f you’ve been hearing about those “pretreated Direct-To-Garment shirts,” but want to know more, you’re in the right place. Whether you’re just starting your t-shirt business or adding a DTG printer to your shop, the most important thing to know is that correctly pretreating your shirt is key to turn out a quality printed garment.
"The advantage of a pretreated tee is that there’s been an even pretreat throughout the shirt. It’s basically grab and go to the DTG printer, load the shirt, and press print.”
- Tina Means, owner of Wagon Wheel Printing
That’s why some manufacturers have started offering pretreated shirts to help decorators streamline the process. But, which option makes the most sense for your business? Manually doing it or buying a ready-made tee? Let’s take a look at the five most commonly asked questions on the subject to help you decide.
1. What exactly does ‘pretreated’ mean?
“A pretreated tee is a garment that has a pretreat solution applied to the fabric, so that white base ink and other colors adhere to the surface,” says James Brigham, key account executive at Gildan. “Pretreatment is mostly used on black and colored shirts."
“Think of pretreatment as the glue that binds the ink and flattens down fibers onto the fabric surface.”
- James Brigham, Key Account Executive at Gildan
If you didn’t add a pretreatment solution to your t-shirt, the ink would absorb right into the fabric, discoloring the t-shirt and mixing with other inks, resulting in a distorted design. Pretreatment “solidifies” the inks, especially whites and lighter colors, so they stay intact and vibrant within the design. Pretreatment is a stabilizer for your whole print, and most decorators will say they don’t turn out quality prints without it.
Printers use dark and light pretreatments. Your shirt and ink color usually determine which one you should use. The general rule of thumb is: If you’re printing white ink, you’ll always go with a dark pretreatment no matter the shirt’s color. That’s because white ink will immediately absorb into your t-shirt material, altering the image and color. Your dark pretreatment helps the white ink dry without absorbing, since it creates a base for the ink.
You’ll most likely use a light pretreatment on white or light-colored shirts, unless you’re printing white ink. If you’re printing a black and purple design on a light yellow shirt, you can use a light pretreatment since you’re not printing white ink. However, if you’re adding white ink to this same design, you’d need to switch to a dark pretreatment. This same rule applies to black or dark-colored shirts.
2. How are t-shirts pretreated?
There are different ways to pretreat a shirt within the manufacturing process, with different levels of effectiveness, and of course, each has benefits and drawbacks. “For example, you can apply pretreatment solution to the fabric in the last stages of the textile manufacturing process,” Brigham says. “There are variations of this process that are more effective, but can also be significantly more expensive.”
Another option is a full immersive pretreatment technology that totally embeds the pretreatment solution into the t-shirt's fibers. “There are benefits and disadvantages to both processes,” Brigham says. “Both can add higher levels of complexity to a supplier’s existing manufacturing and handling process, which creates a separate production line in some cases and passes the cost along to the decorator.”
3. What are the advantages of using pretreated tees vs. manually pretreating them?
There are several compelling reasons a print shop might opt for pretreated DTG t-shirts:
- You’ll save process time, since you don’t need to pretreat each shirt.
Translation: You can output more shirts faster.
- You’ll produce high-quality shirts more consistently.
Plus, you’ll reduce the pretreat box or print failures, where parts of the shirt didn’t get pretreated properly, since you can’t see these areas until you’ve printed the shirt,” Brigham says. “Printers also report that ink colors look brighter on pretreated shirts.”
- You’ll have fewer steps in the printing process, so you can save on labor costs.
You need to do a cost-benefit analysis of your process to see how many tees you pretreat efficiently and effectively in-house. However, the flip side is that you’ll pay more of a premium for a pretreated tee."
- James Brigham, Key Account Executive at Gildan
- A fully pretreated shirt allows for multiple DTG prints on one shirt.
“With a non-pretreated tee, you’ll need to set up and pretreat multiple areas separately, adding more time and costs to your process,” Brigham says. “If your customer wants multiple print locations, like on the chest, sleeve and back neck, you can do it easily. Plus, you’re likely making more money on that multi-location t-shirt anyway.”
Overall, pretreated DTG shirts are good for small shops with a higher cost input into their process. “They’re also good for newbie print shop owners, since it can eliminate a lot of the learning curve that comes with DTG printing,” Brigham says.
4. Is there anything a decorator should know before printing on a pretreated tee for the first time?
Here are some considerations when you’re considering trying out pretreated t-shirts for your DTG prints:
- Test out the DTG shirts first.
Anecdotally, Means believes dark grey is the hardest t-shirt color to print. “We’ve always noticed a shadow, whether we pretreat the shirt ourselves or use a purchased pretreated shirt,” she says. “So, definitely do some test prints to be sure.”
- Store them properly, and out of direct sunlight.
“The chemistry can age over time, so how you store the shirts are important,” Brigham says. “Things like temperature, humidity and sunlight can influence the results.”
- Print your pretreated shirts within a reasonable amount of time.
“With a DTG pretreated tee, their shelf life won’t be quite as long as an untreated tee, that can sit in inventory for over a year,” Brigham says. "This also holds true for shirts you manually pretreat in your shop. Generally, printers recommend using a pretreated shirt that you’ve done in-house within three weeks." (However, a bigger challenge is keeping these shirts clean and dust-free until you use them.)
- Be aware that there are still steps within the DTG process you can’t skip.
“You still need to heat press to push the fibers down and activate the surface before printing,” Brigham says. “You need to cure the ink after you’ve DTG printed the shirts.”
- Be aware that different fabrics can print at different quality levels.
“Generally speaking, cotton tees work well, and ring-spun cotton tees seem to work the best based on our testing, since they maintain a good hand and are very consistent when printing,” Brigham says. “However, pre-treated tees with a blended fiber like cotton/poly do maintain a better hand, but can have more inconsistencies when printing. As most decorators know, nothing’s perfect in the DTG world.”
5. Are there any downsides to using pretreated tees?
While we’ve covered some of this already, let’s look at some of these points again:
- You’ll pay a higher cost premium for a pretreated shirt.
The only downside to the pretreated tees, Means says, would be cost. “However, while it’s more cost effective to treat it yourself, you’ll save time with pretreated tees,” she says. “Time is money for your shop, so that has advantages.” To justify the cost for your shop, you need to know your costs and profits per shirt. “Are you doing repeatable volumes where you need a sharper price point,” Brigham says. “or, are you doing one-off custom prints where you can charge a bit more?”
- Your shop size does matter.
Brigham points out that for large and even some medium-size shops, the higher cost of the shirt doesn’t impact their high output process. “They tend to use automated pretreating machines to gain speed in their process vs. a smaller printer who already has a higher cost input because their pretreatment process output is slower,” he says.
- Your shirt’s hand might be affected.
Depending on the DTG shirt supplier and the shirt fabrication, the hand and softness can be affected by the pretreat application all over the shirt. “Remember, pretreating is a combination of water, glue and salt, basically,” Brigham says. “Different process applications can lead to different hands, and some are better than others.”
- You might experience some print inconsistencies.
As we’ve said, this is part of the evolving DTG process, so testing is always a good idea.
- You might need to search harder for the shirts you need.
For example, along with the regular supply-chain shortages, you may experience a limited availability of silhouettes, colors and size options in DTG pretreated shirt inventory available on the market.
The Bottom Line
LIke with many aspects of the decorated-apparel world, you’ll need to determine whether DTG pretreated shirts make the best time and dollars-saved sense for your individual shop. Many printers enjoy the time and labor savings of these shirts, since they can print more multi-location shirts more quickly. We recommend testing different manufacturers’ shirts to see which ones work best for your DTG prints, process and profit margin.