Which fabric printing technique is right for you?

There are so many different types of fabric printing techniques available for people to choose from today. After all, the technology involved in fabric printing has developed rapidly over the years, meaning we have so many different solutions available.

This can make it a bit overwhelming and difficult to know where to start. Plus, there is not always an obvious answer. The solution you choose is going to depend on a number of different factors. This includes the fabric you are working with, as well as the finish you are looking to achieve, the quantity of fabric you are going to be printing, the level of detail in your designs, and your budget.

With that being said, in this guide we are going to take a look at six of the different printing techniques on fabric that are widely used today. We will give you a detailed overview of direct to garment digital printing (DTG), thermo sublimation, digital transfer, screen printing, printing with an inkjet printer, and foil printing.

This should help you to determine which solution is going to be the right one for you. At the end of the guide, you can find a table that outlines a comparison of all six options so you can get a quick snapshot of the pros and cons. So, keep on reading to discover everything you need to know about fabric printing techniques. 

Direct to garment digital printing (DTG) 

Digital to Garment printing

Direct to garment, which is commonly abbreviated to DTG, is a digital printing technique whereby an inkjet printer using special water-based inks is used in order to print designs directly onto a garment or fabric. The fabric will need to go through a pretreatment process before it is printed. This involves using chemicals to coat the materials so that the ink is absorbed properly. Once this has been done, the fabric is when passed through another machine that uses heat or steam to set the ink. The material will then be washed and dried so that chemicals are removed.

Direct to garment printing is suitable for complicated designs that feature intricate detailing or realistic photos. A wide range of colors are available. DTG is better suited to lighter fabrics, for example, a cotton blend or 100 percent cotton. It is also a good option if you have a design that you want to be printed right to the edge of the fabric. 

In terms of costs, it does not cost a lot to get up and running with DTG. this means that it is cheaper and quicker to sample when compared with other forms of printing, such as screen printing, which we will discuss in more detail later in this guide. You can also print small quantities at a low cost as well. 

DTG Pros 

  • Low set up fees
  • There are no set-up costs
  • Artwork does not need to be color separated or layered 
  • Ideal for reproducing full-color photographs
  • You can print small quantities at a relatively low cost
  • Huge spectrum of colors to choose from 
  • Quick turnaround times, especially when compared with screen printing

DTG Cons 

  • Sports shirts or polyester garments cannot be printed with this process because of the low amount of content. At least 80 percent of cotton is recommended for this form of printing.
  • Although it prints onto colored or dark garments, it can appear grainy and/or less vibrant.
  • Obvious staining can sometimes happen because of the pre-treatment reacting to the garment.
  • Do you need the pre-treatment? Yes, for colored and dark garments you do, as it creates a base layer for the design to sit on. 

Thermo sublimation

Thermo Sublimation Pros & Cons

This involves using a computer printer that will transfer dye onto a material using heat. The name sublimation was first given because the dye was considered to make the transition from solid to gas without actually going through the liquid stage. However, later, it was discovered that this thought process was actually incorrect. Still, the name remained! It is important to recognise that this method is not to be confused with printing using inkjet printers, which is another method that we are going to discuss in further detail later in the guide.

Thermo sublimation printing technique

There are a number of different types of equipment that you are going to need if you wish to go into the sublimation business. This includes parchment paper, Teflon sheets and pillows, butcher paper, adhesive spray for sublimation, ink, sublimation paper, and heat transfer tape.

The reason why you need to have special paper for this form of printing is because regular printer paper is too absorbent. You should not have any trouble finding the supplies you require, as lots of different brands have them available. You are also going to need special tape for this sort of printing as well. You should not use Scotch tape; you need special tape that can tolerate the high temperatures. This is why you will need to acquire the tape from a sublimation vendor, as there is no substitute.

Thermo Sublimation Pros 

  • Vivid color selection available
  • You have more freedom with designs when compared with the other methods that are available to you
  • Durability; the design will not fade, peel, or crack, even if it has gone through the washing machine a number of times
  • Suitable for small batch orders 

Thermo Sublimation Cons 

  • It is more expensive than DTG
  • Material choice can be a draw-back, as this is only suitable for polyester materials. While it can be used on cotton, it will not be permanent, and so it is certainly advisable to use one of the other methods that are available to you instead 

Digital Transfer/Laser Transfer 

Digital Transfer printing technique

With this form of printing, the design will be printed onto a transfer foil initially, and then it will be printed onto a product through the application of heat. This is suitable for a wide range of products. White products will use a transparent foil whereas a white transfer foil will be used to print color products. This is available for all file formats and it can be used for accessories like caps and bags. A matte foil will create a design that can be sprayed onto the product with ease.

