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History of Custom Screen Printing

The history of screen printing isn’t a clear-cut one, though most historians think it first appeared somewhere between 960 CE and 1279 CE. It is believed to have originated in China, during the Song Dynasty of the country.

During this time, early screen printers used stencils with block shapes, which were held in place with human hair. Then, dyes were applied to the blocks, and the design was printed onto the parchment, fabric or other material being used.

Wooden Screen Printing Screens

Not long after this, printers replaced the hair with silk screens, which led to the name “silk screen printing.” These new screens were more durable, and they allowed for more detail in the printed image. Shortly after, many other civilizations adopted screen printing into their cultures, developing their own unique processes and techniques along the way.

In 1907, the screen printing process was patented by Simon Samuel, a man from England. Though his process at the time was typically used only on simple wallpapers or linens for the wealthy, the basics of his technique are still in use today.

Following this, the next major milestone in the history of screen printing came in the 1910s, when Roy Beck, Charles Peter and Edward Owens began using photo-reactive chemicals to create the screens for printing. These chemicals decreased production time and allowed for more detail in the designs, virtually revolutionizing the screen printing industry.

In the 1930s, screen printing came into wider use, as many began using it to create printed signs and posters. A decade later, the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association was created to maintain screen printing standards. The organization still exists today.

In 1960, a rotary screen printing press was created, which would allow multiple layers and colors to be printed in quick succession. Printers began leasing these presses, and screen printing took off across the world. (Andy Warhol’s famous screen-printed image of Marilyn Monroe helped some, too!)

Since then, screen printing has remained one of the most common (and trendiest) ways to create custom clothing, apparel, accessories and promotional items to this day.

Different Types of Custom Screen Printing

Though screen printed t-shirts may be the most commonly screen-printed item you see, the truth is the sky’s the limit with this versatile process. Custom screen printing can be used on all sorts of apparel, promo items, signage and more, and it can be a valuable, affordable tool for individuals, non-profits and businesses alike.

Here are just a few of the items that can be customized using screen printing:

  • Apparel – Custom screen printing allows you to personalize virtually any form of apparel you can think of, including shirts, polo’s, tank tops, sweatshirts, hoodies, jackets, athletic wear, pants, shorts, underwear and more.
  • Accessories – Want to brand a beanie, bucket hat, baseball cap, gym bag or tote bag? Screen printing makes it easy.
  • Advertising collateral – Put your name on stickers, banners, yard signs, flyers and even post cards, and start getting the word out about your organization or cause.
  • Promo items – Potential customers can’t pass up a free gift, so why not get some branded promo items, and start spreading the word? You can use screen printing to customize keychains, cups, pens, pencils, lanyards, chocolates and other handouts your clients might love.
  • Business items – Outfit your office with branded flash drives, trade show banners, calendars, notepads and even iPad cases. Your employees will love showing them off.
  • Party supplies – Throwing a company party or holiday mixer? Customize some awards, noisemakers, streamers, clappers and other party supplies, and make sure your even is fully branded.

The options are truly endless when it comes to custom screen printing. From signs and banners to freebie gifts and promo items, there’s no limit to what you can create for your cause, organization or business.

Screen Printing Shirt

The Screen Printing Process

The screen printing process includes many steps. Of course, there’s the actual printing of the shirt, piece of apparel, bag or item, but there is also much, much more to it than that. There’s also extensive set-up, configuration, tear-down and more involved, and each step must be done carefully and meticulously if you want the absolute best final product.

Let’s take a look at how the screen printing process works, from start to finish, now.


The separation process – during which the artwork is separated into layers and prepared for printing onto film positives - is different for each type of screen printing. Depending on which type of printing you choose, there could be any number of film positives produced, and the number of film positives produced directly correlates to the number of screens you need to finish the job.

Here’s how each separation process works:

  • Spot color – Spot color is for projects that have basic, solid color fills – ones that are easy to identify and separate. For these, separation works like this: Open your image file, and separate each color into a different layer. If there are two colors in the design, you’ll have two layers. If there are 10 colors, there will be 10 layers. Spot color works with any color of ink, so it’s a good option if you have a simple design and a client who wants very specific pantone colors.
  • 4 color process – The four-color process works like your ink jet printer – using shades of cyan, magenta, yellow and black to print the desired design. This is generally only used on white or very light fabrics, as the color of the material can interfere with the mixing of the inks. Unlike with spot color, you don’t need a layer for each individual color with the 4-color process. Instead, you need one for C, M, Y and K (cyan, magenta, yellow and black.) If you are printing on a dark material, you may need a fifth layer for white ink, too. Because you are limited to four colors in this process, it may be difficult to achieve an exact replica of your desired artwork color-wise, but as long as the layers are separately probably, it should come pretty close.
  • Simulated process – The simulated process is for intricate and complex designs. It uses Pantone ink colors in varying halftone percentages, then layers them to create new colors. With the simulated process, you don’t need a layer for each color or even for each shade. Instead, you separate your image into the number of screens you have available (make sure account for flashing and have enough available space on the press if necessary). Try to separate the layers into general hues, and aim to mimic the original artwork as close as possible.
  • Halftone – Halftone printing uses shading, gradients and small, barely visible dots to create the desired design. It can help deliver a very realistic-looking print – especially on photos and other images.

