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The History of Silk Screen Printing

Posted by on in Educational Resources

In this post we’re exploring the history of screen printing, which appears a murky topic until the last century, when the process really took off.

Most accounts put the birth of screen printing in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), while there are strong claims for the origination of the technique by other cultures around the Mediterranean. During the Song Dynasty, the screens/stencils that were used for prints included block shapes held in place by human hair in a wooden frame. Hair is sufficiently strong and fine to support the stencils, while allowing ink to reach the substrate.

Eventually, the hair was replaced with silk screens. The screens allowed for much more intricate designs and left the term silk screen printing. Keep in mind that for a long time, screens were placed between layers of waterproof paper stencils.


Photo-Reactive Chemicals


Other Asian cultures, like Japan, adopted the screen printing process and added their own flair to it but the technique wasn’t introduced to Europe until the 1700’s.

It would be several centuries until screen printing took off and in 1907, a fellow by the name of Simon Samuel patented the screen printing process. At the time, it was mainly used for printing wallpaper or linen. The basics of his process survive largely intact to this day, augmented by some major technological advances.

The first major advance was the use of photo-reactive chemicals to create stencils for printing. Roy Beck, Charles Peter and Edward Owens pioneered the use of photo-reactive stencils, which expanded the reach of screen printing dramatically. It’s hard to imagine screen printing without photo-reactive stencils, limited in both production time and reach by what they could carve as a stencil.

As a means of production, screen printing really started gaining traction in the 1930’s when it became the preferred method for printing signs. Until that point, signs were hand-painted, and screen printing represented a significant increase in production.  

In the 1940’s, screen printing had yet to break into mainstream garment fabrication. The Davis Bulletin Company, a dominant force in the industry for much of the 20th century helped create the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA), which maintains the industry standards for production and quality in the garment printing industry.

Forming the SGIA did little to increase interest in screen printing and most screen printers were unnecessarily defensive about their practices, and wished to stay that way. Perhaps guarding the secrets of their trade was intended to preserve their exclusive dominance of the industry. But it was not meant to be.

A famous set of prints of Marilyn Monroe, printed in garish colors, by Andy Warhol, is responsible for introducing screen printing into modern American culture. It was about this time that screen printing was making the leap to serious production capacity.

Screen Printing Manual PressPrior to 1960, most presses could only handle a single layer of printing. In 1960, Michael Vasilantone filed the patent for the rotary press or rotary garment Now, multiple layers and colors could be printed in quick succession, greatly increasing production. Many printers leased the patent to make the most of their business.

Since then, the screen printing industry has exploded, with improvements in ink technology, flash curing, and advanced print techniques widening the horizons of possibility for screen printing. Technological progression in the field has mostly leveled out, with small developments happening frequently, while truly revolutionary changes are much less frequent.

Current trends in garment screen printing center around specialty inks and printing techniques, which are represented by innovative hybrid print processes. The future, though, is an open field.


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