Fashion embraces change. So should you. As technology across the fashion industry evolves to streamline the design for manufacturing (DFM) process, the textile printing industry has followed suit. Manufacturers have adopted digitized forms of textile printing, believing that the techniques of direct-to-garment (DTG) and direct-to-film (DTF) challenge the traditional textile printing processes used to give your garments a luxurious appearance. These newer methods are cost-efficient with reduced production lead times and have less of an impact on the environment compared to their constituents. They work well for producing samples and small batches of textiles or apparel for short production runs. Most importantly, these digitized printing techniques give fashion brands a wider range of garment customization.
However, with change comes challenges. Printed fabric designs play an integral role in the high-end fashion experience. With computers printing designs onto a fabric source, does the automation intrinsic to digital textile printing affect the execution or perception of artisanal craftsmanship behind your garment? Part of the allure of luxury fashion is the human element – the satisfaction of owning a garment that requires time put forth by designers and printers to give it a colorful vivacity. Does digital textile printing allow for this same sense of satisfaction? How durable are the resulting digital print designs? Ultimately, should your brand consider producing luxury fashion with a manufacturer who uses digital textile printing techniques in their textile printing process as opposed to or alongside more “traditional” fabric printing methods?
Image Source: Medium
The most common digital textile printing technique manufacturers use is direct-to-garment, also known as DTG. In DTG printing, design prints are streamlined through the production process using computer automation and inkjet printers. Think of DTG printing as having an at-home office printer, except instead of printing on paper, it prints on cotton fabrics. This printing process is straightforward and can give garments vivid imagery and vibrant color palettes. In this process, printers will:
- Prepare vector and raster files – Vector files (.AI, .EPS, .SVG) are images built by mathematical formulas that establish points on a grid. They can adjust to all sizes without losing resolution. Raster files (.TIFF, .JPEG, .PNG, .BMP) are composed of an array of bits within a rectangular grid of pixels or dots. When scaled, these files become pixelated. In the DTG printing process, vector files are most commonly used to create the digital designs for a garment. They are then converted into raster files, typically a .PNG, using a Raster Image Processor Software (RIP) which communicates directly with the DTG printer on the print and color specifications.
- Pre-treat – Pre-treatment is an application process of chemicals used by textile printers to remove impurities from fibers in a fabric to make it dyeable or printable. These chemicals can be applied manually or through use of a pre-treatment machine. In DTG printing, this step is crucial in obtaining the colorful vibrancy of a print because it gives a layer of coating to the garment for white ink to sit on and act as a surface for other inks. Digital textile printers will determine how much pre-treatment to apply based on the garment’s material source, blend, and color (white or dark).
- Print – Once the pre-treatment settles and dries via a conveyor dryer or heat press, the garment is applied to a DTG printer’s platen system. This system flattens and holds the garment in place. After pressing “print” on the RIP, the inkjet printer does its magic, applying CMYK inks to the garment to replicate the digital design.
- Cure – Like the pre-treatment step, curing after the ink application is a simple process that can be done using a heat press or conveyor dryer. If using a heat press, printer teams apply a silicon paper on top of the garment before curing to protect the design.
Once the curing process for the garment completes, it is officially ready to package and ship to distribution centers. The total time from design to print can be as short as a few hours, making DTG printing an optimal textile printing technique to produce high-quality, vivid and colorful prints for a clothing or fashion accessories line.
The direct-to-film (DTF) textile printing technique is a complement to DTG printing seen as more cost-effective and environmentally conscious than the latter. It too is a suitable digital printing process for sampling and small batch production. Similar to DTG printing, DTF printing relies on computer automation and inkjet printers to produce designs. However, DTF printing does not require pre-treatment and offers more versatility in the types of fabrics to which its films can be applied. In addition, the process differs from DTG substantially. In DTF printing, printers will:
- Prepare vector and raster files – Like DTG printing, printers convert vector files into raster files using RIP software to communicate directly with a DTF printer on the design and color specifications. The RIP creates a mirror image of the original digital design which becomes the base for the print.
- Print onto Film – In DTF printing, designs do not print directly onto a garment like in DTG. Instead, polyester (PET) films inserted into a DTF printer’s platen capture the mirror image RIP print, meaning, the CMYK color layer gets applied before the white layer of ink.
- Apply hot-melt powder – For the DTF transfer to occur, polyurethane resin is ground into an adhesive powder known as hot-melt powder or DTF powder. This powder is spread evenly across the printed surface of the film while the film is still wet from the print process, which allows the colored pigments of the print to bind to the fibers in the fabric. It is important that the excess powder is removed carefully to avoid powder specks appearing on the final product.
- Melt the Powder – Using a curing oven or heat press, the powder covered film is melted for 2 to 5 minutes at temperatures around 160 to 170 degrees Celsius until the film has a glazed appearance. If using a heat press, printers will place the top plate about 4 to 7 mm above the film to avoid burning it.
- Pre-Press – The design transfer can occur only after a heat press flattens and dehumidifies the garment for 2 to 5 seconds. This ensures that a proper transfer of the film design to the fabric will occur.
- Transfer – The film is placed onto the garment and covered with a silicon paper to ensure it does not stick to the heat press. A 15-second heat press of temperatures between 160 and 170 degrees Celsius will bond the film to the garment.
- Cold Peel – Once the garment cools down to room temperature, the printer removes the film by simply peeling it off. This leaves the original digital design on the fabric.
- Cure – To ensure high-quality and increased durability of the design, following the cold peel of the film, the garment goes back into the heat press for 10 to 15 seconds.
Compared to DTG, DTF is far more labor intensive and requires more time to produce, making it less optimal than DTG for producing larger batch orders over a short period of time. However, its image quality is almost identical to DTG printed images and it is more cost effective for manufacturers to use over DTG. This makes it an ideal digital printing technique for small brands looking to save production costs while still having quality prints.
Should You Consider Using Digital Textile Printing?
While both the DTG and DTF digital textile printing techniques offer brands and manufacturers certain advantages, critics of these methods have expressed concerns about their scalability and durability. These techniques:
- Require large upfront costs - It could run as low as 20K to upwards of 250K for manufacturers to acquire and install all the necessary technology to print on fabric. However, once in place, costs of printing are significantly cheaper than those accumulated using traditional methods.
- Have questionable quality – Both DTG and DTF printed garments are pristine fresh out of the box. Colors and images in their designs are vivid and vibrant, giving a consumer the fashionable look they desire. However, overtime, the vivacity of these garments tends to fade the more they run through the wash. More traditional techniques still have the edge when it comes to the long-term durability of the design.
- Are limited to small batches – Small batch orders and samples are where DTG and DTF printing thrives. These methods are quick and cost effective for the manufacturer to produce. However, due to current limitations in the technology, large batch order production is less efficient and more expensive compared to traditional methods such as screen printing.
Ultimately, working with a manufacturer who uses digital textile printing depends on your brand’s goals and customers needs. Fortunately, certain sourcing and production resources, such as MakersValley, offer a select catalog of Italian manufacturers who use all types of textile printing techniques to fit your brands needs and goals. From digital textile printing to your traditional screen-printing and heat transfer methods, manufacturers like those in MakersValley’s network will provide a true, authentic manufacturing experience that benefits your designs, bottom line, and customers.