Sleepy Dan: Printing Bed Bugs

by Sleepy Dan on October 20, 2011

Great to see you back at the Behind the Design column! The purpose of the column this week is to give you a behind the scenes look at the complete process for printing a shirt. It can be complicated and not many designers know all the steps that go into printing their creations, but the Sleepy Dan column aims to help by sharing experience. I work as the Creative Director for a domestic manufacturing company in Dallas called Classic Cap & Embroidery. Several of my projects will be made here so you can see the production being made on the factory floor. Being a better designer means understanding the production process you intend to use, then creating and laying out your design in a way that makes it easiest for the production to be successful. If you are not well informed, there is a good chance the printing company will not share your vision for the design, or have to charge you more to set up the art correctly for them to print. In this column, I intend to share the point of view for every type of production that Sleepy Dan uses. This week we printed the Halloween design which is the first of the Monster Under the Bed series!
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The Sleepy Dan series one was printed on TulTex shirts because they are based in Texas, but moving forward I will be using Next Level shirts which is a step up in quality. I prefer a better quality shirt than all the name brands out there, but price is the battlefront for a sale so I am sure there are several shirt qualities as good as this or better, like American Apparel. The type of shirt and color you intend to use should be well planned out. Quality and price of the shirts you use is an overlooked detail when screen printing because you are so focused on the printing, you can forget that if the shirt is not comfortable and fits well, you will have trouble selling it no matter how cool the art is. Get to know all the shirt companies out there and what other brands are using. Look at shirt brands like types of cars, because there are so many different qualities and colors, then salesmen you have to purchase them from… All printing companies allow you to purchase outside shirts to ship to them for printing, or will help purchase the shirts for your project. But you must understand that if you purchase your shirts thru anyone other than the manufacturer, they will be marked up a little bit for each wholesaler, so I always suggest you purchasing directly thru the manufacturer. Just gotta allow for ordering and shipping time.
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The first step to printing your design is making the films. A film is basically a dense black print on top of a transparent vellum. It’s printed with registration marks for each color you intend to use in your shirt. There is a setup fee for every color you print, so if you want to print more colors the shirt will cost more. A good design will not use more than several colors so the project can be profitable. The setup fee includes printing the film and burning the film image into the screen that will be used to make the printed shirt. The film can be stored for future reprinting, but reprinting is a sign of an uncreative brand. Make new designs cause there is lots of competition out there…
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The film is carefully measured out to for center placement on the emulsified screen, so all screens made can keep good registration and all colors line up perfectly during printing so there is no offset printing of the colors. The film is scotch taped to the emulsified screen to keep placement for the burning process inside the exposure unit.
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The “burning” process is basically like creating a photo. The screen is first thinly coated in a light sensitive photo emulsion liquid, dried in a dark room so the emulsion is not exposed, then the film attached to the screen is put into this vacuum sealed exposure unit for the process that exposes the image into the emulsion. The screen is not harmed in this “burning” process, so the screen can be reclaimed after printing for hundreds of future printing projects.
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After exposure, a pressure washer is used to spray out the unexposed emulsified screen area. It easily washes out because the UV light did not hit this area. The exposed emulsion is hard and the unexposed emulsion is still water soluble. The exposed area is well adhered for the printing process and will need special chemicals to be removed from the screen after the printing is complete. This type of wash out booth is necessary for all burning and reclaiming of screens, it always creates a huge mess…
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After wash out the screens are checked for perfect image translation and need to dry out completely. Screen sizes needed for your printing project depend on the art you want to use, up charges for larger or jumbo screens are an industry standard, so try to keep your art to a maximum 13 inch width size. The screens are basically a metal or wood frame with a screen permanently stretched over it. Screens have a mesh count which describes the amount of threads in a square inch size. The lower the thread count, the wider the holes in the screen, which means lower image resolution and more ink being pushed thru the screen onto your shirt. The higher the thread count, the smaller the holes, which means higher image resolution and less ink being pushed thru the screen to your shirt. The low side of a mesh count will be 80, which is what is used on large letters making a thick print. The higher side of a mesh count will be 305, which is what is used on a very fine detail image making a thin print. Normally I prefer to use a 195.
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A dry screen means it can be taped off and made ready for printing. The bottom side border of the frame needs to be taped off so there’s no bleeding around the emulsion edges. Registration marks are left un-taped till after the frame is set into the press and first printing on a shirt is checked for screen alignment of all colors. Then you’re ready for production!
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Working with an automatic press means much quicker production. There were only 60 shirts for this project printed, so it took about an hour to finish up the printing. This is a 10 color automatic and when properly run can output thousands of shirts a day, depending on how many people are running the machine.
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Printing any project means you have to be able to create any color requested, so Classic Cap & Embroidery has a huge color mixing department. When sending your art to print, it’s helpful for you to pick the Pantone color you want to see on your shirt. This will help insure the color they mix will match exactly to the color you want. If you don’t pick the Pantone color, there is a higher probability for mismatch.
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Using an automatic press means all the prints will have a machine’s perfect consistency. The press allows for adjusting the pressure used by the squeegee on the screen, so you can put more or less ink thru the screen. Check out a short video of the Bed Bugs shirt printing at the Sleepy Dan YouTube page.
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The shirt is lined up on the platen board, so the print is centered on the shirt. Then the shirt rotates around to the corresponding color and is printed in order from least detailed layer first, then most fine detail layer last and making it the top layer. Between each color a flash unit will heat the shirt to cure the printed color, before moving onto the next color, so the previous printed color does not adhere to the bottom of the next screen color and make a mess for upcoming shirts.
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The final shirt print runs thru a large conveyer dryer that super heats the shirts to fully cure all colors printed. The dryer is hot enough to cook a steak, but the shirt is in the dryer for about six seconds which will not harm the cotton.
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To print on the back side of the shirt is the same to print on the front, but one side has to be fully cured before moving onto the back print, so the shirts have to be run thru the dryer twice. The Monster Under the Bed series print at the back neck is a simple one color, so the cost is just like printing one more color at the front. But the added value of having a back  design to display the limited edition appeal of the shirt, makes it really special.
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After printing is complete, the screens have to be reclaimed which can be a messy project. Excess ink is removed from the screens, then screens are washed in eco friendly trapping system so the ink is not just washed down the drain. Then the screens are dipped in chemicals, scrubbed, and power washed to remove all emulsion from the screen so it can be used for the next printing process.
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Private labeling your shirt means bringing it to a seamstress so the factory label can be un-stitched, removed, then your label can be sewn back in. It sounds like a simple process but it should be professionally done so the shirt’s factory seam looks unharmed.
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Classic Cap & Embroidery has a screen printing department, embroidery department, and huge factory floor for cut & sew. The employees are very skilled and love working on fun projects like this. Having a cut & sew department means they have all the machine types to create anything out of fabric like headwear, clothing, or accessories. Having their help means that sky is the limit! So you will be seeing them create some great projects for Sleepy Dan.
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Taking the shirts home to my printing lair, I am able to custom number all the shirts, so the Bed Bugs design is individually numbered 1-60. If you get one, your shirt is one of a kind and will not be reprinted! Check out the Sleepy Dan shop to see more images of the Monster Under the Bed series one.

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