Mastering the Art of Soft Hand Screen Printing: A Comprehensive Guide

Emma Hewitt
March 12, 2024
Soft Hand Plastisol Screen Printing

Achieving a soft, comfortable feel in screen printing isn't just about transferring ink onto fabric – it's an art that enhances the overall quality and wearability of garments. Traditional methods can sometimes result in prints that feel stiff and heavy, but soft screen printing focuses on creating a subtle, barely-there sensation to the touch. This is especially important for items like t-shirts and activewear, where comfort is key. Picture slipping into a t-shirt that feels like a second skin, with prints that blend seamlessly with the fabric, providing a feeling of lightness and breathability. Soft screen printing achieves this through careful selection of inks, adjustments to printing techniques, and the use of curing methods that maintain the fabric's natural texture while adding vibrant designs. 

In today's fashion world, where comfort and style are equally important, mastering the art of soft screen printing is more than just a technical skill – it's a testament to craftsmanship and attention to detail. It's about transforming everyday wardrobe staples into wearable works of art that not only look fantastic but also feel amazing against the skin, inviting the wearer to indulge in the luxury of comfort and style. 

What sets Extreme Screen Prints apart is that we apply these techniques to each and every order we print! In this guide, we'll explore various methods and techniques for achieving a soft screen print, including different ink types, flash curing, and ironing techniques.

Ink Types for Soft Hand Screen Printing

Soft Hand Plastisol

Plastisol ink gets a bad rap – it has often faced criticism for being perceived as heavy and lacking in softness when used in screen printing. This reputation comes from instances where printers have applied plastisol ink too heavily or without considering how to achieve a softer feel. However, it's essential to recognize that the characteristics of the final print depend heavily on the printing techniques used. When applied correctly, plastisol ink can produce prints that are not only vibrant and long-lasting but also remarkably soft and comfortable to wear.

To achieve a softer feel with plastisol ink, several factors need careful control and adjustment. For instance, ink viscosity is crucial, as it determines how smoothly the ink flows onto the fabric through the screen mesh. We can adjust viscosity using additives or reducers to achieve a thinner ink deposit, resulting in a softer print. This isn’t always necessary, but depending on the level of softness requested, this technique can be used. 

Additionally, the choice of screen mesh count is critical in determining ink deposit thickness. Higher mesh counts yield finer details and thinner ink deposits, contributing to a softer feel on the fabric. We can experiment with different mesh counts to strike the right balance between detail clarity and softness. When printing photorealistic images or simulated process designs, using a higher mesh count such as 225 and higher, is crucial to hold detail and to also make sure the amount of ink being used is appropriate for the coverage of the design.

Curing temperature and time also play vital roles in achieving a soft feel with plastisol ink. While proper curing is essential for ink durability and wash fastness, excessive heat can make the ink stiff and less soft. By carefully controlling the curing temperature and duration, we can ensure that the ink fully cures while retaining its soft and flexible properties.

Techniques like flash curing can be beneficial. Flash curing involves briefly curing the ink between color layers to prevent bleeding and improve registration. By strategically implementing flash curing at lower temperatures, we can minimize heat exposure and maintain the softness of the final print. It is important, however, to still keep in mind the total amount of flashes used as overcuring the ink can still be a concern.

It’s important not to be afraid of using plastisol ink when looking for soft touch print because ultimately, water based and discharge inks have limitations that plastisol does not. Plastisol inks are: 

  • Highly versatile: suitable for use on both light and dark fabrics
  • Durable: maintains their brightness and integrity over many years of use and washing
  • Easy to Use: do not dry out when left on screens for extended periods, minimizing the risk of clogging

In summary, plastisol ink shouldn't be dismissed based solely on its reputation for producing heavy and stiff prints. With the right techniques and adjustments, we primarily use plastisol ink to create soft and comfortable prints that rival those made with water-based or discharge inks. By understanding and controlling key variables like ink viscosity, mesh count, curing temperature, and flash curing, we fully leverage the versatility of plastisol ink to deliver high-quality prints with an exceptional soft feel.

This simulated process print was printed using plastisol ink, but you can still clearly see the weave of the shirt through the ink. This is how you know that not too much ink was used, and it doesn't have that rubbery, cakey feel that plastisol has when printed incorrectly.

Water Based Ink

One of the best advantages of water-based ink is the soft hand printing that it innately produces. The ink is absorbed into the fibers of the fabric during the curing process rather than sitting on top. This integration with the fabric creates a seamless and smooth feel, almost as if the print is part of the fabric itself. This is particularly desirable for garments where comfort is extra important, such as t-shirts and activewear.

Additionally, the versatility of water-based inks is worth highlighting. These inks are suitable for use on a wide variety of fabrics, including cotton, polyester, and blends, making them a versatile option for a range of applications. Additionally, they excel on lighter colored garments, producing vibrant and crisp prints that stand out. Moreover, water-based inks offer the flexibility to achieve various effects, from solid and bold colors to subtle and vintage-inspired looks. This adaptability allows us to cater to diverse design preferences and customer demands.

In terms of durability, water-based inks can hold their own when properly cured. Although they may not be as inherently durable as plastisol inks, water-based prints can withstand regular washing and wear, maintaining their vibrancy and integrity over time. This durability ensures that prints retain their softness and visual appeal even after repeated laundering, offering long-lasting satisfaction to customers.