Once you’ve separated your image, the layers will need to be printed onto transparent film positives, which will act as stencils and will be placed over your screens. Let’s look at how that process works now.

Silk Screen Tension

Printing your design:

  • The first step is to set up your screens. These are created by stretching polyester fabric over a frame, usually made of aluminum or wood. The fabric used should have a high thread count, and it must be very tight, so it won’t budge when you start to lay the ink over top.
  • Now, it’s time to create the photo negatives. Place your film positive over a screen, and apply an ultraviolet sensitive photo emulsion to it. Then, expose this to UV light (either naturally or by using UV light bulbs), and it will harden, creating the perfect “stencil” for your print. Do this for each of your layers, and be sure to take every step possible to keep additional light from hitting the screen. This could affect the quality of your negative.
  • Next, you need to wash the emulsion out of your screens – this is what leaves behind a stencil, which you will use to print your design. A pressure washer will deliver the best results. Then, you need to let the screen completely dry before setting up your prints.
  • Once the screens are dry, it’s time to put the screens on your press. This can be a tedious process, especially if you have multiple colors. Each screen will need to be properly registered so that every color is aligned properly. If this isn’t done, it will mess up the design, and your print won’t come out as planned. After you’ve registered the screens, you can tape off the registration marks on them, and you’re ready to start printing.
  • Now, push your desired ink through the screen using a squeegee, and you’ll have the first layer of your print! You’ll need to repeat this with each color your image has, sometimes you need to flash (dry) the ink in between each round. This prevents running and mixing of colors.
  • Finally, you’ll need to run your printed item through an electric or gas dryer to fully cure the inks. Different inks cure at different temperatures, so make sure you choose the proper settings for your ink. If your print isn’t cured correctly (or completely) it can cause the image to crack after it goes in the wash.
  • After this, you’re done! You image is printed, and the item is ready for use!

If you’re going to be screen printing for a while, you probably don’t want to throw away all those screens after a job – that would be wasteful (and expensive.) Instead, you can recycle them. Simply rinse out the screen and make sure all ink is removed. Then, remove the hardened emulsion. You may need a professional-grade emulsion remover to do this, but it will help immensely.

You’ll also want to clean the screen, to ensure that no unwanted flecks of ink, dirt or debris get on your next project. Just use a small brush, along with some degreasing product and water, and scrub the entire screen down. Let it dry thoroughly before using the screen for another project.

Screen Printing Inks

Screen Printing Inks

Basically every inch of a screen printed design can be customized – the lettering, the imagery, the process, even the ink! Yep, it’s true: there are dozens and dozens of screen printing inks you can choose from, and each one delivers a different look and feel, depending on the fabric and design you’ve chosen.

Let’s take a look at some of the screen printing ink options you can choose from:

  • Waterbased inks – These inks can only be used on 100-percent cotton products. Polyester or another synthetic fabric will reject the dye, and you won’t have any design printed at all! Waterbased inks are also known for being very soft to the touch – you can’t even feel the print once it’s applied. One thing to note: these inks are essentially a dye, so they typically aren’t as vibrant as plastisol ones are.
  • Plastisol inks – These are some the most popular inks in screen printing. They can be opaque on dark fabrics, and they work with almost any textile. They must be heated up to dry, as the ink doesn’t soak into the fibers – instead, it wraps around the fabric and forms a mechanical bond. They don’t work well with plastic, metal, glass or thick, woven materials.
  • High-opacity inks – If you’re choosing a medium or dark-toned fabric, you’ll want this type of ink. It ensures the fabric cannot be seen through the ink once it has dried. You can also use high-opacity white inks as a base. Then, you have the freedom to use virtually any ink on top – no matter how opaque it is.
  • Low-bleed inks – Dye migration – which is when nearby dyes begin to run into one another and sometimes even change color - is a common problem on polyester materials, as well as highly intricate designs where colors are extremely close. Low-bleed inks prevent this migration from happening and ensure the integrity of the design.
  • Soft-hand inks – Soft-hand inks give you a barely-there print. Perfect for jersey knit T-shirts, you can barely feel the ink once it’s applied. This is great for athletic and sleep wear, too.
  • Process inks – These inks are used exclusively in process-color printing, and they ensure each individual dot of ink is as sharp and detailed as possible. They’re ideal if you have a highly detailed design.
  • Athletic inks – Design specifically for athletic uniforms (and the materials they come in), these inks have a durable, high-glass finish that ensures visibility even at a distance. They typically come in minimal colors and hues (white and black are the most commonly used.) They even work on stretchy fabrics like Lycra.
  • Special effect inks – Want a print that glows in the dark, shimmers or is reflective for safety reasons? These inks are your answer. They work on a variety of fabrics and come in a number of color options. They’re perfect if your items will be used at night!

