Direct to Garment Printing in the Traditional Paper Printing Industry

By Jill Rowan

Often times at my print shop I receive calls from clients asking us to print on T-Shirts. When I respond that we cannot print to T-Shirts, the immediate question is, "Why, can't you print to fabric?"

This is where the conversation becomes tricky. Well, we can print to SOME fabrics, like fabric banners, and other coated materials, but not to a jersey knit fabric. Even if we were able to print to that fabric, we cannot print directly to T-Shirts, we can only print to fabric rolls, and you would then need to get the shirts physically made. I then politely apologize and send the potential client on their way to a local screen print shop. However, I always feel badly that I can't further explain screen printing, direct to garment printing, and textile printing more fully to the client. So, I've decided to write this post, to direct potential clients to, in case they have further questions.

What is Screen Printing?

Screen printing on textiles is a method of textile printing which can go directly on pre-made garments or onto rolls of textiles. Screen printing uses screens which are blocked off with non-permeable materials to form a stencil. This stencil is a negative of the image and is placed upon the media, in this case fabric. Ink is then placed on the screen and a fill or flood bar is used to press the inks into the mesh openings.

Screen printing can be used anywhere traditional printing can be used in addition to other promotional items such as water bottles, balloons and even printed electronics. More often than not, screen printing machines, unless they are industrial grade, are labor intensive and one of the reasons they are not in traditional print shops that focus on paper goods.

Why is Screen Printing Different than Direct to Garment Printing?

Direct to Garment Printing does not use screens and can be done with a more traditional printer. This does cut down on costs, due to not having to set up or use screens, as well as cutting down on mess and clean up since there is no rolling inks through screens. Additionally, as digital direct to garment printing is a newer technology, darker colored garments cannot yet be printed on and will still require a traditional screen print. Screen printing can also be done on a variety of substrates whereas direct to garment can only be done on cotton and cotton blend materials.

Screen printing yields only 72 DPI at its highest, while Direct to Garment printing has a resolution of 600 x 600 DPI, allowing for near-photographic clarity, with no halftone dots. So depending on the size of your run, the type of garment you need printed, or the art required, screen printing vs. direct to garment printing may be a perfect fit. For instance, since using a digital direct to garment printer is faster and less expensive than screen printing, there are often no minimums allowing for greater personalization of the garment at lower costs. Maybe you need just one HILARIOUS t-shirt as a gag gift for a friend.

Another easy way to do this is with a heat transfer, which is a dye sublimation process. However, for those of you experienced with at home, or Mall Kiosk heat transfers is that they are stiff and cause the fabric to lay, wear and wash awkwardly. You may be thinking, that's great, I get the difference between screen printing and direct to garment printing, but why cant my printer who can print to textiles not print to garments?

Why Can't My Printer "Print" My Promotional Clothing, Too? (The Case of Dye Sub and Wide-Format Printing)

The answer is simple. The printers a traditional print shop uses for textile printing are wide-format printers which only print large scale items, like banners. The fabric for this kind of printing must be in a roll form, and thus ready made clothing cannot be printed on, whereas direct to garment printers have plates individual t-shirts can be laid on for printing.

Often times these printers can work with a wider array of formats, including Word, whereas wide-format printers require InDesign, Quark, or Illustrator files. Additionally, many traditional printers do not have dye sublimation capabilities. While they may print to heavy cotton or vinyl, which of course is a fabric, they cannot do textile printing. A standard wide-format printer with standard inks can only print to these heavier kinds of materials because not only would they soak the material with ink and anything more delicate would have ink soak through to both sides and would have an incredibly long drying time, but these heavier materials are sold by the vendor with a coating on them allowing the inks to stay on the surface of the material.

As of yet, very few kinds of fabrics have this type of coating on them to allow for wide-format printing. Of course, leaps and strides are being made every day in the world of textile printing, especially by Mimaki. For standard Mom and Pop print shops, though, garment and most textile printing remains beyond their capabilities.