What is Screen Printing & Why Your Custom Shirts Need It

October 22, 2020

what is screen printing

Screen printing has actually existed for a couple of thousand years--much longer than the t-shirt! But what is screen printing? We dive right in on this for you!

Screen printing is thought to have originated in China around 500 BCE. Back then the process would have been done with wood frames, horse-hair brushes, and thin wood stencils.

Hundreds of years later, the French invented the silkscreen method still in use today. Most t-shirt printing involves synthetic materials, but in art forms silk is often the fabric of choice.

The technique back then, like today, involved scraping or pushing ink through a porous material, only in the desired area or design. So another material, mostly likely wood, back then, had a cutout of the desired design (inverted), covering the silk screen.

Think of it as “stopping” the ink you don’t want, while ink goes through where you do want.

Some of the advantages of screen printing since the earliest days are still true--you can make a permanent mark, repeatedly recreating the same design, and getting very crisp, perfect edges. Since photography, printers, and other modern technologies didn’t exist back then, as a means for reproducing imagery, screen printing revolutionized the ability to make multiple prints.

One of the challenges of screen printing has also been around since the beginning--multiple colors. 

A separate stencil had to be made for each color, realigned perfectly, and then pushed through the screen only to be repeated again for each subsequent color. Today, print makers still use a separate stencil and screen combo for each color, but digital technology makes lining up colors seamless.

T-shirts, Protests and Pretty Pictures

T-shirts became fashionable in the 1950’s thanks to actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean. 

Before then, a t-shirt was an undergarment. So wearing one instantly made you cool, counter-culture and a bit rebellious, like Rebel Without a Cause

Within a decade or so, t-shirts really became protests, printed with sayings and slogans by protestors during the Vietnam War.

T-shirts are still a common place for a protest slogan, but custom shirts can also be: 

  • Fashionable
  • Funny
  • Memorabilia from an event, concert or place
  • A uniform
  • A walking billboard
  • A statement

Today’s custom screen printing looks a bit like a multi-armed mechanical octopus, rotating each shirt to each color. Then the drying process works quickly, thanks to an enormous t-shirt oven.

Today’s screen printing colors are mixed similarly to the colors in an inkjet printer--so you get exactly the color or colors you want, in a crisp, durable print. 

The level of detail available, the visual textures available, and those full-range colors make for virtually limitless custom t-shirt design potential!

When to Choose Screen Printing

Now that you know a little bit about the screen printing process, when is custom screen printing right for you? What about direct-dye methods?

Direct dyes bleach or print (or both) on a fabric. Screen printing sits on top of the shirt. In general, that means screen printing gives the most bold, crisp, professional look.

Screen printing is your best option, in most cases, anytime you want:

  • Colors that are true to your logo or vision.
  • Only a few (or even one) color in your design.
  • Designs that are visible, even at a distance, improving your brand recognition.
  • A design or logo that will go on different shirt sizes, colors or styles and yet remain true to your look. For example: you want to sell your branded t-shirts to customers, in a variety of shirt sizes and styles.
  • Printing hoodies or on thicker t-shirt materials.

If you’re not sure if custom screen printing your t-shirts is the right option for you, connect with T-Shirt Labs here. We have years of experience making the best products and can advise you on techniques and design to really make your custom shirts amazing!

Let’s get shirt done!