Ever come up with a quote or a graphic that you thought was just begging to be put on a t-shirt? Or want to make your team or group seem official without spending a few hundred on shirts? Making novelty shirts for your friends or putting a logo on some wearable merch can be really fun and satisfying, but there is a reason shops/services charge so much to make custom shirts: it can be really time consuming and it’s easy to make mistakes that will ruin a shirt, bumping up the cost of production that you may have been trying to keep low. So, if you’re in a hurry or need absolute perfection, I might recommend going to professionals for at least part of the process. As with anything though, a little research, practice and the right supplies can get you exactly the results you’re after.
Essentially, there are two ways to get a design permanently on fabric: you can change the color of the fibers themselves via dyes or bleach, or you can add material, like inks, to mask the fibers. While you can always free-hand materials directly onto the fabric, the only way to efficiently and consistently produce the same detailed designs on multiple shirts is to use some sort of positive screen (color only the design area) or negative stencil (color around the design area). I’ll mostly be talking about how to screen print with fabric ink, then apply some of those principles to briefly cover bleaching/spraying with stencils and dying.
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Screen Printing: Basics
Screen printing is probably the method used to make almost any graphic tee you’ve ever bought. Here’s how it works:
- A design is separated into its component colors
- A fabric mesh (screen) is set tight into a frame
- Some kind of filler is used to block all the tiny holes in that screen where the ink is not wanted. This is done for each color.
- The screen(s), now acting as a stencil, is laid on a shirt and ink is squeegeed against it, pushing ink through all the un-blocked holes and into the fabric of the shirt
- The ink is set in an oven or with a hot press
This great 5-minute overview of the process by WH custom is still at a professional production level, but gives you a good sense of why it’s so much more difficult to get a full-color print. Each color requires an entirely different screen. This is why custom design services often include a flat fee per color involved, and charge less per shirt with higher quantity orders; the printing itself is the cheap/easy part compared to creating the screens.
As you can see, the basic idea is the same. The supplies and design you use will largely be determined by your time, skill and budget.
Design and materials
I suggest learning more about the process and determining what method and materials you want to use before settling on a final design. Depending on the colors and detail you want, you may need to change plans or adjust your budget, so it’s worth thinking about before you get in too deep. Of course, writing down your thoughts or doing a few rough sketches to develop your concept is never a bad idea.
I normally stick to one or two colors and avoid a lot of fine detail or gradients. This makes it much easier because I like to transfer my designs to the screen and align them by hand.
It’s best to have the shirts you want to print on before you start. This can help you decide the colors, size and shape of the design. Keep the cut of the shirt in mind; V-necks and low-cut shirts will obviously push the design down. Making measurements at this step will avoid having a design that looks too big/small/high/low. It’s also helpful to know the type of fabric. Different knits and fibers will accept more/less ink. A thick cotton will take a few passes to push enough ink into it and avoid a patchy print. The same amount of ink in a thin polyester might spread and ruin some detail. Some fabrics will stretch too, which can make designs warp or crack if the wrong type/amount of ink is used.
The shirt color is more than just a design decision. As the background, it does need to compliment the design, but more importantly, it can affect the resulting color of the ink. I experimented with my Savage shirts, printing many different color combos on various colors of shirt. You can see in the pic below how the orange ink turned brown when printed on a grey fabric (middle left) or on top of the blue ink base (bottom right). I got a similar brown printing directly onto the green shirt, but a nice bright orange when printing onto the yellow base of the same shirt.
The first thing to decide about the screen you will use is the size of the frame. Your design will need to fit inside with about an inch of space on all sides. You can buy frames specifically for screen printing. Most will have a groove so that you can lay the mesh over the bottom of the frame and squeeze a flexible cord into the groove to hold the mesh tight (exactly like a screen door). This let’s you re-use the frame with new mesh later. I’ve made frames with grooves using a table saw and even gotten away with stapling mesh to old picture frames, but honestly the entry level frames are not expensive and it saves a lot of time to just buy them.
Like I mentioned earlier, you can use things like pantyhose and embroidery hoops for frames and mesh, but it’s easier to squeegee the ink through from a square frame, and if the mesh is stretchy it can make it hard to trace your pattern onto it. I would stick to polyester mesh, which is pretty cheap by the yard on amazon.
If you’re buying mesh (or a pre-made screen) you’ll want to pay attention to the thread count, because it determines the resolution of the image you can produce, as well as how much ink will go through on a single pass. There is a really good description of How To Choose The Right Mesh from screenprinting.com. Basically, around 100 should be fine for quick prints with bold shapes, while closer to 200 will get you fine detail but less ink-per-pass.
Filling the Screen
As I said above, the screens work by allowing ink to go through any unblocked holes in the mesh, so you now need to block all the holes in the mesh, except the ones where you want ink (or at least a certain color of ink). If you fill a screen properly it can be used to print hundreds of times and small imperfections can be touched up as you go. There are pretty much three ways I’ve found to get a reliable fill: hand painting with drawing fluid, using a photo emulsion, or cutting away a vinyl mask. Each one has it’s pro’s and cons.
