Industry expert Tony Palmer gives his advice on how to add special effects to your printed designs

We could argue that every time we decorate a garment, it’s ‘special’. Today’s clients request a different edge to the print they want. It needs to look different and visually set itself apart from the other prints produced day in day out and, ideally, it also needs to be tactile. One of the first things we do to a new print is to touch it: watch the next time you show a new print to someone – they look then they touch. Tactile or ‘touchy’ prints can add another dimension to a great design. I would narrow them down to two basic groups: chemically-lifted and stencil-generated.

All puffed up

Chemically-lifted prints use an additive in the ink to raise or ‘puff’ the design. The amount and strength of additive can be adjusted to achieve a wide range of different results – from a soft suede or fabric-look to a blown-up 3D image. The basic requirements of using this ink are a good EOM stencil and open mesh – the more ink we can get onto the fabric, the better it’s going to rise. The lift happens in the dryer, so temperature is also key. The ink is always best printed last in the colour order or, if the customer insists on multiple special effects, it must be flashed to ensure no ink is lost on a wet-on-wet pick-up by the following screen. As the ink passes through the dryer it blows, puffs, expands, lifts or occasionally bobbles. The strange thing with this ink is that it lifts first and then falls, very much like my many failed attempts at baking! This makes correct temperature setting and time spent in the oven critical, as often the ink looks like it hasn’t risen at all when in fact it has risen and then dropped. My top tip here is to play with lots of settings and use your speed as well as your temperature controls. As the ink lifts it rises like a Yorkshire pudding, so a crisp edge is not really possible as the ink lifts up and out, creating a rounded top.

Crisp edges

Stencil-generated tactile (high-build) prints use the physics of the printing process to achieve a super-thick layer of ink on the garment with a crisp edge and a defined lift. This is done by creating a deep well in the screen, either by building up multiple coats of emulsion using the coat-dry-coat method, or by investing in some capillary film in the thickness you need. Four hundred microns is my favourite, but multiple layers of lower thickness film can deliver great results. The application of thick capillary film has been covered in many video posts and online blogs and I’m not going to profess to know the definitive method, but my preference is to use a flat surface and a squeegee to apply a thin layer of emulsion for the film to adhere to. Don’t forget to remove the plastic protection layer or you will have the thickest, most expensive drying cabinet floor in the industry. Yes, I have done this, nobody is perfect.

With a nice, crisp, thick stencil you can push the ink through the thick well you have created. Thick ink is best for this and some companies sell enhanced ink with a good high-solid count for this purpose. If you use thin ink it will sag and won’t have the ability to hold a well-defined edge; if you use expanding ink it will give a rounded top and edge (not what we want with HD prints). Look for the HD or high-build description in the ink selection. Again, this ink is printed last to avoid pick-up. The gradual build-up of multiple screens flashed every time can give some great results, just don’t forget to raise the off-contact at every screen to keep layering on top of the previous high-build print.

Tactile prints encourage people to look then touch

This print combines high-build and metallics

Metallic impact

Printed metallics are an easy addition to a print and can add real impact. Like the other special effects, they should be printed last to avoid screens picking othe top layer of ink and removing the shine or lustre that you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Metallic inks are available in a limited colour range and usually centre around gold, silver and bronze. However, with a little creativity, you can make multiple shades by adding very small amounts of colour (experiment with trichromatic colours as these are weak in pigment). A water-based metallic base is a great way to play with the available options as the same base can be used as a starting point – simply by adding yellow and red you can be a true alchemist and turn silver into gold. Open mesh counts are required for this process and fine detail is not encouraged as the metallic elements don’t stand out visually.

All that glitters

Glitter is a very sparkly way to pick out elements of a design. The techniques for glitter are also relatively simple and follow the same rules as the previous special effects: print them last or flash them. Glitter is basically small particles of reflective material in a carrier base. These particles must pass through the mesh so a lower mesh count is required: I prefer a 22t mesh but this limits the amount of fine detail you can print. Glitter can be purchased as a ready-to-use ink or glitter powder that can be added to a carrier. It can also be sprinkled onto wet clear ink to create stunning elements in a clever design. This is my least preferred method, however, as it leaves little particles of glitter everywhere. These are removed from the print using a vacuum device at the end of the dryer, but there will always be that one particle that sticks to your face no matter what you do to try to remove it!

Reflective ink

Not really a metallic and not a glitter either, reflective ink utilises the ‘cats’ eyes’ phenomenon of glass-like particles that reflect light back to the source. I have used many reflective inks and found the most impressive to be water-based. I believe this is due to the carrier not being as sticky or opaque and allowing a greater amount of light to bounce back. Reflective inks add a great safety function to hi-visibility garments and can offer a great special effect to other garments. Again, this process uses particles so open mesh counts are a requirement to allow the particles to pass through the mesh and, once again, reflective ink needs to be printed last in the print order.

High shine

Foil is a superb method of achieving a high-shine image, but it is a secondary process – and this should always be reflected in the pricing. The process involves printing a clear glue, drying the glue and then moving the garment to the heat press department. A very thin layer of metallic foil is applied, using heat and pressure to melt the glue. The foil is kept in contact until the glue has cooled and adhered to the foil, then the excess foil is peeled away. This method gives a great retail feel to garments; however, the foil sticks to anything solvent-based so other colours in the design must either have a foil blocker additive or be water-based. Discharge is great for this.

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 to get the most from existing processes and techniques. Tony is passionate about keeping and enhancing production skill levels within the industry. He is the owner and consultant at Palmprint Consultants, offering practical help and assistance to garment decorators all over the globe.