It can be incredibly energizing for a garment decorator’s entrepreneurial spirit to fulfill orders ranging from one garment with a photograph to personalized T-shirts for an entire sports team. As such, the bright colors and details produced from the variety of direct-to-substrate (DTS or D2) printers on the market are quickly becoming a popular tool for many garment decorators. However, being able to provide customers with a great looking direct-to-garment print is only part of the process. The garment must also be able to take the constant abuse, chemicals and high-heat temperatures we common refer to as “doing the laundry.”
As garment decorators, a company’s reputation is not only based on how good a garment looks when the customer receives it, but also how good it looks when it comes out of the washing machine/dryer. Unlike banner printing and other types of offset printing, we know that our customers are going to expect our products to withstand multiple washings.
Most D2 printer manufacturers and distributors will discuss the importance of performing a wash test to make sure all settings are producing the optimal results. However, very few, if any, actually provide details on what is the best way to perform said wash test—which is where this article picks up.
Before getting started, it is important to understand that not all garments are created the same—even if they are comprised of the same fabrics and blends. Garment manufacturers use different weaving techniques, coloring dyes and treatment chemicals that can affect the washability of a print. Even the same exact brand and style of a garment can be made in multiple countries depending on the size or color of the garment, so pay close attention to where a garment is made.
When performing a wash test, it is important to know and document all the settings used during the entire DTS process. These settings that should be recorded include:
• Whether a pretreatment was used (and if so, how much fluid was applied and at what time/temperature it was cured),
• The print settings used in the RIP/driver and
• The settings used for curing the ink on to the garment.
When performing a wash test, I recommend that you actually print the settings on the garment. This will allow you to easily determine what settings you used to get the optimal results after performing the wash test.
The sample graphic you choose to print can be anything, but I recommend something that contains gradients (i.e. a photograph) and solid color boxes. This will help determine whether both types of artwork will have the same washability. Also, keep in mind that both the front and back of the garment can be used, which minimizes the amount of garments needed to perform a wash test using multiple settings. If possible, print the artwork twice on the same garment to allow for one sample to be washed and the other to be used for comparison. Simply cut the garment into two pieces and put one of them through the laundry process.
Different wash tests are required for light (uses CMYK inks only) and dark garments (uses CMYK and white inks). With dark garment printing, pay close attention to all the steps in the pretreating process. Changes to the type of cover paper used and heat press settings used to cure the pretreatment can definitely have an effect on the washability of the final printed artwork. A separate wash test is also necessary for polyester or poly blend garments.
The number of times you should put the garment through the laundry process will depend on customer expectations of how long the print should last. At a minimum, perform five complete laundry cycles. Many D2 users will put the test garment through anywhere 10 to 20 laundry cycles.
Take pictures of all the samples next to the corresponding control sample between each laundry cycle. The pictures allow for a comparison to show how well the washed garment held up during each wash test. I recommend taking the pictures with the camera’s flash turned off, as the flash can change the way the colors look in a picture. Try to make sure you have the same amount of natural light in the room each time you take the pictures.
Although some garment decorators will provide washing instructions (i.e. turn the garment inside-out, use cold water only, air dry only, etc.), the odds that the customers are going to follow these instructions are pretty low. So, to really provide a worst-case scenario for the wash test, I recommend using the standard washing habits of a male college student. This entails doing a full load of multiple types/colors of garments on the normal washing cycle settings using warm water. Then, put the garments into the dryer for a full 50 minutes or until the garments are completely dry to the touch. Do not use the “delicate” or “permanent press” settings for either the washing machine or dryer. If your sample garment is able to withstand this type of laundry cycle, you should have very little to worry about.
Protect your image
Repeat all the steps here until you find the appropriate settings that provide the desired results. Most D2 manufacturers/ distributors will provide recommended settings that will help you get started. However, you may need to experiment with pretreating and curing settings as these processes can vary.
Periodically, you will want to re-run your wash test to make sure that none of the settings have unknowingly changed. Pay close attention to potential changes to the amount of pretreatment as well as the method of applying it, and to the temperature accuracy on your heat press.
Although this many sound like a lot of steps to go through, the last thing any DTS user wants is a customer to return an order of shirts that washed out. The cost and time to reprint an average size job will far exceed what you would put into doing the wash test. In addition, the wash test process is an important part in protecting the reputation of your company.