DTF T-Shirt Printing Explained

DTF T-Shirt Printing Explained

What's DTF T-Shirt Printing?

DTF shirt printing, or Direct-to-Film, is a t-shirt printing process. Unlike DTG (Direct-to-Garment) printing and screen printing where ink is applied directly to the garment, DTF is closer to heat transfer printing. That's because the print is first placed on a DTF transfer film before it's applied to the shirt.

So, how is a DTF transfer different than an old school heat transfer? For starters, the transfer material is different.

A traditional heat press transfer uses transfer paper (which can be printed on an inkjet printer or laser printer), but DTF transfers use film instead. And the DTF transfer process itself has differences, too.

How Do You DTF Print T-Shirts?

The DTF shirt printing process involves a few steps.

First, water-based inks are used to print a design onto a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) thermoplastic sheet. The design itself is printed upside down.

Next, an adhesive powder is applied to the wet ink.

Finally, high heat is applied, which melts the adhesive into the ink. This is what creates a bond between the garment and the design.

The Advantages of Direct to Film T-Shirt Printing


So, from a practical standpoint, how does DTF printing compare to screen printing and DTG printing?

As mentioned, the difference is those other printing methods create an image on a custom t shirt. Meanwhile, the DTF printing process creates an image THEN that image is applied to the custom tee.

Believe it or not, that's a LOT more than a small semantic difference. Here are just a few of the benefits:

First, like DTG printing, there's no minimum quantity. That's because a DTF printer and and a DTG printer both have far less set-up than screen printing.

Second, a DTF transfer can be used across ALL fabric types, giving you an almost unlimited number of options. This is thanks to the fact DTF transfers use an adhesive to stick to garments.

Third, because DTF printing is a digital process, you have access to limitless colors. And, unlike DTG printing, those colors will be brighter and more vibrant (because the print sits on top of the fabric instead of seeping into it).

Finally, there's no fibrillation. This means the garment's fibers won't show through your design.

After hearing all this, you're probably wondering why every custom t shirt business doesn't just use DTF printing.

The Drawbacks of a DTF Printed T-Shirt

So, what doesn't DTF do well?

Although DTF is great for small orders, it's nowhere near as cost effective as screen printing when buying in bulk.

On top of that, because you're applying a whole image, it structurally exists in a very different form.

For starters, a DTF transfer isn't as flexible with the garment, meaning the print surface is rigid. It'll feel a bit like a decal or smooth plastic sticker.

The design also won't last as long as it would on a screen-printed t-shirt. You can expect to get 25-50 washes before a DTG printed shirt starts to really wear.

Finally, DTF (just like DTG) can't match colors because it relies on digital printing (meaning CMYK, a process color system) instead of spot colors (like screen printing). This means all of its colors are created by combining 4 ink colors instead of relying on exact ink colors. 

Whether or not DTF printing is right for you will largely depend on your design, garment type, and how many items you're ordering. However, if you just need a single shirt, it's definitely worth trying out -- especially if you need a single moisture-wicking shirt