Silk Screen Printing: The Details Everyone Should Know

Part of being an artist or crafter is learning new and versatile skills. If you’re a graphic or textile artist, one of the best techniques you can learn is silk screen printing. Whether you make pop art, t-shirts, or luxury fabrics, this process can elevate your craft and allow you to create marketable products and designs.

You can utilize silk screen printing in your personal studio or in a full-scale factory. You can do screen printing by hand or with automated machines that help streamline the process. So what exactly is silk screen printing? And what do you need to bring this technique into your own creative arsenal?

Silk screen printing is a form of stenciling that allows an artist to make multiple copies of a piece of artwork. While this replication process is common for large-scale projects, it can also act as an art form all its own. Today, this craft is practiced by individual artists and industrial print houses alike, but its roots date back as far as 9,000 B.C. Silk screen-style stencils have adorned Egyptian tombs and Greek murals, and have also made appearances in countless forms of Chinese artwork.

The actual equipment may have changed over the millennia, but the process remains much the same.

Textile artists, either for fashion or function, often turn to silk screen printing to adorn fabric for apparel and other uses. Screen printing is also common in commercial art and those inspired by it. Andy Warhol famously used silk screen printing to create some of his most memorable pop art paintings. Many other contemporary artists use this technique for their work, but Warhol is easily the most famous.

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Silk Screen Printing: A Step-by-Step Guide

Silk screen printing uses an extra-fine mesh stretched over a frame. This frame and mesh, known as the screen, is then placed over the artist’s canvas of choice. When this printmaking process first entered Western culture, the mesh was silk. Hence the name silk screen. While most people think of fabric and other textiles when they think of silk screen printing, paper and other materials are also used.

Within the mesh is a stencil. This stencil features either the entire final image or only a part of it, depending on the colors the artist plans to use. In silk screen printing, inks are applied one at a time. For instance, the printing process for a two-color tree would actually require two screens: one for the brown trunk and one for the green leaves. Silk screen printing can use one screen or dozens, depending on the materials used and the artist’s skill level.

The next step in silk screen printing is the actual ink application. Appropriate ink for the chosen canvas is applied over the mesh screen. The artist or printing press then drags a squeegee-like object across the screen, forcing the ink through the mesh and onto the canvas. They then repeat this step for each color and its respective screen. As you can see, silk screen printing is a potentially long and delicate process with countless opportunities for error.

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When Is Silk Screen Printing Used?

If you’re not an artist who uses silk screen printing in your own work, then you probably don’t realize the prevalence of this technique. Small, independent artists use this process to create original or commissioned work. But large manufacturers also use screen printing to create a variety of products.

When you pick up a graphic t-shirt, whether from a discount store or a luxury designer, chances are the design is screen printed onto the fabric. Screen printing is not the only way to place designs or graphics onto a piece of clothing. But it is perhaps the most widely used in modern manufacturing.

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Art prints

Artists of all kinds create print recreations of their paintings, sketches, and other work to sell. While these prints are not necessarily easy to create, the process is much simpler than the artist making multiple copies of their art from scratch. That is why art prints sell for considerably less than original works. But because of this lower price, artists can sell more of their work to a wider group of fans.

Some artists also use screen printing to create one-of-a-kind pieces of art. In these cases, the creation of the stencil and application of inks takes the place of painting with a brush or sketching with charcoal. Many people only think of silk screen printing as a way to transfer a piece of art onto a different canvas. But these artists have made silk screen printing an art form all its own.

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For the average person, t-shirts and other basic apparel are the most common materials for silk screen printing. Most people come in contact with the silk screen printing process when they need to order custom t-shirts for their company, event, or charity. You can also order custom tote bags, flags, and other products with your logo or event information.

Some patterned fabrics are printed with silk screens. While you can make your own patterned fabric on a small scale, this normally occurs on an industrial scale. However, independent fashion designers are known to create their own custom fabrics using silk screens and their own design.

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How Does Silk It Compare to Digital Printing?

When it comes to the printing industry, you will find countless die-hard silk screen fans. But as technology advances, new printing techniques emerge and threaten the stronghold that silk screen printing has on apparel manufacturers. While the technique you prefer will depend on many factors, digital printing does have some of its own pros and cons.