When screen printing an item, you have to be careful when choosing the fabric and inks you’ll be using. If these two don’t mesh, your items probably won’t turn out as you imagined or, what’s worse, they might be ruined completely! Always consult a screen printing expert about your design before finalizing your order or submitting payment.

Screen Printing Presses

Just like the inks, screen printing presses vary greatly, too. Depending on the look you’re going for, the purpose of the item, the fabric you choose and the type of dye you’re using, there are a number of different presses you can opt for.

Here are just a few you can typically choose from:

Screen Printing Manual
  • Manual – A manual screen printing press is just what it sounds like: A screen printing press that requires actual manual labor. Typically, these now come in rotary versions, which allow you to work more efficiently and quickly. These machines come in a variety of different options such as 4 color / 4 station or 6 color / 6 station press. Manual presses are great for small runs, though they’re still not ideal for large or extensive runs, as you can only create one printed item at a time.
  • Automatic – Automatic screen printing presses allow you to fully automate your printing business. You just register the screens, load on the shirts, adjust your settings and let the machine get to work. In a few hours, you can produce thousands of printed shirts.
  • Jumbo – These presses are designed for items that feature large designs, like a T-shirt with a print taking up the majority of the shirt. It can allow you to get big, bold designs without a high cost to match. These presses don’t typically work with women’s apparel, as they tend to be too small to fit the printing platen. They’re usually best-used for men’s garments (medium, large and extra-large). Smalls may need to be printed on alternative pallets.
  • All-over belt press – A belt press is essentially a big conveyer belt. You lay your shirt or material on the belt, and it runs through each of the screen printing steps as the belt moves. Think of it like an assembly line – only there’s a lot less manual labor required.

Every screen printing press is different, and if you want your printed item to come out as you planned, you’ll want to make sure you choose the absolute best press for the job.

Uses for Screen Printed T-shirts

Virtually any screen printed item can be a boon for business. But screen printed T-shirts? Those are the holy grail. Screen printed T-shirts aren’t just something people want to wear; they’re also something that gives you added exposure each and every time they’re worn.

They’re the gift that just keeps on giving!

Think of it this way: say you gave out free screen printed t-shirts at a trade show last year. Then, those attendees, in turn, wear their shirts at the gym, while grocery shopping or at the airport. Who knows how much people they’ve encountered in that time – dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? Imagine what kind of exposure that could bring your brand or cause.

If you haven’t used screen printed t-shirts in your own efforts, you might consider it. Here are just a few ways you can use them to your advantage:

  • To raise awareness – Want to bring awareness to a cause close to your heart? T-Shirts can be a great way to do it. People not only get to show their support for a great movement, but they also get to help spread the word to their friends, family and anyone they encounter.
  • To get donations – Hosting a fundraising? Give out T-shirts in exchange for donations. Donors will love feeling appreciated for their contribution, and it will give your fundraiser even more exposure down the line.
  • To increase exposure and reach – Need to get the word out about a new product, service or company? Give out free t-shirts at an event or fun run. The more you hand out, the more potential exposure you stand to gain!
  • To encourage team spirit – Forming a softball team at work? Starting a new committee? Running the HOA? Get everyone excited by creating team t-shirts that they’ll love. Then, encourage them to wear the shirts next time you get together. Who knows, maybe you’ll attract new members?
  • For an event – Want to make sure everyone at an event is identifiable? Hand out screen printed t-shirts. This is common with marathons, fun runs and other athletic events, or it’s perfect for work outings to Habitat for Humanity, homeless shelters and other volunteer activities.
  • For school functions – Screen printed t-shirts are also great for school functions. Kids can wear them on field trips, so their teachers can easily identify them, or they can be great for field days, pep rallies, graduation events and much, much more. As an added bonus, it will give the students a memento of that school year that they can keep and cherish for many years to come.
  • For festivals and trade fairs – Showing off your brand at a conference, expo, trade show or festival? Have a screen printer stationed at your booth, and create fun, screen printed t-shirts for people who stop by – on the spot. It will surely make your brand stick out in their minds – long after they’ve left the event.

There are so many ways to use screen printed t-shirts. They can be used for business reasons, to help non-profits and charities or even just in your social life. All you need is a creative design, a great screen printer, and you’re on your way to success.

Want to learn more about t-shirt screen printing? Need another item or piece of apparel customized? Contact DFC Screen Printing today.