Screen Printing:

Fitness Apparel In Focus

A handful of issues needs to be considered before you accept jobs for this garment style.

By Thomas Trimingham, Contributing Writer

April 18, 2016

With their unique  properties, decorating fitness garments offers screen printers challenges above and beyond those of a regular T-shirt. To solve these challenges, it’s important to first define a “fitness” garment and its qualities compared to those of a “typical” apparel choice.

Once the garment concerns are addressed, the printer should decide the best decorating option for each garment style. A final concern is how the artwork will influence both the decoration method, depending on how it is prepared and applied, and garment choice.

There are a confusing array of terms related to today’s fitness garments and their functions. Some are identified as performance apparel, while others are called compression gear or “dry-wicking” fabrics. Equally confounding are the specific niches to which some apparel is made to appeal: weight training, cross-training, cardio, yoga, sports and agility, and more.

To avoid confusion, most fitness apparel can be grouped into the functions they provide: compression gear, dry-wicking garments, and hot and cold gear. Grouping items into categories can help during the sales process, but it is less important for production.

Fortunately, when it comes to providing decorated garments in volume for the fitness industry, there are four factors about the blank apparel that influence and concern a printer: fabric composition and stretch, garment decorating area and garment composition.

Fabric Composition
With fitness apparel, the fabric components can sometimes be hard to determine. To avoid discouraging sales, manufacturers often fail to include certain compositional elements if they are not above a percentage.

For performance purposes, a stretchy T-shirt or pants may have significant Lycra or spandex content, but this also can have an effect on final printing. It always is a good idea to discuss the decorating method with the supplier if you are testing a new product to ensure there are no surprises during production.

Challenges to watch out for that are related to fitness apparel fabrics include:

1.    Heat-sensitive fabrics and threads in seams or stitching may become distorted or brittle when run through a dryer or heat pressed.

2.    Synthetic threads in fabrics may resist inks and printing adhesion, or need an ink catalyst to be washfast. These include nylon and some seal-coated fabrics.

3.    Ultra-thin or mesh-weave fabrics may bleed under a print, causing ink to transfer from the platen to other garments.

4.    Garment dye lots may sublimate into ink or other parts of a garment during curing or heat pressing.

5.    An inconsistent surface can cause a print to appear broken, spotty or washed out. This also can happen if a garment is too absorbent and the ink is too thin.

Combat all these issues by getting clear manufacturing specs from the supplier. Also, get extra garments and take additional time to test the decoration method on the fabric prior to final production.

Fabric Stretch
With fitted garments, some decorators debate whether to decorate the garment in a stretched state and let the print compress, or decorate it unstretched and risk print distortion when the garment is worn. This issue can be complicated if the garment is made of a large-ribbed fabric because the print also is likely to crack when stretched. Ink modifiers will add a certain amount of stretch, but they also will sometimes reduce opacity. Testing is necessary to ensure the right garment performance.

A popular solution — and one of the better options for custom compression apparel and synthetic fabrics — is to use heat-pressed vinyl. This will provide better adhesion and decoration stability during stretching, and also can be a lightweight solution that doesn’t affect the feel of the fitted apparel. The main concern with using this style of decoration is whether the design is simple enough to weed and prep for it to make sense.

Another popular option is sublimation, which requires a polyester-blended or coated fabric to properly transfer the dye. If the order makes sense for this style of decoration and the artwork is suitable, the results can be stunning. The main drawbacks include printing costs and slower throughput. Unless the design can be done in larger volumes — where the fabric is first sublimated in large squares, then cut and sewn — the per-piece cost and labor can be challenging for custom shops.

Smaller shops also may have limitations on the size of the sublimated sheets they can produce and their heat presses, so this solution can be difficult unless the shop previously has done these types of orders and has the correct equipment.

Despite the drawbacks, sublimated apparel is popular in retail markets, and suppliers and manufacturers are scrambling to figure out ways to make this printing style more custom friendly. For example, some garments come with pre-sublimated sleeves and a blank front panel area to give a retail look to a custom garment.

Garment Decorating Area
The demand for multiple print areas on fitness apparel and unique printed locations has grown dramatically, forcing printers to develop ways to hold down different parts of the garment or heat press and sublimate them in non-standard positions. While executing an oversized back print on a pom-pom jersey may not seem like a challenge, a six-location print on a standard T-shirt can kill a print job’s profit if the order isn’t priced correctly and efficiently produced.

You must have a clear idea of the printing and handling costs for multiple locations, and how to best produce a job given the artwork style, garment type and order volume. A six-location print on a hoodie may include four different logos, but if the order volume is small and the printer decides to save screen costs and heat press the order instead, weeding time and handling of the vinyl must be considered.

Even a dozen shirts with six locations will equal 72 different transfers that need weeding. If weeding takes four to five minutes each — in addition to cutting — it easily can add up to four or five hours of work for prepping, placement and pressing.In a small shop, this can shut down production for most of the day — all for a dozen shirts.

A better solution may be to print transfers. Even though it requires screen making, the transfers can be run in bulk on one screen and then quickly cut and pressed with no weeding.

They may be less durable, but it can save several hours of weeding vinyls. This method may be more ideal for strange locations that are difficult to put onto the press and get aligned.

Garment Composition
How fitness garments are constructed is a critical factor that can determine the best decoration method and art limitations that apply for each style. Many of today’s popular options have unusual seam locations and different styles of linings that may cause issues with decoration methods.

For this reason, if you haven’t printed on a certain custom fitness garment, get a sample prior to getting too far into the production cycle. If you’re printing a larger design, you may need to get the largest and smallest sizes requested so you will know the absolute size of any printed areas on the apparel prior to decoration.

Once you have a sample, you can measure the print area, test it for heat sensitivity (if it applies to your decoration method) and get a final idea of how you will be able to fit the garment onto your printing equipment (see “The Importance of Samples”).

Printing apparel for the custom fitness market can be a unique challenge due to the performance fabrics, garments and decorating variables that need managing. Being aware of the pitfalls beforehand will allow you the best opportunity to make profitable decisions about the jobs you accept, resulting in quality products for your customers without causing you headaches.

Thomas Trimingham has been working in screen printing for more than 25 years as an industry consultant, freelance artist and high-end separator. He is an award-winning illustrator, designer and author of more than 145 articles on screen-printing art and separations. For more information or to comment on this article, contact Thomas through his educational website: