Screen printing and digital printing are two of the most common methods for custom t-shirt printing. One technique dates back a thousand years and one less than twenty. They can have similar results, but not necessarily. So much depends on a few variables. So how do you know which is better?
In this article we’ll give you an orientation to screen printing vs digital printing to help you make the best choice for your custom fabric print job.
You probably guessed that screen printing is the thousand-plus-year-old technique. The Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) could not have printed t-shirts digitally, right?
Correct! But then, they also didn’t have t-shirts.
The Chinese and Japanese started making paper and mesh stencils, then pushing the ink through the stencils onto fabric in what became the earliest screen printing methods. Those early stencils included human hair!
Soon, silk became the stencil of choice--the material still used today, in many cases.
T-shirt screen printing has gone digital, but it’s not the same as digital printing. Computers now communicate directly with inking equipment, ensure color match, and do other important parts of the screen printing job. But it’s still inks pushed through stencils, one exact stencil for each shape and color.
Digital printing is also known in the industry as Direct-to-Garment (DTG) and has only been around since the late 90s/early 2000s. DTG printers look like a laser or inkjet printer like you might see in an office. So, they’re bigger than home scale printers but use the same basic technology.
Whereas screen printing might send a shirt through several different forms and colors, digital printing prints the entire image directly on a single piece.
As you might imagine, the differences in the techniques of printing mean each work better for certain applications.
For example, if you want to print a multi-colored, intricate design like a color photo, in the past people might have used a photo transfer method. But photo transfer didn’t hold up all that well. After a few washes, the images might start to crack, fade and peel.
Digital, DTG printing works great for color photos, particularly when you just want one item. Printing a t-shirt on a DTG printer is literally just as simple as printing a color image at home on an inkjet printer.
Digital inks also work like a digital printer. You can color match well, but you really only have a few options (in terms of texture) that will run through the machine. You can color blend across the rainbow!
The inks for screenprinting, however, are virtually limitless, just not so blendable. You can use glow-in-the-dark, raised texture, glitter or virtually any other ink. They just do best with not so many colors on the same garment.
Now I might sound like I will contradict myself. I said you can print almost any (basic) color DTG. This is true. However, like printing on your home printer onto a non-white surface, the color of the garment can show through with digital printing. This diminishes vibrancy, and if you are trying for an exact match to your brand, the material of the fabric may alter the color output.
If you really want a Pantone color match, you’ll get it (and greater color vibrancy) with screenprinting.
Digital printing works best on 100% cotton t-shirts. As long as the shirt gets lined up in the printer correctly, you’ll get an identical print every time.
Screen printing, though, can print on a wider variety of materials, like 50/50 blends, canvas or denim.
Digital printers print one, complete, image at a time. The setup time is fast, but for larger orders they’re not practical.
Screen printing, on the other hand, requires more setup, but then you can quickly and easily print as many quantity as you want!
Digital printing keeps getting cheaper as the inks and materials themselves come down in price. When you want to print only a few of something, you can print them affordably DTG. Lots of online printing companies only do DTG printing.
For printing volume though, DTG just can’t match the inexpensiveness of screen printing.
As you can see, the best printing method will best match your design idea, materials and volume.
At T-shirt Labs, our award-winning in-house design team will ensure your project’s quality. We will walk you through every step of the process to your complete satisfaction. Contact us to get started!