ImagesMagUK_June_2024 JUNE2024 images 73 BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT Tony Palmer has been in the garment decoration industry for over 30 years and is now an independent print consultant working closely with print shops across the globe to get the most from existing processes and techniques. He also co-hosts the popular screen printing podcast Chippy Tee! with Danny Donald of Flippin Sweet Print Co. Wash tests were performed on the hour, every hour, by the omnipresent Irene. A force to be reckoned with, Irene could stop a press with the simple wave of a crockmeter result. Holy PJs, Batman! We would also print for other longforgotten high street names such as Woolworths, Adams and BHS. The method of print was simple: dark shirts were plastisol and light shirts were water-based. But a problem would occur when we needed to produce the summer’s latest Batman PJs, a design that called for a soft feel and bright colours. The solution was simple, but complicated at the same time: we would cut the sleeves and the back from navy fabric, and make the front from a square of white fabric. This over-sized square would be printed to around 1cm (half a finger) from the edge, full coverage in a navy ink that was expertly colour matched by eye under TL84 lighting conditions, no PC software, just the skill of an ink mixer and a Rolodex that had more coloured fingerprints on it than a printer’s Ford Fiesta XR2 steering wheel. The panel was returned to the women at Dodworth or Bangor and individually cut to the right shape to get that edge to edge look. This method was expensive at 100% coverage, and it was difficult to print as we tackled the curling fabric, sticking it down without stretching it, and battled against the ‘bit’, ‘lint’, ‘cotton’, ‘fancy’, or ‘bitashit’ that blocked the huge area of Magna water-based ink. But there was an alternative – a process that already existed in the soft furnishing arena and had been in use since the mid-1800s. A method of printing using a circular screen, a centrally mounted magnetic squeegee and a ‘reactive’ ink. This ink was printed onto dark fabric by the roll, then the fabric was passed through a huge 100ft-long steamer where the high pressure and temperature would ‘activate’ the ink, causing it to replace (discharge) the dyed colour of the fabric with its own pigmented colour. The screen printers that were using large squares of white to get bright colours soon looked to this technique with envy. The magic of chemistry ‘Can we do this?’ was the question. ‘No’, was the answer. We need steam and pressure and 100ft! Our pokey little 20ft electric dryers simply wouldn’t cut it. Not to be deterred, we employed chemists from as far away as Bolton and set about making this newfangled printing paste work. In the early days of pioneering a way to use this magic ink we were inventive and with help from the ‘foreign’ chemists we discovered that a heat press would activate the ink. But only as long as the dye of the fabric was not the cheap sulphur dye we were accustomed to – the dye used to colour the fabric needed to be special ‘reactive’ dye. Once we discovered this we jerryrigged a Reliant fusion press with Teflon belts to place the panels onto. This constant heat press would drop onto a conventional dryer and hey presto, we had found the Holy Grail of screen printing: bright, soft, water-based prints. We had done it! We had abolished the need for ‘bullet-proof’ plastisol inks, and removed the need for a huge square of white fabric that had the background printed to match the sleeves. It didn’t take long to remove the rolling heat press from the process by increasing the heat and tweaking the formula. The rules... The glory days were heady: we could mix foil with this new print technique, we had super-bright whites without an underbase and we were printing all the licensed characters you could possibly imagine. But then came the downsides. As we pushed this new discharge technique to the limits we were issued with the regulations. Like a gremlin that you could not feed after midnight, we could not use the ink beyond its eight-hour pot life, we couldn’t see the finished colour until it had a heat-cycle applied, and the quality of the shirt now affected the brightness of the colour. The word formaldehyde appeared more often and we were now presented with legislation that required us to launder the garment before it was worn. The final restriction lay in that the chemical only worked with reactive dyes, and reactive dyes only stuck to organic fibres. The newly popular athleisure movement used man-made fibres in every garment, and discharge simply didn’t work on non-organic fibres. The fact that we cannot see the ink until heat is applied makes the printing difficult – having a red discharge leak on 100 shirts is a sharp learning curve on the benefits of inner screen taping. We are screen printers, we find ways around every stumbling block. Chances are that if you own a music band shirt from the ‘90s it was printed with a clear discharge base and thin plastisol colours on top – it’s the perfect hybrid solution to the pot life issue, the waste ink problem and the ever-changing substrates’ effect on the brightness of colour. Back to the future Discharge printing is still widely used today and, in my opinion, it is the only way to get prints that are bright, soft and water-based. Yes, HSA (high-solids acrylic) ink is rapidly becoming the weapon of choice, but this is purely down to the negative aspects of the wonder paste that is discharge – ie, it has formaldehyde in its formula, it has a short pot life once activated, it only works on organic fibres, and it’s difficult to spot print errors until it’s too late. Modern inks and regulations continue to work towards the Holy Grail. We achieved it with discharge, but the cost was a little too high for the mainstream. Maybe if we had changed the name to MiracleInk we would see more discharge in use today as the very name can make some people curl up their nose as if they can already smell the zinc formaldehyde sulfoxylate that is used to make the magic happen. Aforce to be reckoned with, Irene could stop a press with the simple wave of a crockmeter result