Thursday, 2 July 2020

Lino printing t-shirts - my thoughts on Speedball Fabric Ink

Lino printed t shirts byToni Hartill

As I've had a few inquiries from other printmakers I'd thought I'd share
my experience of lino printing t-shirts, and the inks I've used.

Last year I was lucky enough to get my hands on a box set of Speedball Block Printing ink, designed for fabric and paper. I've long wanted to trial print some t-shirts using my linocuts. I have used water-based Flint ink in the past but, even with heat-setting the ink with a hot iron, the ink is not designed for this purpose so I don't feel confident with its longevity.

This set of inks comes with 6 x 37ml tubes of black, white, red, yellow, blue and green.

According to the instructions the inks don't need to be heat set.
Instead just leave the inks to "cure" fully for 4 - 7 days, then they can be washed. 

As an extra precaution I have ironed prints with a warm iron for several minutes. 
My initial printed tees have weathered well and been washed cautiously a couple of times. 
They seem to be lasting well, so far. 

Meanwhile, a t-shirt I printed for my husband was, unknowingly, put through a normal wash with a full load of washing and I did notice that it faded in that first wash. It hasn't faded any further in subsequent washes.

Below is a step-by-step description of how I printed my t-shirts.


Slip a thick piece of paper inside the t-shirt where the image will be printed to stop ink bleeding through the fabric. Mark where the lino block will be positioned on the t-shirt using tape.

The first two photos are the set-up used to print my snail bubble print.

 Below shows the press set-up for printing my large "Snaily" lino block.

"Snaily" t shirt by Toni Hartill

 The Speedball inks have a bit of a smell although not over-powering. I would still recommend using them in a well ventilated area. They wash out with soap and water so clean-up is EASY!

Black Speedball Ink - My thoughts

The black ink has a very slightly thicker "gritty" or matte texture and so it rolls out nice and evenly, creating an even and dense layer and rolls onto the lino solidly.

Lino cut inking up by Toni Hartill

 If I was printing multiple t-shirts I would cut a heavy paper mask to protect the surrounding areas where I don't want to get any ink. Even when taking a lot of care it is very easy for the roller to accidentally get ink on the background. I think its easier not to get ink where you don't want it than to try to remove ink once its there!

In this case, as I was only printing a single t-shirt I just masked the areas with tape. The tape is removed after inking and before printing. In this case the tape was able to be removed as a complete shape and reused for the next print.

Its important to make sure you ink up the plate evenly with thin coats getting to all of the edges and details. Holding the block up to the light helps to check the surface is fully coated but it can still be difficult to be sure. For this reason I think it is important to work in a methodical manner inking up each area of the block.

Inking up with black Speedball ink,  Toni Hartill

Inking up with black Speedball ink,  Toni Hartill


 Set the press up as you would normally to print lino. I use wooden runners and thin mdf "pushers" instead of blankets. The pressure is set firmly down onto the runners but not overly tight. You do need to take in to account the thickness of the t shirt.

The press set-up Toni Hartill

The reveal

Note: Unusually, this lino block has a border of lino left surrounding the image and this has left a pale rectangular mark on the t-shirt from the pressure. This will disappear once the t-shirt has been washed for the first time.  

"Stick to your Bubble" lino printed t shirt by Toni Hartill

My "Stick to your Bubble" linocut was created for a print exchange "Distant Conversations" inspired by the experience of being in "lockdown" during the Covid-19 pandemic. Visit my earlier post here to view the making of and more about the prints, including how to purchase.

"Snaily" Linocut T shirt by Toni Hartill

Coloured Speedball Inks - My Thoughts

The coloured inks seem to be slightly thinner, less opaque, less sticky and therefore to have a slightly translucent quality. When they roll out they feel more slippery and I found it was difficult to rollout an even area of thin ink. The instructions on the box say to use a hard rubber roller while the instructions in the online video say to use a soft rubber roller. I used a hard Esdee roller rather than my soft Speedball roller. The soft Speedball one may have been better but I was following the instructions on the box.

 In my first batch of t-shirts I trialed using the coloured inks and printed a teal version of my rockpool lino block using a mix of blue and green ink. Likewise I found the coloured ink to be harder to roll out and to coat the lino block evenly although the final print was mostly even. Not "perfect" but not too bad.

Rockpool lino printed t shirt by Toni Hartill

To mix the slightly purple colour of the ink for my bubble print I mixed blue and red ink. I tried adding a little black for depth of tone then added a wee bit of white to try to improve the opacity of the ink but it didn't make much difference.

It was therefore more difficult to evenly ink up the block particularly in the fiddly outer details despite multiple passes with thin coats.

Inking up with coloured Speedball ink,  Toni Hartill

"Stick to your bubble" lino printed t shirt by Toni Hartill

 Comparing the Black vs the Colours

The black ink most definitely produces a much crisper and more solid image than the coloured inks. I have, thus far only used the blue and green inks with a little bit of red and in my experience these colour pigments can tend to be more translucent anyway.

You can see, in the images below, how the ink has printed much more solidly with the black ink than with the blue ink.

Black Speedball ink, Toni Hartill

Coloured Speedball ink, Toni Hartill

Coloured Speedball ink, Toni Hartill

Black Speedball ink, Toni Hartill

You can visit the Speedball website to view their specifications, 
see their FAQs and view a video on how to use the inks.

My impression is that their demonstration of inking up the carved block uses ink in a much thicker application than I would dare (for fear of bleed and filling in fine details). They are, however, printing a simple design by hand in their demonstration and so therefore a thicker coat would be necessary.

In conclusion

All of the t shirts I have printed onto are cotton knit fabrics.

At this point in my experimentations I would recommend the black ink over the coloured inks for inking ease and print quality. I am really pleased with how sharp and clean the ink prints onto the t-shirt fabric.

The coloured inks are more translucent and harder to get a strong clean print with but perhaps this just takes a bit of trial and error to perfect a technique.

I am yet to really "test" the durability of the inks through multiple and "normal" washing but, with a bit of care when washing, they are so far lasting well.

 Of course there are so many variables when printing so I would suggest, if you have the opportunity to give these inks a go, go for it and see what you think.The handy sample pack is a great way to start.

Thanks for visiting!