There are essentially two types of printing for t-shirts:
- digital printing
- custom screen printing.
Digital printing uses a computer to create and download an image to print directly onto your product, not unlike when you’re using a printer for paper. But what is screen printing?
What is Screen Printing?
Screen printing is the traditional way of imprinting an image onto a product, like a t-shirt.
Trained printers create what is called a “screen,” that is used essentially a mesh stencil made from a synthetic polymer such as nylon stretched onto a frame. In order to work correctly, the mesh must have tension, offered by the frame.
How is Screen Printing Done?
Transfer your design.
The first step of any screen printing project is to transfer the logo or design onto the silk screen which is stretched in a frame.
Test your screen.
To prepare for screen printing, the custom-made screens must be carefully measured, or “registered” and printed onto test sheets to ensure that they line up correctly. Once this is confirmed, the printers move on to printing on the final product.
Apply the ink.
In a simple explanation of “what is screen printing?” the stencil is placed over the product and layers of ink are applied, one color at a time, until the final look is achieved. If multiple colors are used, multiple custom screens are created, one for each ink color.
When screen printing a t-shirt, for example, the shirt is attached smoothly onto a plate, with the surface to be imprinted (the substrate) facing upwards. One screen at a time is fitted onto the printing platform, and its corresponding color is pushed through the screen onto the shirt using a squeegee-type tool. One pass of the tool fills the mesh apertures with ink, and a reverse pass of the tool pushes the ink through the mesh into the final product.
Let it dry.
Fabrics using multiple colors often use a “wet on wet” technique where its colors are dried on the press. When screen printing onto other items, the items are allowed to dry between colors and a new color is added when the product is re-aligned on the press.
6th Century China
Screen printing is sometimes called silkscreen printing because traditionally, silk was used in the process when it first originated during the Chinese Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.). Stencils for screen printing may have been invented in Asia as early as the 6th-Century A.D.
This process became a highly developed art form in Japan and China by the 16th century and gradually spread in popularity over the next centuries.
»Related: Screen printing vs. Digital printing
The Benefits of Screen Printing
Screen printing is versatile.
Screen printing allows for more vivid colors, which are especially needed when printing onto a dark t-shirt. And since the ink applied is thicker than digitally-applied ink, the colors appear richer and brighter.
Screen printing can be done on a wide variety of items, including apparel, bags, totes, banner, mousepads, flags and signs. It can be done on a range of materials as well, including,
- and synthetic blends.
According to 2018 industry statistics,
“Screen printing on garments, apparel accessories, and other fabric articles, excluding labels accounted for the highest share (49% in 2016) of U.S. commercial screen printing manufacturing…”