How To: Soft Screen Printed T-Shirts | Soft Hand Screen Printing

Tips & Tricks

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How do you get a soft screen printed t-shirt? Can plastisol make soft screen printed t-shirts?

Whether you're a customer that wants a soft screen print, or a screen printer that wants soft hand prints, here's 3 powerful and simple tips for getting a softer screen printed t-shirt. The answer is yes, you can get soft screen printed t-shirts (even with plastisol ink) but there are a few things you should know first.

Remember! Don't take a shortcut and try to add soft hand additives and curable reducer to your ink (that's only part of it). There's more to making a softer print than altering your ink's formula.

First, let's define a couple of terms:

  • Hand refers to the way a shirt or print feels. "Soft hand" is a way to describe a soft print.
  • Plastisol is the most common type of screen printing ink. It's derived from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and can last for the lifetime of a t-shirt.
  • Fibrillation is when the fibers on a t-shirt show up as visible debris on the print. This is due to loose fibers on the t-shirt contaminating the ink.

Tip number 1: Print on the right type of shirt

An image from Bella + Canvas demonstrating the difference between cotton fabric weaves on a t-shirt.
An image from Bella + Canvas demonstrating the difference between cotton fabric weaves on a t-shirt.

For soft screen prints, you want a ring spun cotton shirt versus a carded open-end cotton shirt. Ring spun cotton shirts are ideal for screen printing. They retain more detail, are a better printing surface, and are softer to the touch compared to carded open-end cotton shirts.

Why are ring spun shirts better for screen printing? Cotton t-shirts are nothing more than thousands of thin cotton threads woven together. The composition of that weave – the quality of the fibers, the density of the weave, and the overall uniformity of the fabric – determines whether the t-shirt is great for screen printing (versus merely acceptable).

The "holes" created by the gaps in the shirt's woven fibers are smaller on a ring-spun shirt because the cotton is woven together tightly. Because of the tighter weave, ink is deposited higher up on the fabric. Since you don't need to push ink into the shirt, you can deposit less ink – which makes the print feel softer.

The benefits of ring spun cotton are twofold:

  • A superior printing surface. The shirt's surface is smooth and reliable for printing.
  • Less ink deposit is required. The printer can use less ink. Less ink makes the print feel softer and lighter.

Higher quality cotton weaves are a screen printer's favorite!

Here's some brands that Mike has had success with for soft hand screen printing:

Though a ring-spun cotton shirt may cost a few extra bucks, the overall quality of the screen print will increase dramatically when you use premium garments. Vibrance, texture, and hand all improve with a better t-shirt.

Whether you're a customer looking to purchase screen printed shirts or a screen printer yourself, you'll make more money if you choose a better shirt. For people to love their t-shirts, offer a higher-quality cotton blank. A good print on a great shirt makes for a lifetime of enjoyment.

Tip number 2: Equipment and ink choice makes a big difference

Mike's Hieroglyphics print was surprisingly smooth...and it's just white plastisol on a dark cotton t-shirt!
Mike's Hieroglyphics print was surprisingly smooth...and it's just white plastisol on a dark cotton t-shirt!

There are several things that will ensure softer screen prints:

  • An automatic press for consistency over hundreds of prints.
  • The right screen mesh to capture details but lay down the correct amount of ink.
  • The least amount of ink on the shirt.

Automatic presses can make softer prints

Over hundreds of prints, an automatic screen printing press will provide more consistent results than a manual screen printing press.

That isn't to say that a manual screen printer can't make soft hand prints. They can – and do – every day!

However, an automatic press ensures a consistent print across thousands of prints.

Think about it this way: a machine will apply consistent pressure and speed without tiring. A manual printer's quality will vary no matter how they good they are. That isn't to say that manual screen printers can't make soft prints or print hundreds of shirts – manual screen printers produce beautiful work for high-end clients all of the time. 

Don't let a lack of an automatic screen printing press scare you away from any screen print shop!

Thin-thread mesh makes softer prints: less ink is deposited

A screen printer's screens matter. Not all screens and mesh are made the same! You have to use the correct screens for a softer print: thin-thread mesh screens.

Screen printing screens are nothing more than interwoven nylon mesh threads. The space between these threads – and the thickness of the threads – makes a huge difference in print quality.

There's two common mesh types in screen printing:

  • T-mesh. The threads of this screen's mesh are thicker.
  • Thin-thread mesh. The threads of this screen's mesh are thinner.

Every screen printer should know the difference!

With t-mesh screens, there are smaller openings for the ink to go through. This is because the threads that make up the screen are thicker. 

With thin-thread mesh screens, there are larger openings for the ink to go through. The threads that make up the screen are thin. 

What does this mean? 

You need more pressure to get the same amount of ink through a t-mesh screen. With thin-thread mesh, you apply less pressure, less ink, and the ink sits higher on the shirt. This makes the print lighter and softer.

Mike has moved exclusively to thin-thread mesh screens because he gets better ink opacity on his customers' t-shirts with less pressure and less ink deposit. It's the same result – with less ink on the shirt! T-mesh screens allow for more detail, less ink, softer prints, and less time on press (since there are fewer print strokes required).

Remember: less ink on the shirt means a softer print

To get softer, smoother, and better prints...use less ink. But don't stop there. You need to use better inks for better results: there are 20 different white inks from every ink manufacturer!

Ask your screen printer what their favorite white ink is. They should know!

