How Is DTF Printing Different from DTG Printing?

The Direct-to-Film (DTF) printing process enables apparel decorators to apply intricate, full-color designs to a wider range of textile surfaces than Direct-to-Garment (DTG) printing.

Whereas DTG Printing works primarily with pre-treated cotton, pre-treated cotton/poly blends, and some pre-treated polyester fabrics, the DTF printing process can apply logos and designs to untreated cotton, polyester, silk, denim, fleece, leather, spandex, and 50/50 blends.

Because of this versatility, the DTF process is being adopted by small, home-based start-up businesses as well as well-established companies that produce high volumes of screen-printed garments for national fashion, sports, and entertainment brands.

The Digital DTG Process Came First

A direct-to-garment printer is a specialized inkjet printer that uses water-based pigment textile inks to apply multi-color designs to blank cotton, T-shirts, tote Different sizes and shapes of platens are available to hold the item being decorated flat while the inks are jetted onto the surface. For example, different platens are loaded for decorating T-shirts, zippered hoodies, infant and toddler clothing, garment sleeves, and youth apparel.

To ensure that water-based inks will adhere to the cotton or poly/cotton garment, the manufactured “blank” T-shirt or hoodie is pretreated with a coating that must be dried before the ink is applied.

A white base layer of ink is applied to ensure vibrant and consistent color reproduction on colored or dark garments.

After the inks are applied, the garments are heat pressed or fed through a dryer to cure the inks on the surface. .

The DTG printing process was introduced in 1996 as a short-run, full-color printing alternative to screen-printing. Screen printing 4-color designs on T-shirts requires a lot of screen-making and set-up time so it isn’t cost-effective for small orders. Vinyl heat transfers were available for one-offs and short runs of garments.

ne advantage of DTG printing is that the decorated cotton garments feel soft to the touch. Screen-print inks and vinyl heat transfers stay on the surface of the garment, adding stiffness to the decorated portions of the garment.

DTG printers range from entry-level models that cost under $2,000 to automated, high-production industrial DTG systems that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Automated systems for pretreating and drying garments are available.

Hybrid printers use a DTG station to apply four-color images and a screen-printing system to apply spot colors, specialty inks, and white base layers.  

The DTF Process Is a Game-Changer

In Direct-to-Film Printing, designs are printed on rolls or sheets of specially-coated translucent PET transfer films. Then a heater melts a white powder adhesive to the back of the inked portion of the film.

After the excess powder is shaken off (manually or with a machine) and the film cools, the transfer is ready to be applied to the garment. When a specified combination of heat and pressure is applied by a heat press, the image transfers from the film to the garment.

When the transfer film is peeled away, only the inked image remains. Unlike heat vinyl transfers, no post-press “weeding” is required to remove excess transfer film in the intricately shaped edges or interiors of a graphic or text.

Entry-Level,  Industrial, and UV Systems

Entry-level  DTF printing systems are portable desktop printers that can be equipped with separate powder shakers, curing ovens, and air purifiers to reduce the fumes generated by the adhesive-melting step. The desktop units can be taken to events for on-site production of custom T-shirts.

Industrial  roll-to-roll systems for fast-turnaround production of high volumes of DTF transfers come with inline powder shakers and heaters for unattended printing.

Hybrid DTG/DTF models are built for both DTG and DTF printing. .

UVDTF systems use UV-curable inks, a printable transfer film, and a laminating film to create full-color transfers that can be applied to flat surfaces such as acrylic and shaped promotional products such as water bottles,

Production Advantages of the DTF Process

Some reports suggest that DTF printing is 200 to 400% more productive than DTG printing. Here are some reasons why:  

  • DTF doesn’t require the time and expense of pretreating the garment before it is printed and drying the inks afterward.  
  • It’s not always necessary to lay down a base layer of white ink. The white powder adhesive provides the whiteness required for the ink to display vibrant color on most colors of garments.
  • Roll-to-roll DTF devices enable unattended printing of rolls of DTF transfers. DTG printing requires an operator to load and unload each garment onto the machine.
  • Shops with multiple heat presses can hire staff to fulfill a high-volume order without having to invest in multiple DTG printers or an industrial-grade DTG printer that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • The printed transfers can be shipped directly to clients who can store them and apply them to branded garments or uniforms as needed. A home based e-commerce business can generate revenue by fulfilling online orders for short runs of transfers.

The transferred designs are durable. Some transfers can endure 50-60 wash cycles without fading. The transfers stretch with the fabric and don’t crack or peel.  

With the right combination of some film and powder combinations will produce transfer designs that feel smoother and more flexible than screen-printed ink or vinyl transfers. But DTF transfers still won’t feel as soft as DTG-printed designs because that process jets textile pigment inks to the fibers of a cotton or cotton/poly T-shirt.  

Challenges of DTF Printing

Compared to DTG, the DTF print process is relatively new. Some limitations of first- and second-generation systems will undoubtedly be resolved over the next five years.

  • For example, brand colors for logo designs can be hard to match with existing DTF systems because most DTF systems only use CMYK and white inks.
  • Trying different combinations or powders and films may result in inconsistent colors. It’s wise to find one combination of film and powder that works best for the types of designs applied to the most commonly used type of garment.
  • The dyes on colored garments can bleed if too much heat and pressure is applied during the transfer process.
  • Problems with static can occur on some types of fabrics. Films with static control properties may be required in these cases.
  • The adhesive-melting process can generate smells and smoke. An air purifier may be needed
  • Some DTF printers will require more maintenance than others, particularly if the inkjet printer maker isn’t experienced in developing white-ink circulation systems and automated cleaning mechanisms.
  • DTF printing requires a climate-controlled environment to keep the printheads from clogging and powders from clumping.

Estimating Job Costs

In the field of apparel decorating and customized promotional products, the production costs are affected by the number of pieces ordered, the number of colors used, the amount of ink and material used to create different types and sizes of graphics, and the cost of labor required for each step in the process.

For example, for some jobs it might be most effective to use a combination of screen printing for one-color chest graphics and DTF transfers for decorations on the back or sleeve. Likewise, some designs may involve a combination of DTF, DTG, and digital embroidery. .

With Ordant’s print management and estimating software, business owners can easily compare the actual costs of using various apparel decorating processes.

And if a customer needs business cards, banners, or trade-show graphics along with branded apparel and promotional products, Ordant can create estimates for those products too.

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