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Making Art Friendly for Unfriendly Surfaces

(June 2010) posted on Mon May 24, 2010

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

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By Thomas Trimingham

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


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