Screen printing has held the top spot as the preferred method for printing T-shirts for decades. It’s a versatile and effective way to print T-shirts with a tactile feel and quality that other methods just can’t capture. Also known as silkscreen printing or serigraphy, it involves blocking out areas on a fine mesh screen to create an image. These can range from simple patterns applied directly to the screen, or complex designs that are exposed onto the mesh.
Step 1: Preparing the screen
Preparing the screen is the first part of the process and the quality of the final product depends heavily on this stage. In most cases, a light-sensitive emulsion is applied to a mesh screen (this is the green bit you normally see on a screen) which is then exposed to UV light. During this process, your design, a stencil of which has been placed onto the mesh itself, is ‘burned’ into the emulsion. Once the exposure is finished, the screen is hosed down with water to remove the soft emulsion, leaving only your design behind. The screen is now ready to use for printing.
In some cases, designs can be printed directly onto an emulsion-coated screen using special printers. When this happens designs are printed directly onto the mesh and revealed when the emulsion is washed away, leaving a print-ready screen.
Step 2: Separating colour layers
If there’s more than one colour to your design, the process is repeated so that each colour in your design is separated into individual layers on different screens. Used three colours in your design? Then three screens will be needed, one for each colour. When it comes to colour matching, endless variations can be achieved with the right mix of inks and expert precision, and this is where Pantone colour checking comes into play. When your design is submitted for print we find the exact matching Pantone colour so our print team know exactly which variation of colour to print your design with.
Once your screen(s) have been prepared, it’s time to print.
Step 3: Alignment and printing
Next, the screen is carefully lined up on the printing press and positioned on the T-shirt using either laser or manual alignment tools, it’s a bit of a skill and one of the most important parts of the entire process. This is how you ensure your print is in the exact same place when the process is repeated 100s of times.
Once aligned properly, a squeegee (rubber-edged, hand-held blade) is used to press ink through the design area on the screen mesh, leaving the final print on your T-shirt underneath. If there are multiple colours in the design, the process will be repeated for each colour.
Step 4: Heat Curing
It’s then super important to heat cure the T-shirt to ensure the print is sealed and stays in place. Otherwise, the design would fade straightaway in the wash. The ink has to reach a certain temperature in order to bond it to the fabric. Different types of ink need to be cured at varying temperatures and for different lengths of time, so this stage requires an expert approach.
Step 5: Other points to consider
Screen printing is a brilliant way to print, and there are many reasons to use this approach. If you’re printing on a large scale, it’s a relatively cheap and quick way to print. However, if you’re looking to print a short run of T-shirts it can be an expensive option because of the setup costs of the screens, as making a new screen can be expensive. In this instance, DTG printing is usually a more viable option. Similarly, if your design involves more than a few colours, varying gradients or shadows, more screens will be needed, which will also affect the cost.
As screen printing develops with time and advancing technology, there are constantly new innovations popping up that make it a more efficient, and waste-free way to print. Organic and natural inks are increasingly available to use, and new technologies can make printing more precise than ever before.