What is DTF Printing?

DTF printing involves printing a design onto a piece of PET film (a special film with a coating that helps transfer designs) using water-based inks and a special powder adhesive. Then, the design on the PET film is heat transferred to fabric using a heat press machine. This printing method is durable and the designs come out very detailed and vibrant.

How does DTF printing work?

DTF printing is fairly quick to do compared to other printing methods. It’s also a great choice for printing detailed designs on bulky, outdoor apparel.

Interested in how it works? Let’s break down the DTF printing process.

Step 1: Preparing the film and powder adhesive

First, a PET film is prepared and placed in the DTF printing machine where the entire design is printed in color.

After the first layer is created, the machine prints a white layer over the entire image, completely covering the first layer. Check out the image below if you’re curious about how DTF print designs look once printed on PET film.

Next, a powder adhesive is uniformly applied onto the wet ink. After applying the powder evenly and removing all excess powder, the film is heated to prepare it for fabric transfer. Adhesive heating is done in either a curing oven or with a heat press machine.


Source: Subli-Star

Step 2: Pre-pressing fabric and using a heat press

With the PET film preheated, the fabric receiving the design gets dehumidified and pre-flattened by being kept under heat for 2 to 5 seconds inside the heat press machine.


Source: Subli-Star

After initial flattening, the film is taken and placed on the pre-pressed fabric. The design on the film is then transferred using a heat press for 15 to 20 seconds at an average temperature of 165°C onto the garment.

After initial flattening, the film is taken and placed on the pre-pressed fabric. The design on the film is then transferred using a heat press for 15 to 20 seconds at an average temperature of 165°C onto the garment.


Source: Printful

Step 3: Peeling the film and post-pressing the fabric

With the design transferred onto the fabric, the second to last step is to carefully cold peel the film. When the film is removed, the designed fabric is flattened a second time in the heat press to help improve the design’s durability. After post-pressing, the garment is ready to pack and ship to customers.  

DTF printing compared to other print methods

With so many print methods to choose from, you’ve got to narrow down which method suits your long-term business goals the best. To make it easier for you, we’ve put together a brief comparison of DTF printing alongside other popular print techniques. 

Pay attention to the types of designs and fabrics that work best for DTF prints, DTG prints, as well as with sublimation or screen printing. That way, you’ll be able to plan what techniques to use with your brand’s product selection in mind.

Direct-to-film vs. screen printing

Screen printing is one of the most popular methods to use in the printing industry. This print method works by pushing ink layer by layer through a woven screen or mesh stencil onto fabric.

A woven screen has to be made for each color and design element, and at the end of the printing process, ink lays on top of the fabric instead of soaking into it. Screen-printed designs can also feel different depending on how detailed the original artwork is. More art details require more ink layers, resulting in a thicker feel on the garment. When it comes to DTF printing, the transferred design has a more uniform feel that doesn’t become thicker no matter what colors or design elements are added.

Screen printing works best for solid designs without small details, such as symbols, shapes, and geometric designs. Alternatively, DTF printing works well with details as it doesn’t require separate layers for design elements or colors. DTF printing also doesn’t require a specially-made mesh screen for each design, just a printer, transfer film, printing powder, and a heat press.


Source: Various Printful products made with different fabrics

Direct-to-film vs. direct-to-garment printing

In simple terms, direct-to-garment printing (DTG printing) works by spraying ink directly onto fabric. However, before any ink can be sprayed, a pre-treatment solution has to be applied to the fabric. After the solution is added, the DTG printer sprays the water-based inks onto the garment. The ink gets soaked into the fabric fibers, and after, the design is cured to boost print quality.

DTG printing works mainly on cotton blends and is best suited for 100% cotton products. So if you’re interested in selling mostly cotton-based apparel, this is ideal. If you’d like to be able to scale your product offering to include products made of different types of fabrics, you’ll want to consider including or using the DTF print technique as well.

Direct-to-film vs. sublimation printing

Sublimation printing has experienced rapid growth over the past few decades. It’s one of the most popular methods out there and works by printing artwork into fabric from seam to seam.

Sublimation printing takes a long time to do though. Designs are printed on special paper that gets fed into a heat press machine, then heat is used to bind the ink to the garment.

Sublimation is a technique that’s suitable for printing on different types of polyester, like polymer-coated fabric and polyester fabric blends. This printing technique is also used for other types of products including mouse pads, mugs, and blankets.

If you plan to eventually expand your product catalog to include a variety of fabric blends, you’ll want to consider including DTF printing alongside sublimation. With DTF printing, you can make the most of various fabric types and not rely completely on polyester-blends.