DTG vs. Screen Printing: Choosing the Right Apparel Printing Method for You
“I just want my t-shirts printed!”
You’ve probably heard this from someone starting their own t-shirt store. Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself.
The buzz you get from envisioning a design idea can wear off quickly once you’re faced with the more technical questions, the first one being—which apparel printing method should I choose?
There are quite a few options out there, but the two most popular are direct-to-garment (also known as DTG) and screen printing. Choosing the right one for your online business can be the first building block that leads to satisfied customers, saving costs, and being able to scale your business as it grows.
With so much at stake, it’s important to research your printing options by asking questions about the methods, such as:
- Will my design work with it?
- How cost-effective is it?
- Is it eco-friendly?
In this article, we’ll look into the differences between DTG and screen printing, the designs they work best with, and how sustainable each technique is.
What is screen printing and how does it work?
Screen printing is a printing method where ink is pushed through a woven screen (also called mesh stencil) onto fabric. The ink doesn’t soak into the fabric, but lays on top of the product.
With screen printing, a special screen has to be made for each element of your design. Once that’s done, the colors and elements of the design are applied layer by layer onto the garment. The more layers your design has, the longer it’ll take to print it and the thicker the design will feel on the product.
The long setup time is why screen printing is primarily used to print items in bulk. It’s not cost-effective to print only a t-shirt or two if it’s taken hours to create the stencils for your design.
What type of designs work best with screen printing?
Screen printing works best for solid graphics without small details. This basic typography, geometric designs, symbols, and shapes. That’s because making stencils for intricate designs is time-consuming and it’s difficult to get the details right during the printing process.
Since each color is applied separately, screen printing is also mostly used for designs with few colors. Print providers often limit how many colors you can have in your design, and usually no more than 9 are allowed.
Is screen printing eco-friendly?
As a store owner, you should also be aware of how your business affects the environment. That’s why it’s important to take into account the sustainability of each printing method.
Sellers who use screen printing usually order in bulk and then send out the items as the orders come in. That’s why there’s a chance of overproduction, which is one of the main problems the sustainable fashion movement is tackling.
What’s more, screen printing uses a lot of water and it’s often done with plastisol inks that don’t biodegrade.
Is screen printing the right choice for your business?
Screen printing can be cost-effective for designs with simple graphics (ideally with only a couple of colors), but it requires upfront investments. Most third-party print services have order minimums that can be anywhere from 5 to 100 items.
The final price of your screen printing bulk order is based on the number of colors in your designs and the screens needed to print it. So screen printing can be financially challenging if you’re just starting out or want to experiment with designs.
Ordering in bulk also means you’ll have to figure out where to store the printed garments if you don’t want to have piles of clothing laying around your home or office. This limits how many designs you can offer on your store because each design will have to be printed in bulk.
Also consider whether you’ll be able to sell all items that get printed, so you wouldn’t contribute to textile waste. This can be difficult to predict for new business owners who don’t yet have an established customer base.
Some printing services will ask you to submit print files separated into layers of each color. They might ask you the color codes for inks they should use to print your design. So if you’re looking for an “upload your design and forget about the rest” type of experience, screen printing isn’t the right choice for you.
What is direct-to-garment printing and how does it work?
Direct-to-garment, or DTG, is a printing method that sprays the ink onto the garment. The ink then soaks into the fibers of the garment. It’s like printing on paper, but on clothing.
The main advantage of DTG is that it’s easy to print one-offs because there’s almost no setup time. Say you have an online store connected with a third-party DTG print provider such as Printful. Once your customer places an order for a single t-shirt on your store, Printful automatically receives the order, prints your design on the t-shirt, and sends it directly to your customer under your label.
With DTG, you can still order in bulk if that’s what your business requires. A lot of print providers, including Printful, offer bulk discounts for DTG orders.
What type of designs work best with DTG?
DTG printers offer a lot of color options which means you can print detailed designs and photorealistic images with almost no color limitations. This is important for those businesses that want to try out various colors and designs.
The thing to avoid with DTG is transparencies. Elements that are less than 100% opaque don’t translate well in DTG printing—printers will attempt to make up the missing color by spreading the ink, causing the fabric to have a lot of gaps. That’s why it’s best to use solid colors or fake semi-transparency by halftoning.
Other than that, you can work with detailed designs and color patterns as much as you wish. For best results, we suggest creating graphics in the sRGB color profile—it matches DTG printer color possibilities the best.
Is DTG printing eco-friendly?
DTG is a more sustainable fashion business model than screen printing. Mainly because printing one-offs allows businesses to avoid overproduction and textile waste. With 92 million tons of textile going to waste in the fashion industry each year, a business model like this is a game-changer.
Plus, a lot of DTG printer manufacturers create advanced tech that’s made with sustainability in mind. For example, Printful partners with Kornit whose printers produce almost zero wastewater and use less energy, lowering the carbon footprint.
What’s more, Kornit printers use water-based vegan inks that they formulate, test, and produce in their own ink factories, maintaining the highest quality levels. The inks are non-hazardous, toxin-free, biodegradable, and contain no animal by-products.
To help you communicate the eco-friendly qualities of DTG printing to your customers, we prepared free copy and marketing visuals templates you can adjust and use in your store:
Is DTG printing the right choice for your business?
Direct-to-garment printing is a hassle-free way to get the products ready for your customers.
Most third-party printers have no order minimums for DTG products, so you don’t have to worry about keeping stock. This printing method also enables businesses to use printing services on-demand.
With DTG, the entire design is printed in one go. And since DTG doesn’t have a color count, there’s no extra setup time to start printing, so your order gets fulfilled as soon as the print file comes through.
This printing model gives you the freedom to introduce new designs or enter new markets without losing any money. If the product doesn’t sell, you can discontinue or replace it.
What’s better: DTG or screen printing?
DTG and screen printing yield fine quality prints, but they differ in method and cost. DTG uses a printer to spray the ink into a garment, while screen printing layers the ink on top of the fabric. Most importantly, DTG enables order fulfillment on-demand with no upfront cost, while screen printed products are ordered in bulk.
If you still can’t decide which printing method is right for you, take a look at this comparison table:
|Unlimited color palette||No||Yes|
|Requires upfront investment||Yes||No|
As you can see, there’s more than money and time at stake when choosing the right printing method for your business.
Choose your printing method wisely
Whether you want to create and scale your apparel business using DTG or screen printing is completely up to you. Before you make your final decision, consider:
- your brand image
- the complexity of your designs
- your product quantity needs
- your willingness to invest in the stock upfront
If you’re looking for the easy way to successfully grow your business, on-demand DTG is your best bet. With this printing method, it’s easy to introduce new designs to your store risk-free, and you don’t have to worry about keeping stock or shipping the items yourself.
Using DTG print providers gives you more time to experiment with your product offering and marketing, where you can bring out the eco-friendly qualities of DTG printing. To help you with the wording and marketing, we prepared downloadable white-label copy and visuals templates you can use on your store and in your marketing materials.
What’s your experience with DTG and screen printing? Let me know in the comments below!
This article was originally published in November 2013; it has since been updated.