What is Screen Printing?
It is known by many names, screen printing, serigraphy, silk printing, but they all refer to the same thing — a millenary printing technique that requires three things:
- A screen
- A squeegee
In this process, the ink is pushed through a mesh or stencil to print a particular design on the desired material, like your personalised t-shirt. Either by cutouts or by an impermeable material, the liquid only transfers to the areas the screen permits, allowing for great design potential. The technique has got a long history and has evolved throughout the years, but the mechanics have stayed pretty much the same.
A quick history of screen printing
Most sources agree that the earliest form of screen printing can be traced back to China’s Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) and from there, it spread all over Asia where in places like Japan it was further developed. While others state the roots of this method can be found in the 4th century India and some go as far back to ancient Egypt in 3000 BC.
Screen printing didn’t make it across the globe until the 18th century, but it didn’t catch on very quickly due to the fact that it was difficult to find silk mesh back then. 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.
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:
Creating the screen
There are two ways of creating a screen for serigraphy. You can either use pretty much any flat material that allows you to cut it (paper, wood, metal, etc…) as a stencil or, what most people do, go chemical:
- Add water to sensitiser and mix with emulsion
- Pour the mix onto the screen
- Using a squeegee, spread it evenly on both sides of the screen
- Dry emulsion
- Once the screen is dry, lay artwork on the back
- Set the design
- Clean out unexposed emulsion*
* Note: Screens can be used again for more prints when they’re cleaned properly. They’ll probably get stained, but that colour won’t be transpired to the new garment.
- 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)
For the most part, designs meant to be screen printed are generated on a computer using the specialised software. 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. Vectors are generally preferred since they are easy to manipulate and unlike pixels, can be stretched many times over its original size without losing quality. 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.
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.
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.
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 wear
- 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 you want a metallic purple print on your sweatshirts, it can be done.
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.
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.
Countours – MAK Fashion Lab #02: Scientific Skin from Bare Conductive on Vimeo.
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.
To sum it all up, let’s take a look at the benefits and disadvantages of Screen Printing:
1 – Long lasting
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.
2 – Big Order Friendly
Since this is a method that requires the fabrication of screens for every colour used in an artwork, it is best reserved for large orders. The more garments placed in an order then the cheaper the cost per unit will be.
3 – Great Finish
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 a great method to replicate details it usually pales (literally) in comparison to screen printing.
4 – More Ink
Screen printing allows for the greater thickness of the ink than other techniques, which result in greater possibilities when it comes to the finish of the piece.
5 – Versatility
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.
6 – Straightforward
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.
1 – Not practical for small orders
As we already mentioned, screen printing needs more prep than other techniques before going into production. This doesn’t make it suitable for “on-demand” printing, which is the creation of a garment as soon as it is ordered.
2 – The more colours, the more expensive it is
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.
3 – It’s not environmentally friendly
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.
4 – Relative Complexity
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.
At the end of the day, your account manager will be the one to advise you on what will be the best course of action and the best technique for your order, but screen printing it is still worth knowing about its history and contribution to the arts and design world.
Printsome is a T-shirt printing agency in the UK based in London that delivers all across the UK, from printing T-shirts in Brighton to York and anywhere in between. So, if you’re after a T-shirt or custom clothing, get in touch for a quote and indulge yourself in some awesome customer service.