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DTF Printing and Thermal Transfer Vinyl, What to Know

Aug. 03, 2022

DTF printing is everywhere. You might think we're on the cusp of a revolution in the custom printing industry.

By contrast, heat transfer is a time-tested technology. Custom apparel print stores have been selling heat transfer vinyl (HTV) for decades. The market for heat presses and HTVs is strong and growing significantly.


But the outlook for DTF printing and heat transfer falls into three distinct camps.

1. Excited optimists: DTF is a really exciting technology that enables on-demand, one-off garments and is ultimately available at an affordable price. So it makes sense that everyone would be interested and manufacturers would want to sell it. HTV will be gone in a few years.

2. Sober evaluator: DTF is an emerging technology that could be great in the right hands, but is not yet ready for prime time in busy stores. It may be perfect for some jobs and applications, but it won't conquer the entire industry. htv is here to stay.

3. Cynics: DTF is a total gimmick. It is nowhere near the quality that HTV can offer.

This is a very large range of opinions!


Therefore, it raises some practical questions.

● What is DTF printing? How does it work?

● Which is better - DTF or HTV?

● In any case, what is DTF printing for?

● Who leads the market and how much does it cost?


DTF Printing and Thermal Transfer Vinyl, What to Know 

Direct PET Film for A3 DTF Printer


What is DTF printing?

Direct-to-film (DTF) printing is a multi-step garment decoration process in which an inkjet printer applies ink to a film made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate).

The adhesive is then applied to the print and the print is cured with high temperatures. This curing process allows the PET film to be stored for long periods of time without significant degradation of image quality.

When printers want to use DTF for printing, they simply prepare the fabric as needed (for example, cotton garments are usually preheated with a heat press, while polyester garments do not require any special treatment) and then apply the printed DTF image directly to the garment with a heat press.

The image is fixed to the garment by the heat and pressure applied by the heat press, using the adhesive applied in the second step.

Key point: DTF printing is a process. An inkjet printer applies the ink to the PET film and then cures it. The print store can then use a heat press to apply the printed image directly to the garment.


How DTF printing works

DTF printing secures the print to the garment by using a high quality adhesive.

Most DTF printers use a powder adhesive. This adhesive actually allows the printer to determine the feel of their DTF prints. For example, for different applications and softer shirts, stores can choose to use a glossy, matte or even a soft feel adhesive. 

DTF printing can be applied to almost anything that can withstand the heat and pressure required to print.

Because DTF printing is not limited to one type of fabric, and because the ink does not have to interact with the substrate, DTF printing is very flexible. Some common DTF printing applications include.

● T-shirts, hoodies and other typical garments

● Jeans, nylon and other difficult-to-print surfaces

● Sporting goods

● Leather goods

● Hats

● Neck labels

It's not the printer, it's the process. Time, temperature, and humidity are all important! We solved a lot of trouble because of adhesives. Inkjet printers love humidity, binder powders hate it, so yin and yang are in the same room.


What is Heat Transfer (HTV)?

Heat transfer printing (often called HTV printing or heat transfer vinyl) is a tried and true method for applying simple trim to apparel. Millions of sportswear have been customized with vinyl lettering and numbering. Some believe that custom HTV printing is the true origin of the print store!

However, "heat transfer printing" is actually a broad spectrum of techniques and methods for applying graphics to apparel.

In our opinion, there are two main categories of HTV printing.

● Printing your own heat transfers. Some stores actually make their own heat transfer vinyl in-house. This can be done with Cricut machines, transfer paper and several other methods (such as screen printing!) to make it happen.

● Have someone else print your heat transfers. In many stores, the actual HTV printing is outsourced to another business. The store will order as many HTV prints as needed and then ship them to the business where they will apply the designs.

There are many subcategories of vinyl printing. Vinyl is a very effective and versatile tool for garment decoration.


Which is better: heat transfer (HTV) or DTF?

This is a very subjective question, and it depends on your individual situation - and what you want to accomplish.

But we can still tell you what the benefits of DTF are, what the benefits of HTV are, and who each type of trim is right for.

If you're not familiar with printing, thermal transfer printing is a better starting point than DTF printing. Our reasoning: DTF printing initially costs more, is more technologically advanced, and requires more supplies to get started.

If you already own a print store, DTF printing may be better (and more versatile) than thermal transfer. DTF printing can be used for a wide range of products, similar to the process of creating films for screen printing, and ideally provides production quality products.

DTF printing is well suited for

● Full color images

● Difficult to print items

● Larger prints

● Short runs and one-offs

● Fast turnaround


However, HTV printing also has significant advantages.

● Low cost, low overhead

● Easy to use

● Lots of options

● Proven track record


So before you decide whether DTF printing or HTV printing is right for your business, consider what you need from a printing technology. If you need speed, flexibility, multiple colors and to decorate many different items, perhaps DTF is more appropriate. If you insist on sportswear and only want to make simple items, then HTV may be a good fit. One is not significantly better than the other, as they both excel at different tasks.


DTF Printing and Thermal Transfer Vinyl, What to Know