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Beginner's handbook

DTG vs. Screen Printing: Choosing the Right Apparel Printing Method for You

By on May 5th, 2020 Reading Time: 6 minutes

“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.

Screen-Printing-Set-Up

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.

If the products you screen-printed don’t get sold, they might end up in landfills or get burned, contributing to pollution.

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.

DTG-Printing

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.

DTG printing with Printful requires no upfront investments, and each product is printed on-demand.

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.

When working with a third-party printing partner, products only get printed once they’ve already been bought by someone. 

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.

Printful-Kornit

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. 

Want to learn more about on-demand printing and how it can help scale your business? Request a call with one of our specialists.

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:

 Screen printingDTG
High-quality printsYesYes
Detailed designsNoYes
Unlimited color paletteNoYes
Order minimumsYesNo
On-demand fulfillmentNoYes
Bulk discountsYesYes
Requires upfront investmentYesNo
More sustainableNoYes


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.

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Ilze is on the lookout for the little things that make all the difference, be it a new ecommerce trend to help your store, or the right book to read on a Saturday morning.
      1. CoR

        This doesn’t answer the question about the differences in quality and durability. In my experience, DTG doesn’t hold up to multiple washes nearly as well as screen printed shirts.

        1. JD

          I was looking for the answer to your question as well… about the durability of each. Davis Siksnans, can you please answer that question? Which holds up better over time/washings?

          1. Davis Siksnans

            There are different DTG machines by various manufacturers (prices can range from $1000 to $1MM per machine) which in turn causes various levels of DTG print durability. Also, you can set specific settings for DTG machine to use a thicker layer of ink that can make the print hold longer which is decision left up to the company. In addition to that you have to look at the garment pre-treat process – has the right amount of pre-treat liquid been applied and has the garment been cured properly to make sure the print is the most durable? Not all DTG printing companies are doing this properly. Also, 100% cotton t-shirts will have a much higher DTG durability than any poly-blends. If you print using DTG technology on poly-blends you will get a vintage print/look. So it depends on a t-shirt fabric as well.

            My point is that it depends on your DTG supplier and their machines/processes and you have to test it for yourself by purchasing samples and washing them.

            Also, DTG printing durability has improved A LOT in the last decade. It used to be that screen printing was noticeably durable than DTG, but right now if you use the right procedures durability should be comparable for 100% cotton t-shirts. If quality is your priority and you don’t care about minimum quantities and limitations in colors you can use, then go with screen printing, but in most cases DTG will be fine.

        1. Armandt

          Actually, with half decent setup, it should be more detailed. The ink on a screen print doesn’t disperse that much, so if done right, could be insanely detailed.

          Screen print also lasts longer, proof of this would be that most of the flags you will see, by a large margin will be screen printed(yes, cost also comes into play in the choice, but considering exposure to the elements, cost of production compared to constant cost of replacement would have taken screen printing through the roof if it didn’t last long enough).

      2. Jacob

        I know this is an old article, but how can you let printful know if you want you shirts printed on DTG or screen print or is that even an option?

          1. Myles S

            Why did you take off screen printing? It would be a lot better than only DTG because the design comes out better and doesn’t look cheap like a lot of shirts do with DTG.

          2. Alise Zindiga

            Hi! We never had screen printing available, and the print outcome is more a matter of taste – some prefer the glossy vinyl look that screen printing gives, while some love the vintage vibe of DTG.

    1. Scott

      This is in regards to Durability because that is what we care about most.

      We have purchased DTG shirts from multiple companies in multiple states and our experience is after only 6-12 washes, we won’t even wear the shirts anymore because they just look that faded and bad.

      However, we have Screen Printed shirts that are 10 years old and to be honest, the screen print is out lasting the actual shirts themselves…

      If you need 1 shirt or a couple right now, really fast, same day for a special occasion and don’t care about wearing it after that, I will go with DTG. Otherwise, if you want to wear it for a long time, Screen Print is my choice.

