What do the different terms mean?

Sometimes people use different terms when they actually mean the same thing but perhaps it is the method that is different.

Apparel printing, Garment printing, Fabric printing, T-shirt printing

Direct to substrate printing, DTS, Direct to garment, DTG

Roll to roll direct to substrate, Roll to roll dye sublimation

Dye sub transfer, Toner transfer, Vinyl transfer, Thermal transfer

Screen printing, Plastisol printing, Plastisol transfers


They all come under garment decoration but the starting machine prices and cost per item do vary quite a lot.


Screen printing is a printing technique used to push ink through a mesh stencil onto textiles. Each colour in your design requires a different stencil (or screen) to be made. Screen-printing lends itself well to large run orders as well as to simple logo work.

When most of us think of decorated t-shirts we think of traditional screen-printed shirts. The process of screen-printing is the oldest and also the most labour intensive at the lower end of the scale with the higher priced models being multiple stations and automatic.

Most screen printers need volume work to make it profitable because of the cost for the screens and labour time to create them is quite high.  Smaller scale screen print systems may manage to make it as profitable with minimum orders of 15-25 pieces for 1 or 2 colours only.

If you want more colours then the minimum order goes up or the cost per print does, or both.

The medium to larger systems can easily provide more colours however more screens add to the set up costs and preparation time.  Therefore a minimum order of 50-100 is common and sometimes more.  The more colours required and the smaller the order the less that traditional screen-printing makes sense.

A typical 4 colour screen-print job can take 2 hours from the time the artwork is done on the computer until the first garment is printed. Once the job is set up shirts can be produced at very high rate.

Other issues of concern with screen-printing are work space and disposal of waste products as well as a moderate learning curve. Overall, if high volume production is your main objective, screen-printing is a good route to explore.

Heat transfer – Vinyl

Heat Transfer Vinyl is a speciality vinyl that can be used on certain fabrics/materials to create designs and promotional products. It comes in a roll or sheet form with an adhesive backing so it can be cut, weeded, and placed on a substrate for heat application. Heat Transfer Vinyl is made in single colours and also has speciality options such as patterned, glitter, flocked, holographic, glow in the dark, reflective and 3-D puff.

Although each colour still has to be cut separately, the final result adds a “wow factor” because of the speciality vinyl type used. Layering of these vinyls is dependent on the type of vinyls used.  The down side is the time taken to create designs and then to weed out the vinyl.

It is perfect as a low cost start up business as you just need a PC, vinyl cutter and a heat press and minimum orders start at 1.  It has limited appeal because of available colours and time /cost of using multiple colours.  Its not just for T-shirts as the heat transfers can be pressed on bags, aprons, mugs and any products that will not be affected by the heat.

Heat Transfer – Printing (Toner)

Just like vinyl transfer, digital printing heat transfers involves a small initial investment, you simply need a colour laser (toner) printer with the proper transfer paper and a heat press and you are ready to go.

When applied correctly, heat-transfer printing produces high-quality, colourful prints of photo-realistic images, which makes it useful for digital photography prints or elaborate designs.

The most common complaints about thermal transfers are cost per print, inconsistent wash results, peeling and/or cracking of the transfer, outline of transfer paper visible on the garment and unnatural feel of shirt where the transfer was placed .

The typical inkjet printer using off the shelf inks and moderately priced transfer paper will print a A4 sized transfer (21 cm x 29 cm) for about £1.50 – £2.00.

Whilst traditionally these are printed onto white or light coloured items some new toner based units also offer white ink as an option allowing to ‘print’ on to darker garments with an additional cost.

Heat Transfer – Dye Sublimation Printing

Dye Sublimation transfers differ from thermal transfers in that they are a dye that actually transfers from the carrier paper to the garment.  When heated, sublimation pigments pass from a solid state to a gas state (never becoming liquid) and imbed themselves in the fibres of the garment.

Sublimation produces a print that has virtually no feel on the garment. Sublimation is more expensive to get into than thermal transfer printing, as you need a dedicated printer as well as speciality sublimation inks and a heat press.  Sublimation is definitely the process of choice for decorating non-textiles such as mugs, plates, brass and aluminium.

