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The Low Down on Screen Printing

Posted on September 24 2018

Photo: via Threadbird


You know when you love a t-shirt. Chances are you still have an old, favorite concert tee that fades and flakes the more you wear it. Yet, you won’t give it up. Some shirts look but also feel like a work of art. As you move your hand over it you can feel slight bumps on the pattern where the ink dried. Other prints are almost imperceptible from the fabric like magic. In this day and age of mass production, you know someone doesn't hand paint your favorite t-shirt designs. Yet, there’s still an artistic, handmade feel about it. You’ve probably read or heard the term “screen printing” and can associate it with a few dope brands. But, what’s the skinny on screen printing?


History of Screen Printing

The history of screen printing is pretty far out. The technique can be traced back 2000 years ago to Ancient China and Japan when human hair was stretched across wooden frames to hold rudimentary stencils. Vegetable dyes were then forced through the stencil onto an object. This forced ink technique laid the foundation for modern day screen printing. As the practice was perfected, woven silk strands replaced human hair to create the art form fondly known as silk screen printing. As stencils advanced delicate designs were made into textile patterns like those of traditional kimonos in Japan. By the early 20th-century screen printing made its mark on Europe and the Americas in a variety of uses. In 1907, it was first patented in England to create fanciful wallpapers for wealthy families. In America, as advertising boomed, screen printing found a bold home in the sign industry. Screen printed posters, political propaganda, bumper stickers, and t-shirts soon became a tool of self-expression. Screen printing even inspired artists such as Henri Matisse and Andy Warhol. Warhol’s iconic 1962 diptych print of Marilyn Monroe is serigraphy, silkscreen art, at its finest. Today, almost every graphic tee you see in stores is screen printed. It’s a versatile form of expression that continues to evolves with the times. 


Photo: via Trelleborg


What is Screen Printing?

Modern screen printing methods require a “screen mesh,” which is woven from synthetic fibers such as polyester or metal fibers such as stainless steel, to be stretched across a wooden or aluminum frame. A different mesh is required for each color that will be used. A stencil of words, characters, and even illustrations are produced on the screen either manually or photochemically to block a portion of the screen making it impermeable to ink. The stencil defines the negative space of the print. Ink is then moved across the screen to fill the open mesh creating an image. Each piece must be run through a large dryer to cure the inks onto the target object.


Screen Printing Ink Types

We’ve come a long way from vegetable dyes and soy pastes. Nowadays, there are two commonly used textile inks in screen printing: water-based ink and plastisol ink. Water-based inks were introduced in the early 20th century. However, thin viscosity made the inks harder to work with. During this time, screen printing was left to the masters who had perfected the craft. By the mid-1900’s plastisol ink began to change the screen printing industry. The thicker ink made it easier to create complex designs and produce more in larger quantities. The versatility and durability of plastisol ink is credited for making the screen printing industry as big as it is today. Groovy, right? Not quite.


Plastisol Ink

Remember that old t-shirt with the cracking and peeling graphic image? That’s because of plastisol ink which prints on top of fabric in unbreathable layers. As the name suggests, plastisol ink is made of plastic. PVC plastic resin is dispersed in a fluid often containing phthalate plasticizers which are known toxins to the body and the environment. Solvents used to clean up Plastisol and plasticizers are considered hazardous and require specialized disposal. During curing (heating), Plastisol ink also gives off a gas that is known to have harmful health effects. Plastisol ink was formulated to make industrial screen printing more efficient and it has but with a few environmental concerns. Plastisol inks are often cheaper and easier to work with since they don’t dry on the screens. They print bright and true to color yet are susceptible to melting at high-temperature exposure, and can feel like a hard coating.


Water-based Ink

If you’re looking for that soft hand feel, you want water-based ink. These inks are plastic and phthalate free dispersing pigments or dye directly into a water medium. In contrast to plastisols, water-based inks penetrate into textile fibers instead of printing a layer on top allowing breathability and flexibility. Water-based inks are still considered more challenging to work with as they can dry on the screen during processing and require an evaporation step to be cured. However, these inks dye fabric to actually become a part of the garment creating an attention detail and a longevity that plastisols cannot claim. They are more environmentally friendly and pose little to no harmful health effects. Recent advancements toward more eco-friendly practices in the textile industry have resulted in water-based inks that resist drying and remain useable far longer than traditional water-based inks. That’s why we have committed to using water-based inks at Funk Era.


Screen printing has come a long way from humble beginnings in stencil printing. The techniques and technology needed have evolved with time and consumer demand. As the fashion industry continues to come under scrutiny for environmentally harmful practices screen printing will have to continue to evolve too. Luckily, the ink tides are already changing towards more sustainable inks.