      SAG

    2. Jhon

      I have been in the industry for 15 years, screen printing quality is MUCH better than DTG. The chart in the article is wrong in saying screen printing has a limited color range and unable to produce high quality.

      DTG has a wash rating of 50, while screen printing is unlimited. Colors in screen printing can also be much more vibrant.

      1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

        As a technique, screen printing doesn’t have limited color range, but most third party print partners do limit the number of colors you can use in a single design. And I agree that screen printing can produce very high quality prints!

        When it comes to washing, you have to take into account that there are very different DTG machines available which give various print durability results. The durability of the print also depends on the pre-treat used, the inks, and even the fabric of the product. Generally DTG printing durability has improved A LOT in the last decade. Right now, if you use the right procedures durability should be comparable for 100% cotton t-shirts.

          1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

            We also do sublimation for some products (socks, flip-flops) and our all-over print product series, where a design is first sublimated on the fabric, and the cut & sewn into the final product.

  1. Screen Printing

    Its really hard to find informative info but here I can… Pretty nice post. I just wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing and I hope you write again soon..

  2. Tom Ford

    I wanted to know how much the ink costs for the Digital Printers? Also what is the production capacity per hour. Why aren’t Digital Printers cost effective for large batches, does it consume too much electricity.

    Thanks
    Tom

    1. Julia Gifford

      Hey Tom,

      DTG printers aren’t cost effective for large batches mainly because of the time it takes to product them. If you’ve got big batches of the same design, all you need is the one screen, and in a matter of seconds you can produce a whole bunch of t-shirts, whereas the DTG printer will take a while with every single one of them.

      Hope this helps!

  3. Jack

    Great that you are trying to get the information out but it is evident that you are predominately a DTG printer and may not have a great deal of experience in Screen Printing.
    “DTG is better for full-color, detailed graphics. Screen printing better for simple graphics.”
    Is a common miss-conception. 4 Colour halftone work reduces the outlay for the screens; only four screens required CMYK on light fabrics and 5 screens (with a white under base) for dark fabric, and produces a vast array of colours at photo quality, if you know what you are doing. I have heard people state that CYMK printing has a wash out effect but keep in mind that the actual DTG printer is basically a CMYK printer. In case you are wondering I am a screen printer and have done many 4 colour halftone T-shirts.

    1. Sai

      I agree 100% with Jack. With 13 years of screen printing and now DTG printing experience, I will always say exactly the same, Screen printing is for simple designs, DTG for complicated and full colour once. You would trust a Doctor with your health, then trust someone with experience with your t-shirts. Also about the durability, if done right, Dtg can last ALMOST as much as screen printing. Consider the technology, screen printing is old and is not getting updated anymore, it stayed the same process for years. However DTG is the new and not fully developed technology yet. It has improved so much in the past few years and will keep improving every day and eventually be as durable as screen printing.

      1. Ken

        I have a brother DGT and I can do sleeves and wrap around prints with mine, but you have to lift and replace the garment and reprint if need be, but you can do it just fine.

        I do find silk screen shirts tend to last longer. but some of the new inks for DGT are and print heads are changing the game!

        1. Ken

          DTG* sorry using dragon to do voice to text, it wasn’t understanding me and auto correcting to something it thought I wanted.

  4. Marcus

    Julia does your team handle screen printing 4 colours cmyk as “Jack” suggested? if so would I produce my work in photoshop as CMYK if I wanted to do this? (and final output .png)… how does sublimation hold up against screen printing? (I like the versatility of both screen and sublimation to print larger designs on the T versus the 12 x 16 limitation of DTG…) Aswell as the fast large order capacity of screen printing, i`m assuming sublimation would be a slow process as well? kind regards,

    1. Nora Inveiss

      Hey Marcus! I asked our screen printing team lead about this. Here’s his reply:

      We can print CMYK but we stick to white shirts only. CMYK printing is similar to DTG in that the illusion of many colors is made by mixing only CMYK together. However many graphics look best with actual spot colors meaning an actual screen per color. Even if we did CMYK on dark shirts we’d need a 5th screen for under base so it’s still a 5 color job. If a customers quantity isn’t high enough, that will result in a expensive run of shirts. Any specific questions can be answered when placing an order so we can see the graphic and what would work best for it.

