For thousands of years, screen printing offered an elegant way to create richly colored printed designs on fabric. Today, the most popular use of this ancient art form is to create graphic t-shirts! But before you start printing your own tees, you probably want to know what the best fabric for screen printing is.
Cotton is the best fabric for screen printing because cotton fibers absorb moisture well. Many commercial screen printers use only 100% cotton t-shirts for this reason. But it is also possible to screen print on many other types of fabric, including silk, polycotton, polyester, and even acrylic.
In this article, you will learn about the best eight fabrics for screen printing. You will find out what materials you need for screen printing. Finally, you will discover what materials you should not screen print on.
Can You Screen Print on Any Fabric?
You can screen print on any fabric if you modify your printing technique for the type of fiber and fineness or coarseness of the weave. It is easiest to screen print on cotton fabrics such as jersey knit or plain-weave cotton. Some expert printers can work with textured fabrics like wool, but these present many challenges and do not work with screen printing as easily as cotton or polyester.
Screen printing uses a multi-step process to apply stenciled designs onto fabric or t-shirts.
First, a printer creates stencils on mesh stretched over a wooden frame. This process usually works much like developing a photo, using a chemical emulsion to form the negative of an image or shape on the screen.
Second, the printer arranges the screen over the t-shirt and uses a squeegee to push ink through the stenciled screen and onto the fabric.
Finally, the printer uses a heating element like a heat press or a commercial dryer belt to cure the ink and make the design permanent.
Key elements to consider when choosing a fabric for screen printing include:
- The absorbency of the fabric fibers determines how the cloth will interact with the ink. All-natural materials coming from plants and animals often provide the best absorbency, as they contain multifilament yarns and sometimes even have hollow spaces inside, perfect for soaking up moisture. Synthetic fabric like polyester contains plastic fibers and does not absorb moisture as well.
- The thickness of the material can impact a screen print, too. You often have to load the mesh screen with a heavier coat of ink for thicker fabrics or cloth with a coarser texture, which can mess up detailed designs and works best for simple, single-color designs.
- The texture of the cloth can make screen printing much more difficult. Jersey knit fabric (t-shirt material) works uniquely well with this medium because it has a smooth, soft surface. The only danger is that knit fabric tends to stretch, so you have to secure the fabric to prevent it from moving around during the printing process.
- Materials with a coarse weave, a raised texture, or an uneven surface do not work easily with screen printing because the surface of the cloth will not meet the surface of the mesh screen evenly all over, creating a blotchy image.
Printers can choose to use plastisol ink or water-based ink with different fabric types to overcome some of these challenges.
Plastisol ink contains PVC particles and leaves a raised, plasticky layer on the surface of the fabric. It has excellent permanence and color vibrancy, though it does not have a soft “hand” or feel.
When you use a water-based or discharge ink, the moisture evaporates during the heat-setting process, leaving dyed fabric behind. This type of ink soaks into certain types of fabric and has a super soft hand. However, this newer type of screen print ink does not work with all types of cloth.
Using a finer or coarser mesh for the screen print frame can also help with different types of material, as you will see in the next section.
Best Fabric for Screen Printing
The most popular fabric for screen printing is a 100% cotton jersey knit, especially for graphic t-shirts. But 100% polyester or a blend of polyester and cotton fabric also presents a strong running as a popular t-shirt material for screen printing.
Cotton is one of the best fabrics for screen printing because of its high absorbency, its soft, breathable fibers, and the smooth surface it provides for printing. It also makes a good choice because of its worldwide popularity and historical use as the traditional t-shirt fabric, meaning that millions of factories around the globe produce cotton tees and make them easily accessible and affordable for printing.
The biggest advantages of screen printing on cotton include:
- Traditional plastisol inks work great on 100% cotton fabric. The ink adheres to the surface of these fibers and does not bleed or soak up color from the base color of the tee. Plastisol ink has the best color accuracy of any ink used in screen printing and has the best longevity and vibrancy.
- You can also use soft discharge inks on cotton if you want a soft hand instead of the durability and sharp colors of plastisol ink. Water-based discharge inks work best on white or light-colored fabric and can create a more muted vintage-style design. They do not risk peeling as poorly set plastisol ink can because it soaks into the fabric.
- The high absorbency of cotton makes it easy to set and dry ink on this material. You can work with cotton shirts quickly and easily.
- Cotton shirts have great softness and breathability, which is a big advantage because customers want to buy comfortable shirts!
Can you only screen print on cotton? You can screen print on many different types of fabric, but it is true that cotton is the easiest fabric to use for screen printing. That said, even cotton has some issues you have to overcome during the printing process.
