Note: Originally written in 2021 on another platform but never published.
I’m somewhat of a t-shirt geek so I’ve been curious for some time to see how the direct-to-garment (DTG) printing process had progressed in the last few years. (The last time I seriously looked into digitally printed t-shirts, I had to buy iron-on sheets, print the design on them with an Epson, and then melt the image onto light shirts because there was no good way to mimic an underbase for dark garments with this method.)
To do a test, I used a design I made that had a gradient fill and would be printed on a dark shirt. I ordered one t-shirt each from three popular print-on-demand DTG vendors — Spreadshirt, Printful, and Custom Ink — to see how they performed.
This design was a good (unscientific*) test because it featured:
- A blue to green gradient fill applied to tiny detailed shapes (to test how they handle color and sharpness)
- A light on dark print (to test the brightness of the ink)
- Front and back prints (to see how accurately they place the artwork)
* Unscientific because artwork size could’ve been more consistent — I eyeballed the size with each vendors’ online design tool — and t-shirt/garment/brand were similar but different (I wanted to see each garment brand’s take on a “Heather Black” blended shirt).
So how did they do? Here are the results:
All three vendors had online tools to mock up your artwork on the t-shirt canvas. To be somewhat consistent, I used the same PNG formatted artwork for all three vendors since CMYK vector files were not an option on all tools. (As mentioned above, I should’ve sized the artwork the same on all three tools by manually entering the dimensions.)
T-shirt: Next Level / Fitted Cotton/Poly / Heather Black
Turnaround time: 3 days
Cost for one shirt (one-off): $35.48
Artwork placement: Oof. Skewed front logo and printed below the rib cage.
Color and sharpness: Color is light and print is blurry.
(Initially ★★★☆☆ , see Epilogue.)
T-shirt: American Apparel / Tri-Blend Track / Tri-Black
Turnaround time: 7 days
Cost for one shirt (one-off): $30.07
Artwork placement: Front logo tilted.
Color and sharpness: Color is flat but print is sharp.
T-Shirt style: Bella + Canvas / Tri-Blend / Black Heather
Turnaround time: 5 days
Cost for one shirt (one-off): $41.46
Artwork placement: No issues.
Color and sharpness: Color is good but print is slightly offset.
Custom Ink came through with a quality print, the most vibrant colors, and the placement was perfect. Spreadshirt, on the other hand, did not come through in any of those aspects, but they were cheaper and the fastest of the bunch. I thought Printful was a decent compromise between the two, but as you can read below, I had a horrible experience when I ordered from them a second time.
As an aside, I’ve been fan of Next Level brand t-shirts ever since Cotton Bureau switched to them after the American Apparel meltdown, and they’re still my go-to. The Bella + Canvas tri-blend is nice but a little too lightweight for my taste. The surprise was that the American Apparel tri-blend felt just like I remember them before they got bought by Gildan, and now I can wear them without feeling as guilty.
As for DTG printing, two out of the three vendors produced results that were far from what a good screen print shop can achieve. For small batches or one-offs, though, I can see using Custom Ink as a quick and easy way to get decent quality t-shirts printed, as long as you’re willing to pay the high per shirt cost. (Ultimately, to bulk print this particular design, I went with Clockwise, a quality screen printer I’ve worked with in the past.)
Lastly, there are others (Threadless, Cotton Bureau, Zazzle, Society6, etc.) that I wanted to test but could not or have not for various reasons such as cost, print location, submission process, and order minimums.
After this test, I left an average NPS score with Printful and noted the lack of color of the print and crooked placement of the front logo. They immediately responded with a detailed explanation of why water-based ink has a narrower gamut and how vibrancy is also dependent on the fabric, etc. They issued a refund. Great! But they made sure to clarify that the refund was for the botched logo placement and not the print quality.
Weeks later, I decided to place a bigger order with Printful for a bachelor party because of this positive customer support experience and cheaper price point. Huge mistake.
The ink for one batch of fifteen shirts started flaking off the first day we wore them (design was not meant to look faux-vintage distressed):
I contacted support right after I got back from the trip and when I sent them a photo of my shirt, they acknowledged they didn’t put enough fixation agent on the ink. However, they required a photo of every shirt as proof before they would issue a replacement. I figured that if I got several in the group to take a photo of their flaky shirts, Printful would admit fault for the batch and replace everyone’s shirts.
Nope. Not only that, they rejected some of the photos I gathered from those I pestered from the bachelor party, because the photos didn’t include the t-shirt size tag in the shot. Then the fourth or fifth representative I emailed with at Printful further required photos where “the Printful barcode label is visible” which is impossible since the shirts had already been worn. In the end, they replaced some shirts, but not after several emails/chats, and jumping through hoops.
Long story short: To get Printful to fix their mess up, they make you provide evidence that is highly inconvenient to near impossible to gather depending on how the shirts were distributed. Never again.