Multiple colours aren’t the only way to produce a jaw-dropping design: sometimes less really is more, explains Marshall Atkinson

A single-colour print on a Gildan Heavy tie-dyed tee, by Monster Press for thenrth

You know the drill: we’ll print anything they pay us for. Most designers want to cram more and more colours onto their T-shirts, as if that will make their designs better somehow. If we installed a 50-colour press, the next day a designer would want to print a 48-colour shirt. Sometimes, though, simpler can be better. It’s probably harder to use fewer colours to create an impact, so think of it as a unique challenge. Check out the 10 ideas below and think about how you could incorporate them into your oeuvre.

1 VINTAGE

Printing on any heather colour shirt in any location, you can channel your inner design-time machine and print a translucent white, grey or other colour. It looks great on garment-dyed T-shirts too. Base down your ink colour with curable reducer until it has the transparency you are happy with, then print through a higher mesh screen. Even with regular plastisol, there will be virtually zero hand on the shirt. A based-down white looks fantastic.

This is how that chalkboard effect is achieved. It should be the core staple of T-shirt designers everywhere who get handed a request from the sales team at 3.45 pm that simply says: “Come up with four great designs by tomorrow that will sell, I need them for a sales presentation.”

Combine this faded glory look with a striking print position, such as in the corner of a hoodie pocket; upper shoulder of a long sleeve; inside the box created by the stitching of a sewn neck label; down on the lower left hem; or maybe even at the end of a long sleeve cuff. Throw in a designed distressed texture for good measure.

2 SPINAL TAP

With this technique, ‘the numbers all go to 11’. Take a word or phrase with a good character count and print it right down the middle of the back. It’s going to look like a stripe, but that’s the intent. As the viewer is always used to seeing things right side up and centred for visibility, turning it 90-degrees and having it travel down the spine is a bold move. Really set it off by choosing a high contrast ink colour, or maybe even some reflective ink. Whatever you choose, it will look great and stand out from the crowd as people aren’t used to seeing this on a shirt.

3 SHOULDER SEAM

Print on a sports shirt next to the shoulder seam on the upper left chest or upper left back. The trick is to get as close to the seam as possible. Just use your sleeve platen, and load the shirt so the seam hangs off. Printing this as a one-colour means you are adding more value to the simple print, as this is a difficult print position to pull off. It looks great for sports or adventure brands as it’s not the norm. Try it on tracksuits or jackets as well.

From left: Spinal Tap: printing down the middle of the back in a high contrast ink colour. Shoulder seam: the trick is to get as close to the seam as possible.

4 SIDE PRINT

Does everything have to be a full-front or full-back? What if the print was on the side of the T-shirt? This super trendy look is easy to accomplish on-press: just load the shirt sideways, with the sleeve centred and hanging off the top of the platen. Some T-shirts may have a seam, so take that into consideration. Printing over the seam is easy, but you have to take care or the ink may puddle up near the seam and look misprinted. Base down your ink slightly, use higher mesh with good tension, and watch your squeegee pressure. Distressed textures in the design can camouflage any problems printing the seam, too.

5 BOTTOM HEM

I’m seeing more of this location lately, and for good reason: it looks great. There used to be an unwritten rule that all images on the front of the shirt had to be up around the chest as people would tuck their shirts into their trousers. That rule died I don’t know how many years ago – I don’t think anyone wears a T-shirt tucked into their trousers now. What’s interesting about a bottom hem print is that it is still on the front, but it isn’t at the top of the shirt where people are used to seeing images. Go either side, the effect is the same. Rock ‘n’ roll!

From left: Side print: distressed textures in the design can camouflage any problems printing the seam. Bottom hem: aim low because nobody wears a T-shirt tucked into their trousers these days.

6 CUFF PRINT

On long-sleeve T-shirts or fleece, printing on the cuff is a classy location. You can do either sleeve, but I see the left sleeve print chosen more often, probably because that’s where most people wear their watch (sorry lefties!) so the print will be seen more often. This is great for text or a simple logo, and really adds some zip to the shirt as the imprint will get a lot of notice as people use their hands constantly.

7 TOP OF THE HOODIE HOOD

That’s fun to say out loud! One great imprint location is the top of the hood on a hoodie. Most people wear their hoodies with the hood hanging down their back, not up around their head like a monk. You can print it either the right way up so it can be read when the wearer has the hood up and is facing you, or upside down so when the hood drapes off the back you can see it when the wearer is standing in front of you. The latter is more common. This is hard to print as the garment will really hang down from your platen. Make sure your press arms are clean then you can just wrap the shirt around the arm a bit so the garment doesn’t drag as it makes its way around the press.

8 BACKGROUND FOR EMBROIDERY

Try some mixed media next time. Print a one-colour texture or pattern onto the shirt, and then embroider an image on top of the print. This is a great retail idea, and is really easy to pull-off production-wise as it doesn’t take much extra effort to add some serious value to the garment. Make sure that the print somehow relates to the embroidered image though. For registration purposes, add a cross, centred where you want the embroidery needle to start sewing, so you have perfect registration.

From left: Cuff print: great for text or a simple logo. Tie-dye: the colour and focus doesn’t have to be in the printed image.

9 TIE-DYE

Use a tie-dyed T-shirt to give a lot of interest, colour and texture, but keep the print simple and clean with just one colour. The colour and focus doesn’t have to be in the printed image! Use the garment to your advantage and see how you can link the garment pattern to your design more effectively.

10 JUMBO SCREEN PATTERN OR TEXTURE

Here’s another idea that is fairly easy to print: create an all-over pattern that is larger than the T-shirt you are using. Burn it on a jumbo screen and print it as a single colour onto the front and back of a stack of T-shirts. Use discharge ink, thinned ink, tonal, even glow-in-the-dark. Get crazily creative with your ideas and turn an ordinary T-shirt into something special in just a few minutes. Now use that as the basis on which to print your normal designs. Sure, it’s a two-step challenge, but it’s one that will pay off handsomely when you want to differentiate yourself from the rest of the T-shirt hoard because nobody else is going to go to that trouble. You aren’t afraid of a little extra work, are you?

Snap & Tap Do you print awesome single-colour designs, go for creative print locations, or use any of the other techniques outlined in Marshall’s article? If so, we’d love to celebrate your work. Send hi-res images of your prints and we’ll pick out our favourites to publish in the magazine and online.

Don’t think about it, just do it! ‘Snap’ a photo of the shirts on your phone and ‘tap’ to send. Sorted!

Email the photos or send a file transfer link to: editorial@images-magazine.com

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he publishes his also publishes his own weekly blog.
www.atkinsontshirt.com