Unlike thermal transfers, screen-printing and direct to garment printing sublimation needs a synthetic substrate to effectively transfer which simply put it is not cotton friendly.

As most people don’t like the feel of a 100% poly shirt against their skin certain manufacturers now make sublimation ready garments that are cotton with polyester “front”. These shirts do address the issue of needing a polyester shirt to print to but it comes at a price.

Sublimation does produce very vibrant prints when printed on the correct type garment and their wash fastness is excellent, however, they do tend to fade with exposure to sunlight, so they are not the best solution for garments that will be worn extensively outdoors.

Because of its nature, polyester is a white, or light colour

 garment decoration process only.

Direct to Garment Digital Printing (DTG)

The newest and most exciting way to imprint garments is Direct to Garment  printing or DTG.  DTG printing involves the use of a highly modified inkjet printer with specially formulated garment inks which are heat set with a heat press or tunnel dryer. Unlike screen-printing, DTG output does not require separations, films and screens.

Once your artwork is ready on the computer it is printed directly onto the garment.

Because of the lack of steps required for DTG, short run orders can be quickly and economically produced in a seemingly infinite number of colours.  This means your minimum order can be just 1 piece.

The cost of output onto a white or light coloured garment is typically 0.10 – 0.20 for an A4 (21 cm x 29 cm) image and output onto a dark garment for the same size image is generally under £1.00.

Production times on a DTG print are similar to those for a sublimation or thermal heat transfer and generally a bit slower than those for traditional screen-printing (once the press is set up and printing). With DTG digital garment printing there is virtually no feel on light and white garments and minimal feel on dark garments.

Whilst many see them as just T-shirt printers because of only being able to print to cotton material and the traditional restrictions on bed sizes they have come a long way in the last 12 years or so. There are some that have bigger bed sizes (over 1 meter wide) and inks that allow you to print to 100% cotton, cotton rich fibre mixes and 100% polyester.

This means that rather than just being a T-shirt printer the possible business revenues streams can be diverse.  People are using DTG to print to Baby wear, Children’s wear, Sportswear, Hoodies, Caps, Bags, Soft furnishings and for  those with bigger bed sizes it is possible to print fabric panels and therefore create all over (seam to seam) printing similar to the Roll to Roll machine.

Roll to Roll (Direct to substrate / Dye sublimation)

The advantage of roll to roll printing is that all-over prints are possible as opposed to DTG or heat transfer methods where they are usually restricted to defined areas on finished garments/items.   The disadvantage of roll to roll systems is that they are designed for volume production (although each roll can have multiple orders from multiple customers on it) and will require someone to be able to make  the finished items after printing. 

Indoor soft signage, household furnishings (cushions, curtains, bedding) dresses, swimwear,  t-shirts and fabric panels are just a few of the things that are easily created.  Fabrics are restricted to white or light colours and depending on which method chosen will require some pre-treatment or post- printing curing just like DTG, but on a bigger scale.

Direct to Substrate

Uses the same process as DTG and needs pre-treating before print and curing after usually with a calendar press or in-line dryer.

DTS is also a term used for UV printing on to rigid items like phone covers, boxes, signage substrates etc and should not be confused with DTS roll to roll fabric printing.

Dye Sublimation

Like its much smaller cousin roll to roll dye suLike its much smaller cousin roll to roll dye sub printing uses the same process of printing to a roll of transfer paper and then heat transferring across to fabrics.

This can be cut down into more manageable pieces to create garments and cured using a heat press or calendar press or if the full roll is required a calendar system is required.

Types of material

Most systems can either use just 100% cotton/cotton rich materials or just  100% polyester/polyester rich to print on to.  Some can use both with a little extra preparation or curing.

For medium to large production facilities there are some materials like silk that are best served using a different ink set like Reactive dyes.  Using one ink type over another can restrict your fabric printing capabilities so if you are unsure it is best to talk to you supplier.