Digital Transfer/Laser Transfer Pros 

  • A matte foil will create a design that can be sprayed onto the product with ease.
  • Available for all file formats.
  • Used to print on accessories, for example, caps and bags. 

Digital Transfer/Laser Transfer Cons 

  • Most effective on polyester compared to other materials. 

Screen printing 

Screen Printing Pros & Cons

Screen printing is a hand method of direct fabric printing. It involves using films, mesh, or screens to transfer patterns onto the fabric. It involves using a porous mesh screen, which is then stretched over a frame. Porous nylon fabric is used to make a stencil of the design. The areas without printed will be covered. The screens are then placed on the fabric. A wooden squeegee will then be used to work the colour through the porous screen onto the garment. 

When it comes to screen printing, there are two different approaches that are used. The first is flat bed and the second is rotary screen printing. With flat bed screen printing, a squeegee is used so that the ink paste is transferred through an engraved screen. This can be manual, semi-automated, or fully automated. On the other hand, with cylinder or rotary printing, the paste is forced through engraved roller screens using pressure. Only one colour can be applied at a time with both types of screen printing. Flat bed screen printing is costly, which is why rotary screen printing is more commonly used. 

Screen printing is suitable for large order runs. You will get a more consistent finish with rotary printing when compared with screen printing. It is ideal for print runs of 1000 m or more. It is an ideal choice if you have a simple design whereby only a few colors are used. However, it is worth noting that when it comes to color consistency, this is hard to achieve across batches of fabric. Shading is hard to achieve yet solid colors come out well. Slight bleeding of colors is common and lines on designs are going to need to be well defined. 

One of the benefits of screen printing when compared with the likes of thermal printing is that you will be able to print on both dark colored and light colored fabrics with the same intensity. 

Screen printing method

However, there is no denying that the set-up costs are high and this form of printing is labour intensive. This is because it costs a lot to develop screens. Plus, if you want to make any changes once the screens have been made, this is also going to be costly too.

With every color you add, the more expensive it becomes, as more screens are going to need to be engraved. Once you are set-up, though, this form of printing can be cost effective. Therefore, this is only suitable when you are printing large quantities, rather than small amounts. 

Screen printing Pros 

  • Flexibility is unrivalled. With this form of printing, you can print on virtually any surface. Not only are you going to be able to print on fabrics but people use screen printing for everything from wood to metal. 
  • You can also expect great durability when it comes to screen printing. This is because of the technique, which involves thick layers of ink being put down and absorbed by the fabric. The result of this is a much more durable print. 
  • Well-suited to designs that are simple. If you are looking to print simple text or a simple design, this is the sort of method that you should be going for. This makes it wise for graphics and printing logos. 
  • Great for printing a large volume. This is because you are going to make more cost savings the more you print. Therefore, screen printing has become a popular choice with businesses that are trying to find the most economical approach. 

Screen printing Cons 

  • While it is good for printing a high number of garments, it is really not a viable option if you only want to print small amounts. The set-up time is complicated. Therefore, printing in low quantities can mean that there is going to be a lot of hassle and a lot of expense.
  • While we are on the subject of set-up, this process can be a lot more complicated when compared with the other options that are out there. The nature of print screening means that a new screen or mesh is going to be needed for every shape or color within the design. 
  • While it is good for simple designs, this means that it is not suited to photographs or any complicated designs. 
  • Finally, it is important to point out that your colour choices are going to be somewhat limited when it comes to screen printing. If you are looking to achieve a photography-based design or a design that utilises a wide range of colors, this definitely is not the right option for you. Achieving specific shades or gradients can be challenging, despite the fact that spot colors can be mixed with a good degree of accuracy. 

Printing with inkjet printer (Sublimation printing)

Sublimation printing Pros & Cons

This is another printing technique that uses an inkjet printer. However, it differs from DTG in the sense that fabric is printed in reverse onto paper and then transferred onto the fabric instead of being printed directly onto the fabric.

When compared with the other printing methods that are available, you have a more vibrant color selection with sublimation, which makes it suitable for vivid pictures. In terms of material compatibility, you cannot use this option with any non-synthetic fabrics, like cotton.

However, it works great on 100 percent polyester. You will also have to spend more money if you go down this route instead of DTG. 

