Printing textiles with water based inks

Ink companies have developed many alternatives to solvent based systems for screen printing. Thanks to water based inks, I am still alive and still printing!

Printing water based gold ink on fabric patches at our popup tent. Wells, August, 2017. Chelan Kujundzic photo.

Although Plastisol inks remain an industry standard in garment printing, I’ve mostly avoided using them, because of the need to wash up using Varsol. Not as toxic as acetone or “screen wash” or – shudder – lacquer thinner, but still an exposure risk. They can also result in a rubbery print surface. On a shirt, that can feel like wearing a vinyl place mat!

Recently I’ve been using TW’s TAL series of water based inks. These restrict me to light coloured cotton shirts, because they have a lot of transparency and will disappear on dark garments. They can dry quickly on the screen and sometimes need retarding, so once you start printing, you need to continue, unlike Plastisols that do not dry until heat-set. Don’t answer the phone or door bell if you are printing with these inks!

These inks bond best with natural fibres, so they’ll probably fade out more quickly if printed on shirts with a high polyester content. But they have a wonderful, jelly-like consistency which is fun to print. Best of all, though, these inks – more like textile dyes – penetrate the natural fibres and leave a soft, easy-to-wear surface.

ICC‘s Gen IV series are a kind of water based alternative to Plastisol inks. Unlike the TAL series, these inks – if retarded – allow you to step away from a job and resume printing within a reasonable period of time. They print nicely on dark coloured fabrics, especially if flashed and printed a second time. Adding a small amount of “puff” can help increase their opacity on dark fabric (thanks to David Cran for this tip). Here are short video clips of two shirts I printed with these inks: Wǫchiigíi and Mamahtâwisîpiy.

All of the above inks require heat-setting to cure and withstand laundering. Temperatures and times vary; allowing the ink to air dry overnight is critical. This allows any water to evaporate prior to curing.

TW has another series of water based inks, the Safeflex series. These remind me of the incredibly thick, stiff Flock Adhesive (solvent based) I worked with many years ago. They cure at very low temperatures and seem to stick to any kind of fibre, including synthetics. Safeflex inks dry quickly and need retarders for prolonged print runs.

Permaset from Australia and Virus from Italy make excellent water based textile inks, too. Printed, flashed, and printed again, this yellow has plenty of opacity, even on black cotton. Like the Gen IV and the Safeflex inks, it bonds with the fibres and has a slightly rubbery feel.

Willox Graphics has been my main source of inks for many years. They provide outstanding technical support for which I am immensely grateful.

4 thoughts on “Printing textiles with water based inks

  1. Anne Fullerton

    Thanks, Bill. I wonder what we will use at a block printing on fabric class next Saturday. May I share your info and comments on various inks?



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