Digital Decorating:

Embracing Digital Technologies

By James Ortolani, Contributing Writer

The DTG Printing Process involves inkjet printing the image directly from the computer to the garment, and works well in screen print and embroidery shops for smaller runs and sampling.

October 22, 2012

A lot has changed in the garment decorating industry since the first Screen Print Association (SPA) trade show was held in the 1940s and the Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) began its history in 1978.

Along with printing process changes also came name changes for the SPA event (and association) to the current name, Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA). The name, like the industry, reflects the innovations that now encompass many different digital technologies that fall outside the category of the founding process of screen printing.

I’ve had the opportunity to watch the digital revolution from its start in the 1980s, when the first Macintosh computers were installed in screen printing shops throughout the United States. I remember asking my good friend, Spider (a legendary T-shirt artist), if he was worried about computers taking his job someday. He replied, “A computer will make a good artist better and a bad artist faster!” When Spider went on to say that he had been using a Mac for more than two years, I knew big changes were coming!

For many industry newbies, the various digital decorating options can be confusing. There are many processes available at different price points, all designed to serve very different needs in an apparel decoration shop. And the exchange of information from manufacturers adds to the confusion, as digital product reps sometimes steer potential customers to their own products or services. When talking to customers at trade shows and on sales calls, I always ask what they want to do, which helps me determine the best solution that fits their needs. Know your goals so you can appropriately communicate with vendors. And with every digital process there are some trade-offs, so do your homework before buying any digital garment printing system.

What does “digital” mean to screen printers? As mentioned above, digital technologies first made their way into screen printing shops via the computer for designing artwork. They soon replaced the vertical and horizontal process cameras and changed the way we produce film positives. Today, there are many software programs available for screen printers to create their own graphic designs, color separations and expanded digital clip art options.

Digital technologies have affected all areas of the screen printing shop. These new technologies include the addition of digital touchscreen controls on the automatic garment printer, and digital belt and heat controllers replacing the analog controls on textile dryers.

In addition to the computer, software and press/dryer advancements, there are many newer digital film output devices — from laser to inkjet — that work well for producing film positives for screen making. But if making film positives is not the right direction for your shop, then perhaps a new digital direct-to-screen (DTS) printer is an exact fit.

DTS imaging bypasses the need to print vellums or films that are used to expose screens for screen printing. And with direct screen imaging, there is no need to worry about organizing and storing thousands of pieces of film. You can just keep your customers’ artwork in a digital file and access the art when they are ready to order.    

Another interesting caveat regarding DTS imaging is that the screen exposure unit no longer needs a vacuum pump and rubber blanket to hold the films against the screen during the exposure stage, since the image is printed directly on the screen.

Of course, the biggest change of all for screen printers is digital direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, which can eliminate the need to screen print garments altogether by inkjet printing the image directly from the computer to the garment. The DTG printing process works well in screen printing and embroidery shops for smaller runs and sampling. Some decorators have found a successful niche with high-volume DTG production using equipment that accommodates multiple garments at once.

However, most high-volume garment decorators still use automatic textile screen printing machinery because of the high-speed printing yields and lower ink costs per garment achieved.

DTG printing continues to be one of the fastest-growing segments in the garment printing industry and it has finally arrived as a viable, reliable garment-printing process. We will only see DTG printing grow by leaps and bounds in the future, and I recognize the process as an important player in garment printing — and this comes from a loyal screen print enthusiast!    

What does “digital” mean to the heat transfer and embroidery shop? Great opportunities. In the beginning of the digital transfer revolution in the late-1980s and early 1990s, I first discovered the digital transfer trend while talking to shop owners who had transfer-application questions. I would ask, “Where did you get the transfers?” And they would reply, “I made them.” So I would proceed to explain the best way to screen print a transfer, and they would stop me mid-sentence and tell me they were not screen printers and that they made the transfers on their laser or inkjet printers! I then realized it was time for me to go back to school and learn all about digital transfers at that stage of the game.    

Here’s a quick overview of the main digital transfers used today:
Color Laser Copier (CLC) Transfers: To produce a CLC transfer, all you need is a computer, laser printer (or color copier), specially coated CLC papers and a heat press to apply the digital transfer after it is made. CLC papers are easy to use and work on a variety of fabrics, from 100% cotton to poly/cotton blends. The image to be transferred is printed in reverse (mirror image) onto the coated CLC paper directly from a computer (or the image can be scanned and printed onto the CLC paper with a color copier). Always check with your paper supplier to ensure your copier will accept the coated transfer paper to avoid possible paper path clogs in the copier.

