A Screen Printer’s Guide to Different Fabrics
All shirts aren’t created equal! Here are some of the key characteristics that define your garments.
Sure, there are simple cotton shirts, but the process used to refine the cotton and create the fabric will affect the final shirt, as will the spinning process. Fabrics come in different weights and thicknesses, and you also could choose a blended fabric.
You probably already have a good feel for the types of fabric materials you can use — 100-percent cotton, cotton blends, tri-blend, polyester and eco-friendly fabrics. But fabric goes beyond just the fibers that make up your garment. When it comes to cotton, in particular, there are a variety of preparations that affect the final feel of the garment. As you shop for a cotton garment, here are some of the terms you’ll hear:
- Carded. Raw cotton is carded, which is a simple brushing process, to remove any imperfections or debris from the raw material. The cheapest cotton t-shirts will be carded.
- Combed. Combed cotton is an upgrade from carded cotton. After the cotton is carded to remove basic imperfections, it is combed to remove shorter strands of cotton fibers and make sure that all fibers are going in the same direction. Garments constructed from combed cotton are generally softer and smoother than carded cotton.
- Open end. Open-end cotton is, again, the basic level of cotton. When a t-shirt is made from open-ended cotton, the cotton yarns are held together by a fiber that wraps around the cotton fibers. As the name implies, open-end cotton yarn allows the ends of the individual cotton fibers to stick out, which can result in a rougher feel and a less smooth print.
- Ring-spun. Ring-spun cotton, on the other hand, receives a special treatment that results in smooth, even yarn. Ring-spun cotton shirts, as a whole, are much softer to the touch and smoother to print on.
How fibers are connected to form a garment also affects the feel and draping of the garment. Garments are either knit or woven. That means they are constructed in one of two basic ways:
- Knit garments are constructed using one long piece of yarn that is looped in and out of itself. When you look very closely, knit garments will look like they are constructed from rows of tiny braids. Knit fabrics tend to be softer, and they stretch in all directions. Nearly all t-shirts and sweatshirts are knit.
- Woven garments are constructed when perpendicular rows of yarn are placed over and under one another. Woven garments have a flatter surface, and they will only stretch on the bias; that is, diagonally. Button-up sport shirts and khaki pants are good examples of traditionally woven garments.
A garment’s thread weight is another determining factor of how the garment will feel, how it will drape on its wearer and how it will accept a screen print. Thread weight refers to the thickness of the individual threads used in a knit or woven garment. As you shop for garments, you will be able to compare thread weight by looking at the single count of a garment. The “single” number refers to the number of fibers comprising a single thread of material. While a basic t-shirt might have between 18 and 20 singles, luxury tees will be in the 30- to 40-single range.
The higher thread weight creates a superior garment because the thinner yarns can be knit or woven more tightly. This tighter knit or weave creates a softer, more durable garment that adapts more to the wearer’s body. Because the surface is made of finer threads, it creates a smoother surface for screen prints, and screen prints are less likely to flake away and more likely to last.
The final consideration when selecting a garment is its weight. Garment weight is affected by how densely woven or knit a garment is. To indicate the density of a fabric’s knit or weave, manufacturers will list the weight of the material per yard. For shirts, you generally will find garments ranging from 3 ounces, which would indicate a sheer garment, to 6.1 ounces, which would indicate a heavy-duty t-shirt. The desired weight of a garment often will come down to the needs of the project and the desired outcome of the customer, though 4.5 to 5.5 ounce garments are currently the most popular.
Choosing the Right Garment
With all of the factors that go into creating fabric for garments, it can be difficult to know which one is right for your screen printing needs. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want in a garment, which likely will vary from screen printing job to screen printing job. By understanding the terms used to describe different fabrics, you can better judge which substrates will suit your needs and eventually find the go-to garments you use job after job.
For more tips on finding the right shirt, check out this blog post: