric, due to the higher opacity of some screen printing inks. And if colour matching is vital to your branded merchandise, screen printing is also the best choice. The Pantone colour system has a definite edge and is a tried and tested way of achieving the most accurately matched colours. Another aspect to consider is durability. Colours on expertly screenprinted t-shirts will last. However well done, those on DTG printed clothing will fade with washing and time – the density of ink is subject to ageing.
Design. Despite the above, in certain circumstances DTG has benefits on the colour front. A good example is a design that contains photographic elements. When the image has super smooth gradient fades and subtle blending, lots of different shades and lots of tiny lines, DTG is the immediate choice. Partly down to the fact that there’s a limit to the number of colours that can be used on screen printed t-shirts (a maximum of 12 on white and 11 on dark t-shirts). Intricate, multi-coloured detail is a challenge best reserved for DTG.
Cost. Cost can rarely be ignored. It’s nearly always important and often a primary concern in most custom printing projects. Put simply, production costs matter and DTG is more expensive for larger orders. Small print-runs are comparable, depending on the quantity and design, but screen printing is the most cost-effective option for higher volumes or bulk t-shirt printing. If that’s what you need and your artwork is too complex, a good designer may be able to retain the concept but amend it in a way that works for screen printing.
DTG has been a welcome addition to the garment printing world. It adds another dimension to what’s possible for specialised branding. We’ll no doubt be happily doing more of it. Our industry is no different to everything else in life – it changes and change, when handled intelligently, can be a good thing.
In many ways though, DTG is still the new kid on the block and destined to remain so for the foreseeable future. Screen printing may be harder work, but when done well it delivers consistently good results. It has history on its side. That said, every printing project is unique and demands its own solution.