Adventures in Discharge Screen Printing

Over the last couple of years, I’ve become a fan of discharge screen printing. The process was popular in the 1990s but has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years because time is a flat circle and these kinds of trends are cyclical.1

Most screen printing today is with plastisol inks. These inks offer a lot of advantages including precise color matching and allow the printer to correct their mistakes. Plastisol inks, however, have one big disadvantage: a shirt printed with plastisol, especially one with a large print area, can feel like you’re wearing a heavy layer of rubber. Water-based inks, on the other hand, dye the fabric and feel exactly as if there was no print. This makes for very comfortable t-shirts and it’s something I’ve seen in “high-end” fashionable t-shirts. The process works very well, except for black or any other dark fabric. To print on those, you can either use an opaque ink—with a white base—or remove the dye from the fabric and then print on to the natural color.2 The latter is what the discharge process does.

Sometimes you get some very desirable results just using discharge base without any dye. Most all-cotton black t-shirts discharge to a light-brown color, which is the natural color of the cotton fabric. For example, this basic American Apparel all-cotton jersey t-shirt discharged as such.

IMG 6427

This is what I expected to get with this all-cotton shirt, and the last run I did for Roebling Sporting Club looked as such.

However, not all of the shirts discharged as such. For example, some shirts, specifically the small-sized shirts, discharged to this blue color.

IMG 6428

Don’t get me wrong. That color looks beautiful, but it was not at all what I was expecting.

Upon closer inspection, the “black” fabric on the small shirts does look a little more blue than the rest of the shirts. Whatever American Apparel did to make that batch of shirts, it was enough to cause them to discharge to a different color.

Thankfully, the client was open-minded enough to accept the results, but in the future I will be inspecting the fabric of each shirt to ensure they are actually made from the same fabric to ensure consistent results.

  1. It also might be because of the toxicity of the process. 
  2. This only works for 100% cotton fabrics. Poly-cotton and tri-blend fabrics work, but you might be surprised with the results. 

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