Digital Decorating:

Adding Digital Garment Printing to Your Shop

By Greg Kitson, Contributing Writer

At our shop, we devoted a 20′ x 25′ area for the direct-to-garment equipment, including a pretreatment machine, a staging area, two direct-to-garment printers and three 16" x 20" heat presses for curing.

March 10, 2014

It’s somewhat ironic that direct-to-garment printing, also known as digital printing, has been more widely accepted outside of the apparel industry than it has by screen printers. What’s the holdup?
For starters, while they may recognize the value of adding digital printing, many screen printers simply aren’t sure where to begin. “How do I get started?” they wonder, and “What equipment should I buy? How do I make money with it? How do I price it?” 

But perhaps the biggest hurdle is simply a self-perception problem on the part of many screen printers. Specifically, they need to stop thinking like screen printers and start thinking like apparel decorators. 

You might think, “If a customer wants a garment decorated, of course I’m going to screen print it; I’m a screen printer.” If this is your mindset and you’re not an open- minded person, digital printing probably isn’t for you.

However, if at some point you’ve added a process such as embroidery to your screen printing business, then you’re probably a good candidate for adding direct-to-garment printing. That’s because you’re already looking at yourself as someone who offers decorating services, not someone who only does screen printing. The only question, then, is how to add the process to your shop.

Getting Started
One of the first steps to adding digital printing to your shop is to get a firsthand look at equipment at industry trade shows and talk to current owners. Get references and check them out. Find out how these people have integrated the process into their businesses.

You’ll also need to make sure you have room for the equipment in your shop. The footprint for direct-to-garment printing varies widely, depending on which unit you purchase. Your options range from small, desktop-size units to those comparable in size to a large screen print dryer.

Your shop also needs the right kind of humidity. In our shop, the weather suddenly got cold and the humidity was 20%. This posed a challenge because we couldn’t get good nozzle checks, which affected the ink flow. We realized it was the humidity — the heads on the machines just can’t handle low relative humidity.

To rectify this problem, we purchased a couple of humidifiers, which brought the humidity level back up to 50% to 60%, a suitable range for digital equipment. It keeps the heads from drying out, which ensures proper ink flow. From our experience, 50% humidity is minimum and 60% is ideal. Extremes of humidity and temperature do not get along with this technology.

Similarly, your space needs to be relatively free of dirt and debris, as lint hinders the performance of direct-to-garment equipment. Don’t underestimate the importance of the machine’s environment. If you’re thinking of putting your digital printer in your screen printing production area along with loading docks, open overhead doors, flash cure units and production dryers, plan on buying headache pain reliever by the case, as you are going to need it.

At our shop, we devoted a 20′ x 25′ area for the direct-to-garment equipment, including a pretreatment machine, staging area, two direct-to-garment printers and three 16″ x 20″ heat presses for curing. The direct-to-garment equipment is in the same area as the embroidery machines and our cutter workstations. 

Setting It Up
No matter where you set up the equipment in your shop, plan on devoting ample time to getting the machine up and running. If you purchase a larger machine, it likely will come with an installer, whom you’ll want to watch and learn from. He’ll show you how to do required daily maintenance, including how to do adjustments. It’s not going to be a plug-and-play process.

It’s a good idea to run (we call it exercising) your machines every day to keep the units working smoothly. However, that doesn’t mean you should just put the machine in cleaning mode and waste ink. I suggest printing a great graphic every day with your company name on an upscale garment. Then give it to a current or prospective customer to introduce them to digital printing. Find a way to get value out of everything you do.

Once you have the equipment installed and are comfortable using it, your next challenge is to determine when to use it. While direct-to-garment printing generally makes sense for small, quick-turn orders with photorealistic colors, it’s certainly not limited to those types of jobs. Some shops use digital equipment for much longer runs — 1,000 pieces and above. The trick is to determine what’s appropriate for your shop.

We eventually chose 36 to 72 pieces with a high color count as the breakover for quantities on our digital equipment. For us, orders more than 36 to 72 pieces may make more sense to screen print depending on our screen-making efficiency. We feel like we can cost-effectively do orders of that size. Our assumption is that they’re not all going to be 16″ x 18″ images.

Another mindset change when you add digital printing is that you don’t need to think in terms of the number of colors a job has, since you’re not setting up screens for each color. The more important measure is the size of an image as it relates directly to imaging time. A left-chest logo that’s 3″ x 3″ may take only 2.5 minutes to run per shirt, but one that’s 15″ x 15″ with a white underbase may take up to 10 to 18 minutes each, or three to six pieces per hour, depending on your equipment.

Pricing It
Your final business consideration in adding digital printing is figuring out how to price it. Thankfully, many suppliers offer spreadsheet grids that tell you how much you’ll spend in ink to produce a garment. While these are good starting points, there still are myriad variables that actually affect how much you’ll spend in ink, such as the size of an image and how much you pay for ink in bulk. The assumption is that you’ll use 100% coverage of all the inks available, but most of the time we’re printing 30% to 50%, so those ink calculators may be high. 

Also, determining the price for an order depends on more than just knowing your ink costs. You’ll need to factor in artwork time, as well as handling and labor costs — the latter of which are generally much higher than ink costs. Even if someone gives us ready-to-use artwork, we’ll have at least 10 minutes of prep time before we ever hit the print button. We have to pretreat the shirt, put it on the pallet, load the pallet, etc. If I put a $2 T-shirt on a digital printer, I usually can’t afford to sell it for anything less than $12.

Another consideration is that digitally printed garments generally don’t have economies of scale; the price is generally flat, remaining the same per shirt after the first couple of prints, regardless of how many you do. The only reason to do volume discounts for digital printing is probably for marketing. It takes the same time per print to do the same design no matter how many you print digitally, unlike screen printing, where you lower the cost per unit with increased volume due to amortizing (spreading) the upfront set-up time and cost over the entire quantity of the job.

With your pricing determined, there’s only one thing left to do: Fire up the press and start generating new business. 

Greg Kitson is founder and president of Mind’s Eye Graphics, Decatur, Ind. For more information, or to comment on this article, e-mail Greg at or visit