How to Screen Print on Performance Apparel

Screen printing on performance apparel – primarily jerseys and workout gear – can be quite a challenge for screen printers, as you know.

Performance fabrics like polyester and spandex are coveted because they are lightweight and dry quickly when printed on. In fact, these types of fabrics are becoming more popular, not only with athletic teams, but with weekend warriors as well. As such, screen printers are seeing more requests for screen printing on these types of fabrics.

So why do screen printing techniques on this type of fabric create such a challenge? Generally, athletic apparel is made from stretchy synthetic fibers and fabrics which must be printed on in the correct way to avoid overstretching and discoloration of the dyes.

To meet these challenges, you should start with a simple design. Because lightweight, slippery type fabrics are more prone to shifting during the printing process, try to work with your client to choose a simple design with only a few colors. This will make the process more forgiving to shifting of the substrate while printing.

Several challenges arise when it comes to choosing the right ink. Luckily, ink technology has done an excellent job of keeping up with trends in athletic fabrics, so that inks are available that are designed specifically for screen printing techniques on this fabric.

The main challenge when it comes to ink is dye migration. Unfortunately, this is the biggest problem we face, but also the one we have the least control over. To help combat this issue, look for low-bleed inks which cure at lower temps for longer times, designed especially to deal with dye-migration issues.

Darker substrates require an under-base of white ink or possibly a special gray ink, which can help the ink stand out and prevent dye migration. To achieve this, print the lighter under-base layer, then perform a flash cure, and finally, lay down the thicker ink color on top of this. Results won’t always be perfect, but this lighter under-base is necessary to create a print that looks nice.

Remember that when drying your ink, avoid the temptation of speeding up the process for faster results. Heat is the enemy and time our friend.

A final factor to consider is stretch. Performance apparel fabrics are stretchy in order to work with the athlete’s body in a variety of situations to ensure the most comfort possible. But because they’re stretchy, it makes them that much more difficult to print on, as the elasticity can cause the ink to crack.

To help combat this problem, you can pre-stretch the fabric and apply the ink to it then, so that when it’s cured, the image won’t be as distorted and the possibility of cracking will be reduced.

Unfortunately, there is no one solution or answer to the challenges and questions of how to screen print on performance apparel. Think about the potential problems you’ll face and formulate a strategy before you commence the printing process. Communicate with your client and be honest about the challenges and limitations you’ll face so that everyone’s expectations are in sync.

With a little time and patience, you can achieve the desired result both you and your client seek and produce a beautiful finished product.

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