Screen printing or serigraphy is the process of pressing ink through a stencilled mesh screen thus creating a printed design. It’s a popular technique used in a range of different industries, so even if you've never heard of the term before, it’s likely that you’ve worn or used a screen-printed product at some point without even realising.
How Does It Work?
With screen-printing, think of each colour which makes up the design as a layer. Each of these colours needs to be printed separately, one after the other. The actual printing method is a lot like stencilling: each ink colour is pushed through a mesh screen onto the textile, with the help of a squeegee.
Each screen is then cut to the shape the colour will occupy in the design (like a stencil). The more colours there are in the design, the more screens will need to be made and the more steps there will be in the process.
The History Of Screen Printing
Screen-printing is an ancient technique which originates in 10th century China. Though it is most associated with cloth, it has been used on many surfaces: from patterned tiles to other ceramic products.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that the method took off in Europe as a popular alternative to patterns stitched or woven into the fibre of the cloth itself.
How To Do It
First off, you’ll need your supplies. These will be your stencils, your squeegee and your ink. If you’re not working with the stencil method, then you’ll also need emulsion, a light-sensitive liquid which will help when printing precise designs.
To add a layer of colour to the design, you take your T-shirt and stretch it, so it makes a taut, flat surface. Make sure to put something flat inside the T-shirt, because you don’t want your ink seeping through to the other side!
Now place the silk screen over it, pour a dollop of ink over the top, and then quickly sponge it up and down the silkscreen with the squeegee to get an even ink distribution.
Repeat this process with each additional colour.
Then dry your printed product to make sure the ink sets properly and doesn’t bleed into any of the other colours.
If working with emulsion, you’ll need to begin by prepping your screen. Similar to inking it, spread the emulsion evenly across the whole surface and then let it dry, which should take a couple of hours.
Now, create a negative of the design you’d like to print - in other words, a copy of your desired design in black, on transparency.
Place this design upside down and flatten it with a piece of glass - you can lift one from a picture frame as long as you give it a wipe-down for dust. Now expose the whole thing to some light - the source of light should be less than three feet away, and the exposure should last about 15 minutes.
This process will ensure that the unexposed part of the T-shirt (the bit which has been hidden by the black design) will be receptive to being printed, while the exposed area will not. Now rinse your screen, and add ink as above. Once the ink has set, iron it to seal in the design once and for all. And you’re away!
Here at The Fabric Printer, we built our business around screen-printing. We’ve been doing it right here in Perth for over twenty years (a mere drop in the ocean compared to the printers of the Song Dynasty!). And while styles might of changed the process remains largely the same and is used to print graphics on t-shirts, hoodies and caps.
There is also a vibrant DIY scene with people learning how to make their own unique apparel. We hope this guide can inspire a few more people to take up the screen printing and the skill can be celebrated long into the future.