When it comes to T-shirt printing, not all fabrics are created equal.
Fabrics are to printers what canvases are to artists. A bad canvas can ruin a beautiful painting and the same can be said about a T-shirt made out of a poor-quality material. This is why it is important to pay attention to textiles.
In this post, we’re going to talk about fabrics and what the best choices are for each printing technique. But in order to understand the delicate relationship between fabrics and printing, first, we must understand how fabrics are categorised.
Part 1 – Types of fabrics
Fabrics fall into two or three types depending on whom you ask: natural, synthetic or a blend of the two. Let’s take a look at some of the properties of the two primary ones.
These textiles have existed pretty much since the start of civilisation. Some examples of cotton found in Mexico and Pakistan date back to 5000 BC and the oldest known piece of wool, which was excavated in Denmark, has been traced all the way to 1500 BC.
As the name suggests these fabrics come from nature — more specifically plants and animals. The fibres are extracted from the natural resource and then through a process (woven or threaded) turned into a textile. For example, wool comes from sheep coats, while silk is extracted out of fibres of silk-worm and cotton is made out of cotton-plant seed pods.
Inside the realm of natural fabrics, we can find a couple of sub-categories.
There are different kinds of fibres that come from plants and vegetables. These include seed hairs (cotton), stem or bast (flax and hemp), leaf (sisal) and husk (coconut). Some of the most popular plant-based fabrics are:
- Coir (Coconut)
- Linen (Flax)
- Piña (Pineapple)
These fibres include wool, hair, skin and secretions. Some of the most popular animal-based fabrics are:
- Camel hair
As the name implies, these are man-made textiles. The first synthetic fabric was created in the late XIX century by Sir Joseph Wilson Swan an English physicist, chemist and inventor. He achieved this by chemically modifying the fibre found in tree bark.
Synthetic fabrics have a bad reputation for being plastic-like but nowadays, they have become really good at imitating natural fabrics, sometimes the only way to tell the difference is by looking at the label of the garment. Some of these textiles breathe well and others are even sustainable.
Synthetic fabrics are designed to outperform natural ones in certain aspects such as elasticity and impermeability. These qualities have turned them into the material of choice for sportswear. Some of the most popular Synthetic fabrics are:
Part 2 – The relationship between printing and fabrics
When it comes to printing, natural fabrics seem to fair than synthetic ones. Simply because the first group is better at absorbing liquids. The latter is usually made out of plastic and oil, which if you recall your chemistry lessons, have a tendency to repel water.
That being said, there are certain printing techniques which require synthetic fabrics in order to work.
There are countless printing techniques and every day there seems to be a new one. Each one interacts differently with fabrics, which is why it is important to know how they work.
Note: While we’ll briefly explain the different printing techniques here, I’d suggest you check the other more specific posts we’ve written on the subject.
Preferred Fabric: Cotton
A technique which consists of applying ink through a silk screen onto the fabric. The ink only goes through the permeable areas. More often than not, screen printers use water-based inks and these work like wonders on cotton.
DTG (Directo to Garment)
Preferred Fabric: Cotton
Works just like an office digital printer but instead of paper, it prints onto fabric. It is recommended for complex designs that require high levels of detail and colour variation. Unlike screen printing which can use different inks, DTG works exclusively with the water-based kind. In order to get the best results with this technique, use a 100% cotton garment.
Preferred Fabric: Polyester
There are many kinds of transfers, these include CAD-cut vinyl which is a type of transfer that uses a computer to cut a design out of a self-adhesive vinyl. For the most part, these use heat to pass the design from a special kind of paper to the garment.
Transfers are the most versatile of printing techniques and they work on almost any material. But just because any fabric goes, it does not mean they all work the same. Because must transfers are essentially plastic, they attach pretty well to the synthetic fabrics.
Preferred Fabric: Polyester
Sublimation is one of the most revolutionary printing techniques out there since, unlike the others, it does not just print but melts pigments onto the material — making it all the same object. This is the type of method used for overall prints.
Due to the way sublimation works, it can only be used on synthetic fabrics — more specifically polyester. Simply put, the colour wouldn’t adapt to another kind.
Preferred Fabric: Anything that’s sturdy enough
Since it’s not a printing technique — it’s actually embellishment, embroidery has got different requirements. In this case, instead of absorption, we’re looking for sturdiness. The stronger the fabric, then the more chances it has of surviving the process. Not every material can resist the simultaneous drilling of several needles. The tighter the weave of a fabric is, then the better it will work.
Part 3 – Conclusion
If there’s only one thing you’ll take away from this blog post, let it be this one: When dealing with transfers and sublimation, stick to polyester. If it’s another printing technique, then choose cotton. It is the absolute king.
Understandably, you won’t always be able to use 100% cotton. In that case, your second best choice would be a blend of cotton and something else. 80% – 20%, 70% – 30%, 50% – 50% — the more cotton it has, the better the end result will be.
Even if you use 100% cotton, the end result may vary depending on the consistency of the fabric. Thicker materials are heavier and tend to absorb more ink, resulting in rich colours that will outlast thinner materials. Finer and shinier fabrics absorb less ink which results in a “washed out” print.
Keep in mind that pretreatment is part of the process and can greatly affect the final result. Different techniques require different types of treatments for the design to fully print, but most of these consist of layering a coat of special chemical on the garment.
Experiment, Experiment and Experiment
Even with T-shirts of 100% cotton, results may vary depending on the supplier. Try it out with many different brands until you find the proper one.
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