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Making Art Friendly for Unfriendly Surfaces

This article addresses the challenges of artwork on some of today’s garments that are stretchy, thin, textured, or printed in difficult locations.

Popular sports now feature garments that are designed just for them. Apparel engineered for different motion-related needs and sport-specific qualities is becoming very popular with athletes and fans. Along with the rush of new garments comes the need for printers to ensure their methods of decoration can accommodate the new fabrics, seams, and other factors that can prove challenging.

For example, several sports use compression shirts as part of the uniform, or in training to help retain body heat, prevent abrasion, and help reduce muscular strains. The compression shirt is very flexible. The shirt’s high Spandex content causes it to fit tightly on the body and makes decorating it a big challenge. Other popular garments use moisture-wicking fabrics that are woven from synthetic fibers and help allow airflow and moisture to pass through, yet retain body heat and comfort. These garments can also be touchy to decorate and sometimes sensitive to heat, so they require special care.
Another concern when personalizing performance-related garments is the cost of the item. Shirts that cost a lot more can be a little scary to print when the process produces a certain amount of scrap, so controlling the variables before production is essential to avoid any costly mistakes.

Avoiding scrap
One very effective way to avoid scrap and production issues on performance garments is to reverse-engineer the artwork so that it works with the best method of decoration for the garment. The results of changing the art to suit the garment and production method are worth the time it takes to educate your salespeople and clients.

Changing the artwork to fit the garment and decoration method requires that you establish guidelines. As with all artwork, there are many exceptions to guidelines, but having a starting point will make jobs that involve challenging surfaces far easier to decorate and will open the discussion for sales-to-client education on the best method of producing their apparel. The following is a list of some of the most common issues with performance garments and how you can modify the artwork.

Issue: The garment’s surface texture is very rough or open like a mesh weave.
Solution: With any rough weave or loose, open mesh, it is always best to simplify the artwork for easier printing. Doing so also prevents the print from looking messy or incomplete (Figure 1). Any halftones should be eliminated or drastically simplified, and the typography should be kept to a minimum height that will still be legible. Keep artwork to minimal amounts of colors (one or two) whenever possible to decrease the chance of bleeding or having the material moving or contracting when flash cured between colors. Another useful option is to increase the print’s ink volume by decreasing detail in the printed image and keeping line weights larger. You can then use a lower mesh count for your stencil, thereby filling in any inconsistencies and rough areas. The downside to this option is that the curing time may be longer and the print will feel heavier on the garment. This solution is very common for athletic identification and numbering.

Issue: The garment is a dark hue or a bright primary color and made out of mostly polyester or synthetic materials, which can cause the shirt dye to sublimate and then discolor the ink after it is cured.
Solution: This issue is a difficult one to eliminate completely because one of the largest factors is out of your control. The amount of excess dye in a garment and how well it is set into the fibers is not something that a printer can always predict. If you lack experience with a certain garment, then it is prudent to use bleed-resistant ink that’s made for polyester garments.

The other critical factor is to cure the ink at the right temperature while being careful to not overheat it. The dye used for most dark-colored polyester garments will sublimate when heated enough, so keeping the temperature to just above the ink film’s curing point can prevent the worst of it. Polyester presents fewer art-related issues than rough-textured garments, but you should still keep the number of colors low to minimize number of flashes or amount of heat applied. When sublimation is likely, minimize the larger flat areas of ink in a design that may highlight a color shift more prominently. In other words, a thin line of white that changes hue a little is less apparent than a large square (Figure 2). The thinner ink volume also requires less heat to flash and cure, which may help prevent excessive heat buildup.

Issue: The design needs to be printed in an unusual location, such as across the collar or onto a seam of a cotton shirt.
Solution: The demands for printing on different locations have reached the point where most printers can no longer reasonably refuse these requests. The best way to modify the artwork to print across a seam is to use less ink and a low-viscosity formulation. Water-based prints tend to work well when printing across seams and bumps because the ink is low enough in viscosity to soak into the garment rather than sit on the surface and spread out, pucker up, or pop back up into the screen. Artwork adjustment is usually necessary when going to a water-based print or low-viscosity plastisol because you must account for the greater ink flow.

A good way to adjust artwork for flowing across seams is to break up the surfaces of the artwork and make it distressed or worn looking (Figure 3). This prevents excessive ink buildup and can help cover any imperfections in the final print. One of the best ways to get a print to work well across the seam of a shirt is to use a water-based discharge ink to release the dye in the shirt so that the garment appears much brighter without the heavy feeling of a flashed plastisol print.

Issue: The garment is made of very lightweight material that is stretchy and almost see-through.
Solution: You must consider the appropriate printing process before you deal with artwork, as any print that is too heavy on this type of garment will be uncomfortable for the customer. Water-based ink is less likely to build up and create a heavy feel on a cotton garment.

Modifying the artwork for a lightweight garment requires careful regard for the demands of the art and the customer’s expectations. A common solution for this type of garment is similar to the solution for printing over seams. The goal is to break up the design surface using a distress filter or pattern that makes the print look a little worn. Many of the popular, modern styles of composite artwork on T-shirts show this distressed variation in tones that allow a complex graphic to cover a lot of the shirt without becoming too heavy (Figure 4).

Issue: The garment is heat sensitive, contains large amounts of nylon, or will likely melt when excessively heated.
Solution: The challenge to this type of garment is two-fold: Will the garment survive going through the dryer, and can this garment be printed on a standard press without a hold-down? You should first consider the odds of the garment surviving, because if it will not make it through a dryer, then you may need to adjust the whole process or refuse the job. The first step is to contact the manufacturer and ask for recommendations or decorating instructions.

The next step is to obtain the proper inks and equipment. Nylon garments need a catalyst added to the ink to ensure ink adhesion, and occasionally the surface may also need to be prepared and wiped down to ensure the design will survive a standard washing. If the garment will go through a standard dryer, then the design will work best when simplified for quick printing and curing. Large areas of ink on nylon garments have a habit of peeling up, and multiple colors are difficult to keep in register during flashes.

Jackets with an inside liner may need a special hold-down frame that prevents the garment’s surface from peeling up with the screen and damaging the print. If the garment order is small, you might consider using heat transfers instead of direct printing. The cost/value is better with the transfer process, and the scrap rate is easier to control. Keep in mind that many of these types of garments won’t survive a trip through the dryer. It is always better to refuse an order than to try to print it and have the whole run scrapped.

Predict to prevail
Heading off problems in printing can save enormous time on and off of the press. Knowing some of the advantages and limitations of both the newer garments and processes can help with the sales process and aid the client in understanding why their artwork may need to be modified to give them the best possible result when decorating a garment with a challenging surface.

Thomas Trimingham
Thomas Trimingham has worked in the screen-printing industry for more than 15 years as an artist, art director, industry consultant, and head of R&D for some of the nation’s largest screen printers. He is an award-winning illustrator, designer, and author of more than 45 articles on graphics for screen printing. He can be reached at ttrimingham@yahoo.com.

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