It is known by many names, screen printing, serigraphy, silk printing, but they all refer to the same printing technique — a millenary method that consists of using screens to transfer colours.
Part 1: What is Screen printing?
In this process, the ink is pushed through a mesh or stencil to print a particular design on the desired material. Either by cutouts or by an impermeable material, the liquid only transfers to the areas the screen permits. Only one colour can be applied at a time so a screen must be made for each (more on this when we talk about the process).
Throughout its long history, the technique has evolved but the mechanics have stayed pretty much the same.
While we will only talk about the screen printing used to make clothes, screen printing is also a very popular way of creating posters and other works of art.
A Brief History of Screen Printing
Of all the printing methods, screen printing is, by far, the oldest. Experts differ on where it got started but some suggest that it goes all the way back to ancient China. Some of the earliest forms of this technique can be traced back to the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). This theory suggests that from there, it spread all over Asia where in places like Japan it was further developed.
Other theories suggest that the technique got its roots in 4th century India instead but then there are also those who point to ancient Egypt in 3000 BC. What everyone agrees on is that to Europe, it didn’t arrive until the XVIII century and then it wouldn’t become popular until silk mesh became easier to import from the east.
At first, the method was mostly used to decorate clothing, walls and some objects. It wasn’t until the 19th century when it became popular in the world of advertising.
The next big leap for screen printing would come in the early 20th century when Samuel Simon patented the technique in England. Around that same time, along with the invention of photography, new materials (which are the norm nowadays) started being tested in order to make the process faster. The 20th century also marked the moment when screen printing became mainstream thanks to the likes of Andy Warhol who used the method to create their works of art. Arguably Warhol’s most famous work ‘Marilyn Diptych’ (1962) — the portrait of Marilyn Monroe — is a silkscreen painting.
In the 60’s, American inventor and entrepreneur Michael Vasilantone along with his wife Fannie founded a textile company called Vastex. Quickly, they realised that the process of screen printing garments was slow and they wondered if they could be a way to optimise time. Mr Vasilantone got to work and invented the dual rotatory printing press, which allows producing many items in a fraction of the time it took before. Till this day, the machine is still used by industrial manufacturers. Simply put, Mr Vasilantone revolutionised the T-shirt industry.
In the Arts World
Due to its versatility and ability to reproduce vibrant colours and crisp images, serigraphy is a popular technique among artists and designers. Aside from Andy Warhol, other famous artists that are known for using screen printing are Robert Rauschenberg, Ben Shahn, Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, R B Kitaj, Henri Matisse and Richard Estes, among others.
Part 2: Materials and Graphics
Like any other printing method, the first thing that must be done is create the artwork. Because screen printing is a technique that requires colours to be placed on one layer each, designers need to work with programs that allow them to separate them. Illustrator and Corel Draw are probably the most popular tools for this task, but depending on how it is used Photoshop can also be valid.
Save in vectors instead of pixels. These are generally preferred since they are easy to manipulate and unlike pixels, can be stretched many times over its original size without losing quality. Vectors are mathematical calculations which create lines and figures in our monitors. It’s a bit abstract but, basically, you can expand or minimise an image as much as you want without losing the quality, which is the exact opposite of pixels.
Pixels are tiny squares of colours that when put together create an image. All photos on the internet are made out of pixels. If you expand them well enough you’ll eventually see the tiny squares. The reason why low-resolution images look pixelated is that when we lower the quality, the squares get bigger so the computer has to process less information.
Formats compatible with this technique include PSD, .JPEG, .TIFF, .PNG, .GIF and .BMP. Keep in mind that if files are not saved at 300 d.p.i. quality then there’s no guarantee that the final product will look as good as it can.
Note: For more information on how to create artwork for T-shirt printing, visit our blog post ‘How to prepare artwork for T-shirt printing – The right way’
Fabrics for Screen Printing
When it comes to screen printing, natural fabrics seem to do better than synthetic ones. Simply because they absorb liquids better, leaving a vibrant print behind. The second group is usually made out of plastic and oil, which have a tendency to repel water. Since they are very small particles, you’d still be able to print somewhat onto them, but the result won’t be as spectacular as it could be.
If you don’t know what kind of fabric to pick, stick to cotton. It is the absolute king. Understandably, you won’t always be able to use 100% cotton since they tend to be more expensive. Then your second best choice would be a blend of cotton with something like polyester. 80% – 20%, 70% – 30%, 50% – 50% — the more cotton it has, the better the end result will be.
But keep in mind that even if you use 100% cotton, the end result may vary depending on the consistency of the fabric. Thicker materials are heavier and tend to absorb more ink, resulting in rich colours that will outlast those of thinner materials. Finer and shinier fabrics absorb less ink which results in a ‘washed out’ print.
