Fibrillation in Screen Printing

Why does my new shirt look old? There is a simple one-word answer for this question: Fibrillation. To simplify a complicated issue, fibrillation in screen printing is when the fibers of a garment stick through the print, giving the shirt a post-washed or vintage, faded look. It is often mistakenly assumed to be an ink problem such as wash-out. The difference between wash-out and fibrillation, is that wash-out tends to happen in patches, whereas fibrillation appears as a more even “faded” look to the print. See the gallery of photos below – a real life example of fibrillation:

  • Fibrillation 1
  • Fibrillation 2
  • Fibrillation 3
  • Fibrillation 4
  • Fibrillation 5

The main problem with fibrillation is that it is completely random and fairly difficult to predict, even though there are situations that cause it to occur more often than not. We have found three factors that cause fibrillation most frequently:

1. Dark on Light: When printing dark colors (with large coverage areas of ink) on light garments (mainly white), or when your design and garment have a high contrast.

2. Soft Garments: We’ve also noticed that the softer the garment, the more likely fibrillation will occur. Manufacturers are making garments softer, thinner and more comfortable. This can compromise the cotton and sustainability of the garment, and ultimately the print.

3. Thin Ink: When ink is thinned down to create a soft print, it doesn’t bind all the fibers together and creates a situation where fibrillation is more likely to occur, but this does not necessarily mean it will happen 100% of the time.

Screen printing has changed over time. In the 80’s and 90’s, screen prints were traditionally thicker and less comfortable, but fibrillation was virtually nonexistent. The general public wanted softer shirts and softer prints, demanding that the screen printing world adjust to their desires. As of late, the ultimate goal in screen printing is to achieve a super soft, bright print. Most printers attempt to achieve this by manipulating inks, adding softeners and other additives to make sure that the print feels like it is part of the shirt and not an annoyance to who is wearing it. However, when you compromise the ink during production (by thinning it) you compromise the print on the end product.

At this point, you’re likely asking yourself, “What can I do to avoid fibrillation on my order?”. While easier asked than answered, we do have a few suggestions to combat fibrillation:

1. Let us know if you’re looking for a “soft black” or a “true black”. Soft black is likely to experience fibrillation where a “true black” will print thicker and will be less susceptible to fibrillation.

2. Use discharge or waterbase inks. These inks dye the garment instead of covering it with ink. This will dye the fibers, and when they stick up, you won’t be as likely to see them.

3. Add a clear coat to the top of your print to “seal in” the fibers. This will cost the same as adding a color (e.g. a 3-color print + a clear coat will be charged as a 4-color print). The advantage to a clear coat is that it locks the fibers in, the drawback is the additional cost and thickening of the print.

4. Plan for fibrillation. If you have a design you think may experience fibrillation, add some distressing to the design and turn the negative into a positive. Use the “faded” look you may get to your advantage and add design effects that imply it is supposed to be that way.

At the end of the day, it is always our goal to provide our customers with the highest level of quality. That said, Threadbird is constantly trying to better our production by experimenting with and testing things to avoid fibrillation and other issues that can occur. We cannot predict fibrillation, but we take efforts to avoid it and we hope that this article has better educated you on ways that you can become involved and help ensure that you get the product you’re looking for.