A Brief History of Screen Printing

The history of screen printing originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD). Other countries like Japan adapted new methods using simple stenciling techniques. The stencils were from paper and the mesh was woven from human hair; stiff brushes were used to force ink through the mesh onto the fabric.

History of Screen PrintingSome time in the late 18th century, screen printing was introduced to Western Europe from Asia. However, it did not gain large acceptance until silk mesh was available for trade from the east. Stiff brushes were still being used as a way to push ink through the mesh.

In the early 20th century, printers began using photo-emulsions to create stencils on screens and squeegees were introduced to pull the ink through the mesh.  Printers also discovered it was possible to create multi-colored images. These innovations would revolutionize the commercial screen printing industry. By WWII, examples of screen printing could be seen on advertisement posters, military tanks, and t-shirts. 

Modern Day Screen Printing

Andy Warhol's screen printed Marilyn Dyptich

While the history of screen printing is centuries old, Artist Andy Warhol is credited with popularizing screen printing as a mainstay of pop culture.  The iconic Marilyn Diptych being one of his most noted works. The commercialization of screen printing on garments as we know it today came with the advent of the rotatable multicolor garment screen printing machine in 1960.  Originally manufactured to print logos and team information on bowling garments, but soon the new fad of printing on T-shirts began to take off.  


The Printing Technique

Screen printing starts with screen made of a piece of mesh stretched over a frame. For the mesh to be effective, it must be mounted on a frame and it must be under tension. There are different mesh counts for different kinds of prints. Lower mesh counts are used for shimmer and glitter inks while higher mesh counts are good for details and give the prints a “softer” hand touch. 

Exposing or “burning the screen” is a term used for the process of creating a stencil on the screen. The screen is first coated in photo emulsion, a “negative” of the artwork is placed on the screen and then the screen is exposed the light. The areas of the screen exposed to light make the emulsion solid bind to the screen. The areas protected from the light remain water-soluble and can be washed away.  Each ink color requires a it’s own screen to be burned. 

Once the screens are burned and the ink is mixed, the printing process can begin. The screens are mounted on the press, the ink is placed on top of the screen and pulled through the mesh with a squeegee onto the garment. The garment is then put through a dryer to “cure” the ink. 

Screen Printing vs. Digital

It depends on the specifics of your project, it depends. Digital or Direct to Garment (DTG) works a lot like an inkjet printer. It takes a digital image and transfers it directly to your garment.  DTG is good for small runs and / or very elaborate designs with many of colors. 

Screen printing is a more labor intensive process and a skilled craft that when done right produces beautiful, vibrant, and durable results. Screen printing is more cost effective for larger batches. The more you print the less it costs per garment! 

Here at Camputee Press, we specialize in the screen printing technique. 

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