The surface of a garment can dictate, in a significant way, which decoration process will work the best. A standard T-shirt is the most popular fabric surface in part because of its ability to work with most decorating styles. The task becomes trickier when you attempt to decorate on fabrics that are woven looser or have a rougher surface; a garment that is created with larger threads may have a weave that has ribs, ridges or large seams. You become much more limited in both artwork and decorating styles.
If you are unsure of how to work with a fabric, then it is imperative that you acquire a sample before you promise a method of decoration to a customer. Even if the garment specs state that it is acceptable to use a certain decoration type, you should still verify that the garment will not have seams, liners, pockets or other challenges that may make the decoration method you are considering extra difficult.
Garments that have rough surfaces can be grouped into different categories depending on the fabric types. The most common are: ribbed, piqué, mesh, terrycloth, canvas and denim. Of course, there are many other variations of these, but to keep things simple, it is easier to focus on the most popular styles.
Each of the garment weaves may be formulated with different compositions of fibers, so it’s important to pay attention to the fabric composition and not just the weave of the garment. A nylon fabric, for instance, is very heat-sensitive and requires a special additive for screen printing ink to adhere. Some woven polyesters may look similar to nylon, but they can be printed with normal screen-printing ink and won’t have the same extreme heat sensitivity. The lesson is to read the labels to determine composition. If you are still unsure, get a sample and test the decoration method on it first – especially if the order is large or composed of expensive apparel.
The following is a breakdown of the most common weaves that can challenge decorators with rougher surfaces, and what are the recommended decorating methods for each fabric.
Ribbed: The most popular ribbed garments are ladies’ and men’s tank tops, fitted undershirts and ladies-cut tees. There are different ribs – 1x1 ribs, baby ribs and other rib styles that have both large and small ribs together – so it is a good idea to get a sample to see how the shirt will hold a print. On a close inspection, you can see these garments have vertical ridges. The lightweight versions of these garments are not good for embroidery, heavy screen prints or heat press (unless the heat press is a lighter peel print or broken into small pieces). Because they are fitted, these methods can be too heavy for the fabric, altering the shape or making them uncomfortable. The ribs are not easily screen printed with normal ink and may crack due to the stretch of the fabric when worn. Especially with ladies ribbed tank tops that are fitted, the best print would be a waterbase ink, a reduced viscosity ink or an ink with a stretch additive so that the print sinks into the garment and covers the high and low areas of the ribs. Another solution to ribbed fabric is to create a distressed print (Figure 1) that will work with the rib and won’t appear awkward if the print doesn’t cover perfectly.
Piqué: The piqué weave is usually seen in thicker polo shirts. These garments can be screen printed, although it is dependent on the artwork; designs with a lot of details may become damaged if the print doesn’t cover. The holes in a piqué fabric can be large enough to show through a thinner screen print and may cause breakdown in a heat-press application because not enough of the fabric touches the pressed area. Embroidery (Figure 2) will always be a fool-proof option for piqué garments. Since the fabric is thicker, the embroidered threads don’t affect the feel of the garment, and this method will also wear the best over repeated washings compared to screen printing or heat press.
Mesh: Mesh fabric is a staple item for uniforms and athletic shirts and shorts. Special attention needs to be paid to the fabric composition, particularly nylon, which requires special inks or additives and is sensitive to heat. A large majority of mesh garments are made from polyester, and well-suited for screen printing. Heat press and sublimation also work well. Mesh isn’t good for embroidery due to the large holes, and since they are often worn in athletic settings, so comfort can be a concern. A decision needs to be made and discussed with the client whether they would like a print to bridge the holes of the mesh or not. If the fabric is a large mesh and the client wants a print or set of numbers to cleanly cover the mesh (Figure 3), then a heat press application may be the best solution. It will provide the most consistent coverage with less risk of some of the mesh showing holes through the print.
Terrycloth: The biggest concern with garments that are terrycloth is that the fibers of the weave stick out away from the surface in many directions, like hair. This “fuzzy” fabric is used in towels, socks and also some sweatshirts and pants. Larger threads that stand away from the surface can make screen printing difficult. Heat-pressed vinyl is also not commonly done on these items because the surface of the heat press may not get enough of the item to adhere, and the design will be less permanent. One process that is worth mentioning on terrycloth is sublimation. The most common solution for decorating towel-like fabric is to use a thinner ink that will soak in, such as waterbase or reduced viscosity ink (Figure 4). If you use embroidery, use it in smaller areas so it doesn’t alter the surface feel too much.
Canvas: Canvas fabric is often used in book bags, totes and jackets. In many respects, canvas fabric has the same print concerns as a ribbed garment without the stretching issues. The canvas has hills and valleys on its surface that a thin print may not cover, so the ink may need to be modified thinner or printed thicker to cover over the gaps (Figure 5). Thinning the ink will allow it to spread into the valleys of the fabric; a thicker ink will cover the dips in the fabric like a solid patch (but may have less durability with less fabric contact). Canvas is rugged, so embroidered and heat-press decorations work well on canvas. There are fewer limitations than some of the other styles.
Denim: Denim fabric is commonly used for jeans, shirts, jackets and accessories. In many respects it is very similar to a baby rib, but the advantage to denim is that there is usually more fabric to work with than a thinner rib shirt. It can be printed, embroidered and even heat pressed (rhinestones and rhinestuds are particularly popular on jeans) without too much trouble. The same ink sensitivity applies to the denim surface as a ribbed garment, so distressed images (Figure 6) or thinner inks (waterbase or reduced viscosity) will make printing easier and more consistent.