Learn how you can use specialty inks and effects to add a little extra pizazz to your T-shirt designs.
13.0 Oz/SqYd90% Cotton, 10% Polyester
Tech and Innovation

Tipping the Scale with Special Effects


If you’re looking to add a little extra pizazz to your T-shirt designs, consider experimenting with specialty inks.


There are so many elements that combine, in a somewhat magical way, to motivate a consumer to buy a T-shirt. Without a doubt, many are attracted to a licensed character or team, concert tees or special events. Others want souvenirs of a trip, place or experience. In many cases, buyers want to identify with a group, cause, or message.  


In all cases, good artwork is essential to closing a sale, because no one wants to pay hard-earned cash for what they consider to be an “ugly” shirt. However, with all things being equal, meaning it’s a good design in the right colors on the perfect garment, there is one more element that might tip the scales in a T-shirt’s favor, and that is special effects.  


At Perrin Sportswear, our biggest special effects users are the tourist, souvenir and resort niche. A typical way a conversation might get started is to have a client say “I want a hoodie, and I want to stay within a certain price point, but I want to add some extra value.”


Whenever we have a customer come in, we always start off asking lots of questions. We take a slightly different approach than many other companies, partially due to due to the fact we have few external salespeople.  


Our sales are driven internally, and our sales team has come up through merchandising. So while a traditional salesperson might be focused on how to sell the greatest amount of shirts to their client, a merchandiser is more focused on how to best help the client sell the most to their customer.  


They have a vested interest in guiding the buyer using their own experience and knowledge in terms of artwork, color, location, and overall appearance. They will even consider how the shirt is presented in the store.  

Typical questions include:

  • Who are you targeting?

  • What gender?

  • What age?

  • What's your end game for the shirt?

  • What do you want to see happen?

  • When are you putting it in?

  • Where are you putting it?

  • How many colors are you doing?

  • How long are you going to run the program?

  • Where is it going to be displayed?

  • Is it going to be folded or hung?


Then from there, we discuss graphics.


Often, the client is looking for something that their customer will identify as a unique treatment. This might be an HD clear. If the shirt will be well lighted, it will have a shine to it.  


If the display will not have direct lighting, we might suggest a glitter, shimmer or foil, because this will be eye catching even in low light. But that’s why we always ask about where and how the shirt will be displayed.  


Sometimes the garment is going to drive the choice of specialty ink. One of the biggest challenges printers have with direct to garment is it needs to be printed on a high-cotton shirt for the best results.  


Invariably, you get a customer who comes in and wants polyester or athletic-type apparel that is not suitable for DTG. And the same holds true for special effects. Some specialty inks will not work well on performance garments.  


In those instances, we might say “Let’s put some silicone ink on this. It will stretch, won’t crack and is very durable.”  


Perhaps we’ve identified the client wants a Nike-inspired athletic look. In that case, we might create something that's going to have a print pattern or a texture within the artwork. Then we might take parts of that texture or other design elements, and enhance them further with HD Clear. This gives the design movement or energy.


Another example would be someone who wants a vintage feel, but still of an athletic nature. We might take inspiration from Superdry. (Superdry is an apparel brand that combines vintage British styling with Japanese-inspired graphics.) We could use a sculpture base, suede or puff inks to give it texture or dimension.  


Some printers are discouraged from experimenting with special effects, because they have to learn how to use them and, in some cases, they can slow down the printing process. My response would be there are a lot of resources for decorators to tap into to find solutions.


The easiest ones are blogs and forums found on the internet. But you should also be developing a relationship with your suppliers. We do a lot of business with a specific ink brand. On several occasions, the company’s print and development department have visited and worked with our team for a couple of days.  


One thing to understand about special effect inks is that it’s not just the inks you have to be knowledgeable about. It’s the screens and emulsions. When these factory techs visit, we collaborate and discuss what we are trying to achieve. So consider contacting your suppliers for training, troubleshooting and other assistance.  


Another philosophy we are big on here is to remember that we are all in this together. We have a screen printer in town who doesn’t do the same type of work. He was hit up with a lot of orders to the point where he was turning jobs away.  


When he contacted us for assistance, we figured out how we create a win for everyone. We discussed costs, so we all had some margin and were able to service the customers during this high- demand period. During this time, we shared our neck label print system, and ultimately helped train his staff when he purchased the same equipment for his shop.


Maybe you have printers in your area who might be willing to train you in special effects or other processes, and there and there may be times you can be of service to them. Unfortunately, I don't think there are enough decorators who try and contact other nearby shops and look for opportunities to mentor.  


Printers should also realize sometimes a specialty ink/treatments do not have to take a lot of extra time. The secret to making them profitable is in understanding the cost of the ink/treatment and how you work with it to come up with the value you want to convey at the price point you need.


For example, at our company, most of our customers are price-sensitive, especially those in larger markets. They need to make certain margins.  


So we devised a way to use foil that lessens the necessary labor by skipping the step of using a heat press.  


For a distressed foil design, we lay a sheet of foil on top of the design as it is coming out of the dryer. Then we have created a hand tool that is a nothing more than a wad of scrap fabric wrapped up. As the shirt reaches the end of the conveyor belt, we rub the foil against the design. As the shirt cools, we release the foil.  


Depending on the distressing technique, we might use that foil sheet two or three times before discarding it. But the big advantage is we did not have to take the shirt to another station, lay it on a heat seal machine and press it. This enables us to do foil without that added step and the expense associated with it.  


So it’s a matter of figuring how you can utilize a special effect to fit the needs of the job or the customer.  


If you decide to offer special effects, then I have a couple of suggestions on how to let people know you have it. First off, of course, you need to have samples in your showroom.


Another strategy we have used is to order what we call “pizza boxes” for lack of a better term. We take a generic design and print it with two or three special effects. Then we fold the samples and place them in the box.  


Inside the box or mounted to the inside lid, we’ll create a flier that details what the shirt is, the print technique, and other info the client might be interested in. These are sent to accounts who we think are good candidates for the techniques we sampled.  


This is a great alternative if you cannot meet with your customer and want to show them something new. Showing them in a virtual proof or having an image on your website is not always effective.  


Special effects are fun and can be a great way to turn an ordinary design into something special. The key to success is learning how to use them effectively and within your customer’s budget.  


Tech and Innovation

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