The disadvantages of screen printing on cotton include:
- The biggest risk of working with cotton jersey knit is that cotton can shrink easily because of its moisture absorption ability. To avoid this, high-end print shops use preshrunk cotton products, but cheap cotton tees can shrink during the heat-setting process and ruin the graphic on the tee.
- Cotton fabric can also pill quite easily, meaning that its fibers break free and form tiny bobbles on the surface of the material when exposed to friction. Processes like transporting bulk t-shirts or some of the methods used to make low-quality tees can lead to an uneven surface on the material, which can mess up the smooth surface needed for screen printing.
- Cotton can produce a ton of lint, which gathers on fabric surfaces, clogs up machinery, and can easily create a fire hazard. Screen printers working with cotton fabric have to use special rollers to make sure no lint clings to the surface of a shirt before printing, and they also have to take precautions to avoid burning down the whole workshop!
- The high absorbency of cotton means that it is easier to use traditional plastisol ink than water-based inks. However, you can use the softer water-based variety with some additional precautions.
- And, of course, while cotton has a long history as one of the most popular clothing fabrics of all time, it does cost more to grow and manufacture cotton clothes than it does to synthesize polyester in a factory. This means that cotton shirts for screen printing cost more than some other types of blank tees.
While that may seem like a daunting list, skilled printers can easily overcome all these disadvantages. Most printers will agree that cotton provides the ideal surface for screen printing.
PolyesterPolyester is one of the most popular t-shirt materials and can work well for screen printing with some modifications to the traditional process. Unlike natural cloth from plants or animals, polyester comes from a factory and is man-made out of polyurethane byproducts. This cloth contains tiny plastic particles formed into long, thin threads.
For a long time, printers avoided using synthetic fabric with screen printing because the plastic fibers don’t absorb moisture well. But these days, you can screen print on polyester just fine with a few adaptations.
The advantages of screen printing on polyester include:
- Low cost because polyester manufacturing costs much less than growing, harvesting, and manufacturing a natural fabric. This means you can buy bulk orders of polyester tees for a fraction of what they pay to buy an order of cotton tees.
- Extra durability because polyester does not wrinkle or stain easily and will hold onto inks and dyes forever without fading.
- Added ability to sell shirts for athletic wear because polyester has moisture-wicking abilities and works well for runners or anyone who doesn’t want to sweat through a shirt.
But polyester comes with some disadvantages for screen printing as well:
- The biggest problem with using plastisol ink on polyester is that the dye from the t-shirt can bleed into the ink of the design. This issue, called dye migration, frequently happens when screen printing on synthetic fabrics. To avoid it, you can use water-based inks or, more commonly, apply a base coat of white dye before printing the rest of the design on top.
- You can also use some types of synthetic fixer liquids as a pretreatment on polyester to help the ink adhere to the plasticky fibers with no dye migration, but this does require additional expense and time.
- Another big issue you face when screen printing on polyester is that polyester can melt at high temperatures, but you need high temps to set the dye! To avoid this, you can use better-quality polyester and carefully monitor all temperatures as you cure the prints.
So, can you screen print on 100% polyester? Yes, but not as easy as you can screen print onto 100% cotton.
PolycottonPolycotton shirts made out of 50% cotton and 50% polyester fibers can work well for screen printing with careful use of heat and precise temperatures. Mixing polyester and cotton creates more affordable and durable clothing that feels nice and soft like cotton. Lots of t-shirts use a 50/50 blend, but it is even more common for hoodies, which rarely feature pure 100% cotton.
The trouble with this in terms of screen printing is that you can’t easily use the techniques that work on cotton or the methods that work on polyester. Polycotton prints have issues with both dye bleeding and dye migration. You can also end up with splotchy designs if the ink adheres better to one set of fibers in the cloth than the other.
But using careful temperatures can usually take of these issues. You need to heat plastisol ink to over 320℉ in most cases while keeping the fabric below a top temperature of 360℉ to avoid melting or scorching the polyester content in the cloth. Heating the dye properly usually prevents it from bleeding.
Using mesh screens with extra high tension that do not have to stay in contact with the fabric as long during printing can also help prevent color bleed. Finally, you also need to invest in a special synthetic-friendly type of plastisol ink to avoid bleeding colors in the blended fabric.
SilkSilk has a soft and smooth surface perfect for screen printing, though it has limited use today because of its high cost. Long ago, the original screen printers in ancient China printed exclusively onto silk, which is one of the reasons you sometimes still see this method called “silk screening.”
The advantages of screen printing onto authentic silk include its high absorbency. Like cotton, silk is a natural material. It also has incredibly fine threads, giving it a super smooth surface. Plus, it has an amazing luster to set off elegant designs.
The downside is that silk costs way too much for everyday items like t-shirts. True silk, as opposed to synthetic substitutes, is mostly used in luxury clothing today. You also have to use extra steps when working with this fine material, like tacking it in place, so it does not move during printing and using a finer mesh screen for the stencil.