Rutland Premiere is Mike's preferred white plastisol ink for soft prints. The type of ink will certainly affect the outcome of your print. As always, you should carefully investigate and test print – and ask your supplier for help. The sales professionals at every major ink manufacturer include highly skilled professionals who have years of experience in print shops. Lean on their knowledge when you're trying a new ink or product!

Some of the most popular white plastisol inks include:

Tip number 3: Use a smoothing screen or roller squeegee

A smoothing screen for softer screen prints.
A smoothing screen for softer screen prints.

For smoother prints, use a blank screen with a hard squeegee (or a roller squeegee). Hit the underbase with the squeegee directly after the ink is flashed. This helps stop fibrillation and unpleasantly textured "stucco" prints.

Flattening the ink's surface with a roller or blank screen squeegee makes it softer, smoother, and thinner for the next layer of ink.

A roller squeegee is a great option for smoothing out your prints if you don't want to deal with setting up a screen. They're available from Action Engineering and most other major screen printing supply manufacturers for around $300. Check out the difference between a print done without a roller squeegee (left) and with a roller squeegee (right):

An example of fibrillation versus no fibrillation on a screen printed t-shirt.
Fibrillation can be prevented with simple measures like a roller squeegee (image from Action Engineering)

Bonus tip: for smoother prints, try removing all of the lint and debris from your garments.

Some shops wrap a roller squeegee with a painter's roller, then spray a small amount of spray tack onto the roller. The "sticky squeegee" rolls over the garment and removes lint, dust, debris, and other annoying fuzzies that can cause fibrillation.

Other options for softer prints

The experts at M&R and Matsui train screen printers on water based inks.
The experts at M&R and Matsui train screen printers on water based inks at a T&J Printing Supply class.

Plastisol is just one type of screen printing ink. It's the most common in North America (and typically the easiest to work with). However, there are other options that can yield even softer prints.

Adding adulterants to your screen printing ink – instead of using another type of ink – is always an option. Some shops love to "step on" their inks:

  • Curable reducer can help make smoother prints by reducing ink viscosity (making it more liquid and free-flowing)
  • Soft hand additive (like Triangle Soft Hand Base) is intended specifically to make plastisol smoother

Like any artisanal craft, screen printing isn't about your gear. You can add all of the additives you want, but they'll never replace good technique and understanding the variables that you can control.

Discharge and water based inks

Rather than try to put ink on top of the shirt, why not put ink directly into the fibers?

Discharge inks actually remove the dye in the fabric, allowing screen printers to use even less ink than they normally would need to. Some shops use a discharge ink as their underbase, then print plastisol on top of the discharge. Others combine water based inks with discharge for a zero-hand print.

Remember: only 100% cotton t-shirts can be printed with discharge inks. For tri-blends and other shirts containing materials besides cotton, discharge is not an option.

Many water based inks have virtually zero hand, as well. However, they can be challenging to deal with on press (or simply unfamiliar).

Tip: looking for a way to get started with water based inks? Check out Matt Marcotte's great introduction to water based inks, featuring some super helpful tips (like how to use a Reptile Fogger to keep water based inks wet while on press).

Sublimation - not screen printing, but another option

For things that can't be screen printed – like all-over prints on differently shaped garments or certain types of athletic jerseys – custom sublimation may be your last resort.

Sublimation leaves no hand feel, but it is a manufacturing process instead of a printing process. Most screen printing shops don't offer sublimation in-house, but may know a subcontractor that can sublimate garments. The price rises significantly, but offers a unique feel and look compared to traditional screen printing.

Conclusion: soft prints aren't an accident

A soft, vibrant screen printed t-shirt at The M&R Companies HQ
A soft, vibrant screen printed t-shirt at The M&R Companies HQ in their R&D department

Getting a smooth print isn't magic. You can't just add something to your ink. There's more than we can cover here, but this is a great start.

You need to control all of the variables you can:

  1. Consider the shirt. Are you using a tightly woven shirt that is already a soft and smooth substrate for printing? Don't try to save a few bucks by going with cheap t-shirts!
  2. Consider the machine. Is it printed by hand, or with a machine? A machine won't always make a smooth print, but if you're ordering hundreds of shirts you ensure consistency across the entire order.
  3. Consider the ink. What kind of ink are you using for the print? Plastisol ink doesn't typically make soft prints!
  4. Consider the printer's knowledge. How well does your screen printer know the variables that go into making a softer print? Is it something they offer, or did they bristle at the mention?

Always ask detailed questions to affect the outcome of your screen printing experience!

Saying "I want a soft print" isn't enough. Dig into the details: quality shirts, quality equipment and screens, and the right ink.

"A combination of the correct ink, the correct t-shirt, and the correct screens will make softer screen prints. If you're struggling to get a soft print, check your screens (tension, thickness, mesh count). Then check your shirt's fibers. Then check your ink. A lot of the problems people have getting a soft print can be traced back to one of those three things."

Smooth hand plastisol screen prints are totally possible. You just need a little bit of knowledge, some time and a little practice to control the right variables.

Mike Chong from Merch Monster

About the author: Mike Chong owns Merch Monster in Oakland, CA. His primary focus is providing high quality custom apparel and merchandise for businesses across the US. He regularly produces video content for Printavo, which you can find in our Tips & Tutorials playlist on the Printavo YouTube channel.

Here's some of Mike's best tips and tutorials:

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Printavo is simple shop management software. We help you streamline your business, keep jobs moving forward and your team on the same page.

Scheduling, quoting, approvals, payments, customer communication, automation and more. With Printavo, you’ll work smarter–not harder.

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