When choosing shirts for a job, there are tons of options available. Shirts might look the same to an untrained eye, but screen printers need to be choosy when selecting a garment for a job. The shirt type affects the print more than most customers realize. Here’s a guide to the most common t-shirt fabrics and what they mean to screen printers.
100% COTTON GARMENTS
First up: 100% cotton garments. There are two types of cotton shirts: carded open-end and ringspun cotton. Carded open-end shirts are the most economical option, and are created by bonding the yarn fibers perpendicular to the fiber bundle. This fabric is bulky and fuzzy up close and creates an uneven knit. Carded open-end shirts are the hardest to get a quality screen print.
Ringspun cotton is made from smoother and longer yarn compared to open-end yarn. It also goes through a spinning process that softens and straightens each fiber, creating cotton that is softer and more durable. Ringspun cotton garments are generally a bit more expensive than carded open-end shirts.
The best prints for carded open-end shirts are generally not high retail prints. Since the fabric is rougher, you’ll need to work hard to create a smooth print. For the smoothest prints, you’ll need to lay down a generous ink deposit, or use a smoothing screen, Stampinator, or even an iron to matte down the fabric. Bold spot color prints with plastisol ink will look best on these garments.
Got ringspun garments? You can print more detail on these types of shirts because it’s a smoother surface. Ringspun garments are light and flexible and work great with water-based ink. A heavier ink deposit will show up more clearly on a ringspun garment. It’s easier to achieve soft, detailed prints on ringspun cotton garments than carded open-end shirts.
Want an even smoother surface? Check out a blended garment.
There are lots of different blends of garments, but the most popular blend is cotton and polyester. The two main types of poly-blend shirts are 50/50 and tri-blend garments.
A 50/50 garment is a blend of carded open-end cotton with polyester, while a tri-blend includes ringspun cotton, polyester, and another synthetic fabric like modal or rayon. Triblend garments are generally made with 25% cotton, 50% polyester, and 25% synthetic material.
Let’s talk more about tri-blends for a minute. By using ringspun cotton and synthetic fibers, there are more lines of yarn per square inch, making the garment super soft. Triblend shirts are generally heathered. The heathered fabric has two colors of yarn: polyester and cotton. The polyester thread creates this effect. If a shirt has dark heather, the polyester is dark. If the shirt has light heather, it uses light polyester.
One factor to watch out for when printing on poly-blend garments is dye migration, or bleed. Polyester dye is set at a certain temperature. When the shirt is heated to that temperature during the ink curing process, the dyes in the threads can sublimate. This will change the color of the plastisol ink you used because the dye color of the shirt has moved into the ink.
Pro Tip: Shirts with dark heather are more prone to bleed because the polyester is dyed a dark color. Light-colored heather means the polyester thread has not been dyed as dark, and will have fewer bleed issues. White polyester will not experience bleeding, because the polyester hasn’t been dyed.
TIPS FOR PRINTING ON POLY-BLENDS
The best way to print on poly-blend garments is to dial in your dryer and find a good low-bleed ink. Dye blocker inks like FN-INK Barrier Black stop ink bleeding. A low-cure ink may help to combat dye migration, because it may cure at a lower temperature than the dyes in the garment were set at. However, this isn’t a guarantee. Do your research, test, and determine which solution works for the garment you’re curing.
Another tip is to print a lighter ink deposit. Since blended garments are soft and flexible, a heavy ink deposit will be very noticeable on the garment. The design might even smash out a bit if you’re printing heavy ink deposits.
Use fewer print passes, modify the ink with an additive like a curable reducer to make the ink thinner, or use water-based ink to get a soft, flexible print. A smoothing screen will also help when printing on blended garments.
We’ve talked about the most common t-shirt fabrics, but there are always more options. Here are a few garment fabrics that are commonly printed on.
Lycra, also known as Spandex, is an elastic polyurethane fiber or fabric used especially for close-fitting sports clothing. It’s common in athleisure wear like leggings and other workout wear. It’s easy to bond ink to, but the ink needs to be stretchy. That’s where stretch ink comes in.
Plastisol ink stretches to a point, but you’ll need extra stretch to allow that print to live up to its full potential. Think about what the garment is going to go through during its lifespan. Will it be put under a lot of stress? If so, you’ll need stretch ink to take your print over the finish line.
Like cotton, printers can do a lot with 100% polyester garments. Polyester garments can range from extremely soft to thick and chunky. With a variety of polyester types, there’s plenty of creativity to go around.
The main factor to watch for? You guessed it: dye migration. A low-bleed low-cure ink will work best for printing on these types of garments. A blocker base like Barrier Black will also help combat dye migration.
Nylon is very smooth and difficult to bond to. It’s used in many places, from windbreakers to backpacks. When printing on nylon, printing with plastisol ink is best. The ink will form a mechanical bond and hold onto the fabric.
Time for a bit of vocabulary. If you’re printing on nylon, you’ll need to know the denier of the fabric. Denier (pronounced “deh-neer”) is defined as a “unit of measurement that expresses fiber thickness of individual threads or filaments in fabric.” A higher denier means a thicker fabric. According to Maker’s Row, the standard denier of fabric is between 40d-80d. Materials that make tents or backpacks usually have a high denier, from 100d-600d.
What does this mean for screen printers? The higher the denier of fabric, the more difficult it will be to get the plastisol ink to bond to it. An athletic ink will work best for nylon fabrics with a high denier.
Garments like windbreakers get waterproofed and can be nylon or polyester. Waterproof garments need a bonding agent to adhere the ink to the garment. Think of the bonding agent as superglue times 10. Bonding agents like a hugger catalyst can get the job done.
There’s one extra consideration when printing on waterproof garments. They’re not typically intended to be decorated. Because of this, the melting point of the garment may be in the ink’s cure temperature range. Using a low-cure ink may do the trick, but testing is vital when printing on waterproof garments. The last thing you want to do is melt your garment to the platen as it sits under the flash dryer.
Printing on specialty fabrics can be a great way to increase your shop’s offerings. With proper testing and know-how, you can print on just about anything.
There’s so much to print on than just t-shirts: there are totes, boxes, wood, skateboards, mugs, and pretty much anything you can think of. Printing t-shirts is just the beginning. With this guide, you can choose the best garment type for your customers and turn out top-notch screen prints every time.