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Printing on Activewear

Performance fabrics present an interesting challenge to garment printers. The advice presented here will help you choose the appropriate inks for the job and predict the influence of the garment graphic on the finished piece.

It is no secret that activewear and performance garments are continuing to grow in popularity. The fluctuating costs of cotton, combined with innovations in fibers, fabric weaves, and overall advancements in garment technology have driven the growth of activewear within the industry. For example, manufacturers have added wicking technologies to collared shirts, polo shirts, and even children’s wear.

The ripple of consumer response and increased demand for performance garments has been equally noticeable. A national fitness campaign and greater focus on personal fitness has undoubtedly raised awareness and given voice to a more active society. With this, we have seen the rise of more and more active events, fitness institutions, and the formation of a new, niche market of active consumers.

Now, what does this mean to screen printers and our industry? In the past, few ink options existed for printing onto these new fabrics. However, many ink manufactures on the forefront of the movement have developed inks specifically for printing on these types of garments. These innovative inks designed for performance wear have increased bleed-resistance properties to a much higher level than previously offered. In addition, inks developed for printing on polyester include added elasticity and are designed for printing on a wider range of mesh counts, thus supporting further detail in designs. The inks are easy to work with and offer more opportunity for advanced artwork on performance garments.

However, the solution does not remain solely in the ink. Many factors contribute to the success or failure of a print. Not all activewear and performance garments are the same. It is important to do some work and research before you pull your squeegee to ensure you have the best print possible.

Substrate
The first step when printing on activewear is to define and evaluate the substrate. This should include defining the fiber content, fabric weave and texture, specialty fiber/fabric finishes, and any other unique properties that may affect the print process.

Fiber content As we know, most activewear and performance garments use synthetic fibers. What is the fiber content your substrate? Could the fabric present ink-adhesion problems? Do the fibers have potential to bleed dye into the ink? Does the fiber content lend to stretch? Composition of the garment is very important. The fiber content will dictate any special properties you will need to look for when choosing an ink.

It is important to remember that many fibers or fiber blends may require multiple additional properties, so carefully evaluate each one to ensure you get the best result. This is a great time to contact an ink manufacturer or distributer to obtain a recommendation for additional or job-specific information.

Fabric weave and texture New, innovative, and specialty fabric weaves continue to drive innovation in performance textiles. Although most of the fabric weaves seen today may be new or uncommon to the everyday screen printer, it is important to examine these to understand how the ink will sit on the garment.

Specialty finishes or performance properties A lot of the difficulty in tackling performance wear is translating the fabric/garment nomenclature and its associated properties. Many garment manufacturers and brands have trademarked names for performance fabrics. What Brand A calls Active-Fit could likely be very similar in content to what Brand B calls Quick-Wick. Familiarize yourself with the content and basic technology of these trademark names.

Ink
After looking at the content of the garment, it is important to ensure that you understand the limitations of the ink and garment and use that knowledge to select the appropriate ink for the job. Consider the following properties:

Bleed resistance Polyester is an inherent bleeder, meaning that the dye used in polyester will leach or sublimate through an ink film, consequently shifting the color of the ink film. This material requires the use of a bleed-resistant ink. If the garment is dyed polyester and is engineered to stretch, you’ll need to select an ink that has bleed resistance and supports elongation.

Adhesion Nylon is another common synthetic fabric in the athletic market; however, nylon brings up a completely different issue of adhesion. Many ink manufactures have options for this as well—yes, even for stretchy nylon. Depending on the fiber denier (high denier equals a smoother surface) or weave of the nylon, a performance ink may also be used. If the denier is lower or the nylon garment is dazzle cloth or even nylon mesh, many performance inks will still print with little to no issue. If the garment fiber has a high denier, an ink designed specifically for printing on nylon is required.

Adding a catalyst to standard inks when printing on nylon fabrics is a somewhat common practice. Be cautious with the catalyst as it makes the ink brittle and is therefore not recommended for printing on stretchy nylon. Again, take a look at the stretch required by the garment. Stretch in a nylon garment can amplify adhesion issues. In some instances, when a very stretchy garment is stretched to its limits, the ink is not able to adjust or keep up with the elongation. Some areas of the ink film may start to break away from the garment, causing further adhesion issues.

Stretch properties If the garment has high-elongation components in it, such as spandex, then it is very likely that the ink will need extra elongation. Many times, an ink that supports a standard amount of elongation will be printed on a garment with stretch, and the ink will crack before the garment reaches its full potential for stretch. This is especially true for inks with extra bleed resistance, which are typically printed on performance wear. This phenomenon will often be mistaken for undercured ink when in reality the ink doesn’t have as much elongation as the garment.

Evaluate the elasticity of the ink as compared to the stretch of the garment, and only choose an ink that is formulated for sufficient elasticity to expand with the garment and return to its normal state without negative effects. Many ink manufacturers offer stretch additives; however, it is important to understand how these may affect the bleed-resistance properties of the standard ink.

White inks For cotton/poly blends, it is common to have a white ink that has bleed resistance and to print colors on top. A white ink designed for printing on polyester has a limited amount of stretch, is heavy in hand and body, is printed through more open or coarse mesh, and generally has difficulty with supporting halftone printing. Nylon inks do not offer great opacity and most likely need to be underbased. However, new performance inks have fewer limitations. They can be printed through finer mesh, hold great halftones, and support high elongation.

Design and print
Now that you’ve evaluated the substrate and defined the ideal ink for the job, you can now move on to the often more exciting details of design and overall print concept. While in the creative process, be aware of the intended use, function, and performance characteristics of the garment (Figure 1).

Here’s an example: If the apparel is a wicking garment for a regional foot race, you do not want a huge, bullet-proof print located on the chest and/or back. This takes away from the wicking properties (and intended benefit) of the garment. Adjust your artwork to complement the garment. Get creative! Consider placing art in areas other than the left chest and full back. A clean design centered on the chest with two or three colors and sponsors printed on the back in one color may be a good option. A tonal print that will not inhibit bleed is also a nice choice and, in addition, can be very soft. As innovations in activewear and performance fabrics continue to expand into everyday T-shirts—and even corporate wear—lightweight and refined graphics can add new dimension to the typical embroidered and single-color designs.

Don’t forget to again reference the texture of the garment. A standard ink designed for the garment type will take on the texture of the garment. A tonal print similar to the one previously discussed is great for garments that have texture as it will sink down into the garment. If that is not an option, consider doing faux embroidery or a simulated patch. This incorporates special effects into the performance wear and works particularly well on collared or polo shirts.

Remember, the graphic will take away from the wicking or performance properties of the garment, so keep it small.

It is important to discuss and clearly communicate to the customer any and all limitations that activewear and/or performance garments may present. It is not uncommon for customers to ask for something that is just not possible. Most customers are happier when they know up front what is and is not possible when dealing with expensive performance wear.

Research options and know what your shop is capable of printing. It may require some time and effort in R&D, but it is a great opportunity to offer more to your customers. Keep records of your past jobs, including notes of successes and failures in production. This will prevent you from starting from scratch with each new garment, and can even prevent wasted testing efforts or costly mistakes.

In a saturated and competitive market, the ability to print successfully on activewear and performance garments offers a great opportunity to expand into a growing and lucrative niche. In fact, it may be just what your business needs to further specialize and maintain a competitive edge. Remember, printing on these fabrics is not what it used to be. Don’t be afraid to be different!

This article was provided by Erin Lamb, Wilflex Inks Div., PolyOne Corp., Avon Lake, OH.

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