We’ve all experienced the disappointment of buying a t-shirt with a cool design on vacation, only to have the print start flaking or peeling after a few washes. It’s frustrating to see that t-shirt with a once-vibrant design degrade, only to end up in the trash or as your newest car-washing rag. The same goes for an embroidered polo shirt from your new employer, with thread breaks and puckers around the logo’s edges.
On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like the comfort and familiarity of a well-worn t-shirt or jacket that’s lasted five years, or a decade or more. The garments still feel and look great, the print or stitching is still intact – and they’re still your go-to weekend basics.
The big difference? The quality of your final product depends largely on the quality of the decorating supplies, like threads, backing, inks and t-shirts, that you use. Knowing which threads or inks are right for each job is the other important part of the equation. Let’s dive into some of the key components of embroidery and screen-printing jobs, from threads to mesh, that you need to know, whether you’re a hobbyist or t-shirt shop owner.
A Bevy of Embroidery Thread
Not all embroidery threads are created equal. Ultra-inexpensive cotton threads, for example, produce "fuzzy" designs that look dull and flat. Choosing a higher-quality cotton thread, with its smoother texture and sheen, will result in more vibrant, crisper embroidery. To select the right thread for your project, consider the t-shirt fabric type, fabric weight, and design size.There are no set rules for thread selection, but you can gain experience to determine which threads work best in different situations.
Here’s a rundown of different thread types available on the market.
Polyester: Lots of embroiderers consider polyester thread the industry or gold standard. Polyester is strong, colorfast, durable and offers a professional, eye-catching sheen to your logos or designs. Poly comes in a spectrum of color choices – and works well for all types of embroidery, including corporate wear, children’s clothing, and outdoor apparel like hoodies or jackets.
Stitchers love poly thread’s reputation for running smoothly in their machines, with fewer thread breaks and downtime. Poly bobbins are an excellent investment, since they can withstand chlorine bleach without deteriorating. Consider purchasing a complete range of colors to ensure that you have the necessary shades for any project.
Rayon: Like polyester, rayon’s a popular thread because of its huge color selection, high sheen (even more so than polyester) and soft hand. Rayon isn’t as strong as poly, but it’ll still perform well on your machine and last for a garment’s lifetime. If you’re doing hand work, rayon’s a good choice for intricate work or a freestanding lace project. It’s smart to test rayon thread brands to see which run the smoothest on your particular machine, especially for high-stitch-count designs.
Cotton: This natural fiber thread offers a unique, soft sheen. Lots of stitchers like cotton’s matte look for retro-looking or school-themed designs. Cotton runs well in most machines, but it’s always good to test samples from different brands.
Metallic: These threads are great for adding flair to certain design elements or lettering. However, metallics break easily during sewing, so test, test, test is the name of the stitching game.
Pro tips: Before selecting threads, conduct tests to determine which brand is best for your needs. Many t-shirt shop owners recommend testing with felt using trusted thread brands that offer a full range of necessary colors. This can help you save time and money, and avoid unnecessary frustration.
The Skinny on Embroidery Stabilizers
Besides high-quality threads, plan to invest in better-quality embroidery backings to set the proper foundation for long-lasting designs. Choosing the right stabilizer is just as important as choosing the right threads.
If you’re new to embroidery, a backing is the piece of fabric behind the stitched design, providing support during and after embroidery. Backings come in different types and weights, so the heavier the weight in ounces per square yard, the more stability you get. The right supplier will offer you quality stabilizers in different types, weights and sizes.
It’s true, some newbies use internet-recommended backings like coffee filters or a paper towel as a stabilizer. This is a huge no-no, since “fake” backings can shred into lint that floods your bobbin cases and machine. Instead, check out three types of stabilizers to store in your supply cabinet:
Cutaway: This stabilizer provides the most “stabilizing,” since part of it stays under the embroidery design on the garment. After stitching, you cut away excess backing around the design. Cutaway backing works for poly performance shirts and stretchier knits, since they keep designs intact through lots of washes and wears.
Tearaway: As the name suggests, you tear away this stabilizer after you finish embroidery. Tearaways can save you time during the embroidery process for high-volume orders. This backing is more suited to less stretchy items or towels, where you don’t want visible backing. You can pair a cutaway with a tearaway if you need more support for stitching. Then, you can remove the tearaway, leaving just the cutaway on the finished garment.
