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  Value-Added Services: Screen Printing
Heat Transfers | Screen Printing | Dyeing | Washing | Embroidery

The application of new technologies is slowly transforming the screen printing process. But many problems and limitations still exist. Our discussion is focused on screen printing 100% cotton garments, but many of the principles outlined here apply to any fabric.

Getting Started
As with all manufacturing processes the quality of your final product is only as good as the sum of the raw materials in that product. In garment screen printing the most critical raw material is the prepared-for-printing (PFP) or prepared-for garment-dyeing (PFGD) garment. Both preparation processes will give you a suitable substrate (base). Proper fabric preparation is essential, as the screen printing process can cause "yellowing" on improperly finished fabric. Have your screen printer run tests on the product you plan to use. This will alert you to any possible fabric issues.

If you are printing on dyed garments the amount of coverage and "grin through" may vary. Make sure to supply your printer with garments in all colors to be printed. Your printer may then formulate the inks for the best possible all-around coverage, including extra steps for certain colorations. Most garment screen printers measure production in dozens. Each printer has different production minimums. Some printers charge a minimum regardless of the actual dozens. Make sure you understand the minimums and how many dozens they represent.

Initially there is a "setup" or "screen making" charge for making the original screens and developing the artwork. Make sure you understand those charges and factor them into your costs and pricing. Garment screen printers can develop your artwork from many different starting points. The method that leaves the smallest margin for error is for you to provide "camera-ready" artwork to the printer. Many types of camera-ready artwork are not appropriate for screen printing. The printer can tell you the specifics (dots/inch, separation types, etc.) of what they need.

The success the printer has in repeatedly matching your color standards is directly related to the difficulty originally encountered in formulating and processing your colors. The more "custom" your colors are, the greater the likelihood of difficulty in continually matching those colors. The simplest way to avoid these problems is to pick "process colors." These are standard color formulas with a proven track record. Your printer can supply you with a chart of available process colors. Whether using process or custom colors, be sure to see product samples. Check not only for correct color match, but also for even coverage and suitable hand (feel of the product).

Once you have approved the color standard from the screen printer it is imperative that you and the printer agree on how much variation from standard you will accept. Many garment screen printers (like garment dyers) use the term "commercially acceptable match" to describe what you may see as unacceptable. Make sure that you understand what your printer means by "commercially acceptable," and make sure your printer understands what is and is not acceptable to you. There are many specialized types of printing inks including soy-based inks, puff inks, organic inks, etc. These inks, while very much in demand, have their own drawbacks. They generally cost more and have higher defect rates. Talk to your printer about what to expect of the inks you choose. Always keep samples of "approved colors and artwork" for future reference. They can be of immense value if and when a dispute occurs.

Provide your screen printer with a detailed sketch of the garment to be printed and the correct print placement. Agree as to your tolerances concerning placement, and make sure your print size is appropriate to the garment sizes you are printing. Most printers can enlarge and reduce your artwork as needed. Make sure to see samples of the resized artwork on the corresponding garments. If print placement is extremely critical, we recommend that, if at all possible, the printing take place on the finished garment. Some manufacturers and printers prefer to print on the unassembled garment components. This approach eases handling and reduces time, but it opens you up to another whole set of potential problems, i.e. mismatched garment components and variations in placement due to sewing inaccuracies and tolerances.

If your print run involves more than one design or design size, you can expedite the process and increase accuracy by "pre-lotting" your shipment to the printer. Talk to your printer and find out if packing garments by color, size, or print to be applied will be helpful. Many times there can be discrepancies in the final "count" of your garments. Be certain that all garments shipped to your printer are counted and documented. Explain to your printer that you expect inventories to be kept accurate and that shortages must be reported in a timely fashion. If your print is trademarked or copyright-protected, will the printer comply with the required rules and procedures? Check your licensing agreement and be sure you understand the "legalese." Communicate the specifics to your printer and obtain any required signatures prior to turning over the artwork.

Determine who will store the screens and artwork when your print run is complete. Most printers don't mind giving you the screen (you've paid for them with the "setup" charges). But unless you have an appropriate location to store them or you are planning on changing printers, you are probably better off having the printer store them. Some printers will not give up the screens. If this is a potential issue for you, discuss it with the printer prior to making the screens. Ask your printer what garments they will use for setting up the equipment:
  • Do they have scrap fabric or shirts to use or do they use your stock?
  • How many will they need?
  • How will this affect your inventory?
Dimensional Change
When using fabrics that are not "pre-shrunk," some shrinkage may occur due to handling and heat. Check your printed samples' dimensions to be sure that they comply with your specifications. Printing on stripes and other horizontal repeating patterns requires extra planning and handling. Misapplication of the print or improper positioning of the garment may cause negative results such as curving or bowing, causing the print to misaligned.

As with any manufacturing process, there will always be some substandard merchandise produced. Find out what your screen printer's average print reject rate is. Agree on a rate above which the printer will be financially responsible for ruined product. Remember to cost rejects into your product's price. Certain fabrics may yellow in the dryer. If you are printing panels, you may wish to include running the unprinted panels through to maintain shade consistency. Many screen printers handle garment inspection and classification differently. Some inspect for print quality and placement only. Some also inspect for gross garment defects. Make sure you understand how your production will be inspected and sorted. If you are asking for extra or special services, there will probably be an added fee. Know your costs up front.

If you have specific inspection classifications, supply that information, in writing, to your screen printer. Give them photos or samples of the different defects you want identified. Check the first few lots of printed product to verify the printer's compliance. Give specific written instructions on the disposition of irregular and substandard merchandise. You may want it held for future shipment or shipped to a different location than the first-quality garments. There are other services related to finishing that some screen printers will provide. These may include sorting (by size, color, etc.), special packaging, pressing, steam tunneling, hanging, and tagging. Your printer may provide other services that may be of value to you. Ask your printer for what you need and remember to settle on price prior to commencing production.

Some Other Thoughts
When choosing a screen printer here are some other considerations that may be helpful:
  • Does the printer have a sample press and/or single-sample capabilities?
  • Does the printer make (burn) the screens on premises or are they sent out to a service?
  • How far do the printer's art development capabilities go? Does the printer send art out to independent services? How long does it take to get the art processed and a sample produced?
  • Does the printer have a large inventory of colors?
  • What does the printer's shop look like? Is it the kind of place that instills confidence in the printer's capabilities?
  • What is the printer's average production cycle time?
  • Is there a slow and busy time of year?
  • Is there one individual at the printer who will be responsible for communication regarding your account?
  • Who should you talk to if your primary contact is unavailable?
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