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Direct-To-Garment, The State Of State Of The Art


“Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology is Indistinguishable From Magic”

– Arthur C. Clark


While writing this article, the above quote from the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey continuously came to mind. The state of the state of the art in digital printing technology is advancing and changing at such an amazing pace that it often seems nearly impossible to distinguish from magic.


Inkjet-based direct-to-garment (DTG) printers have been commercially available for over a decade now. First generation machines were painfully slow, and the images that they produced often resembled an impressionist painting more than the original image they were created from. Many of these units were based on a basic Epson desktop or a large photo-grade printer repurposed for garment printing.


I like to refer to these as the “puppy Printers”. I found that people walking through a trade show often had the same reaction my children had when taken to a pet store. They would see the magical “puppy” (just open a file, push print, and out comes a perfect T-shirt!). Their eyes would roll back in their heads; they would swallow their tongues in excitement; and then they would reach for their wallets. It was just too amazing! But much like my kids, they were not aware of—nor did they want to know about—the downside of ownership, and they often found these new acquisitions tremendously hard, if not impossible, to housebreak.


While there will continue to be a place for these “starter” printers, I feel that we have now entered the second generation of DTG technology: purpose-engineered printers with industrial print heads designed specifically to be direct-to-garment printers. In recent months a number of manufacturers have thrown their hats—or t-shirts—into the industrial direct-to-garment ring. The quality of prints produced by these new machines, as well as an almost unimaginable amount of improvements in the existing product offering, have thrust direct-to-garment digital printing into the acceptable mainstream of garment embellishment. 


I am often confronted by potential customers who say, “I’m not certain whether to get into screen printing or direct-to-garment printing. What do you think?”


In my humble opinion, at this point direct-to-garment printers are not a replacement for screen printing, but instead a different and alternate means of embellishing garments. Direct-to-garment printers are perfect for short-to-medium runs of multicolor images, Their ability to print on dark substrates is much better than it was only a short time ago, but in most cases they’re not close to the speed that can be achieved with screen printing. Still, the throughput is more than acceptable for many applications. Due to the inherent limitations of inkjet technology, digital printers will likely never have the capacity to produce specialty printing techniques such as puff, glitter, high density, gels, or athletic prints. 


Simply put, digital printing is not screen-printing. It is a separate but equal form of garment embellishment that must be viewed and marketed in a different way than screen printing or embroidery. With their very fast turnaround, competitive price points, and outstanding level profitability, digital printers can allow you to accept orders that would previously not have made sense. 


Digital printing offers the ability to work directly from a computer-generated or scanned image file. There is no need for color separations, film positives, screens, messy ink, squeegees, or laborious cleanup. Images easily can be resized to accommodate different sizes of garments, from youth small to adult extra-large at the click of a button. As with any means of reproduction, the quality of the print will be directly proportionate to the quality and resolution of the original art. Low-resolution or just plain bad artwork can only produce bad results. 


Depending on image size and complexity, average print times seem to range from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. But keep in mind that there are many variables at work here. When shopping for a printer, be sure to ask to see the image that was used to calculate the quoted print speeds. When I ask this question there seems to be a great deal of discrepancy between the images that the different manufacturers use to calculate this information.


When shopping for your first or even second DTG printer, there are a number of factors that must be taken into consideration. These printers are the truest example of the total being the sum of its parts. There is no single component that makes a machine “the best”. A DTG print system incorporates a number of components that work synergistically to make it what it is. These are:

  • RIP - The RIP or Raster Image Processor takes the graphic file and converts it into information that the printer can understand. The RIP also performs the functions of color separation, color profiling, and workflow. This software is a very important part of the process, and there are enormous variations in the packages available
  • Ink - The Ink controls color correctness, wash durability, consistency, potential head clogging, and opacity. In short, print quality is largely dependent upon the ink.
  • Printheads - The printhead controls print resolution, quality, and speed. The longevity of these expensive components varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. 
  • Hardware - The printer’s durability, repeatability and print quality are largely dependent upon the mechanics of the printer and the quality of construction. Ink delivery, motion control, registration, and an automatic maintenance system (this would include the printer’s ability to recirculate white ink are all crucial to printer performance and durability.

