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How to Create a Distressed Look While Screen Printing

Posted by Mary Yaeger on 3/2/2018

Cozy, comfortable and lived-in looking screen prints are all the rage now. Distressed prints look more relaxed and customers have gravitated toward this style for years. Luckily for screen printers, it is easier to achieve this look than you might think.


Water based and discharge inks are two popular printing styles because they dye the fabric rather than sit on top like plastisol. Water based inks are preferred for light garments and discharge inks are preferred for dark garments. These inks may have a hand-feel at first, but after the first wash you will notice that the prints almost feel non-existent.

A similar hand feel can be achieved with plastisol by mixing the ink with an additive or a base. The colors will be more vibrant using plastisol. If you want to achieve softer tones use a thin ink layer and light pressure on the squeegee. For best results printing a vintage tee with plastisol, you will want to distress your design before exposing. This can be done in your design software of choice. We have seen people scan web-like material, rocks, tree bark, cracked paint and old wood to create a texture for their designs.

We recommend using a 230 mesh count screen with any of the inks you choose to print with.

Shirt Material

Tri-blend or 50/50 garments are preferred for the soft worn-in style, but printing a distressed look on cotton tees is possible. You can use a textured design to add to the illusion, and use an additive to soften the plastisol.

When printing on tri-blends you may run into some difficulties. Tri-blend shirts are typically made of 3 materials – cotton, polyester and rayon. This blended material is subject to dye migration which occurs when the polyester is heated and the dye in the shirt turns to gas. The shirts are stretchy in nature so you will want to be mindful how you load the shirt. Another thing to keep in the back of your mind when running your shirts through the dryer is that rayon burns at high temperatures.

50/50 garments (a blend of polyester and cotton) are the most popular shirts we have seen people use. While the polyester fibers are subject to dye migration at high temperatures, you will have an easier time curing your shirts than worrying if your shirts are burning in the dryer.

Final Notes

1.       Avoid using an under base. An under base requires curing with a flash which means your shirt will stay consistently hot creating a higher risk for problems like dye migration.

2.       Print wet-on-wet.

3.       Use a think ink deposit and light squeegee pressure on a 230 mesh count screen.

After a little consideration and prep work, you will be able to create a lightweight vintage t-shirt that will have your customers coming back for more.

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