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Top Tips for Using Direct-to-Film Transfers

Decorators love direct-to-film - or DTF - transfers for lots of reasons, including unlimited color options, the ability to print gradients and shading, and rendering fine details with no outline. These full-color transfers, which blend into your t-shirt fabric, are great for small runs and web store orders. DTF transfers are a great option for new and veteran decorators - who might also offer screen printing, DTG printing and embroidery. If you've been wondering if you should jump into DTF, check out everything you need to know about right here.

"DTF transfers fill the gap for businesses that want to do one-off items or short runs in a full-color print," says Becky Kotzer, owner 605 Customize DTF Transfers. "They're great for someone starting out, since they can order a small quantity of designs and can get their business going with very minimal startup."

These vibrant, full-color transfers have been a great addition to The Visual Identity Vault's offerings. "DTF has enabled us to offer web stores with full-color designs," says Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer. "The designs can be ever-changing, which buyers love. We never have to keep an inventory of printed items or screen-printed transfers." In fact, Doyscher nearly enjoys a POD scenario, as her team usually orders weekly.

First Things First

For those who aren't familiar with the process, DTF transfers are images that get printed on a film transfer with a special direct-to-film printer. A heat press is used to adhere the design onto the t-shirt. Unlike direct-to-garment printing that only works with cotton fabrics, DTF transfers work on a variety of fabrics including cotton, polyester, 50/50 blends, synthetics like rayon, treated leather and even silk. DTF transfers also work equally well on both light and dark t-shirts, unlike some other printing methods.

Decorators love direct-to-film transfers for lots of reasons, including unlimited color options, the ability to print gradients and shading, and rendering fine details with no outline. These full-color, lightweight transfers, which blend into the t-shirt fabric, are great for faster, small runs and web store orders. You can also press them at a lower temperature than other transfers, so you avoid "scorch marks" on the finished product.

Many decorators - newbies to veterans - opt to purchase full-color custom or stock transfers from a vendor when they're starting out with DTF. It's less complicated to send artwork to a supplier who'll then make and send ready-made film transfers that can be heat applied.

Here are some other reasons that shop owners are flocking to DTF transfers:

  • You can print vibrant, full-color designs in unlimited shades.
  • You can achieve designs with defined edges, free-floating text and fine lines.
  • You can print almost any type of artwork onto your transfer paper.
  • You can simply print your design transfer, without needing to worry about making screens or separating your artwork.
  • You don't need to pretreat your garment.
  • You don't need to weed your design, which saves time.
  • You're working with a cost-effective transfer method, especially for full-color runs of 35 pieces and under.

Pros and Cons of Direct-to-Film

Here's a quick summary of the pros and drawbacks of direct-to-film transfers. It's always smart to fully understand a decorating process like DTF before jumping in fully.

Pros: DTF transfers give full-color, detailed prints on light and dark garments. Unlike other printing methods, these transfers can be applied to almost any fabric type, including cotton, rayon and synthetics like polyester. It's relatively easy to apply transfers to garments, including difficult to decorate areas since you're using a heat press to adhere the design. The prints, which are flexible and have a soft hand, hold up well through many washes. Many decorators report that applying the transfers is easier than other print methods, including direct-to-garment printing. The garment does not need to be pretreated or the design weeded before application.

"We've been able to offer multi- and full-color designs at a much lower price point with low to no minimums with DTF," Doyscher says. "Our customers love getting a shirt print that feels and looks unique! Another win is using DTF on hats. The full-color print looks amazing on a hat - and is different from embroidery or a patch. It's always great to have options.'

Cons: Some decorators say that the print quality and vibrancy may be less than what you can get with DTG or sublimation printing. The hand of the print, while soft, is more noticeable than a DTG or sublimation print. Plan to store the hot-melt adhesive powder at a cool temperature to maintain quality prints. There may also be a learning curve to creating DTF transfers if you're new.

To Our source Transfers or Not?

When Doyscher decided to add DTF to her shop's offerings, she considered purchasing a DTF printer to create the transfers in-house. "Our issue was a lack of time to do the research and devote ourselves to learning the craft to make it worthwhile," she says. Instead, she partnered with 605 Customize to do their transfers.

"DTF printing isn't for the faint of heart," Doyscher says. "Things like the location of your printer, weather and humidity levels are all things that can affect your results. Since DTF is a newer process and will continue to evolve, outsourcing transfers for now is a good business decision for us. Rather than investing money and time in a printer, it makes far more sense to have someone else print our transfers and we apply them in-house."

For her part, Kotzer decided to purchase a commercial DTF printer and started printing transfers for other small businesses. "This added an additional revenue stream to my retail custom shirt business," she says. "On the retail business side, it's allowed me to offer custom web stores for schools and groups. With owning the printer, I can print on demand and turn my own orders around faster."

Doyscher, who sources her transfers from 605 Customize, recommends seeking out an experienced DTF printer. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of fly-by-night shops that purchase printers and convert them with no research on the entire process," she says.

"These types of businesses can put your reputation at risk, because the transfers will most likely be faulty."

