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Screen printing has long been a popular method for transferring designs onto garments. But in today’s dynamic world, there’s a growing demand for printing options allowing for greater creativity and efficiency.
The rise of digital printing technology has been making waves across the industry. Plus, various heat transfer methods are known to be effective and reliable for smaller print runs. With many different printing methods, which one should you go for?
In this blog post, we’ve gathered the top 5 alternatives to screen printing that offer fast turnaround times, high-quality prints, and compatibility with lots of different fabrics. Let’s dive in!
Let’s start by looking at the screen printing process to understand its pros and cons.
For the traditional silk screening process, you would need a mesh screen and a squeegee to transfer ink onto the garment’s surface. The screen is coated with a stencil that blocks the ink in some areas and allows it to pass through in others, creating the print design.
As the ink is applied in thick layers, this printing method produces vibrant, long-lasting colors. Plus, it’s a cost-effective option if you plan to print large orders in bulk.
Let’s say you are starting a t-shirt business and want to do some cool prints. First, you would need to design a new stencil for each print. Then, you would need to invest in equipment, like mesh screens, racks for printing and drying, and special fabric inks.
If you’re eager to offer your customers a wide range of designs, there are a few downsides to this method:
Few design customization options
Slow turnaround times
Expensive for small print runs due to upfront setup costs
While screen printing is great for bulk, as you now know, it’s not flexible with designs and order volumes. It also takes a lot of time, so following viral trends is complicated with screen printing.
The good news? There are many other printing methods out there that you can switch to. Read on to explore the best alternatives for your business.
Digital printing technology has improved significantly in recent years. This has made the DTG (direct-to-garment) method a reliable and accessible choice for high-quality garment printing.
DTG printing is a process that uses a special printer to apply ink directly onto fabric. The printer works like an inkjet printer but with textile inks that are absorbed by the fibers of the garment.
How does it compare to screen printing?
DTG allows for high-resolution and full-color prints. With screen printing, you need to rely on a limited number of colors because, typically, each color addition requires a new screen. For this reason, some print providers charge extra for additional colors. It’s better suited for monochrome designs and text, while DTG is great for detailed designs with a lot of colors.
The DTG method works really well on light, natural fabrics like cotton, bamboo, and linen. That’s because the ink binds with the natural fabric fibers better than synthetic fabrics. However, if you plan to print on synthetics, screen printing is a more compatible option.
Aside from more intricate designs, DTG also offers greater flexibility than screen printing. With DTG, digital files can be easily customized, resized, or adjusted to suit different print sizes or materials. It’s a big contrast to the screen printing process that requires new screens for any modifications.
DTG is awesome for printing intricate details and bold, colorful designs. As the name suggests, the direct-to-garment method applies directly to the fabric using advanced inkjet technology. This helps produce detailed designs and accurate color reproduction that’s an excellent fit for photographic or artsy prints.
Compared to screen printing, DTG can be considered a more environmentally friendly option as it generates less waste and doesn’t consume as much water. At Printful, DTG designs are printed using non-toxic, vegan inks, which are more eco-friendly than solvent-based inks used in screen printing.
Finally, what about upfront costs? Even though the starting price for a digital printer is steep, many print-on-demand (POD) companies offer direct-to-garment printing. If you outsource printing to a POD provider, you won’t need upfront investment to start printing your designs.
Direct-to-film (DTF) printing is another exciting digital printing technique. It’s been gaining traction recently, thanks to its excellent print quality and application to intricate designs.
DTF printing excels in reproducing intricate designs with high precision. The ink doesn’t soak into the fabric but is pressed on top, meaning the print is sharp and smooth. Screen printing can also handle complex designs but may be limited in color accuracy and fine details.
Direct-to-film printing is most suitable for heavy-duty sportswear and outerwear. For best results, use DTF to print on polyester, fleece, or nylon.
DTF printing can easily take on complex, colorful visuals. It allows for high-resolution image reproduction, making it ideal for illustrations with fine lines or colorful details. Both screen printing and direct-to-film are well-suited for printing on dark and light garments.