      1. GCLB

        Hi Nora, Can your guys separate our image/graphic into CMYK if we provide you from our designer a Photoshop PSD file for screen printing? Thanks.

        1. GCLB

          Just to add, the graphic is done using brushstrokes in Photoshop to give a realistic look with many varied colors.

          1. Liva Spandega

            Hey there,

            If you need some help with preparing your print files, you can get in touch with our Design Services team. For a fee, they’ll help you get the file in order – fill out the form in the link, and they’ll get back to you.

  5. Edgars

    I think there is one more thing about screenprinting, more emotional than practical. It’s handmade which makes your t-shirt very special (and your mood or even feelings when you wear it as well).

  6. James

    DTG seems like the way to go. Cheaper, Faster, More Details.. I’ve seen one of the fastest DTG printers on the market today. It does up to 400 full color A4 size prints per hour!

    1. Nora Inveiss

      I’m not sure I agree 🙂

      If you have a detailed design that uses a lot of colors, DTG would probably be your best bet. So screen printing would be a con for customers with these designs.

      But if you have a simple design with limited colors, screen printing could work great.

      1. John D

        You might not agree, but this comment is correct. To say that screen printing is only suitable for simple designs is complete nonsense!

        *can only print simple shape designs
        *not cost effective for multiple colors
        Both wrong

        Screen printing has been around for a lot longer than DTG and is still the go to method for large runs of t-shirts no matter if the design is complex or simple.

        1. Nora Inveiss

          Good points!

          Screen printing isn’t effective for our business model, which is printing one-off orders on demand. That’s because you have to create a new screen for each design, so if you’re just printing one, then it’s not really worth the expense. It also becomes more expensive with the more colors you use, which is why we recommend using 7 colors or fewer.

  7. Nick

    Hello There. A student calling for help! I am planning a start up in fabric printing but I won’t be using cotton but burlap (hessian) fabric 100% Jute Fiber. I am estimating about 400 prints per day and in terms of graphics, I am expecting more than half simple designs having up to three-four colours and rest more complicated ones. I can do printing by item or roll to roll printing and I would need some advice in terms of which types of printer would be better Screen Printer or DTGs taking into account that the company will adopt quick response with short lead time and flexibility.

    1. Nora Inveiss

      Hey John! Screen printing is a very manual process, so it takes a long time to create screens for highly detailed designs. It’s simply not effective for the print-on-demand business model, which is why we don’t recommend our customers use it if they have designs with a lot of detail.

  8. Steve

    Great info. I want to print on nylon for windshield shades. I need to be able to do individual pieces and quick turn around. Can DTG machines print on nylon and is there t-shirt size print area limitation?

    1. Nora Inveiss

      Hey Steve! Printful doesn’t print on garments with nylon, but I believe it’s possible! If you’re printing on a t-shirt then yes, there would be a print area limitation.

  9. Alex Dean

    Our family reunion is coming up, and this year we are wanting to get t-shirts for everyone that is coming. But since we haven’t had to purchase any before, I am looking for more information about the process. It’s good to know that when it comes to the screen printing process, the number of colors we can put on a shirt is limited. That will be great for us to remember when we make the final decision on the design we want.

    1. Nora Inveiss

      Yes, DTG printing works for all colors, including black! Not sure where is the best place to purchase a DTG printer, but maybe someone else reading will 🙂

  10. darin

    can you tell me what the the the dtg print size so i know how to make my design size i know some sizes are 13 inchs by 23 inches can you tell me what yours is

  11. Elizabeth

    How does the print feel on the shirt? Is it plasticy or soft (where you don’t feel the ink) like the shirt? Will the design tear when the shirt is stretched? Is the ink absorbed into the material or does it sit on top? I didn’t see a comparison for screen vs dtg on this aspect which is important too. Thx.