I think of each these components as the links in a chain. You can have exceptional quality in 3 of the 4 areas, and still have a printer of compromised quality, one weak link, and all of them fail.


I would strongly suggest that before making a purchase of this magnitude, that you attend a trade show where you can find several manufacturers of DTG printers in the same location. Take file with you that would be representative of the type that you will be printing, for this I would suggest a PSD, or PNG saved with a transparent background, on to a USB stick. You can then go from one manufacturer to another and ask them to print your test file. This will give you the opportunity to observe ease of operation, quality, print speed, and cost of print, first hand. There simply is no better way to make this decision.


Direct to garment printing technology has come an enormous way in just a few years. This technology will continue to progress, and will at some point likely, surpass screen-printing as the preferred method of garment embellishment. But these advances will take time, and come with a price tag. 



Common Concerns & Commonly-Asked Questions 


Q. Why is it necessary to pretreat a shirt before direct-to-garment printing? What does the process allow printers to do?

A. The pretreatment for dark shirts is a proprietary formulation that actually reacts with the chemistry of the white ink, causing it to gel on contact. White shirts require no pretreatment. Black and dark shirts require a pretreatment to allow for opacity and for the adhesion of white ink. Pastel shirts may require a light pretreatment if a white highlight print is being used.



Q. Should decorators still pretreat a light shirt if they're using white in the design? Are there occasions where it's optimal—for image quality's sake—to pretreat without dark shirts or white ink in the equation?

A. Pastel shirts may require a light pretreatment if a white highlight print is being used. As a rule, the pretreatment for dark garments should not be used on white shirts. It may enhance the initial appearance, but pretreatment will almost always detract from wash fastness, and the image may yellow over time. There are several pretreatment options on the market specifically designed to increase durability and color vibrancy on white shirts. These are optional, and printers should decide whether those options are right for their needs.


Q. What actually happens when the pretreatment fluid covers the shirt? How do the chemicals impact the fabric and ink?

A. Pretreatment contains a very small amount of a binding agent to aid in white-ink adhesion, as well as a chemical that causes the white-ink formulation to “crash” or gel. This allows inks with very low viscosity to sit on the surface of the garment, rather than being absorbed into the fabric.


Q. How do built-in pretreatment methods compare to automatic standalone and manual pretreatment methods in terms of workflow. Do they all require the extra heat-press step? Why would you consider a separate pretreatment unit/technique when there are DTG systems that have them built in?

A. Only one direct-to-garment printer currently on the market incorporates a pretreatment system into the printer. All of the other units that I am aware of require “offline” pre-treatment. The reason that the pretreatment cannot be effectively built in to printers is found in the fact that pretreatment solution is specifically designed to cause the white ink to gel. Pretreatment mist does not care where the white ink is, and the ink will react the same way whether it’s on the garment or in the printhead. If it’s the latter, the printhead could be destroyed. For printer safety, pretreatment should be applied in a different room than the printer unless the application system is well contained.


Q. What are the benefits of an automated pretreatment station compared to manual pretreatment methods?

A. The most obvious advantages of automated pretreatment systems are that they provide consistent dosages of pretreatment chemicals and can substantially reduce costs by controlling overspray. They also limit the amount of chemical spray that he operator is exposed to. 

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Geoff Baxter

About the Author

  • Email Address geoff.baxter@mrprint.com
  • Phone 630-487-0065
  • Geoff Baxter is manager of M&R's Digital Division.

    Geoff Baxter previously served as President and co-founder of Atlantic Screen Supply, Inc. His 30-year industry career includes management positions with Logo-7, Harlequin Nature Graphics, Advance Process Supply Co., and Precision Screen Machines. He has also written numerous articles for trade publications and lectured at many industry events.

    Geoff can be reached at geoff.baxter@mrprint.com.

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