If you notice your screen prints are less vibrant or fuzzier than usual, fibrillation may be to blame.

But there’s one issue that can’t always be avoided, despite screen printers’ best efforts: fibrillation. Sometimes avoiding fibrillation means adding steps to the screen printing process, or even accepting that certain products are going to tend toward fibrillation despite your attempts to curb the problem.

Understanding Fibrillation

Many novice screen printers are surprised by fibrillation. It creates a hazy, faded look in finished prints that can leave printers wondering whether their ink is washing away. In reality, fibrillation involves garment fibers breaking loose and sticking up through the ink. It causes the print to look fuzzy and, because the un-inked portion of the threads are now showing, faded.

Choosing Garments to Avoid Fibrillation

Some garments are more prone to fibrillation than others. While there are some general guidelines — fabrics with a “vintage” or softer feel tend to fibrillate more — it’s difficult to know in advance whether a shirt is going to be likely to experience fibrillation. You probably have your go-to garments that print well and hold up for your customers. The challenge comes when customers want a softer shirt or a different style. The only way to determine whether a new garment will fibrillate is to lay down a test print and run the printed garment through several wash and dry cycles. If your usual printing methods result in fibrillation, there are some steps you can take to minimize or even prevent the garment from fibrillating.

Preventing Fibrillation

When your desired garment shows fibrillation with your usual printing tactics, the first step is to try another print, laying down a heavier ink deposit. While that may solve the problem, this solution can be limited: Sometimes matting down the garment fibers requires so much ink that the print has too heavy of a hand. If you can’t strike a balance between laying down enough ink to prevent fibrillation and laying down little enough ink to maintain a decent hand, here are some other methods you can try:

  • Use a “mat-down” screen. An additional blank screen completely coated with hardened emulsion can be used to press down the fibers in the fabric and keep them from popping through the layer of ink. Place some ink or grease in the screen for lubrication and (after printing and flashing your underbase), “print” the blank screen with a hard squeegee and firm pressure to mat down troublesome fibers.
  • Print multiple lighter layers of ink. You might be able to maintain a softer print while controlling fibrillation with a print, flash cure, print, flash cure, print technique. This can be an effective method, but it also can cause a production headache if your shop isn’t set up for it.
  • Use an ink additive. There are specialty additives that are designed to “glue” garment fibers down to solve the fibrillation problem.
  • Take advantage of clear ink. There are two ways you can use curable clear ink to prevent fibrillation. Either lay down a clear underbase, or print a clear layer of ink over your print. A clear layer on top will keep colors vibrant and prevent fibrillation, but it can give prints a glossy look that you may not desire.
  • Consider water-based ink. Water-based ink can reduce the appearance of fibrillation because the ink penetrates and adheres to garment fibers, rather than sitting on top of the fabric.

The first step in preventing fibrillation is to be aware of the problem; you don’t want a dissatisfied customer to be the first to bring it to your attention! Make sure you test all new substrates with your usual printing techniques, and from there you can use the above methods to combat fibrillation.

Looking for some more screen printing quality control tips? Check out this blog post:

How to Give Your Screen Printing Customers the Total Quality Experience