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The Basics of Printing on Athletic Fabrics

Posted by Andrea Sheley on 4/10/2018

Spring has sprung, and summer is just around the corner-which means its officially the start to athletic jersey/uniform season! It can be difficult to produce the same high-quality prints on athletic fabrics that you would on a traditional cotton substrate, so here are a few tips to help you sail your customers through the season with style.

Less is more…

Keep your design relatively simple-athletic fabrics should be chosen for their lightweight, slippery feel. Unfortunately, that texture can cause some considerable frustration when it comes to the screen printing press. The fabrics can shift easily during printing, which certainly can make it difficult to get clear registration. Because the lightweight shirts can easily stick, (causing the print to stretch when the shirt is pulled from the platen), you cannot necessarily rely on a platen adhesive to correct the problem, so when you approve the designs for athletic wear, try to choose something simple, with only a few colors. That help minimize the shifting of the substrate during printing.

Not all inks are created equally…

Be careful to choose the right ink for the job! Ink technology has really kept up with current athletic fabric trends, and so there are inks out there specifically formulated to address any challenges of printing on synthetic jersey fabrics. One such challenge is dye migration: When heated in the conveyor dryer, the dyes will release from your synthetic substrate, and settle into and discolor the ink. Low-bleed inks that cure at lower temperatures for longer times are the ones you should look for. Those particular inks are made to lessen the effects of dye migration.

Don’t underestimate the underbase…

Many times, athletic prints will be white ink on a dark substrate. Printing a white underbase, or even a special underbase gray, can help your ink really stand out-as well as helping to prevent dye migration. Print a light underbase layer, perform a flash cure, and lay down a thicker deposit of your final ink color on top.

Simple stretch 101…

One challenging aspect of printing on athletic materials is the elasticity of the fabric. Naturally, most performance fabrics are made to athletic movement, or they are made to stretch snuggly over equipment to add stability-like socks over shin guards in soccer.  While its great at helping keep things like equipment in place-that same elasticity can be problematic when it comes to screen printing. The substrate runs the risk of outstretching the ink, which inevitably causes the ink to crack. There are, however, inks that are made to have more stretch, which can be amplified by mixing a stretch additive into your ink. Be aware though, that can inhibit the ink from blocking dye migration. Just remember, low-bleed inks made to cure at lower temperatures are really what is going to be ideal for a new Spring season of stretchy, synthetic, athletic fabrics.

If your final product is going to be stretched tight when it’s worn over equipment, you can stretch the fabric slightly on the platen beforehand and apply your ink to pre-stretched fabric. Doing that allows the cured ink to stretch as needed, as well as aiding in the reduction of image distortion. Should you choose to stretch your fabrics during printing, you’ll need to make sure you’re careful not to smudge the ink when you remove it from the platen.

Remember to always plan ahead…

The bottom line is this: screen printing on synthetic, stretchy fabrics can be done successfully with a little preplanning, knowing exactly which inks you should be using on which substrates. Consider the obstacles the substrate will present. Most importantly, talk to your customer in advance to make sure they understand the possible limitations of the material-that way they’ll know exactly what to expect in the finished product.

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