“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 custom apparel printing options out there, but the two most popular are direct-to-garment (also known as DTG printing) 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 options by asking questions about the two printing 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.
Let’s take a look at screen printing first. In this section, we’ll answer the most common questions about the screen printing process, including the cost, the quality, and design requirements.
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.
Screen printing works best for solid graphics without small details. Think 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.
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 screen printing ink that doesn't biodegrade.
How much screen printing costs depends on how many items you order. For example, screen printing is often the cheapest option if you order in large quantities. That’s because screen printing stencils are made manually and take time to prepare. If you print many items using one stencil, you can get bulk discounts. If you order just one product or a small batch, DTG printing is a more cost-effective solution.
Screen printing technology is well-known for its quality. The colors are vivid and rich, and the prints are very durable. For the best results, screen print simple designs that don’t have too many details or colors.
Screen-printed shirts are long-lasting and durable if you take proper care of them. To avoid cracking, peeling, and fading of the ink, don’t wash screen-printed garments in hot water, avoid bleach, and always turn them inside out before washing.
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.
Now let’s discuss our second printing method—DTG printing. How does it work and is it the right choice for your business? Keep reading to find out.
Direct-to-garment, or DTG, is a printing method that sprays ink onto the garment. The ink then soaks into the fibers of the garment. It’s like printing on paper, but on clothing.
For DTG printing, digital printers are used to spray water-based ink onto fabric. A pre-treatment solution is first applied to help the ink bond with the fabric. Next, the garment is mounted on a platen and placed into the printer, where the print is ready in just a couple of minutes. Finally, the ink is cured to make the print more durable.
DTG works best on 100% cotton, but cotton blends are also suitable.
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.
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.
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 DTG printing machines produce almost zero wastewater and use less energy, lowering the carbon footprint.
What’s more, Kornit digital printers use water-based vegan DTG 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. Download them at the end of this article.
DTG is the most cost-effective solution for low-quantity orders. For example, the price for custom t-shirts at Printful starts at $8.75.
DTG prints stay crisp and vibrant for a long time if you follow the care instructions. To keep them from fading or cracking, machine-wash garments on a gentle cycle, avoid bleach and fabric softeners, and don’t iron the prints.
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.
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.
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:
If you’re looking for the easy way to successfully grow your business, on-demand DTG printing 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.
Ilze is the Communications Manager at Printful. Together with her team, she’s dedicated to creating great content, be it a blog, social media post, or video, that allows customers to bring their stores to the next level.