Water-Soluble Stabilizers: Like a fun science experiment, this type dissolves when you submerge the garment or item in water. Many stitchers use this type for free-standing lacework. However, be aware that if you use it on a t-shirt or hoodie, you’ll have no stabilization under the stitches once you remove it.
Pro tips: Before you stock up on a bunch of stabilizers, get test packs from different suppliers to see which ones work the best for you. Use old or discarded garments of different fabrics for test sewouts. That way, you can select the brands and types that result in the best designs.
The Best Fabrics for Embroidery
Embroidery isn’t ideal for super-heavy fabrics like leather or canvas, since it’s difficult for the needles to pierce the fabric. On the flip side, ultra-sheer or thin materials, like organza, rayon, satin, silk or lightweight cotton, can actually tear when you try to stitch a design. Finally, a very stretchy fabric like spandex or a cotton stretch knit can distort your design, depending on the size and number of stitches. Ribbed and sweater material also aren’t ideal candidates for embroidery.
Here are some of the best fabrics for stitching:
Cotton: Natural fiber garments are ideal for machine embroidery due to their ease of use and durability, making them a popular choice. Cotton, in particular, maintains the integrity of embroidered designs, due to its minimal stretching compared to other fabrics. Additionally, heavier-weight cotton fabrics are great for holding embroidery. Cotton-poly blends with a smooth, lightly woven texture are also suitable options. For best results, consider using t-shirts weighing between 5.3 and 7.5 ounces.
Linen: You’ll see casual and upstyled shirts, pants, dresses, skirts, blazers and jackets made from linen. Linen has a similar weight and feel to cotton, and takes embroidery well. You can charge more for garments made from linen.
Fleece: With the explosion in popularity for fleece wear – in hats, hoodies, vests, jackets and bottoms – definitely put this fabric at the top of your to-embroider list! (Terrycloth is another popular “thick” fabric for lounge wear and resort clothing that looks great with an embroidered logo or monogram.)
Denim: Another great material for stitching, our favorite jean material goes the distance with its durability and stability – whether it’s a hat, shirt, jacket, pants, shorts or a skirt.
Your Screen-Printing Ink Options
Now let's turn our attention to screen printing! Among the three main types of screen-printing inks – plastisol, water-based, and discharge – choosing the appropriate ink for your design, fabric, and garment is crucial, just as it is with embroidery threads. Plus, it's essential to select high-quality inks from reliable vendors.
Here’s a breakdown of the ink types:
Plastisol: The most popular ink type, printers prefer plastisol since it produces high-quality prints that adhere well to lots of fabric types, like polyester, cotton and nylon. Plastisol inks result in bright, bold prints that last the test of time without cracking, peeling or fading on light and dark shirts. Since this ink is made from resins, pigments and plasticizers, plastisol has a creamy, thick consistency for easy application.
Avoid plastisol inks if you want to retain breathability across the surface of the fabric where the ink is used. Plastisol creates vivid colors and sharp lines, but if retaining the breathability of your tee is top-of-mind, this synthetic PVC ink can sit on top of the fabric, making it less breathable if you’re active.
Water Based: Printers often consider water-based inks to be more eco-friendly than plastisol inks because they don't contain harmful chemicals such as phthalates and PVC. These inks produce vivid and soft prints on a variety of fabrics, including cotton, polyester, and rayon. However, they can be more expensive than other inks and may dry out and clog screens if you don’t process them promptly.
One key difference between water-based and plastisol inks? Water-based inks absorb into the t-shirt fabric rather than sitting on top of it like plastisol. This makes them a better choice for achieving a softer, more breathable print. However, they require a higher percentage of cotton in a poly-cotton or tri-blend t-shirt to adhere properly. To overcome this, adding a base layer of ink can improve the vibrancy of the screen print.
It's important to note that water-based inks may not work well on darker fabrics, as the ink can get absorbed into the fabric and make the design difficult to see. However, using a base layer can help the ink stand out on darker shirts.
