At Lab Seven, we pride ourself on our ability to achieve bright, eye-catching designs and soft prints. However, in our craft, we are engaged in a constant battle with the laws of physics. (Remember Neo, they can be bent but not broken. There is no spoon.)
Typically with screen printing, print brightness and print softness are inversely proportional. As wearers of t-shirts, (it's practically the uniform here at The Lab) it is always our priority to deliver the softest and most comfortable prints possible. The print should be seen, not felt! Nobody wants a nice soft, breathable tee with a stiff, sticky screen print on it!
As with any major endeavor, the best way to ensure a successful outcome is to begin with the end goal in mind. Understanding the variables that best lend themselves to soft screen prints before you begin designing can make a huge difference once we get your design up on the press.
That said, here are few helpful screen printing “inside baseball” tips to keep in mind before you begin your project that will help make your prints as soft as can be! Whether you’re an Adobe veteran, tinkering in our Design Lab, or working directly one of our in house artists – knowing how different inks and fabrics interact will go a long way in creating something we're all proud of!
Use Colors That 'Pop' on Light Garments
'Dark on Light' is one of the simplest workarounds to the heavy print problem. Wherever possible and desirable, try a higher contrast color scheme so that the ink colors being printed are darker than the shirt color they are being printed on (i.e Black ink on a green shirt or Blue ink on a heather gray tee). In this scenario, we can print with significantly less ink deposit on the garment resulting in a much softer feeling print. Alternatively, printing light or bright colors on DARK shirts naturally lends itself to a thicker print – we have to print with a heavier opacity ink, and often with a white under-base to get accurate and bright Pantone colors.
Designing with Vintage/Distress Textures
Intentionally 'aging' your print with subtractive texturing is another helpful tool. With this technique, we apply a distressed texture or filter over the design which subtly removes information from the artwork to make it appear faded, aged and worn. This also allows for a lighter ink deposit while still keeping colors true to Pantone. More of the shirt color is revealed in the print which also contributes to the effect. This is a great option if it fits with your design style.
Using Discharge ink can be a great option as well. In this application, we print a time-sensitive chemical agent that will actually remove the dye from your tee shirt. The goal here is no ink deposit at all (essentially a controlled bleach on the fabric). After printing, all that remains is the natural color of the cotton before the shirt was dyed during manufacturing. After the garment is washed, the screen print becomes almost completely indiscernible from the rest of the shirt – zero texture whatsoever. Caveats to this process are that the shirt must be 100% cotton (see our post on shirt fabrics), and the color of the discharge – once cured into the shirt, cannot be controlled. The natural cotton color that is revealed by the discharge agent can vary slightly depending on the shirt manufacturer, but generally looks something like this:
This process works on any shirt color except whites and heather/blended fabrics. If this application interests you, just mention discharge printing when you call or email, and we can make sure to steer you in the right direction!
If you still want your prints to be almost undetectable, but the off-white discharge color just won't do for you, plasti-charge printing is a combination of the discharge agent and standard plastisol ink (see below). With this screen printing technique, we can still achieve custom colors and very soft prints, but the color saturation tends to be a little more on the muted and pastel side of the spectrum (think un-coated Pantone colors instead of solid coated). If you're looking for very saturated, bright ink colors, this may not be your best choice. This process uses the dye removing elements of the discharge agent to neutralize the fabric while at the same time depositing the pigment from the plastisol ink on top. Once machine washed, almost all of the ink material washes away leaving the pigment from the ink, but virtually no plastisol texture. The result is a nice, soft print just like we planned! Again, with this option, the shirt must be 100% cotton (although we have found a way to get bright white plasticharge on triblend shirts, assuming your artwork happens to be all white).
Plastisol [plas-tuh-sawl] is our most common ink application. Living at our altitude and with generally low humidity here in Colorado, plastisol ink is ideal for most screen printing projects. We can get the brightest, most saturated, and longest lasting prints with these inks rather than using water based alternatives. They do have some texture to them but we're always working to keep them as soft, bright, and durable as possible. We've had great success using chemical reducers to thin the ink out without affecting it's color, and experimenting with finer detail screens to control the thickness of the ink coverage on the garment. This ink would be the required method when printing on anything other than 100% cotton, and can have some noticeable texture to it when printing lighter ink colors on dark colored garments. *Unless otherwise specified, this is typically the default print method we use on all projects
Low Bleed Inks
When printing on 100% polyester or performance style tees and hoodies, Low Bleed poly inks are recommended. Due to higher cure temperatures with our standard plastisol inks, the dye in 100% polyester fabrics tend to release and migrate into the ink, staining the color of the print (i.e. White plastisol ink on red poly shirts tends to turn pink). Low Bleed ink cures at a lower temperature – preventing 'dye-migration' from happening. This is very helpful for color accuracy, but it does have a bit more thickness and density to it. To avoid this, you might consider using a 65/35 poly/cotton blend – still nice and moisture wicking but allow us to stick with plastisol ink. (Again, see our post on shirt fabrics to learn more about 65/35 blended garments.)
We hope you’ve found this informative and helpful. Feel free to share this article to inform your designers, friends, and fellow screen printing enthusiasts! As always, call or write with questions!
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