These days, most graphic tees and sweaters are digitally machine printed. It’s quicker and cheaper, and it doesn’t require much skill. You line the garment up on the printer and press print. Job done.

Hand screen printing, however, is very different. It requires a lot of skill and delivers a better quality result – sharper, stronger colours and a more durable finish. Oh, and the process is a piece of art in itself.

This is why I rattle on about our T-shirts and sweaters being ‘hand screen printed’ in the UK.

But, how does it work?

It’s always better to show than tell, so we’ve put together a one minute video to celebrate the beautiful analogue process of screen printing. 


 

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How screen printing works

Now you’ve seen the video, here’s an outline of what Rowan does at each step in the process...

1. Print the artwork on standard white paper, using an office printer. Or, to skip step 2, print on to acetate.

2. Coat the paper in vegetable oil, soaking up the excess oil from the paper's surface, so it’s touch dry. This makes the white of the paper translucent (to let light though) and the ink of the printed design even darker in colour (to block the light).

3. Coat the mesh screen in a light-sensitive emulsion and leave to dry in the dark.

4. Place the artwork on top of the dry screen and expose to a bright light for two minutes. The light will pass through the oiled translucent parts of the paper around the design and will dry or 'bake' the light sensitive emulsion into the screen (although the emulsion will stay wet underneath the design, because the design has blocked the light).

5. Wash out the screen to remove the light sensitive emulsion, which stayed wet because of the artwork blocking the light. Leave to dry.

6. Mix your water-based ink colours, ready for printing.

7. Align your garment (or paper) underneath your screen. The screens are attached to hinges, which enables precise positioning when printing each colour.

8. Using a spatula, put a generous line of ink at one end of the screen outside of the design.

9. Using a squeegee (the wooden and rubber implement Rowan uses), smoothly and firmly pull the ink across the screen in one movement. Lift the screen up, then using the squeegee push some ink back across the screen to keep it wet.

To make the print nice and bright, designs have to be printed twice. Use a heat gun or heating plate to dry this first print, then repeat step 9, printing directly on top of the first print.

Then, for each colour in a design, repeat steps 1-9.

Not just a simple print and stick job, eh?!

In this instance, we think the good old fashioned way is certainly best.


A potted history

Hand screen printing in its simplest form dates back to around 221 AD in China, where the stencil technique was used to transfer designs to fabric. The Japanese then adopted the technique, making stencils out of paper by using stiff brushes to push the ink through screens woven from human and animal hair.

The fabric printing technique wasn’t used in Europe until the 1700s, when silk was stretched across a screen to form a mesh and again stiff brushes were used to push the ink through onto the fabric.

In the early 1900s, squeegees were developed as a tool for pulling the ink through the screens to replace the stiff brushes.

In 1938, a group of New York artists began experimenting with screen printing onto paper.

Screen printing really became popularised in the 1960s by pop artists, such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Peter Blake, who used the technique as an integral part of their design pieces.

Mark Musgrave

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