When you put on your custom t-shirt you might not think much about the process. Yet a thousand years worth of artistry and invention preceded that comfy wardrobe staple.
In this article we will take a quick look at the art of the modern screen printing press. You might just be a little impressed.
What is Screen Printing?
Screen printing involves pushing dyes (ink) through screens which are pressed over the material (the t-shirt). That’s screen printing t-shirts in a nutshell. A t-shirt screen printing machine today can print with innumerable inks (emulsions).
Screen printing emulsion can cover the entire rainbow of colors, plus textured inks, glow-in-the-dark, glitter and other specialty emulsions.
Screen printing has gotten super efficient. Once the machines have the forms and inks set up, they quickly do a full t-shirt run. Then super-industrial dryers cure the inks.
What you get is a stylish, custom t-shirt that will withstand many wearings and washings.
But it didn’t start as a very quick process at all.
A Brief History of Screen Printing
Screen printing is sometimes also called “silk screen printing,” because silk was one of the earlier mesh materials used.
Think of a screen you know, like a screen door. If you laid it flat on top of paper, then cut out a form for the shape you want and laid it on top, you could pour ink through the holes and get a design. The outline shape would prevent ink from going where you don’t want it. You’d probably roll or otherwise press the ink onto the screen so that it didn’t bleed past the edges of your design. That’s essentially how screen printing works.
Some of the first screens were mesh of human hair. The stencil shapes were cut out of paper. The ink got pushed through the mesh onto the fabric with stiff brushes. This technique first had recognizable shapes with Japanese fabric printing, but screen printing started in China around 1000 AD.
By the time screen printing came to Europe, they started using silk. Later, the fine mesh and a squeegee (rubber blade) technique made cleaner lines and smooth emulsions for each ink.
What Can You Print with a Screen?
A variety of stencil techniques and printing are used now, everything from fine art techniques to industrial machinery. Artists still make prints with screen printing techniques. Some art techniques use photo-reactive paper for photo-screen printing. Fabrics, wallpapers, paper, posters, glass, wood and other materials are all printed today, mostly with methods very similar to t-shirt printing.
The non-printed areas in a screen print are still blocked out with a stencil, which can be created with paper, resin, film, glue, lacquer or even still wood.
For commercial applications, screens are still a silk-like material and stencils get precision-cut by machine. Ink colors are lined up digitally, which creates identical prints on a wide variety of materials.
How Did T-shirt Screen Printing Start?
By the 1960’s Pop Artists started screen printing as an art form. Artists like Andy Warhol popularized the blocky imagery screen printing could create. Around this time, American entrepreneur Michael Vasilantone created a rotating garment screen printing machine, which first made t-shirt printing possible.
American actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean popularized t-shirts. With the new ability to screen print multiple colors on garments, and increased demand for t-shirts to be worn, the ubiquitous printed shirts we all own today were born.
How Are T-shirts Printed Today?
Of course, in the 60 years or so since Mr. Vasilantone made a rotating garment printing machine, the technology has evolved. Today’s machines are a multi-armed beast of a machine with rotating metal arms and advanced computing technology.
The screen is still secured in a frame. There’s still forms preventing ink from bleeding past where you want it. Inks get custom made to match your exact color specifications. And once it’s all set up, the beasty roars to life. Laser-precision lines up colors and designs.
It’s such a treat to watch the printing machine, we take video of screen printing in action.
Then the shirts get dryed in a big, flat dryer. Gone are the days of laying them out flat to bake in the sun. Today’s dryers are faster, with perfectly consistent temperatures to ensure the longevity of your design.
T-Shirt Labs Artists are The Real Deal
At T-shirt Labs we keep the art of the screen printing press alive. We love the ingenuity and creativity of custom printed t-shirts. Contact us to find out how you can utilize our advanced technology to make the t-shirts of your dreams.