When it comes to upfront investment, DTF printing is a more cost-effective alternative. Similarly to the DTG method, it eliminates the need for expensive screen preparation and reduces setup costs, making it a better choice for on-demand production.
Keep reading: What You Need to Know about Direct-to-Film Printing
Sublimation, also known as heat transfer printing, is a technique where the design is embedded in the fabric using heat and ink. In the print-on-demand world, it’s the go-to printing method for creating all-over print products as it allows printing on fabric from seam to seam.
Sublimation printing is great for all-over prints, while screen printing is better suited for a smaller print area.
The sublimation method produces excellent results when printing bold designs on light-color polyester, polyester blends, or polymer-coated fabrics. That’s because the ink binds with synthetic fibers better. Sublimation is also a good fit for materials that contain nylon, spandex, neoprene, or lycra. You can use cotton, but generally, heat transfer printing methods, including sublimation, are better adapted to synthetic fabrics.
Sublimation uses four primary colors (known as CMYK or cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to print all designs. This means it doesn’t support specialty inks or extras like glitter. If special ink features are a must, feel free to stick to screen printing.
Sublimation printing offers unmatched vibrancy and color saturation, making it an excellent choice for colorful all-over prints. You can print pattern designs, gradients, artwork, or even digital photos.
Plus, you can count on outstanding print quality. Since the color is embedded into fabric fibers, it doesn’t wash out, crack, or peel easily.
Heat transfer vinyl (HTV) printing is a method that uses a heat press machine. HTV involves cutting out designs from sheets or rolls of vinyl material and then transferring them onto a surface by applying heat and pressure.
Heat transfers work best for simple designs, like solid shapes, text, and basic graphics. You can achieve a range of specialty finishes, including glitter, metallic, and holographic effects.
The heat press vinyl process creates a layer of vinyl on top of the fabric, resulting in a slightly raised texture. Some people may find this less desirable, especially on lightweight fabrics. Screen printing, when done well, leaves a smooth and flat print that gives a softer feel.
Source: ShellsGlitterGarden on Etsy
HTV is well-suited for small orders and individual customization since it allows easy and quick production for one-off designs. It’s popular for customizing apparel, accessories, and promotional items.
In addition, it’s well-known for print durability, as the vinyl adheres firmly to the material after heat application. Screen printing can also be durable, but the ink may fade or crack over time, especially on fabrics.
Foil printing uses heat and pressure to transfer a metallic or pigmented foil onto the fabric. The design is typically created by applying a special adhesive ink or foil adhesive onto the garment. That’s followed by heat pressing the foil onto the adhesive layer.
Foil printing is often chosen for its metallic, reflective effects, while screen printing offers more color options, including specialty inks like fluorescent neon.
In addition to metallic effects, some foils have embossed or textured surfaces that create tactile and visually interesting prints. These unique finishes can add depth to your designs, elevating their overall look.
Foil printing offers a distinct and eye-catching metallic appearance that can’t be easily replicated with traditional screen printing. The shimmering, attention-grabbing effect of foil can also add a touch of glam to designs.
For small print runs, foil printing is more time-efficient and cost-effective. The process is quick and simple, allowing for a fast turnaround.
Exploring alternative printing methods opens up exciting possibilities for your business. With a touch of creativity, every printing method we’ve mentioned above can be a great alternative to screen printing.
New printing techniques like digital printing break free from the constraints of the traditional silk screening. Small-batch and on-demand production are a breeze, as you can print personalized designs without needing large minimum orders or costly setup fees. Digital printing methods are the perfect solution if you’re seeking a tailored approach to your apparel business or personal projects.
When it comes to garment printing, embrace the wide range of options available to you! Evaluate your designs, what kind of fabrics you’re printing on, and if there’s anything you absolutely must have (like metallic appearance or glitter).
Which is your preferred printing method? Let us know in the comments!
Sandra is a freelance writer and educator with a background in art and communication. She holds an MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies, and in her free time enjoys reading, museum visits, and outdoor adventures.
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