9 Tips to Find Direct to Garment (DTG) Friendly T-shirts
Digital direct-to-garment printing is a popular decorating method for a few reasons. With DTG, you can produce vibrant, photorealistic images with shading and gradients in a full color spectrum.
Perfect for smaller runs and on-demand printing, DTG offers decorators a plug-and-play revenue stream, since today’s technology and printers are operator-friendly, with a short learning curve.
However, when you’re DTG printing, you need to know that not all T-shirts are created equal. The type of yarn, knitting density, fabric content and what finishes were used in manufacturing the garment all play a role in how a DTG print will look and feel.
When you find the right T-shirt brands for digital printing, your customers will love the results—and you’ll experience less frustration during the printing process. We’ve got the top nine qualities to look for (and avoid) to find the best DTG-friendly cotton T-shirts.
1. Ring-spun cotton holds DTG prints better than open-end cotton.
There are two primary types of yarn used to make T-shirts: ring-spun and open end.
Open-end cotton yarns use shorter-length cotton fibers and yield a fabric with a drier, crisper hand. These garments are cheaper to produce, so many budget-conscious giveaway and promo T-shirts are carded and open end. Unfortunately, printers say that DTG inks sink through the fabric, rather than sit on top, so they don’t always achieve full design coverage.
Decorators often consider ring-spun cotton the better choice for digital printing. To make ring-spun cotton, yarns are literally run through a ring. This is an additional process where the fibers are twisted, resulting in a tighter, softer knit. Ring-spun cotton shirts are comfortable to wear and take DTG prints better.
Since ring-spun yarns have longer, staple-length fibers that require two steps in the manufacturing process vs. one step for open-end yarn, these cotton T-shirts carry a higher price point.
A third technology is vortex spinning, which mimics the hand and performance of ring-spun yarns but uses less energy and creates less waste. This process delivers a better value to consumers.
2. Know the difference between carding vs. combing.
Whether yarns have been carded or combed is also a factor when you choose a T-shirt for digital printing. Here’s what you need to know: Open-end yarns are carded, but never combed. Ring-spun yarns are carded or combed.
Think of carding as using a card tool to skim the top of yarns. This process doesn’t align the threads exactly or eliminate the shorter, roving fibers, since the tool moves over the yarn surface.
However, a combing tool sinks into the yarn, aligning the fibers and breaking them apart, which adds to the garment’s softness. However, this process increases production costs, making a combed T-shirt more expensive.
Combing makes a stronger, smoother yarn, resulting in an optimal surface for DTG printing. Printers usually prefer combed garments because of how well they take full-color digital prints.
Ring-spun and vortex yarns provide a more consistent, flatter surface, which translates into a smoother printing substrate.
3. Know how to avoid T-shirt fibrillation.
Combed ring-spun and vortex spun cotton have the least amount of fibrillation, one of the biggest challenges with DTG printing.
Spun yards are a collection of individual fibers that get bound together as they’re twisted to form a strand. Of course, the physical properties of these yarns ultimately influence the fabrics they become.
Fibrillation occurs when fibers lift from the surface of the yarn’s core within the fabric. While this can occur in an unprinted fabric, ideally when a printer applies ink, the individual fibers help flatten down on the shirt’s surface. However, not all the fibers will lay flat usually.
Sometimes, when shirts rub against each other in the washing machine, for example, the inks holding down these fibers rub off. Then, the fibers stick up through the print.
These fibers can cause a newly printed shirt to look worn, diminishing the colors’ vibrancy. That’s why the quality and type of shirt you choose to print will determine if fibrillation occurs.
4. Benefit from the enzyme wash advantage.
One treatment that reduces fibrillation is an enzyme wash. Small enzymes chew away at the loose fibers on the yarn’s surface, and often results in a softer hand.
The enzyme wash process cleans the fabric—removing residual chemicals, starches and anything else left on the fabric during manufacturing. That creates a very smooth print surface for the inks to adhere to better, and the print is clearer and brighter.
One caveat: The enzyme wash process could weaken certain areas of lighter-weight garments, shortening the T-shirt’s life cycle.
5. Communicate wash-and-wear issues.
Some wearers wash their garments very carefully, using appropriate soaps and a delicate cycle. Then, there are those who throw their T-shirts in the hottest water and dryer they can (the T-shirt isn’t loving this treatment).
It’s great if you can add a tag or a care sheet that lets recipients know how to extend the life of their DTG-printed, cotton T-shirt: “Wash and dry on a delicate cycle to keep your digitally printed T-shirt vibrant. Washing your garment in hot water and throwing it into a hot dryer will shorten its lifespan.”
6. Know what finishes have been added to the shirt.
The different finishes, softeners and treatments that manufacturers add to their T-shirts can affect your digital print’s quality. Before you choose your T-shirts, ask your suppliers how they were treated, and learn about how those will affect your print quality.
For example, fabrics include topical silicone softeners, which create a flatter, softer hand. However, these softeners can wash out in initial launderings. Some printers say that water-based DTG inks don’t react well or bond with a silicone-topped fabric.
To test a fabric for a softener, place a drop of water on the shirt. If the droplet sits on the surface for more than 30 seconds, there’s a barrier preventing water from sinking into the cotton.
Some manufacturers treat cotton T-shirts with starch to compact the yarns. Again, since it’s topical, the starch washes out, and the garment has a different feel than when you first got it. Printers say when they print over a starch-treated T-shirt, after it’s laundered they can see an increase in fibrillation.
7. Take cost into consideration.
A shirt’s finishes and treatments will increase your cost—especially if you’re looking for performance-related applications like antimicrobial or moisture wicking. Again, talk with your supplier about how any treatments may adversely impact your DTG print.
8. Yes, finer knits create a smoother surface.
Yarn diameter has an impact on how well a shirt accepts a digital print. T-shirts with higher 30 and 40 singles weights are better for DTG printing, since the inks sink deeper into the fabric.
9. Get familiar with your shirt dyes.
Be aware that some pretreatment solutions can discolor or stain a shirt.
Each fabric color is an accumulation of multiple dyes that create the color we see. Some color families are more problematic, due to a shared base dyestuff. In the past, some of these problematic shades also caused discoloration when decorators applied transfer prints.
You have access to a variety of pretreatment solutions; since the PH levels vary in each, you may see various degrees of shading or staining. Of course, most machine manufacturers have created guidelines that effectively address this, but it’s always a good rule of thumb for printers to run a series of test prints to figure out what works for them.
Some printers report seeing discoloration from pretreatment when shirts have been processed with reactive dyes. When you search out the best shirts for digital printing, it may be helpful to select shirts made with nonreactive dyes.
Talk to your apparel suppliers to learn more about the manufacturing process behind their cotton tees.
You’re on Your Way to the Perfect DTG T-shirt
While these nine guidelines can help you select a good short list of DTG-friendly T-shirts, the best strategy from here is to purchase samples from several brands.
Then, do test prints. Due to the differences in shop environment, printing techniques, ink brands and pretreatments, not all brands print alike.
DTG printers typically fulfill a higher number of small to medium sized shirt orders than screen printers and even print highly custom one-offs. Using these tips above will help you decide on the T-shirts you offer to customers for DTG printing.
Now’s the time for you to test-print specific brands you trust—and then develop your own line of products that showcase DTG the best. You’ll watch customers’ orders soar with in-demand direct-to-garment printing.
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