Sublimation printing Pros 

  • It is easy to get to grips with this form of printing. The software will be the most challenging thing you will need to get to terms with, yet for most people this isn’t too difficult.
  • It is rather cost-effective. Screen printing would be cheaper if you were to bring a very large order. However, there is no denying that sublimation printing is not far behind the pack.
  • Customisation is easy with this option. As the print is so easy to achieve, you won’t have any problem customising.
  • There is no mess, which will be great news for a lot of people reading this. All you need to do is design, print, and heat press. 
  • There is no ‘hand’ to the design. This means that the design basically becomes part of the garment. You cannot feel it. This is important in terms of quality. 

Sublimation printing Cons 

  • When it comes to this type of printing, you are going to be limited to 50% polyester shirts at a minimum. Ideally, you are going to want a fully polyester garment. There are some ways to sublimate on cotton, yet they are not recommended because they do not provide the quality and durability you will be looking for over time. 
  • You can only sublimate on light colors. This is because there is not any white ink. For the most vibrant colors, white shirts will give you this.

Foil Printing 

Foil printing technique

Last but not least, the final method we are going to take a look at when it comes to fabric printing options is foil printing, otherwise referred to as foil stamping. This is a heat process, whereby a foil stamping machine is used. A metal die will be inserted into the machine. It will then be heated up. The image will then be transferred due to all of the pressure, meaning it goes from a colorful foil strip to the final presentation piece. In areas, the metal die will be raised.

One of the reasons why people go for foil printing over the other options that are available is because it creates a very rich solid color. This is the sort of color that cannot be achieved via any of the other processes that have been mentioned. Therefore, if you are looking to create a very specific appearance with your garments, then this is the sort of printing you should consider. You can get some foils that are glossy whereas others are matte. No matter what you decide in the end, you can be certain of a finish that is consistent and smooth. Plus, the process also results in a finish that very much looks like a book cover because of the pressure and the heat.

However, it is important to recognize that this form of printing is not going to be suitable for all of your printing projects. It does not work very effectively with photographic images because of the fine lines. Instead, it is better for graphic images that are very simple and straightforward in their design. The best case scenario would be that there are not any lines or text that are thinner than a 16th of an inch. This is because the pressure can cause the metal to break down when the lines are too fine. 

Sublimation printing Pros 

  • You will get a finish that is unlike any of the other methods that have been discussed. 
  • You can get some foils that are glossy whereas others are matte.
  • It is great if you want to create clothing that has a luxe and high-end feel to it.
  • Classic and professional look.
  • Rich smooth colors unlike any of the other options that are available.

Sublimation printing Cons 

  • You will not be able to layer colors with this approach
  • It is not suitable when it comes to photographs or any sort of design that contains thin lines
  • Limited size
  • Limited colors
  • It can also be one of the more expensive options out of all of those available. 

Overview of all fabric printing methods

So there you have it: a look at the different fabric printing techniques when printing on fabric. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the options that are available to you so that you can figure out the right solution for your requirements. In the table below, you can find a brief overview of each option.

DTGThermo sublimationLaser TransferScreen printing Sublimation printingFoil Printing 
QualityGood qualityDesigns can be short-livedGood quality/ Vivid and clean. Very professional finish Great for photo-quality designsHigh quality
Range of colorBroad range of colorsVivid color selectionWide range of colorsAny color can be matched or layeredIdeal for full-cover printingLimited but unique. Rich colours with matte or gloss finish
FabricsBetter suited to lighter fabricsNot suitable for non-synthetic fabricsIdeal for accessories, like bags and capsVersatile. Works on almost all fabricsOnly works on white polyester fabric Works on a number of materials
TimeQuick when compared with screen printingMiddle of the rangeModerate.Slow when compared with DTG
Quick productionMid-range
CostLow costs More expensive than DTG, cheaper than sublimation Inexpensive High set-up costs. Expensive for small order quantities or simple designsAffordable set-up costsCan be expensive

To conclude, there is no denying that you have plenty of different options to choose from today when it comes to printing on fabric. However, this also means that you have a lot of choice and that this is going to make it difficult for you to narrow down your search. Hopefully, the information that has been provided will give you a better understanding of the different fabric printing techniques that are available to you.

As mentioned, there is no right or wrong answer. It all depends on your circumstances and what is going to be right for you. From fabric to budget, there are going to be so many factors that will dictate what sort of solution you are going to go for, and so we hope this guide has helped to clear this up.

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