Many shops use a color laser printer to make CLC transfers because of the lower cost on the front end when acquiring the printing equipment. Technically, this is called a color laser printer (CLP) digital transfer. It is important to ask your paper supplier if the CLC paper you are buying will work in both color copiers and laser printers.

Another important advancement in CLC papers is a new product that does not leave a rectangular area of residue around the image after the transfer is heat applied. Two such products that eliminate this problem are Image Clip from The Paper Ranch and CAD COLOR ExactPrint transfer paper from Stahls’ ID Direct. Check with additional manufacturers, as new products often are introduced.

CLC papers have evolved immensely since their introduction in terms of providing better colorfastness on garments and producing a soft-hand feel to the print. The demand for quick, short-run custom graphics makes CLC transfers a great alternative for any garment printing or embroidery shop.

• Inkjet Transfers: These transfers are made with a standard inkjet printer and off-the-shelf inks that accompany it. Use the same steps as outlined above for CLC transfers and print the design mirror image onto the coated side of the inkjet transfer paper. Heat the transfer machine to the recommended temperature, place the garment on the heat press, place the inkjet transfer (ink side down) on the garment and lock down the heating element for the recommended dwell time. When the timer on the heat press sounds, open the press and peel off the paper backer while it is still hot. The coating on the paper traps the ink between the clear coating and the garment. Some inkjet papers are cold-peel systems; in these cases, peel the paper after it cools. (Always refer to your paper supplier’s application guidelines.) Inkjet papers tend to have a shiny finish to the print instead of the matte finish of the CLC laser transfer.    

• Sublimation Transfers: Sublimation transfers have been around for decades, but the introduction of digital inkjet printers has totally rejuvenated sublimation printing by making it easy for anyone to print their own transfers with a desktop inkjet printer. When I first used sublimation transfers in the 1980s, they typically were offset printed or screen printed on paper. In those days, users had to buy large volumes of the transfers to make the price competitive. Now, all a decorator needs to make sublimation transfers is a computer, sublimation inks and a desktop inkjet or gel printer, which makes it possible to print only one transfer, if needed. In addition, more sophisticated systems are available — as well as large-format inkjet printers that have fueled the trend in allover, seam-to-seam garment printing that mimics retail fashion. An oversized 40″ x 48″ heat press is ideal for producing the allover-printed look.

Notable of sublimation transfers is the fact that the ink will not transfer to 100% cotton, since the garment needs to have a high polyester content for the ink to transfer properly. Also, sublimation inks will not render on dark fabrics due to the transparent quality of the ink. There are a variety of garments commercially available that are high in polyester content and, thus, suitable for applying sublimation transfers. Many screen printers choose sublimation transfers as an option for short-run orders to avoid the labor-intensive screen printing process.

• CAD-Cut Heat Applied Graphics: This is one of the fastest-growing digital decoration segments in the heat transfer market. With the CAD-cut method, garment decorators simply send the graphic to the cutter and the design can automatically be cut on a variety of films, including vinyl, flock, reflective, glitter and more. The introduction of CAD-cut materials has greatly expanded garment decorators’ capabilities to offer all of the above garment decoration options, and all that is needed is a computer, cutter and heat press.

For multicolor CAD-cut images, decorators can cut multiple-colored materials and heat press them together on the garment. Another multicolor option for CAD is to purchase a large-format inkjet printer and print multicolor images directly onto a white heat seal backer. Then, this printed roll material can be sent through a separate cutter to cut out the multicolor images before the final heat transfer stage.

Finally, new metallic and glitter CAD materials have been very popular, as garment decorators cash in on the “bling” factor that is so hot in the industry.
Digital technologies abound in the garment decorating arena and this sector shows no signs of slowing down as technology constantly improves. Regardless of the digital garment decoration method you choose, take your time to research your options and pick a system that is tailored for your business.

James Ortolani has more than 30 years of experience in the decorated apparel industry, specializing in hands-on direct screen printing and heat transfer production. He has worked for main industry suppliers, and currently serves as R&D projects manager for Stahls’ DFC. For more information or to comment on this article, email James at