Pro tip: If you're interested in either purchasing a printer or outsourcing transfers to a vendor, first request samples of the resulting DTF transfers. "DTF isn't plug and play," Kotzer says. "There are many factors that go into a great transfer like inks being used and the temperature and humidity of the shop where they're printed. It's a good idea to outsource your transfers when you're starting out."

Applying a Direct-to-Film Transfer to a T-shirt

Here are the six basic steps for creating a DTF transfer and applying it to a blank t-shirt.

  1. Print your image on the DTF transfer film. Create the artwork in your software. You'll print your CMYK colors first, and then your white layer second. Some DTF printers do this in one pass, while others require you to run the print twice.
  2. Apply your adhesive powder. Next, while the print is still wet, apply the adhesive powder uniformly over the film. Then, shake off any excess. This is the necessary glue that holds the print to your shirt fabric.
  3. Process your adhesive. Now, cure your "powdered print" by hovering over it with your heat press at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for two minutes. You can also use a curing oven for this step.
  4. Pretreat your shirt.This simply means preheating your t-shirt with your heat press for 15 seconds to remove any excess moisture. Let your shirt cool before placing the transfer on the fabric. Note: If you've purchased transfers from a vendor like 605 Customize, you'll start with this step.
  5. Transfer your design to your t-shirt. Place the transfer on your shirt, with the adhesive side down and image facing up. Press the t-shirt at between 284 and 325 degrees for 15 seconds with very firm pressure. The temperature and pressure you choose will depend on the transfer film you use, so follow the instructions your vendor supplies.
  6. Remove the transfer. Let your shirt cool. Then perform a cold or warm peel, depending on your film instructions. A cold peel means that you must let your film cool completely before peeling it off. A warm peel means you can peel the paper off once it's cooled down slightly.

Tips for Handling Direct-to-Film Transfers Like a Pro

Check out these four pro tips if you're getting started with direct-to-film transfers in your shop:

  1. Make sure the order is right for DTF. "Look at the whole picture to decide if DTF transfers are right for your customer's order," Kotzer says. "If it's an order of 400 items with a single-color design, DTF transfers aren't right for the job. You should look at screen printing or screen-printed transfers." A good rule of thumb is to go with screen-printed transfers for one- or two-color jobs over 75 pieces. "They're just more cost effective at that point," Kotzer says.
  2. Make sure your design is right for DTF. Doyscher points out that a common mistake decorators make is not putting enough "negative space" into their artwork to allow the shirt to breathe. "DTF has a soft hand, but if your design is a full shield, it'll feel heavy and not at all breathable," she says. The flip side of that is using effects that "glow" or bleed out. "With DTF, you'll lose part of the effect because the adhesive or powder won't stick to it."
  3. Pre-press your shirts before applying the transfer.This is especially important if you live in a more humid area. "Your apparel items should be free from moisture," says Kotzer, who pre-presses all of her items for five to 15 seconds. Heavyweight sweatshirts usually require more time than thinner t-shirts.
  4. Invest in a good-quality heat press or two. "I recommend purchasing a high-quality heat press if you want to offer DTF," Doyscher says, "for prepressing and ensuring a flawless application."
  5. Understand how the process works to be more efficient. As you work through the application process, you'll see how long it takes you to process one shirt - and where you can be more productive. One tip is to choose the peel type. If you choose a cold-peel transfer, you'll need to wait longer to remove the transfer paper. "Right now, we're testing film that will be warm peel, which speeds up the production process," Kotzer says.

Amazing Wins With Direct-to-Film

The Visual Identity Vault stocks a web store for a year-round lake resort that likes to switch up their designs pretty often. "This client also prefers a lot of color and details in their t-shirt designs," Doyscher says. "Instead of doing screens and storing them in my shop, or guessing at the number of screen-printed transfers to buy, DTF is the perfect choice for a client like this, as it allows us to fill their web store orders one at a time. The resort owner comes back time and time again as a satisfied, repeat customer."

In Kotzer's retail business, she's able to turn shirt orders around in a snappy 24 hours for customers. "One business owner decided at the last minute that she wanted t-shirts for a holiday, and we made it happen." At 605 Customize, she regularly helps small decorating businesses offer full-color design options and fulfill small order requests.

Get Started With Direct-to-Film Today

While Doyscher's shop offers a pretty full spectrum of imprinting options in-house - including screen printing, embroidery, sublimation and screen-printed transfers - DTF simply added another in-demand option. "For a decorator just starting out, DTF transfers allow wonderful, full-color results without a huge upfront investment," she says.

If you're deciding whether DTF is for you, here are a few initial steps to take:

  • Watch videos and tutorials about DTF transfers and how to apply them. Even better, visit another local shop that offers DTF to see the process first-hand and examine the final decorated product.
  • Locate a DTF transfer vendor with a good reputation. Ask your decorator colleagues or Facebook groups for recommendations. Then, place an order to see how quickly they can turn your transfers around, and if you're happy with the quality.
  • Apply the DTF transfers. Try out the application process from beginning to end in your shop. See how quickly you can do it, and do a strict quality check to see if the process is ready for customer orders.
  • Start marketing your new service to clients. Choose one or two existing customers to offer the service to at first. If all goes well, get a testimonial and reveal your new services to the rest of your client base and, of course, new prospects.