Like silk, linen is an all-natural fabric that costs much more than synthetic cloth, but it can work well with screen prints for luxury clothing items. Linen typically has a looser, airy weave. It feels soft and comfortable in warm weather.
The pros of screen printing on linen include its ability to absorb moisture and handle high heat during drying. The cons include its price range and the fact that you have to use extra ink on linen to maintain a vibrant color because it soaks up moisture so quickly.
The bottom line is that while you can screen print on linen, you usually reserve this fabric for household luxury items like pricey curtains, tea towels, or decorative pillowcases. You do not typically screen print onto linen t-shirts.
Like polyester, acrylic is a synthetic material that screen printers avoided for many years, but the invention of new types of ink has made it possible to use this fabric today. Many sweatshirts, athletic clothing, and jackets contain a large percentage of affordable acrylic fabric these days, so screen printing on the material has gained much more popularity in recent years.
Like with polyester, you can face problems with dye migration or melting fabric problems when screen printing on acrylic. Recently, the invention of acrylic ink for screen printing has made this process somewhat easier.
Vinyl fabric makes excellent banners, signs, and awnings, and screen printing on these items can produce longer-lasting outdoor items. Screen print signs and banners also cost much less to produce in large quantities, making them more convenient for manufacturers and consumers.
As you might expect, though, printing on vinyl does present some difficulties because of its synthetic, plasticy fibers. Banner printers have to use extra-large screen print frames with a clamshell model to handle long sheets of vinyl. They also have to carefully monitor temperatures to avoid melting the material.
DenimScreen printing on denim works super easily and is a popular choice for decorating jean jackets. You can also screen print on jeans, though you do not see this used as much because printed jeans have not trended in the fashion world recently.
Denim contains cotton threads with a mix of indigo and plain white arns in the weave. You already know that you can easily screen print on cotton, so it makes sense that you can also easily print on denim!
That said, you want to avoid printing on stretch denim that contains even a small percentage of elastic fibers, as these could burn during the printing process. Plus, you usually want to stick with plastisol ink and not try to use water-based inks because they may not show up against the darker color of the denim as well.
Can You Screen Print on Satin?
You can screen print on satin made with silk fibers, but screen printing on synthetic satin is more difficult because the fabric will melt easily.
You don’t see a lot of screen-printed satin clothing out there, but some companies do create lengths of satin by the yard using beautiful screen prints. Screen printing on silk fibers creates gorgeous, lustrous designs that look better than many other methods of dyeing or printing silk.
What Material Can You Not Screen Print On?
Materials that you cannot screen print on easily include wool, anything with a fuzzy or furry surface like velvet or faux fur, and anything super stretchy that contains Spandex.
Wool has an uneven texture that makes it tough to create a detailed design. Besides this, sheep wool hangs onto an invisible coating of lanolin even after it goes through a manufacturing process to turn it into cloth. This makes wool clothing warm and water-resistant, perfect for sweaters or socks in the winter, but not ideal for absorbing screen print ink!
Any cloth with an uneven, bumpy, ridged, or furry surface will not work well with screen printing because the mesh screen will not rest flat on the cloth to evenly distribute the ink through the stencil. So you can screen print on most hoodies quite easily, but you should not try to screen print on most sweaters!
Finally, stretch fabrics that contain elastic fibers like Spandex or Lycra don’t work well for screen printing for two reasons. First, they don’t like to hold still in the frame as you lower the screen to apply the ink. This can smear or skew your design easily.
Second, the elastic fibers don’t handle heat well and can cause the fabric to burn or melt during the printing and heating process.
How To Seal a Screen Print on Fabric
The best way to seal a screen print on the fabric is to make sure you heat the printed fabric properly to cure the ink. This will make most types of ink, like plastisol ink, completely permanent.
The best way to accomplish this is to use professional equipment that can monitor the temperature precisely. At-home screen printers sometimes recommend the less exact method of heat pressing a screen print for 90 seconds to make sure the ink cures, but you will find more consistently accurate results by using a commercial heat press or dryer belt that can get plastisol ink to a temperature of 320℉.
The best fabric for screen printing is 100% cotton because it has great absorbency and will hold crisp outlines of shapes without dye bleeding. Screen printing on polyester is also possible if you apply a base coat to prevent dye migration from the color of the fabric. You can also successfully screen print on 50/50 polycotton, but you do have to use carefully monitored temperatures or the dye will bleed outside of the edges of the design.
You can also screen print on less commonly used fabric like linen or silk, which create gorgeous designs but cost a lot more to produce. Plus, you can easily screen print on denim which contains cotton fibers or on vinyl to produce long-lasting outdoor signs and banners.