Digital printing works much like an inkjet printer on paper. And one of the biggest advantages of digital printing is that you don’t need to create a stencil for every color. With digital printing, you can reasonably print much smaller orders because the set up is much simpler than with screen printing.

Regarding the actually printed image, digital printing allows for better, sharper details. That is especially important if your printed design has small details or lettering that you’d like to remain clear. However, silk screen printing offers a wider range of colors and more vibrant inks overall. Depending on care, screen printed apparel can last longer than digitally printed garments. And right now, digital fabric printing only works on 100-percent cotton. With silk screen printing, you can print on silk, nylon, and even plastic.

Of course, one of the most important differences between digital and screen printing is the price. And the prices of these two techniques vary greatly depending on if you choose to do them at home or hire an outside company. Because of the easy setup process, digital printing is much cheaper when hiring a professional company. But when printing at home, silk screen printing is significantly more affordable. Quality digital apparel printers are often several thousand dollars, making them prohibitively expensive for most at-home crafters.

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Solutions for Your Printing Project

If you want to print your own apparel or fabrics at home, then purchasing a digital printing press might seem tempting. But the high price of these machines makes them almost entirely inaccessible for hobbyists or even some small professional printers. However, with a little practice and some cheap supplies, you can create high-quality silk screen prints that rival digital prints.

One of the greatest things about silk screen printing is how versatile it can be. From a single one-off print to thousands of identical t-shirts, screen printing can accomplish a range of projects on any scale. And from an at-home studio to a corporate factory, any artist or crafter can get into this hobby.

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At-home printing

If the idea of silk screen printing has piqued your interest, putting together your own at-home setup is surprisingly easy. All you will need is a material to print on, frame and silk screen, squeegee, and ink. To make your stencil, you will also need a dark room, photo emulsion, a 250-watt bulb, and gloves for safety.

However, if the full do-it-yourself route feels like too big of a project, you can also find ready-made supplies and kits for sale. If you have a local art supply store, you might be able to find everything you need there. But if you don’t have access to one of these retailers, you can also check out online stores like Dick Blick Art Materials. If you’re extra ambitious, you can even create your own frame and stencils.

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Small scale printing

Small professional printers are also affordable for many personal projects. This method won’t give you the same hands-on experience and satisfaction as creating your own silk screen prints. But it’s a great option for those who need a considerable number of prints made in a short time.

Local print shops are extremely common in towns and cities of all sizes. You can also order custom silk screen printing from companies online. Some companies specialize in t-shirts, while others will print keychains, banners, and everything in between.

If you’re looking for custom-printed fabric, you can look into companies like Spoonflower or Fabric On Demand. You can then use this fabric to create your own apparel, designs to sell, or unique gifts.

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Mass-market printing

All of the graphic t-shirts, tote bags, and posters you see in stores have to be made somewhere. That somewhere is typically in large, industrial-sized printing warehouses that churn out prints at rapid speeds. The average person will never have the need, or the financial resources, to use such a large-scale printing company. But understanding how silk screen printing works on this level can help in your own printing journey.

With knowledge of the silk screen printing process, you can even become a more aware and discerning consumer. If you know how to create your own silk screen prints, you might decide to make your own versions of printed apparel instead of purchasing from a mass-market factory. And if you’re conscious of where your garments are from, this is an excellent way to eliminate purchasing from overseas factories or other questionable sources.

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Should You Learn How to Create Your Own Silk Screen Prints?

If you’re someone who’s passionate about creating, then silk screen printing is a valuable skill to learn. If you’re a graphic artist, you can make efficient copies of your work to sell to fans. You can even transfer your artwork onto shirts, fabric, bags, or other products that you can then sell. Of course, for some artists silk screen printing is their art form. And this technique can create stunning, unique pieces of art.

If you’re not confident about your silk screen printing skills, you can try searching for a local class that teaches this skill. Your local community college or university’s art department might offer extracurricular classes. If you live near a community art center, they might also offer seasonal classes for screen printing and more. Another option is to search for an online class. Websites like Creative Live and Skill Share host free or paid courses that teach valuable arts and craft skills. While this isn’t quite the same as a hands-on class, it can serve as an excellent alternative.

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