5 Tips for Screen Printing on Cotton

When choosing the best fabric for a screen printing project, it’s nearly impossible to beat 100% cotton. It’s easy to work with and tends to be suitable for most jobs. And, screen printing on cotton is less complex than printing on other options, including fleece, polyester, acrylic and blended fabrics.

With cotton, the risk of bleeding and dye migration is significantly reduced. As a natural fiber with texture, cotton absorbs ink more readily than your other options. For example, acrylic and polyester fabrics are both less porous than cotton, so the ink doesn’t stick as easily. And, perhaps most importantly, many customers favor 100% cotton garments. They are slightly heavier than blends, breathable, and hypoallergenic. What’s not to love?

Now, that’s not to say that screen printing on cotton is foolproof. There is a definite art to optimizing your results and ensuring a crisp, high-quality print on cotton. Here’s how to get it right, every time:

Choose the right cotton for your project

Not all 100% cotton garments are created equally. Any variables will impact your results and need to be considered. For example, very thick cotton will absorb your ink and produce a faded look, while a tightly woven, thin cotton t-shirt will create a more opaque print.

You also want to account for the various types of cotton fabrics available. Tees made using carded open end cotton are the cheapest option. However, up close these garments are fuzzy and uneven – which makes obtaining a high-quality screen print nearly impossible. Conversely, 100% ring-spun and combed cotton tees are finer and softer. They also offer a significantly smoother surface, which produces a superior print. For more tips on choosing the perfect t-shirt for your project, read our blog post about here.

And finally, choose the color of your fabric carefully. Some greens, blues, and reds don’t work well with discharge ink, and a dark shirt color will influence any light hues in your artwork.

Get strategic with your artwork

Your artwork is probably the most important step in creating a high-quality print. As such, it needs to be thoughtfully designed with screen printing in mind. Make sure there’s a crisp contrast between the color of your ink and the garment to ensure visibility and readability. Also, consider the size of your design. The larger the graphic, the thicker the cotton t-shirt will feel. Check out this blog post for more tips on how to create a successful, custom t-shirt graphic.

When printing on a thin fabric, such as a 100% cotton t-shirt, you’ll get the best outcome if your work surface is as flat as possible. If the garment features a pocket, plan the artwork around it. Printing over uneven areas or seams will produce inconsistency in the design, creating a gap where the ink from the screen missed the shirt.

Choose the right ink

Because cotton is so easy to work with, you can use most general purpose inks with this fabric. Platisol ink, which is the most widely used garment ink in the U.S., is a great choice. Water-based ink will create a softer print than platisol and also works well with cotton. And finally, discharge ink is only usable with 100% cotton garments and is a great choice for dark fabric colors. It works by removing the dye used to color the garment and replacing it with pigmented ink color. This allows you to work with darker colored garments without the need for under basing.

Check for (and fix) registration issues

Regardless of your skill level, registration issues can be a massive pitfall when you’re screen printing on cotton. To pinpoint them, review each screen individually. Check for alignment problems, low-tension screens, and an unleveled platen, to name just a few of the most common issues that may arise. And, always register the screens together with registration marks to make sure they line up.

Adjust your off-contact distance

No matter what kind of fabric you print on, you will need to adjust your off-contact distance, which is the space between the screen and the garment. There needs to be enough room to snap the screen off cleanly and create a sharp print – about 1/8” for a simple cotton t-shirt.

Even though cotton has a (well-deserved) reputation for being versatile and easy to work with, always do a test run before printing an entire order. This will give you the opportunity to make adjustments as you go – and save you from making a costly mistake.

What experiences have you had when screen printing on cotton garments? Let us know in the comments!

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