Performance wear

Ten Steps to Taking on Performance Wear

Joe Clarke has spent the past 47 years in the lab and in the engineering department, in pre-press and on-press, as an R&D / technical researcher and as a manager of screen print production. Clarke has held executive positions as President of M&R Printing Equipment and as Vice-President at Wilflex [Poly One]. He has been granted a growing number of print-related patents, including one for High-Shear printing with Smilin'Jack - he is a member of the ASDPT, is an Associate Editor for NBM and an SGIA Fellow.

Clarke has presented hundreds of technical papers, written a couple books and published over 600 technical / management articles for which he has been awarded five Swormstedts; the international standard for excellence in technical writing.

Currently Joe Clarke is the President of CPR, a Chicago-based corporation which manufactures Synergy Inks including NexGen; environmentally & financially responsible T-Shirt inks. For more information on CPR, visit

About two months ago, I contacted Laura from Lloyds of London. Lloyds underwrites insurance policies for any and all high-risk professionals; guys who jump over big things on their motor cycles, eyes of brain surgeons, the systolic pressures of Fortune-50 CEOs, fingers of virtuoso violinists, and, occasionally, the long-term, mental acuity of a suburban soccer mom.

Over long-distance I told this woman, in a charming hackney accent; “Laura, I am a professional screen printer who periodically prints performance wear and I'd like to ensure my practice with a policy from Lloyds of London.” The phone went dreadfully silent for a full 10 seconds, then Laura put me on hold in order to check with the attending actuary in charge. She returned less than one minute later, but with a new found tremor in her voice and informed me, “So sorry, sir, but no one here can help you.” And then she hung up the phone!

The next morning, via courier no less, I received the following letter from Laura.

My Dear Mr. J. Clarke:

After an exhaustive review of your request and an objective risk assessment of your, shall we say, occupation, we have arrived at the following conclusions:

• Your process is complex, vertical manufacturing comprised of multiple sub-assemblies for which there are no “industry-standards.”
• It demands numerous, highly precise operations, ostensibly performed by untrained, semi-skilled operators tasked to selectively apply a color-accurate, durable coating onto a fashion statement costing between 10 to 50 times more than the coating itself.
• At which juncture, the final product is held captive by a cadre of clothiers and then brokered for a fraction of what it is worth, in order that they (not you, sir) may fill their coffers.

Allow me to be perspicuous with respect to our intentions. Metaphorically speaking, we would be less likely to insure you or any other proponents of your so-called “silk-screen process” than we would to underwrite your Mr. Robert “Evil” Knievel should he attempt to jump over a score of motorcycles whilst driving a large, yellow school bus filled with children. We hope our lack of interest is abundantly clear.

Thank you for considering Lloyds of London.

I was devastated! Laura says it’s too risky and Lloyds was my last resort. But, one must rise to the occasion; I would have to go it alone and mitigate the risk. So I put a plan together to prove Laura and her academy of actuaries entirely wrong.

The Plan

First I need a budget. You see, no one dabbles well, so I either needed to make a serious commitment to printing performance wear or stay out of that market segment. There is a naïve and expensive attitude that, with screen printing, we can print anything. But my goal isn’t to see if it’s technically possible. I want to minimize the risk and make it consistently profitable.

So I started with a checklist of the shortest distance to my goal, which always begins with knowledge.

Step One: Find a mentor or consultant

My sizeable ego and my frugal nature get in my way every time I consider asking for help—after all, I’d be admitting I need help… and then I’d have to pay to get it! Nonetheless, it is so often cheaper to hire the knowledge than to take the time away from one’s core competency in order to master a disparate skill set.

Consultants don’t necessarily show up at your doorstep for an undefined period of time, in fact the best ones will provide a time and cost estimate if the size and scope of one’s project dictates. And, in these days of wireless communication of information and images, a lot of the support work can be done effectively and efficiently with remote access.

The singular goal of the consultant is to help us to design and implement an integrated system of printing with specifications within tolerances to standardize output and minimize the cost of doing so. (If, to date, you’ve dared to go it alone, finally acquiesce and bring in a Top Gun. The process barometer is to meet the specifications within tolerances and to increase the labor-to-revenue ratios.)

Step Two: Learn about the garments

The bulk of cost for the finished product will go to the retailer and the licenser, the bulk of their cost is the garment. Therefore, they will continually push to cut the largest of their costs. This means they’ll use “any port in a storm” for sourcing fabric, dyeing and finishing. And, to use this method means the garment will be inconsistent.

We will need to acquire samples, particularly, the commoditized (hear “cheap”) ones for our archives of good and bad sample prints. The owner of the garments will not likely be willing to tell us who made this lot of hairy hemophiliac fabric. But, they may be willing to code the fabric manufacturer’s identity and tell us it is company A1 or B2, so we’ll ask.

