How Does Screen Printing Work?

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Many amateur designers love to create their own unique printed clothing, and fortunately this can be a much cheaper and simpler process than it used to be. As printing techniques have become more sophisticated and technology has developed, it’s become more practical to undertake personalised t-shirts printing which is by far the most common application of the technique. Although most screen printing is now done by automated machines, it’s still common for designers to go through the process manually too.

The history of screen printing as a technique is surprisingly long and different steps in the process have been gradually devised by different innovators all over the world. As far as anyone knows, the earliest examples of such printing were created in China around 2000 years ago, using real human hair for the screen and leaves to form a stencil of the desired pattern. Later, the mesh screen was created using silk rather than hair in Japan, and the technique became known as silk screening. Much later, in the early 20th century, industrial screen printing began for the first time in Britain, and a few decades after that American printers started using multiple coloured inks in their designs.

The same basic principles apply whatever specific equipment you’re using – bulk t-shirt screen printing in a machine works the same way as doing it on a single piece of material. The printable area doesn’t go to the very edge of the frame, as ink can leak around the edges and these must be covered with tape. Once a stencil or screen is in place over the top of the material, the ink is applied and used to flood the screen by spreading it with a large flat brush. Different ink colours have different consistencies, with white being the thickest. The excess ink is then pushed or pulled back to leave only the ink that has come through onto the design. After drying out the material, the process can be repeated with other colours.

Screen printing is used extremely widely in the fashion industry, not just for amateurs printing small quantities of their custom designs but also on an industrial scale for many cotton, polyester and silk fabrics. It’s ideal for soft fabrics as well as items that would be either too delicate or too large to print using other standard methods, which is why it’s also applied to everything from watch faces to huge billboards. On all materials, screen printing is valued for its flexibility and the vibrancy of the finished colours compared to many digital alternatives.

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