In recent years, Direct-to-Garment (DTG) digital printing has gained popularity & affordability. This question arises more and more often: how does DTG printing stack up against traditional screen printing?
DTG has been around for barely fifteen years. However, at that time, the advancements in technology have come at a rapid-fire pace. Each year this printing method gets faster, more affordable & produces high-quality prints.
The entry bar for most printing companies is still relatively high. A decent commercial machine can cost anywhere from ₹12,00,000 up to ₹60,00,000. However, as business investments go, it is a good one: a company can start taking low-quantity, on-demand orders without the typical set-up cost & effort of screen printing.
SCREEN PRINTING OR SILK SCREEN PRINTING
Screen printing is an old printing method and has been around forever (at least since the Song Dynasty in China about 1000 AD). However, it exploded into modern culture during the 1960s with the popularity of Andy Warhol’s artwork, the burgeoning printed T shirt trend & the invention of the rotating multi-color silk screen printing machine.
A steady stream of technology advancements improved quality & efficiency. However, the central concept remains the same: push ink through a mesh stencil onto fabric (or “the substrate” if you want to sound like an expert).
Screen printing remains the first widely known and widely used sort of decorating custom apparel, but DTG is fast gaining popularity.
The next question is: Which is the best T-shirt printing method? We’ll compare these printing methods to give you the answer.
Screenprint comes out aggressive with the one-two punch of saturation and brightness.
If you wish your design to stand out– if you want it to pop off the t-shirt– you go with screen printing.
DTG or Direct to Garment printing has come a long way in recent years. However, it still has a slightly duller appearance when you compare the two.
So what accounts for the difference?
The traditional screen printing method uses Plastisol ink, which is exceptionally opaque & come in a wide range of full color– exact color– whether right out of the bucket or with a custom Pantone mix.
NOTE: There are PVC-free screen printing inks available in the market.
On the other hand, DTG uses water-based inks which lack the opaqueness & vibrancy of plastisol inks, especially on darker garments. Even though DTG printing machines can provide a bright under base (plastic particle pre-treatment & titanium dioxide white ink), which improves the vibrancy, the final results still lack, compared to screen printing.
Direct to Garment relies on process printing or the CMYK color model (cyan, magenta, yellow, & black) to make the various shades of color. While the colors themselves are bright & saturated, they’re also semi-transparent so that they can be blended more easily.
In screen printing, the use of Plastisol inks provides the most vibrant colors available (fluorescents, for example) tends to be outside the CMYK color gamut (or range of possible colors).
2: COLOR BLENDING
Color blending is the ability to produce smooth gradients & a range of colors by blending a lesser amount of colors. That’s what DTG printers were made to do.
A DTG printing machine is essentially a giant version of an inkjet printer, similar to what you might have at your home or office. However, it is designed to print on T-shirts and other garments.
When it comes to gradients and smooth transitions, subtle elements like smoke that fade into the t-shirt, or precise blends like those needed for skin tones, DTG printing is far more reliable than screen printing with little to no setup.
In screen printing, we can take spot colors of Plastisol & create a spectrum of colors using a method known as “simulated process.” However, the setup involved makes it much less efficient, especially for smaller orders. And the results can be mixed.
In DTG, the inks are water-based & more transparent than Plastisol. It allows the ink to overlap & blends smoothly, making beautiful, smooth gradients.
3: COLOR MATCHING
Matching colors is especially important when it comes to corporate branding. Most of the companies have brand guidelines that specify Pantone colors. If you try to match those colors with DTG, they’re almost always going to be off.
The primary reason is that the under base isn’t opaque enough, so the t-shirt color bleeds through. Darker t-shirts & color t-shirts can easily become a problem when trying to color match.
Pantone color matching can be done with process inks & specifically with inkjet printing– and is done, all day every day– in other printing mediums. Several DTG manufacturers claim they can Pantone match – but only within gamut.
The most advanced Direct to Garment machines available in the market has added slots for two extra colors: bright green & bright red. However, it doesn’t make up for screen printing’s ability to print a range that includes every color on the planet. Some colors are out-of-gamut for screen printing as well, but its gamut is much bigger than DTG. When you need to match exact colors for your brand, go with screen printing.
In the printing business, the detail is the smallest parts of the artwork or design, which could include small type, fine lines, textures, or tiny elements like in the example below.
When it comes to screenprint, it is always about “holding” detail. Which means if you are not holding it, you’re losing it.
Various factors affect screen printing detail:
- Screen tension
- Squeegee sharpness
- Pressure & speed of ink application
- The surface properties of the material being printed
- The viscosity of the ink
- And the important one: ink gain or ink spread.
If a picture is photographic or has gradients (fades, blends), screen printing would require halftones (tiny dots). You would possibly remember seeing them if you ever checked out a comic book with a magnifying glass.
Direct to Garment uses halftones as well, but these digital machines can print up to 1200 DPI, and use diffusion dither. Sometimes, it can result in a grainy look but a much better reproduction of small details.
Durability is something DTG has struggled with since the beginning. In the early days of Direct to Garment, you would be lucky to get ten washes out of a T-shirt before the colors would start fading. These days, you may get many many more until it starts fading.
Now the question is: How many washes exactly?
Most things in this printing business, it depends. The quality of the printing machine, the inks used to print, the pre-treatment, the under the base, & the curing all factor into it.
It also depends on how you wash it (stay away from hot water, harsh detergents, & long times in the dryer). So, yes. Lots of things to be concerned about.
A great DTG printed t-shirt can potentially get dozens of washes before it starts fading a little bit. But it gets fade eventually.
Screen printing does not have this durability problem if it’s done correctly. If the ink is not applied correctly or not appropriately cured, even Plastisol can start to fade or deteriorate.