However, it's essential to acknowledge that working with water-based inks presents its own set of challenges. These inks tend to dry out more quickly than plastisol inks, which can lead to issues such as screen clogging if not managed effectively. It is important to be mindful of factors such as ink consistency, screen mesh count, and curing temperature to achieve optimal results with water-based inks. Despite these challenges, mastering the intricacies of working with water-based inks can unlock their full potential and enable soft, vibrant prints that delight customers and elevate their products.

Learn more about water based printing as we go into depth on our blog, here.

Water based inks also typically need one wash before they are as soft as they will get. This is due to the amount of pigment needed in the ink to give vibrancy. When you receive your prints, they'll have a texture to them at first, but after one wash, it will disappear.

Discharge Ink

Discharge ink is like a secret weapon for creating soft prints, especially on darker clothes. It’s an additive used with water-based ink that works its magic by actually removing dye from the fabric, leaving behind a print that's super soft and gives a subtle, vintage vibe. It's the primary choice when you're aiming for that worn-in look on your garments.

The reason why discharge ink is a great option for some designs and garments is because it feels incredibly soft to the touch, making it perfect for cozying up in your favorite dark-colored tees or hoodies. Plus, it creates a one-of-a-kind distressed effect that gives designs a unique and handmade feel. 

Discharge ink isn’t a great option for every print, so it’s important to note that you or your customer should understand the variability that comes with the territory. Essentially, the ink bleaches out the fabric color and deposits another color on top, and it can be difficult to predict the final outcome. We at Extreme have a lot of experience printing using discharge ink, but there are so many factors involved from the manufacturing of the garment and dyes used as well as the top color chosen for the print that it’s still essential to be aware that some results can be a little unpredictable.

The best fabric content to use for discharge ink is 100% cotton or other natural fibers. It’s strongly discouraged to use any fabrics that are synthetic as the discharge ink may not be able to penetrate the fabric at all or enough to deposit another color in its place. Sometimes tri-blend garments with a light color weave can be an option, but the design being printed must be created with the intention of seeing the shirt color through the print and expecting a distressed, vintage look. This is a very particular and stylish result that can be desirable. 

With a little testing (and some proper ventilation - discharge ink can release some strong chemical fumes), you'll be amazed at the soft, vintage-inspired prints you can create using discharge ink. It's a fun and versatile option that adds a unique touch, whether you're going for a laid-back vibe or a cool, distressed look.

Learn more about discharge screen printing as we go into depth on our blog, here.

This discharge print is an excellent example of a garment that works well for this ink type. A consistent color that looks as though the design is imprinted into the fabric itself.

Methods to Achieve a Soft Screen Print

Print-Flash-Print for Soft Hand Printing

The Print-Flash-Print (PFP) technique is a common method used in screen printing to achieve a variety of effects, including a softer feel, increased opacity, and vibrancy in prints. At Extreme, we use this method with the underbase as well as flash curing between some top colors to achieve a soft touch print.

First Print: The initial layer of ink is applied to the garment, usually the underbase.

Flash Cure: The printed garment is then passed under a flash cure unit, which is an infrared heating element. The aim is not to fully cure (fully harden) the ink but to bring it to a semi-cured, or "gel", state. This means the ink will be dry to the touch but not completely cured. This prevents the ink from smearing during the next print stroke, and it also allows the next layer of ink to better adhere to it.

Second Print: After the flash cure, a second layer of ink is printed on top of the first. This would be the top or visible color being printed on top of the underbase.

Second Cure: After the second print stroke, the garment is flash cured again, or it is sent through a conveyor dryer for the final cure. This is when the ink reaches its full cure state, typically achieved when a temperature of 320 degrees Fahrenheit has been reached.

The PFP technique is particularly useful when printing on darker garments where an underbase is required for colors to show up vibrant and opaque. It's also beneficial for creating special effects or printing complex designs that require multiple layers of ink.

Remember, the key to successful PFP is controlling the flash curing process to ensure the ink reaches the gel state correctly, and not over-curing it, which can lead to issues like dye migration or poor adhesion of subsequent ink layers.

Using an Iron 

Adding heat to the underbase during the printing process can significantly improve the quality of your prints. By carefully ironing the underbase after printing but before applying subsequent layers, you allow the ink to set deeply into the fabric fibers. This results in a smoother, more vibrant print that is both durable and resistant to smudging or bleeding. Additionally, this technique can expedite the curing process, reducing production times. However, it's crucial to maintain proper temperature settings and use a heat-safe barrier, such as teflon or parchment, to protect the fabric and print from damage. Incorporating this step into your printing process can yield higher-quality prints with enhanced durability, smoothness, and visual appeal.


Achieving a soft screen print requires a combination of the right ink, techniques, and equipment. Whether you prefer plastisol, water-based ink, or discharge ink, there are ways to get that super soft result. Extreme Screen Prints is proud to be known for our soft printing in all ink types but especially for defying the expectations of a standard plastisol print. It’s with these techniques that we’ve been able to continue to provide top quality screen printing for the last 17 years!

Let us get your custom screen print done right with a super smooth finish and guidance along the way. Contact Extreme today!

Emma Hewitt
Last Updated:
March 12, 2024