Step Three: Select the appropriate ink type

To print directly on the garment, there are four possible inks: high solids water-based acrylic, urethane water-based, low-fusion/high elongation plastisol, and silicone. Some of the marketers (our clients) will demand inks which are promoted for their environmental superiority. A full explanation of the pros and cons requires quantity beyond these pages, but this issue is most critical.

Generically, the key performance parameters are extreme durability, extreme elasticity, and a permanent appearance with respect to bleed-resistant color, gloss, etc. Our ink supplier can guide us as to suitability of ink and fabric, but this category falls under “participation sport.” We need to test in-house to find out not only what works, but when it works and when it fails.

Step Four: Evaluate the press for parallelism, angle, pressure, and speed

In short, calibrate your press! One way is to print a nine-zone test image to calibrate our presses and to optimize blade parameters. With this one (nine-zone) image, we can quickly identify the four parallel planes (the carriage, blade, mesh, and platens), and establish the optimal off-contact distance, and squeegee blade type, angle, pressure, and speed. It also allows us to gauge head-to-head and platen-to-platen consistency. (See Printwear Issue, page # for more on the nine-zone image test for calibration.)

Step Five: Select the proper high-volume screen mesh

No matter the ink system, and whatever assortment of fabrics, the end result will look better with high--volume mesh. You want sufficient fabric thickness to cover the color of the fabric, and the largest possible percentage open area. Of course, we always prefer high modulus mesh for long life.

Step Six: Ensure the ability to fuse or cure the coating

Not all coatings are created equal. So, our consultant will help us identify the applicability of the dryers we own or are about to purchase, as well as the ink system’s mesh and transfer process we intend to use. Because we use metrics (see step seven below), we are able to find the optimal gel and curing parameters for each ink and substrate combination.

Step Seven: Apply metrics whenever possible

We are relieved to learn we don’t need to run out and invest a fortune in analytical equipment in order to do comparative testing for go/no-go decisions. For example, a test file, a ruler and a roller frame can be used to compare elongation, elasticity, and tensile strength per mil deposit on any and all garments.

The most precise (and sexy) way to evaluate color is to purchase a spectro-densitometer. But, before running the first production order, setup samples of the white ink on performance fabric. Sorted the samples and characterize five levels of whiteness; the white we wanted to ship (name this sample “C,” the ideal), two with less ink (prints “A,” with the least amount, and “B,” with less than C), and two samples with more ink than C (the print labeled “D” should have more and “E,” the most ink of the prints). Of course, we want to ship all “”Cs,” but as long as our operator ships with whiteness between “B” and “D,” we are within acceptable tolerance.

Step Eight: Train how to measure, then take appropriate action

The perennial opinion in most shops is, “our people can’t be taught.” This is most often untrue and hypocritical. The people are little of the problem—blame the management! If we operate without explicit samples of images within and without tolerances, and without published specifications and statistically-based tolerances, we’re kidding ourselves.

“Training the staff” is traditionally about exercising discretion within ill-defined (perhaps undefined) parameters which change depending on capacity, progress and proximity to the ship date. There is no way in the world to teach this discipline. Rather, train how to use analytical tools, interpret the results, and then take the appropriate action based on comparative data.

We have a 20” X 20” test image of 1/4” grid lines, and for the neophytes, we have a pile of performance fabric. Rather than teach them “how to load,” we tell them the importance of loading a garment so it is not distorted. We show them the basics—then leave them alone to make a few prints. When they can load and unload so the grid is square—they are “press-ready.”

Consider the whiteness example in step seven. We have five discretely different archival prints from the “grayest” to the “whitest,” labeled “A” through “E.” We train our staff to observe the smoothness and gloss level on each and add that information to each of the prints. So “B” for example indicates; slightly less whiteness, slightly rough with visible mesh marks, slightly subdued gloss level. Our species is horrid until we can make comparisons and then we are all expert. Train folks to test comparatively—it works!

Step Nine: Begin day one to establish universal line-stop privilege

Traditionally, line stop (production break) occurs when the boss pops in does that slicing gesture thing on neck. Absent screams of pain, we all recognize we need to stop the presses, as quality has run amok. But once our manufacturing has explicit specifications within defined tolerances, methodology to validate the specs, and a staff trained to use the tests to gauge acceptability, everyone in the company should have line-stop privileges.

The point is, when our standard operation is consistent, flawed product becomes anomalous. If these standards are conspicuous, then it is easy for all to spot the anomalies, so we simply engage everyone in the building to help us spot anomalies. You may not ever be finished, but the point is to be on the path to consistent quality every day.

Step Ten: Call Laura back

In the beginning we had contacted Flo, that adorable Aussie-green gecko, and the big guy with the beautiful baritone and “good hands,” but about once every six months now we contact Laura and ask her for another risk assessment—we keep getting closer. ‘Ain’t continuous improvement grand?