6: COMFORT & FEEL
By comfort and feel, we mean a few things:
If the ink clogs up the fibers. It can severely reduce the breathability of the fabric causing “sweat patch.” You can imagine that someone running a 5K in the summer with a thick, solid layer of plastic covering their chest.
How heavy the print feels on the t-shirt. If the ink is applied too thick, it can weigh down the front of the t-shirt, or wherever the print is done. It is crucial for all the lightweight blends that are so popular today.
If the texture is rough on the skin, you do not want a print to feel like sandpaper. You do not want to give someone a road rash from hugging them.
Most screen printing jobs get printed with a standard layer of ink, & on dark garments, it will be two layers of ink, counting the required under the base. Plastisol screen print ink typically tends to lay heavy on the t-shirt & that’s one of the reasons why it’s so durable. However, when it comes to comfort & feel, DTG comes out on top.
Note: Discharge & water-based inks don’t work on all garment types & are considered specialty inks. For this post, We are comparing traditional Plastisol screen printing with DTG.
Versatility is the ability to print on a variety of fabrics as well as a variety of garment styles, print locations & placements. Unfortunately, the DTG print method is somewhat limited in this category.
Although Direct to Garment technology can print on a wider variety of fabrics than ever before, however, the recommended fabric is 100% cotton. Newer machines advertise printing on all kinds of fabrics, but they are not yet widely used in the industry.
Typically, DTG gets trouble with 50/50 blends and not do well on polyester fabrics. Moreover, it does not work on moisture-wicking fabrics at all, without special treatment– and even then, it’s not recommended.
Also, the fabric color can be a problem due to dye migration. It happens when the fabric dye bleeds into the ink & discolors the print. Digital printing on fluorescent colors is a no-go.
On the other hand, screen printing works on cotton, blends, polyester, canvas, denim, performance & moisture-wicking fabrics like rayon.
If you’re only printing on the basics like T-shirts & hoodies, you can do DTG printing all day long. However, if you wish to custom print on caps, let’s say you would prefer screen printing or embroidery.
In Direct to Garment printing, it depends if the printer has a specialized platen that fits the garment location you wish to get printed. It also applies to screen printing, but there are many more platens available.
Screen printing is also less limited in terms of printing locations. As long as the printer can somehow adjust the Garment on a platen where it needs to be printed, screen printing can be done. It can be hoods of hoodies, side prints, on-the-pocket prints, pant legs, etc.
In some instances, DTG may not be able to reach a specific placement within the location to be printed. For example, if you wish your logo to be printed 1″ from the collar of an upper back position, DTG might not be capable of getting that close to the seam.
In reality, it depends on the capabilities of the printing shop you are using. However, the bottom line is that screen printing has fewer restrictions.
The silkscreen printing method has many variables such as screen tension, clogged mesh, ink viscosity, dot gain, the temperature of flash dryer, angle, pressure, and sharpness of the squeegee, registration, placement, etc. Each one of these things could make a difference on their own. Combine them all, & chances are, there’s going to be some variation.
Especially when printing halftones with screen printing methods. The last print of the run is going to look slightly different than the first print. It’s just how it goes with screen printing.
Because a DTG machine processes a digital artwork file & prints directly on the t-shirt, there are almost no variables to worry about, except maybe the garment placement on the platen or board. Consistency is Direct to Garment’s middle name.
9: SPECIAL EFFECTS
Special effects printing is all about adding another dimension to the print, whether it is raised print, textures to shines or sparkles & glows, there is a specialty ink or additive that can do it.
The best part is you can combine these special effects for creations that has only limitation by your imagination (and budget). Have you got any crazy ideas?
For instance, using “high density” with “puff” & “suede” you may create a faux tackle-twill, mesh, or maybe embroidered look, complete with fake stitching. Or you may stack high-density until you get a print so raised it looks like an appliqué. This could be cool for a small sleeve logo.
Examples of specialty inks & additives:
- Water-based: Absorbs into the fabric for a very lightweight & soft print.
- Discharge: Removes the dye chemically from the pigment of the fabric.
- Puff: This additive expands while curing process for a soft & raised feel.
- Fluorescent: Very bright neon colors, also called “day glow.”
- Metallic: Popular ink for a shiny look. Typically in gold, silver, or copper.
- Glitter: Contains glitter for a sparkly look usually combined with a clear gel.
- Glow-in-the-dark: Light-activated ink that glows in the dark.
- Suede: Similar to puff. However, it creates a soft and fuzzy texture to the surface.
- High-density: Creates raised layers of rubber-like ink for a three-dimensional print.
- Soft Hand Feel: Additive for reducing the thickness of ink for a softer feel.
- Clear Gel: A thick glossy coating that could be used in combination with others.
- Shimmer: Creates a unique reflective and iridescent shine.
- Crackle: Splits & cracks during curing for a naturally distressed look.
- Cork: Similar to puff & suede. However, the final product has a cork-like texture.
- Plasticharge: Combines the best of Plastisol and discharge.
These are not a comprehensive list, only the most common. There is definitely some even crazier stuff out there. Fabric printing a specialty job can be a trial and error at first, but once you get it, successful results are super impressive and satisfying to achieve.
Screen printing specialty inks can elevate a T-shirt design like nothing else & significantly boom the value for resale.
Direct to Garment has been making a few in-roads on the specialty ink front. However, nothing is widely available or as easy to accomplish.
When people think T-shirts, they think screen printed t shirts. If you wish to order promotional t-shirts for your employees, or mainly for resale, it is always smart to go with what’s popular– if you want to make sure your employees or fans are happy.
When it comes to popularity, everybody likes screen printing. Once Direct to Garment or DTG technology becomes more advanced & more ubiquitous to the point where most people don’t know the difference– then popularity might no longer be a factor. Until then, screen printing remains the fan-favorite.