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Foil is one of the best deals when it comes to special effects on garments. Foil is cheap compared to other special-effect materials, such as high-density, reflective, and many glitter inks. Applying foil is simple, and foil is brighter than printed glitter and has an eye-catching appeal from a long distance.

Foil is one of the best deals when it comes to special effects on garments. Foil is cheap compared to other special-effect materials, such as high-density, reflective, and many glitter inks. Applying foil is simple, and foil is brighter than printed glitter and has an eye-catching appeal from a long distance.

Despite these benefits, foil imprints managed to develop a bad reputation among consumers and many screen printers. Some customers still feel that foil will fall right off of the garment or tarnish and dull out after the first wash. This is most likely due to the proliferation of poorly executed foil decorations that were sold to the tourist market many years ago. These older foil applications used foil that wasn’t as durable as today’s materials and had a tendency to crack and tarnish quickly—especially when it wasn’t applied correctly. The newer versions have a thinner layer of reflective material that is more flexible and is much more durable, even after repeat washings. Additionally, screen printers now have better heat presses available that can help manage the variables and consistently produce high-quality foil decoration on garments.

This month, I will cover several design ideas that use this special effect and describe their execution in production. The important thing to consider with foil is how the design will use this reflective material to showcase its particular strengths while avoiding some of its disadvantages. The advantages include low cost compared to specialty inks and transferred graphics, simple application process, and the ability to produce extremely bright prints that attract attention. Some disadvantages include additional garment handling (at least twice as much as standard garment prints), scrap and waste caused by poor adhesion, and the need for specialized equipment and additional labor to produce consistent results.

Basic foil on a T-shirt

To create the Chicago design in Figure 1, I first created the artwork in CorelDraw with an emphasis on keeping the ink broken down into small pieces to prevent the foil from stretching over a longer distance. This is one of the lessons that I learned with foil: Don’t expect foil to hold up over a large distance in a graphic. It is always better on smaller, contained pieces in a design. Otherwise, you run the risk of the graphic becoming cracked and less reflective.

The design was printed onto films and then exposed on an 80-thread/in. screen. A silver gel ink from Rutland worked great in this case, and the high-tack (very sticky) inks I tested seemed to work better than some of the all-purpose formulations. I found that the stickier inks did a better job of grabbing the foil during application in a heat press.

For this graphic, I used a silver foil from Crown Royal and applied it with a pneumatic Hix heat press set to 330°F. The dwell time was 12 seconds at 35 psi. The production run was simple as could be: I just printed the shirts, cured them in a gas dryer, took them over to the heat press, laid the foil on top of the print (shiny side up), applied the foil, and then peeled away the foil sheet after the shirts had cooled slightly. Using foil in this design simulated the visual effect of rhinestones without creating a heavy feeling on the shirt, and some of the small circles would flash and shimmer like little mirrors when the design was tilted.

Iridescent foil on top of colored prints

A great way to make a multicolor graphic pop is to use some iridescent foil on top of the print. This foil is very transparent, but it adds a reflective, rainbow-like shine. The other Chicago sample (Figure 2) used this type of foil on top of a multicolor print to create a really unique look. This foil is much harder to work with than the standard opaque foils because it tends to tarnish from excess heat or melt into the print and not release properly after heat pressing.

This foil also came from Crown Royal. It looks slightly like a rainbow oil slick on the foil paper before it’s pressed onto the print. I achieved the best results with this design when I used a pneumatic Hix press set to 300°F and 25 psi. Dwell time was eight seconds. The pneumatic press really helps with this kind of foil because it automatically releases at just the right time. If this foil overheats, it loses most of its shine and will permanently glue itself to the design and not release from the backing. It still takes some tugging to get the foil to release, even when applied perfectly, where a normal opaque foil just peels right off.

Simulated sequin (Figure 3) is a really popular look in many upscale stores. You can easily reproduce this effect in programs like CorelDraw or Adobe Illustrator. Just create a sequin shape that can be blended along a path that will flow smoothly to create the text. To develop this graphic, I created my shape in CorelDraw and then carefully traced the center of a script font that I liked with a single line that would become my path. I then mapped the step-and-repeat blend of the sequin shape to this centerline text path.

The separation step proceeded as usual, except I added a gel print that would be on top of the multicolor print on just the sequins to help grab the foil in those areas and leave the simulated stitching lower and free of foil. The print was cured normally through the dryer and then heat-pressed with exactly the same settings used for the other iridescent foil print.

Inline foil printing

The most dramatic foil prints usually fall into the inline category. The foiled areas of the print contrast intensely with the normal parts of the design and really make the viewer do a double take to see how and where the foil is flashing in the design. For the inline Chicago print (Figure 4), the shirt was designed using silver gel as the foil adhesive. It was printed in this order: silver gel, flash, silver foil (Crown Royal) heat pressed onto the shirt inline on the press, white, flash, and then royal blue.

This process is only for the most dedicated printers who have a large demand for foil or transferred prints that are done inline. The cost of the equipment can be considerable. Occasionally, if the elements in a design are not touching precisely, the shirt can be printed, foiled, and lined up on press using a laser mark for a reference to print the rest of the design. But this option is unlikely to work when a design has elements that flow from one another in a kiss register. Several of the bigger automatic-press manufacturers—MHM and M&R, for example—now offer inline foil systems for their automatic presses. This technology does not come cheap, but the results are really awe inspiring if the design is done properly to showcase the foil.

Reheating the foil is an important concern with this style of printing. Some foils can tarnish when passed through a dryer or under a flash-cure unit. Some testing is necessary to determine curing and wash-resistance temperatures that preserve the foil’s reflective properties.

Other methods

Some alternative processes worth noting here are the use of thin-based plastisol inks (such as Nova Base or Hydrosol Base) and water-based inks printed before a foil adhesive. You don’t have to foil the shirt inline when using either of these techniques, but the garment will appear as if it had been foiled inline because not all of the print will carry foil. Both of these methods need extensive R&D to be truly production friendly and will often be a trade out for volume vs. quality. The faster you go, the more scrap you get.

I feel that any screen printer who has a heat press should investigate the foil process as a premium decorating option. The prints that have foil applied to them are some of the brightest possible options available, and foil’s cost per inch remains cheaper than most special-effect inks on the market. It does take considerable adjustment to production to add foil garments with a cost-effective margin, but as a special effect on a T-shirt, foil reigns supreme.


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