Drawing Fluid Method
This filling method works a lot like batik dying (covered at the end of this post). A waxy sort of temporary filler, called drawing fluid, is painted directly onto the screen, a more resilient filler is drawn over that and drys hard, filling the entire mesh. When washed, the drawing fluid dissolves and leaves the mesh open where it had been painted. This is the method I’m most practiced at. I used it most recently to make a shirt for Adam Savage.
To begin with, use either masking tape or duct tape on the top side of the screen down to form about a half inch border on the actual mesh. This makes sure no filler or ink gets between the mesh and the frame, squishing through where you don’t want it.
Unless you’re confident enough to simply freehand onto the mesh, you’ll want at least some kind of sketch to place behind the screen. In most cases I use Gimp or Photoshop to clean up a sketch or collage into clean black and white lines, then convert it to a vector graphic using Inkscape (like Illustrator), just to smooth it out.
The mesh is translucent, so you can trace onto it with a pencil fairly easily.
Whether you trace first or just use the image behind as a guide, paint the drawing fluid onto the screen in the exact shape of your design. Pay attention to the details because they will be replicated. It gets tiresome, but it sure beats hand painting every shirt.
Once the whole design is done, let it dry for at least a few hours. Flood the screen with filler, then let that dry until you feel no tacky spots (fans and lamps help). Be sure to leave it laying flat and raised off of any surface, with nothing touching the bottom of the screen. I misread the directions and left it vertical, meaning that as the filler was drying, the drawing fluid ran. Stupid mistake: had to start over.
If you get it right, it should wash out with a hard spray of cold water, leaving your design ready for printing once it drys. In my experience, it takes a good bit of pressure for spraying to work, so a gentle scrub from the back with a soft toothbrush, or a spritz from a fully-open spray bottle can help. This runs the risk of pushing filler out of the mesh in tiny pinpricks where you don’t want to, leaving ink speckles in your print.
Hold the dry screen up to the light. The filler should be fully opaque. If there are any open pores in the mesh, light will shine through and it should be easy to find them. You can paint on filler to cover these.
Here’s a nice video that probably does a better job explaining the process than I did.
Photo Emulsion Method
This method requires less skill, and can get you better details. Done right, it can even get gradients/halftones to allow color mixing or shading. The drawback is that it requires precise timing, a dark room, and a lot more set up. In short, the screen is flooded with a photosensitive filler that hardens when exposed to a certain amount of light. The idea is to obscure the photo emulsion where you will want the design, expose the rest of the screen, then wash out the un-hardened filler, leaving your complex design ready to print.
First, Get your design onto something transparent. This is normally done by printing onto a few transparencies, cutting them and using clear tape to line them up.
Now you need to prep the screen. Again, tape a border around the edge. Next, read the instructions on your emulsion. Some emulsions come pre-mixed while others are in two parts (this generally prolongs the shelf life). Once mixed, make sure the screen is in a dimly-lit area and flood it with an even layer of emulsion. Use the squeegee to even it out, front and back.
Once dry, follow the emulsion directions to expose it to the proper light source (and only that light source) for the specified amount of time. You can reduce the exposure time with a brighter light, but this also shrinks the window between none of the screen setting completely and parts of the screen you don’t want to set, setting completely.
I used the spray bottle to help get the parts I wanted clean, but it needed some patching up after, so I’m not sure if I under or over exposed it.
Ultimately, I’d hoped for a little bit cleaner lines and better shading, but it was still better than I could have done by hand.
And again, here’s your TLDR video:
I actually haven’t tried this method yet, so I don’t have much to say about it, but it looks really interesting, so I think it should be included here. Basically a thin vinyl sticker is used instead of filler. The design is cut away from the vinyl and it is stuck to the bottom of the screen to block the ink. This seems a lot cleaner, if not faster. I don’t know how well the vinyl adheres, so I’m not sure how many prints you can run with it. Check it out and consider it.
Or…skip it all
If you want to skip straight to the printing, or you don’t trust your screen-making skills via the above methods, you can upload images and have screens made at fairly reasonable costs. Anthem Printing seems like a good example of such a service, although I’ve never used it.
At long last, it’s time to lay down some ink. Make sure the shirts are clean and dry. Put some kind of separator between the front and back, in case any ink bleeds all the way through the fabric. I like to use cheap foamcore. Make sure the fabric isn’t being stretched, or the design will warp/pucker when worn. It should be fine, as long as it’s flat under the screen.
Make sure to keep your sleeves even on either side so you know you’re printing in the middle. If you don’t have a setup that keeps your screens aligned like PrintingPlans does in this video, take extra care to place the design where you want it. If the screen is clean you can move it around a little, but if it has ink on it from the last print, once it lays on the fabric, you’re committed to that placement.
