How to Master the Stain Technique in Screen Printing

Soft-hand screen print methods bring vintage vibes seamlessly into apparel

Trends come and go — we take pride in staying up to date within the ever-changing fashion world. We’ve seen the nostalgic distress or vintage look for more than 35 years now, and it’s a trend that just won’t go away. Lucky for us decorators, the vintage, soft-hand screen print methods allow us to continue to tap into the process to bring those vintage vibes seamlessly into apparel.

We can achieve a retro-look with a vintage, soft-hand screen print with little difficulty as we dig deeper into old-school fashion. Over the decades, we developed a technique we use often and call it a stain. Quite simply, it is a tone-on-tone approach just slightly lighter or darker than the garment color making the image look like a wet area or a stain.


The garment’s fabric plays a big part when it comes to final print softness, smoothness, and drape. Ultimately, the softer and smoother the fabric is, then the softer the outcome of the print. This method will work on any fabric but think ring-spun, 40/1, combed cotton yarn for best results.


Lon winters screen printing tone on tone
Art proofs used in the order approval process must be adjusted using transparency tools.

We sometimes apply a vintage or distressed filter to the artwork so that we can reduce and break up the coverage on the garment. Typically, we’d use a white printer or base plate when printing on dark fabric, but this isn’t necessary for our stains. We typically don’t run bases for the weathered and transparent look of the design.  It’s important to note that garment color will influence the final print color. That’s the goal for our stain. In order to make sure that the final print is accurate, art proofs used in the order approval process must be adjusted using transparency tools.


When it comes to vintage, soft-hand printing, we might begin by incorporating a soft-hand additive to achieve a softer feel and lighten the end result. The goal is to make the inks more translucent and less opaque. For a stain, we might add 1% black to 99% fashion soft or curable reducer. This would create a slightly darker color than the fabric it is printing on. This works on almost all colors but black. The darker the fabric, the less effective. On the flip side, 10% white may be added to the same reducer for a slightly lighter version —  working better on darker colors. We call this soft white. It works on almost every color but white. Of course, we have compromised all of our opacity. Exactly what we want!


We will raise our screen mesh to at least 230 TPI (threads per inch) and as high as 380 at 35 N/cm. The higher the mesh, the thinner the ink deposit. Again, this is our goal. It isn’t about opacity here.


Any squeegee will get the job done, but a harder faster 75/90/75 will result in a minimal ink deposit.  We will use minimum off contact, but a bit more than usual pressure to drive the thinned ink into the fabric to result in almost no hand at all.

Once again, we rely on process. It’s always a combination of art, fabric, screen, ink, and technique that brings it all home.

Lon Winters

Lon Winters

Graphic Elephants

At 21 years old, Lon Winters was the production manager for Ocean Pacific and started his 30+ year career reclaiming screens. His companies have won 50+ garment decorating awards and honors, and he's served 15+ years as an honorary Golden Image Judge, published hundreds of articles and columns, led various industry seminars and workshops, and consulted on projects large and small. He's the president and founder of Colorado-based Graphic Elephants, an international consulting firm and apparel decoration studio specializing in screen printing technical advances, plant design, layout, troubleshooting, productivity, quality analysis and complete apparel decorating solutions. He was inducted into the Academy of Screen Printing Technology in 2013 and is recognized for his contribution to the graphic printing industry.

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