Getting technical with T-shirts

T-shirtsHave you ever heard something funny and thought to yourself “that would make a great t-shirt!” Most of us have, even if we are the only ones amused. Well, it’s now completely possible through direct-to-garment (DTG) printing.

The inkjet-based process is also known as inkjet-to-garment printing and allows for the efficient production of one-off garments. Until almost five years ago it would’ve been very costly for textile screen printers to do so, but now that inkjet printers are being used for small-run jobs they seem to be creating a market all their own.

What made DTG technology so beneficial in its introduction was that it could take care of those orders that were most expensive to produce. This technology lends itself to individual customization and becomes perfect for small-run jobs because it applies the file-to-print features of inkjet printing directly onto the garment. Now screen printers don’t have to turn down the single to 25 shirt orders because of setup costs (no film output, screen preparation, registration or washout).
DTG printers can supplement screen printing in the same way inkjet supplements other printing technologies. They can be used to create samples for customers that can turn into large-screen printing orders. They can be used to finish orders in which customers request another 10 shirts after the screens have already been reclaimed.

Since the introduction of combination digital/screen printers from Makki USA, garment decorators can offer full colour, photographic images with some of the same special effects (glitter, puff inks, glow-in-the-dark) and vivid colours that screen printing makes possible. Even variable-data software is being applied to t-shirt creation.

One of the most popular avenues that DTG technology has opened up is the “design your own t-shirt” websites. These sites allow users to upload their artwork, add text and see it on a garment of their choice. Most of these sites also offer some image/text editing tools that become incredibly appealing to consumers when paired with instant pricing.

Companies like Wordan’s (Montreal) are start-up companies based on this concept, and traditional screen printers like CustomInk (Atlanta) successfully offer both services through their site. T-Shirt Monster Inc. (Oakville) started up around DTG technology and uses their site as a cross-promotional tool, for themselves and their product offering. They teamed up with James Ready Breweries to offer James Ready fans access to logos, beer labels and other artwork, and even held a t-shirt design competition; all done through their website.

Even with all of the buzz about DTG in the textile printing industry, it’s estimated that as of last year as little as 5% of garment decorators owned the technology. So, what is making screen printers so reluctant to embrace the technology?
One of the biggest concerns is that it’s an entirely different workflow compared to the traditional silkscreen process. Many devices use proprietary RIP-systems; in addition, the digital aspect creates the issue of colour management, which can be daunting for those who seldom use process colour ink sets. Most systems also require significant amounts of maintenance.
One of the biggest objections to DTG when it first came out was its inability to print on dark shirts. White ink is now available as a base coat and is being used very successfully by many, though far from perfect. The pigments used in most white inks are larger, and when they go unused for periods of time they can settle and clog or damage print heads.

Additionally, white ink is more expensive, and its application can slow production, increasing the cost per shirt by over 50%.
Traditional screen printed inks produce brighter, more vibrant colours than current inkjet products. Tracey Johnston-Aldworth of Traces Screen Printing Ltd. (Waterloo, ON) says that overall quality is the main reason they have not invested in a DTG printer yet. Comparing the DTG printed samples and wash-tests, they noted that “the quality of the devices we were looking at just wasn’t at the level of what our customers, I think, would expect from us.”

Instead, they invested in an automatic screen printer and for now sticking to the larger orders. They also noted that screen printing is a more “organic” process, where skilled workers can fix an image and/or colour problems without starting over or ruining garments, whereas DTG would require reprinting on new merchandise, unless you take the time to test print every image first.

So what does the future hold for DTG and screen printing? The machines are constantly getting faster and the washability, pigment brightness and white inks are improving, but don’t look for inkjet to replace screen printing anytime in the near future. There are many cases where customers just can’t get the same effects like they can from screen inks.
Automatic screen printers are becoming more popular and the introduction of computer-to-screen (CTS) technology eliminates the steps of having to print colour separations to film before exposing screens. As both digital and screen technologies improve, it will be interesting to see where they go and what new innovative ideas printers will find for direct-to-garment printing.