What is Screen printing ? A simple overview

I have this friend who has a small screen printing business and she has build a whole life around this business, building it from the scratch to making it a small success in the local area. I admire her for her grit and hard work as well as for the knowledge of something as complicated as screen printing. well, so I thought. Screen printing sounded pretty complicated like the Tesla cars, till I talked to her.

The advantages of screen printing are many. You get very sharp-edged high quality long lasting printed images; The cost of printing is so much less than any other large scale printing.

This is the best printing technique when you want a single design to be printed on lots of clothes – think of those racy slogans you read and enjoy on t-shirts on the streets. They are most probably mass printed this way

sreen printing

You can print on garment fronts, backs,  sleeves, pockets, hoodies, hats. Even vinyl, wood etc  are printed with the screen printing technique.

This fabric printing technique is a lot like the stencil painting we do at home. It involves using specially made screens to apply ink to the fabric. The screen is made by stretching a mesh on a wooden or aluminum frame. This screen will have the ink blocking stencil with the pattern or the design. The ink is applied with a squeegee and the stencil will ensure the ink passes through the mesh and make the correct image in the fabric

screen printing on fabric

Materials  used for screen printing

Screen printing technique primarily uses a woven mesh screen to print the desired design on to fabric. The screen used is a porous mesh fabric made of synthetic fibers like nylon or stainless steel stretched on a frame ( I have seen wooden frames but aluminum frames are also used)  Areas of the screen are then blocked off to create a design printing template. For each color in a design, a separate screen has to be made. These screens are used one screen per location per color.

An ink-blocking stencil, which will define your design. This stencil forms open areas on the mesh through which ink seeps into the fabric. This stencil is made on the screen either manually or photochemically.

Squeegee or roller or blade to ensure the ink is spread

Ink – you need a special a pigmented screen printing ink which is durable and long-lasting and gives out clear graphic details and has a good texture.

The most important thing other than selecting the best ink is to choose the correct colour – if you have a screen printing business you will have to totally get which colour your customer has in mind – if you print  1000 t-shirts and the customer meant chilli red instead of the tomato red you printed, you are in big trouble. Color matching with a colour chart and getting the consent letter signed by the customer are important before undertaking any printing orders.

What kind of designs are best for screen printing ?

Best Screen printing designs are ones with solid colours on it. Any colour can be used including black, white. Any design as long as it fits the area of the garment you want the print on can be used. If the area is small choose a broad design, not a fine design with details.

screen printing

How is screen printing done?

A stencil is made of the design first – it could be anything even letters, logos, silhouettes, solid pictures – on a woven mesh of synthetic fibers stretched tightly on a frame. This stencil will block ink forming open areas in it – blank areas coated with an impermeable substance.

Fabric is stretched on a flat surface. The screen is lowered on to fabric. The ink is then allowed to come through the mesh to print the image clearly sharply on the fabric. A squeegee or a blade is used to press the screen stencil against the mesh, making the impression clear and sharp-edged. The squeegee moves across the screen, pushing the ink through the open areas of the screen.

The process is repeated for other colours with other screens. If you want multiple colours you will have to create different mesh screens for it.

There is an option to make a gradation of colors with screen printing, though. This involves a technique known as halftones. Here the solid colour printing is reduced in percentage so that there is a dot effect to the printing – this will look different from the original 100% colour printing – giving it a lighter shade which makes it different and appealing.

Another method is 4 colour process screen printing. This uses the four colours CMYK (cyan magenta yellow and black ) on the printing. This method is used when you have a photo or painting to be printed and you have to do it as inexpensively as possible. This is a slightly more complicated and less reliable technique than the usual solid colour screen printing (spot colour printing). Digital printing and inkjet printing are more effective for printing photographs than this method.

How to print photographs with screen printing ?

The normal screen printing cannot produce exact photographic prints. This is because the photographs usual have many colours and  shades  on it. Screen printing prints in solid colours.

A type of screen printing known as four colour printing is used to print photographs. But this process also known as CMYK printing is not the most reliable. Inkjet printing will produce a better printing result when printing photographs and paintings

The disadvantage of screen printing

Screen printing is the easiest and inexpensive way to print on fabric for making a lot of prints of a single design.But this cost-effectiveness is relative. The expense increases with the use of multiple colours.

Small orders with many ink colours and print locations will make your screen printing costly as screens have to be made for individual designs, seperate colours and different locations.

Most screen printing concerns will have a minimum order quantity – some say some say 10 , some 50 depending on their capability. Most often 50 and 10 will cost the same in printing, which is why it is advisable to print large orders.

One limitation of screen printing is that you cannot print continuous designs that go all the way around clothes or parts of the garment. for eg a design that goes around the sleeve.

You are also limited to the width of the screen you can make with regard to the design. If you have a large budget you can make screens to make large prints on even bedsheets. 

Another limitation is that with screen printing, you cannot get sample prints. This is again because of the overhead cost of making screens.

How to ensure that screen printing is cost effective?

what is screen printing?

There are workarounds to make screen printing  cost effective
1. Use of fewer colours
2. Limiting printing location to one place
3. Using the colour of the fabric as part of the design so that You only have to print the rest of the colours
4. Printing as many as you want in one go
5. Not changing /resizing designs midway

How to take care of your screen printed clothes

Everything that you do for washing and caring for dark coloured clothes applies here. Some guidelines are –

  1. Turn the clothing inside out
  2. Hand wash for better colour retention
  3. If machine washing use a delicate cycle
  4. Do not use bleach or other harsh detergents

Screen printing methods in the textile industry

The screen printing in a textile industry is done through two methods depending on the machinery used – Flatbed screen printing and Rotary screen printing.

Flatbed screen printing is the automated version of the hand-operated silk screen printing. It has all the tools of the trade incorporated in it – the flat bed print table, a squeegee, an infeed device feeding the fabric. But it is not the fastest process; you cannot print continuous patterns with it, just like the hand screen printing. Another disadvantage is that design size is dependant on the flat screen size.  The next method is called the rotary garment screen printing. It uses a specialized machine that rotates in a fixed position.


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