Inks for Screen Printing
Even though they share some basic components, inks for screen printing are different from those of other processes. The most notable thing about them is that they are thicker and more viscous than other inks.
The price of Colour
Because the technique doesn’t allow for more than one colour to be applied at the same time, a different screen must be created for each tone. For this reason, the less colourful a design is, then the cheaper it will be to produce. As a result, this method tends to work better when placing larger orders. Another factor one must take into account when working with screen printing is the colour of the garment that will be printed on.
How to print onto black or dark T-shirts
It is the same process, with the only difference being that an extra layer of white ink has to be placed as a base before the final design can be printed. If this step is overlooked then the dark fabric will ‘consume’ the design making it look pale. Keep in mind that some amateur or inexperienced printers don’t know this so always make sure you clarify the point with your account manager before going into production.
Sometimes standard inks aren’t enough and speciality inks are required to take a look to the next level. These are some of the different kinds of speciality inks out there:
- High-density inks that give depth and texture, literally — the finish is slightly raised by about one-eighth of an inch above the fabric
- Glow in the dark inks achieve exactly what it promises – a glow in the dark finish
- Puff inks are another way to achieve a raised design which is ideal for children clothes
- Suede inks can be used to achieve a suede-feel effect on a garment
- Vintage effect inks designed to achieve a weathered look
- Metallic inks give shine and a touch of sparkle
Not to be confused with metallic inks, foil works as a sort of “sticker” if you will, that gets pasted permanently onto the fabric. When working with intricate designs, it is usually combined with inks as foil alone can’t achieve great detail. Although it does come in most standard colours, not just gold and silver. So if for any reason you want a metallic purple print on your sweatshirts, it can be done.
Part 3: Preparing to Print
Nowadays screen printing is more versatile than ever. It is available in both manual and automated versions. It is practised professionally and as a hobby by designers, artists, manufacturers and anything in between. Regardless if it is performed by a machine or a person, the process is pretty much the same. These are the necessary elements to screen sprint:
- Screen (usually a mess stretched over a frame)
- Photo emulsion kit
- Transparent material to print the design
- A lamp (or another strong source of light)
- Pressurised water (shower head or hose will do)
Once the artwork is finished, the designer must create a solid black version and print it on a transparent film. More about this later. Now, we can move on to create the screen.
STEP 1: Cover the screen with emulsion
Usually, the photosensitive emulsion comes with instructions on how to mix the liquid. Once this is done, the screen must be coated with it. This is a simple process but it must be done carefully because if the liquid is not evenly distributed then the end design won’t be as impactful as it could be.
STEP 2: Let the screen dry
For the photosensitive emulsion to work properly, it must be left to dry in a cold, dark room. As the name entails, the material is photosensitive so if it gets exposed to light at the wrong time, the whole process could go to waste.
STEP 3: Create the stencil
Once the screen is dry, using some sort of soft adhesive (that does not rip off the emulsion) the design is placed on top of the screen under a strong source of light. What will happen is that the parts of the screen that have not been covered with the design will harden while the rest will remain soft.
After it has been left to dry a while under the light (around an hour) the design can now be removed with a small brush and some water. What remains will be a negative composition of the artwork.
* Note: Screens can be used again for more prints when they’re cleaned properly. They’ll probably get stained over time, but that colour won’t be transpired to the new garment.
Part 4: Printing
The process of screen printing is simple. It’s one of the reasons why it has existed for so long but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a learning curve. This is also why good screen printing machines are expensive.
Applying the Design
Once the screen has been made, it is time to do the actual printing. Now depending on whether the job is done by hand or with a machine, the T-shirt will be either placed on a flat surface like a table or on the machine itself.
Then the screen is placed carefully on top of the garment. After that, the ink will be placed on top of the screen and with the help of a squeegee, be evenly distributed across the surface. If it’s done by hand, the printer must be careful with the pressure and the amount of ink they apply.
If the screens are to be used again, then the printer must thoroughly clean them. The emulsion can even be removed with a special product to create a new design.
- Place design on top of the desired position
- Add a thick layer of ink on top of the artwork
- Spread across evenly using the squeegee*
- Remove screen
- Wait for the ink to dry on the garment
- Set the ink on the fabric by using some sort of dryer
* Note: Due to the layering nature of screen printing, every colour must be applied one at a time and, depending on the design, may require producing a different screen for each tone. We’ll go more into detail later.
Manual Screen Printing
As the name implies, this process is done by hand. It can be performed by just one person or for better results, by two people. One person uses the squeegee, while the other one holds the screen, for example. The quality of the garments is not affected if it’s done by hand or by machine, in fact, some people may argue that the manual labour has a better finish since it is done with more care.