There are a lot of different types of inks you can use. I’ve only used the ink in jars that came with the Speedball Kit, and small bottles of fabric paint that you can find at most hobby/fabric stores. The advantage of the jar is that you can scrape unused ink off the screen with the squeegee and put it back in the jar. Keep in mind that this starts to dry it out after a few prints, making it more viscous. Aside from the container, I haven’t noticed much difference between them, but if you want to know more about inks, CatSpitProductions has a good guide here.
Blob a few tablespoons or so (depending on size of screen and design) of ink onto the screen and scrape a thin layer across the whole design area. This is called flooding the screen. Flooding makes sure that all the pores of the mesh are primed. Now hold the squeegee at about a 30 degree angle and apply a little pressure to push the ink through as you pull it across the design. Exactly how many passes and how much pressure you need will depend on the type of ink/screen/fabric you are using.
If you’re doing a multicolor print where one color will lay over another, do the base coat first. Allow it to dry so that you don’t pull up any ink with the second screen.
RINSE YOUR SCREENS immediately after you’re done with the last print. Ink can dry fast and clog the mesh. If you’re not quick you may need some rubbing or even gentle brushing to get all the pores of the mesh clean.
If you create some pinprick holes, you can patch them up with more screen filler. As a quick temporary fix you can put tape on the back of the screen to block the holes so that you don’t have to wait for filler to dry before printing.
Put a layer of clean cloth over the dry design and iron for a few minutes to set the ink, and that’s about it! Get busy printing, practicing and experimenting. I’m by no means a professional at this, so watch other videos, read other guides and see what kind of cool stuff you come up with.
Spraying and dying
Aside from screen printing, there are two other ways I have made shirts: stenciling to spray with bleach or paint and dying with resist. These are arts unto their own, but I thought I would touch on my experience with them while we’re on the subject of making shirts.
The most obvious flaw of stencils is that you can’t have free-floating elements, like the inside of enclosed letters, without leaving a bridge to connect them.
Another pitfall of stenciling is having something rigid enough to hold the whole design flush against the fabric. Any gap between the stencil and fabric, and the coloring agent will travel underneath and give the design a fuzzy edge. This can be used as a design element, but it’s hard to avoid.
At the same time, dying is nearly impossible to reproduce consistently, but gives some of the most dynamic textures and gradients.
There is a great way to solve the gap problem of stenciling, and even part of the free-floating problem: parchment paper. You can cut a stencil out of it, then iron it on to the fabric. It has enough waxyness that it sticks nice and tight. I used this method to make a shirt in honor of my favorite rap group.
You determine how light the fabric will get with bleach by either diluting it less, letting it set in longer, or spraying more on. I would recommend against spraying so much that large droplets form; they may combine run, and seep under edges.
This shirt actually had four stencils. First, I did the paint spot under the lemon by holding an oval stencil up off the shirt slightly, giving it fuzzy edges. Next, I ironed on the paper and sprayed the can and lemon. The paint drips on the lemon had a stencil and got a good spritz so they were nice and bright.
Finally, I peeled off the paper and held a triangle ever so slightly off the shirt for the jet of paint from the nozzle.
NightHawkInLight has an okay video tutorial below. You can tell that his method of cutting the paper after applying it to the fabric results in nicks and holes. I would recommend cutting the paper on a cutting mat, cardboard or glass first, laying it out, then carefully ironing it on. I do, however, like how he uses negative and positive stencils to be creative with the designs.
Bleaching is actually very versatile and straight forward. You can use just about anything that bleach wont go through to make your stencils. Planning designs out and experimenting with application techniques can produce some great stuff.
I have limited experience with stenciling shirts in any other way, because I’ve never used a proper airbrush. I have made shirts with stencils and spraypaint, but you have to be careful washing it the first few times, the colors may not show well on various fabrics, and obviously, it smells like paint for a while. This Scott Pilgrim pee bar shirt was made that way and, as you can see, after a just a few washes the colors all faded considerably.
Stenciling could be almost as efficient as screening if you have a good stencil, but I have a hard time believing anything but the most top-shelf paints would keep from fading when sprayed on as opposed to forced deep into the fiber.
I made one shirt for a class where we were practicing dying techniques. I used clear Elmer’s glue to splatter some lines, a logo and some lyrics from one of my favorite albums at the time onto a shirt. I dyed a gradient into it and was amazed at how well humble Elmer’s held up as a batik resist.
I finished with some speckling of a dark dye for some gritty texture. I would recommend using the blue glue that dries clear, so that you can see what you are doing as you design.
This method is not something that can be mass produced, unless you were to screen the glue onto a shirt as a resist, then dye it.
I may just have to try that now.
Thanks for reading!
If you see any designs you like, feel free to use the CONTACT button or facebook to ask if I still have a PDF stashed somewhere so you can give it a try yourself, or to share your own T-shirt endevors!