  12. Michael Schmidtman

    Hi Nora!
    I feel like apologizing on behalf of some of the previous commenters. They either don’t understand or they are happy with what they know.
    I’m starting up a coffee import/export business and I want to print tees, sweatshirts and maybe ball caps. I’ve considered opening a small, custom DTG shop for “brand recognition” products to use as premiums/promotional items for my brands. I am also considering a sideline print DTG printshop to possibly generate additional income. There is no way I could accomplish these goals with screen printing. My logo, which is on my package labels, is very detailed with 6 colours and fine details. No way can I set up a six or eight station screen print machine, especially not for a quirky, niche product. Given a good, high-quality graphics file, I can print (or have printed for me) beautiful, short-run items on quantities tailored EXACTLY to my requirements.
    Thank you for your website and comments section!!

  13. Patricia Quink

    Would I be able to order dish towels with various family recipes uploaded and what kind of price would I be looking at?

    Also if I upload an old sampler picture, could it be transferred to a dish towel?

    1. Giedrė Kronberga

      Hi, our sublimated towels are $24.95 per piece. And sure, you can use it as a canvas for your family recipes! However, you can’t bulk upload your print file on multiple products.

    1. Edward Zarins

      Hey Dave,

      There shouldn’t be any issues with a white DTG print on a black shirt but screen printed one might have a brighter look though.

    1. Gundega Sāmīte

      Hello Allison!
      For both DTG and screen printed shirts, you should not use harsh cleaner, wash in warm water, and turn them inside out for extra protection.

  14. Jennings Print

    I just want to say I am very new to blogs and truly savored your web site. More than likely I’m likely to bookmark your website. You amazingly come with superb articles and reviews. Regards for sharing your webpage. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Jennifer

    What is a good site or method to sell a DTG machine that was barely used. I never got the business going and have another full time job.

  16. Simon

    As you dont do screen printing anymore, what’s your thoughts on a white on dark tees? How does it look with DTG printing? Or do you not recommend it? I have some single colour (white) designs i want to print on some of the darker tees but worried how they may turn out. Do you have experience with this?

    1. Madara Zute

      Hi Simon,
      Since DTG printing uses fewer layers of ink than screen printing, it’s important to take into account the fabric of the garment you choose. The best results can be achieved on 100% cotton fabric as long as it’s not made of a thicker weave. Some outcome comparison photos can be found in this FAQ section.
      Hope this helps! 🙂

  17. Chris

    It’s 2020. Has durability of DTG Tees caught up with screen printed Tees? Is Printful using the latest technology that allows DTG tees to last more than 10 washes?

    1. Ilze Folkmane Post author

      You have to take into account that there are very different DTG machines available which give various print durability results. The durability of the print also depends on the pre-treat used, the inks, and even the fabric of the product. Generally DTG printing durability has improved A LOT in the last decade. Right now, if you use the right procedures durability should be comparable for 100% cotton t-shirts. At Printful, we thoroughly test all the products we add to our product catalog, including wash tests, to make sure they’re up to our quality standards, and we invest in the newest DTG technologies out there.

    1. Edward Zarins

      Hey, Carlos! Nope, Printful doesn’t charge more if multiple colors are used for DTG designs. 🙂

    1. Daniela Bergmane

      Glad you liked the article! 🙂 Yes, that’s correct — at the end of the day, it’s really up to one’s individual preference, design specifics, and many more aspects that have to be taken into consideration when choosing the most suitable apparel printing method.

  18. Chevy Ropiha

    I am looking at just making it a hobbie for now, but I am wondering what would be the ideal set up to use from home. I really want to make something out of it later but just hoping to get some advice from experts. What would the easiest method to learn as I don’t have no experience which is why it’ll only be a hobbie. What price range would be. I want to get a decent set up but for home and I learn and move from there.

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey Chevy, if you want to start selling print-on-demand products, there’s nothing much you really need—idea and a computer would be a great start! It would be cool to hear how others started their journies?

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