Automatic Screen Printing:
As we already mentioned, the automatic process is the same as the manual one with the human factor being the only difference. While some are not fans of the automated presses, they do have their advantages. They have significantly cut down production time thanks to:
- Larger screens, which allow more design space
- Drying systems
- Rotatory screens for continued production
Depending on the type of Screen Printing method you want, the supplies you require may vary, but for the most part, this is what you’ll need:
- Screen and frame
- Photo emulsion and sensitiser
- A pitch black room
- A garment or material to print onto
- Silk Screen Fabric Ink
- Small piece of cardboard or wood to fit inside the garment (if you’re printing onto a T-shirt, for example)
Part 5: Recap
Screen printing has got its fair share of fanatics and for good reason. It is a simple technique that allows for great quality and vibrant prints but it is not without its flaws. Let’s go over what screen printing does well first:
Screen printing produces vibrant colours that are hard to replicate by other printing techniques. Techniques like direct to garment (DTG) use cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK) dots to recreate their images and while it is great for details, it usually pales (literally) in comparison to screen printing.
Speed and Efficiency
Once the screen has been made, the screen printing process is actually the quickest of the bunch.
Big Order Friendly
Some screen printing machines are so fast that they can print up to 4600 T-shirts in one hour.
There are a lot of different types of screen printing inks that create various effects and textures. Some machines have also screens big enough to cover an entire T-shirt which results in all-over printing.
Because of the thick inks, screen prints have been known to keep their vibrancy for years and years.
Due to the composition and thickness of inks used in screen printing, designs placed with this method can withstand far more stress than others without losing the quality of the print. Screen printing also allows using more ink than other techniques.
It is hard to find a printing method as versatile as screen printing. It can be done on almost any surface as long as it is flat, fabric, wood, plastic and even metal, among many others.
It is a basic process that does not change regardless if it’s automated or done by hand. The tools are not hard to replace and won’t become obsolete as fast as other technologies.
Set Up Costs
As you may have realised, the time people spend actually printing is much less when compared to the time they spend preparing the design and creating the screens. These, unfortunately, translates to set up costs. These costs increase when ordering low quantities which are not advised with screen printing.
While efforts have been made to create eco-friendly inks and screens, it is still a reality that screen printing wastes a lot of water. Water is used to mix up inks and clean the screens, which may not seem like much at first, but manufacturers produce hundreds of garments a day (if not thousands) and when we start to add up, it can get scary.
Costs Add Up
Turns out that having to create a screen for each colour can be a bit of a hassle. Colourful designs complicate the process and make it more expensive, that is why it is better to keep designs for screen printing with as few tones as possible.
It might sound like a contradiction, but screen printing can be quite complex depending on the design and project because it has more steps than other methods.
Many things have been said about screen printing. Some are true, some are not. Here we mention a couple of the most famous myths.
Screen printing cannot recreate gradients
This is not entirely true. Nowadays the most sophisticated machines can recreate small colour changes and even printers can mix inks in a way that makes it look like a gradient but its possibilities are much more limited than direct to garment printing, for example.
Screen printing cannot run small orders
This depends on the design and the printer. It may be profitable to run a small order of screen-printed garments with a simple design of one or two colours.
Part 6: The Future of Screen Printing
In the future, the technique itself won’t change. Like crocodiles or sharks that have barely evolved over millions of years, screen printing hasn’t changed very much throughout its long history because it doesn’t have to — it already works. What we will see in coming years are tools that will optimise the process. For example, companies like Bare Conductive are working on paint that conducts electricity. When combined with screen printing, it opens up a whole new spectrum of possibilities.
In this art installation, sheets of Tyvek material were screen printed with conductive paint and a special software was designed to give life to the printings and the material itself. This interactive installation tells us more about the current blend of fashion and technology and what the digital world makes possible for designers nowadays. Besides that, just think what screen printing work must have been involved to get the paint on those immense sheets of 2.5m x 1.5m while distributing it equally in the pre-designed patterns (done manually with a huge squeegee).
All things considered, the result is a nice way for people to interact with the skin-like Tyvek sound emitters. The designer behind Moondial’s Sabine Seymour specialises in smart clothing and its application in the fashion industry. For more information on how this installation was created, visit the following link.
T-shirt Printing for Designers
Thanks to our five years of experience in the apparel-printing industry, we are able to offer a service catered towards the needs of designers and creative directors. Printsome’s apparel-printing services are perfect for streetwear collections, T-shirt lines and merchandise, among many other possibilities.
From the moment you get in touch, one of our ‘printing experts’ will answer all of your questions and find efficient solutions to your needs. It is our mission to help your career flourish. Thanks to high-quality garments and cutting-edge printing techniques, we can produce almost any design. We can also deliver to anywhere in the UK: T-shirt printing London,
Why worry about inventory or logistics when we can take care of that? We deal with the boring stuff so you have more time to do what you love. To find out more, simply visit our website.