DTG Printing, or Direct-to-Garment Printing, is the art of decoration that allows us to print directly into the fibers of the fabric using a no-color limit image, similar to an inkjet printer but for apparel. This is the newest technology in the custom apparel industry. Since DTG allows us to print with no color limits, you can print a full photograph in as high of quality as the artwork is saved. If you went to the ballgame with your family and took a great photo, and wanted to cherish that memory, you could upload that photo on our website right on to a shirt, hoodie, and even a denim jacket and achieve a high quality full color print with no minimum order requirements. It's truly the next generation of decoration, but a lot goes into it.
DTG is great if you want to print low-quantity runs, or projects that require a lot of color and detail. It is best on all-cotton fabric or mostly cotton fabric, because the inks are water-based. The process of purchasing a shirt DTG is easiest for the consumer, because there are no minimums or setup charges. They are best when you are re-selling a premium item and want the best quality print, sampling projects or fabrics, or for one-off garment printing. DTG is typically priced anywhere between 1 and 100 garments, because in higher runs, since there are no true setup costs, the cost of print doesn't change much as the quantity increases like Embroidery or Screen printing. DTG is on the higher side of cost in terms of decoration methods because this newer technology uses different materials and consumables to achieve a finished product.
There are many steps to printing a DTG shirt that most don't see. First, the Pretreat step is arguably the most time consuming and difficult part of the entire DTG process. On dark fabrics, there is a white layer of ink that goes down first before the color can be printed on top of it. Pretreatment is required for white ink to show up on the garment, and a good pretreatment mix is similar to a watered-down glue. Similar smell, similar aspects of use. The white ink has a small amount of metal in it, which gives it the shine needed for printing and curing. White DTG ink is very expensive, so typically DTG orders that are purchased in bulk are priced based on the complexity of the artwork and the size of the overall print. So when we Pretreat a shirt, it first has to get cured. The then-wet shirt travels through our conveyor dryer at around 280-320 degrees F. When the shirt comes out of the dryer, it has a stiff feeling to it. This feel washes out after the first wash, but it is super important to the washability (and printability) of the garment. Once the shirt is pretreated, we have to then flatten the fibers of the garment using a heat press. Stahls has always been a great company for us to use, and their heat presses by Hotronix are work horses. We press the shirt for about 10-15 seconds, super firm, to flatten the fibers and prepare the shirt for the most optimal settings for printing. A nice flat surface will help the ink lay flat and prevent fraying and washability issues later, because we also want to make sure there is no left over moisture in the fabric or the print will have inconsistencies. Next, we "dress" the shirt on the printer platen, similar to how you would put a piece of paper in your inkjet printer at home. Then, we change the settings in our software depending on the garment we are printing on, the size of the print, the color of the garment, and much more. There is a setting for every little thing, and it takes years to figure it all out (thankfully, we did the work so you don't have to). Once the printer completes printing, the garment then travels once again through the conveyor dryer to cure the ink. If it's under-cured, the print will wash out easily. If it's over-cured, the colors will be distorted and you can even burn the garment. Each type of garment and fabric has it's own curing settings that match the print settings. This took a lot of trial-and-error on our part, because companies like Brother don't offer sufficient settings and instructions, only a 2-hour training on how to operate the actual machine.
DTG machines also have to live in a very specific climate! This is another part of the process that took us so much time to figure out, because the manufacturers of these machines didn't test them in different climates. Our printers here in New York will operate differently than our fellow print shops in Florida or Texas. Humidity settings on our Brother GTX Pro Bulk's work optimally around 60% humidity. In New York, we are usually in a dryer climate so we have to pump non-misting humidifiers around each machine 24/7 to achieve a 60% humidity. In Florida, they have to do the opposite, and use dehumidifiers to take humidity out of the air. The printheads used in these machines are so delicate, and the ink being used is water based, so too much or too little humidity and the print will be inconsistent. Lastly, if it's too cold, the printers will auto-clean often to wash the bottom of the print heads for caked-up ink buildup. If it's too hot, the printheads are inoperable and add a cool-down time between prints before they operate again and continue printing. It's a very tough process to handle, but once you figure it out, it's a breeze.
It might sound like DTG Printing is too messy to figure out, but that's not the case. The best part about this method of printing is the ability to customize in high quality. Once you get the print standard set, you can print on shirts, hoodies, etc. Seeing first-hand how a high quality full color print comes out, makes you fall in love with the technology no matter the process.