What is screen printing? An expert guide to the silk screen printing process
Your guide to the screen printing process
Whether its a DIY operation printing t-shirts for a punk band, or mass-produced clothing for commercial retailers, screen printing is one of the most popular printing techniques used in the garment printing industry. Also known as silk screen printing or serigraphy, screen printing describes a process which involves pushing ink through a stencilled mesh screen.
Whether you realise or not, you probably own a number of pieces of clothing that have been screen printed – whether it’s a t-shirt with bold artwork or a simple logo or graphic – and here at ICON Printing we use screen printing to deliver hundreds of orders every week.
In this guide, we’ll run you through everything you need to know about screen printing – from the history of this simple, yet revolutionary process to looking at how it works in practice and what kind of merch order it is most effective for.
Screen printing explained
The history of screen printing goes way back to the Song Dynasty – that’s 960–1279AD – where it first emerged as a printing technique used in China and later Japan. In the 18th century it made its way to Europe, but it wasn’t until silk became more available in the West that it became more readily used.
At the start of the 20th century a number of printers developed a way to create photo-reactive stencils – using emulsions that react and harden under light – revolutionizing the industry and making it possible to use photo-imaged stencils, rather than simply stencils made from paper or card.
In the 60s, Andy Warhol brought the process into the limelight, using screen printing to produce some of his best known work – from his prints of Marilyn Monroe to repeat patterns of Campbell’s Soup – while giving the form credibility as an artistic practice.
In 1967 artist and inventor Michael Vasilantone developed a machine capable of creating multi-colour garment screen printing, which made it possible to use screen printing for team kits and uniforms and ultimately led to the boom in printing on t-shirts and garments we’re still enjoying today.
The accessibility, affordability and versatility of screen printing quickly made it popular with subcultures and underground movements – its aesthetic remains associated with political posters and pamphlets to DIY merchandise and record sleeves.
You’ve got your design, but how does it end up on a t-shirt? Let’s run through the key steps to the screen printing process
- The design is printed onto a transparent film.
- The screen is prepared – a mesh is chosen to match the detail of the design and the type of fabric you’re printing on – and it is coated with photosensitive emulsion.
- The transparent film with the design is then laid onto the emulsion and the screen is exposed to a bright light. The emulsion exposed to light will harden and the parts protected from the light – where the design is – will remain liquid. Each colour used in the design will require a new screen to be set.
- The screen is then washed, removing the unhardened emulsion, leaving a stencil or outline of the design on the screen.
- The screen is then placed on the press and the garment is stretched over the printing board.
- The screen is lowered onto the garment and ink is placed at the top end of the screen, before being slowly pulled across it using a squeegee, pushing the ink through the open sections of the screen. New garments are added on the printing board as required and the process repeated.
- The garment is dried, or “cured”, which seals the ink, before being washed and ready to go.
Screen printing is the most cost effective type of garment printing for high quantities – once the screens are set up it’s very cheap to keep printing and the screens can be saved if you want to return to print the same design again in the future.
The inks used for screen printing are also incredibly durable and the colours are strong and vivid – meaning you can keep a sharp, bold print even after many washes.
While screen printing is most cost effective for high quantities, DTG printing is good for photographic quality printing, or for really low quantity jobs of around 5-20.
Screen printing is cheapest when producing designs with fewer colours – as each new colour requires a new screen. If a design has a large number of colours – or needs to be photographic – DTG printing is the best option.
While screen printing uses vivid inks, DTG printing uses a thinner ink. While this means DTG can achieve a higher level of detail, it also means it is better suited for printing on light coloured fabrics.
Whether you choose screen printing and DTG, both can be quick enough to have your t-shirts printed and delivered in three days (as long as we have approval from production beforehand).