Discharge: With this specialty ink, you can create high-quality, vivid prints on black or dark-colored clothing. The ink formulation effectively "removes” the fabric's color, replacing it with a soft and bright design. When combined with a paste or activator, the discharge ink reacts with the fabric dye, leaving a space for the new design. When you apply the screen-printing ink to the fabric, it takes the place of the removed fabric dye. Using this ink eliminates the need for a white underbase, which can make designs too thick. It’s an ideal choice for printing on dark shirts.
Decoding Your Mesh Options
In addition to selecting the appropriate ink, choosing the right mesh screen is crucial in screen printing. The process involves placing a mesh screen with the inverse image of the design on top of a t-shirt. This screen is made of an open cloth that's stretched tightly around a frame. Then, you roll ink over the screen, which allows it to seep through and deposit onto the shirt in the desired areas, bringing the design to life. After applying, you heat treat the shirt to cure and set the ink.
When it comes to screen printing, the mesh screen's "count" refers to the number of threads that pass through a square inch of the screen. For instance, a 150 mesh screen indicates that 150 threads have crossed over per square inch of the screen.
As a general rule, the higher the mesh count, the better the quality of the screen printing. In other words, screens with finer holes produce sharper and more precise prints. Mesh counts range from 30 to 280, and determining which mesh counts yield the best results is a challenge for printers. Typically, a finer mesh range of 150 to 200 counts is ideal for achieving crisp, detailed prints. Experienced printers advise experimenting with different mesh counts to find what works best for your jobs.
The Best Fabrics for Screen Printing
Like embroidery, there’s no single best fabric for screen printing. However, the key is to select higher-quality shirts that last the test of time. There are a variety of fabrics that work well to create screen printed shirts. Overall, the best t-shirt fabric for screen printing is cotton, although cotton-polyester t-shirt blends and tri-blend t-shirt materials can work just as well within this process.
If you’re new to screen printing, be aware that apparel made from 100% polyester or a spandex-like material requires special inks. Avoid 100% polyester shirts for screen printing if you’re unfamiliar with the curing process required for this material. These fabrics can bleed during the screen-printing process and may not hold up well under the heat of the curing process. If you want to print on a 100% polyester athletic t-shirt, learn about proper curing techniques on that material to avoid a scorched shirt.
Here’s what you need to know about printing on cotton and fabric blends:
Cotton: Cotton’s often considered the best fabric for screen printing because natural fibers absorb moisture well. Smoother cotton weaves, like ringspun or combed, gives you a smoother print surface for a crisper image; pre-shrunk cotton helps maintain the integrity of your design. Try to avoid more open weave fabrics like carded cotton, which are often rough and uneven, making it more difficult to produce a quality screen print.
Natural and Synthetic Blends: Printers like blends, since they combine the best qualities of both fabrics and compensate for any drawbacks. What happens when you combine polyester and cotton? You get the shrink-resistance of polyester combined with a greater degree of breathability of cotton. These blends hold their shape beautifully – even when they’re fresh out of the dryer! A polyester-cotton blend can also give your t-shirts a bit of extra stretch for a more flattering fit and has a softer hand, as well.
Tri-blend t-shirt fabrics are another popular blend of three different textile fibers woven together: cotton, polyester and rayon. Tri-blend t-shirts are often lighter weight than all-cotton or poly-cotton blends. The rayon in the mix is what gives it that lighter, softer feel.
We recommend looking for a higher percentage of cotton in poly-cotton or tri-blend shirts if you’re using water-based inks, to get sharper, cleaner colors. Also look for cotton-polyester blended fabrics with a smooth weave. The wrinkle-resistant properties of either a 50/50 or 65/35 cotton-polyester blend make it easy to transfer the ink to the shirt for a smooth application.
Your Mission: Discover High-Quality Decorating Supplies
The quality of your final embroidered or screen-printed depends largely on choosing the right, high-quality decorating supplies and apparel. By taking the time to test out threads, backings, inks, mesh and t-shirts from different brands, you’ll find which ones work best, so you can create long-lasting, vibrant designs that stand the test of time.
Shop Threadsy for On-Trend Apparel for Embroidery and Screen Printing
With our affordable collection of stylish t-shirts in different colors, fabrics and fits, you can add a lot of personality with embroidery or screen printing to your wardrobe or the pieces you’re decorating to sell. Shop Threadsy’s t-shirt styles for men, women and youth, they’re great for decorating with logos, graphics or text-based designs and wearing everywhere.