The History of Screenprinting

Screenprinting, also called silk screen printing, is a custom printing technique where ink is transferred onto a substrate using mesh. It’s considered a stencil print method because it’s done by imposing a design on a screen where the blank areas are coated with a substance the ink can’t pass through. Then, the printer forces ink through mesh openings and transfers the design onto the print surface.

Screenprinting has been around for a long time. Let’s take a look at its history to learn more about where the process originated from and how it got to where it is today.

Screenprinting Origins

Screenprinting started as early as 2,000 years ago in China as a stenciling method. During this time, the Chinese stretched human hair across a wooden frame to serve as the mesh screen for printing. For stencils, they used leaves. Years later, the Japanese modified the practice, they used silk as their screen. That’s where the term “silk screen” came from in reference to screenprinting.

Evolution of Screenprinting

Screenprinting finally hit Western Europe in the 18th century. However, because silk was hard to come by at the time, it wasn’t a common practice.

At the beginning of the 20th century, screenprinting took a huge leap. Several printers named Roy Beck, Charles Peter, and Edward Owens experimented to create prints using photo-reactive chemicals. This team introduced photo-imaged stencils into screenprinting, but it wasn’t widely accepted immediately due to the toxicity of the chemicals. Years later, however, we use a similar process developed by this trio that uses less toxic chemicals for a safer process.

Popularization of Screenprinting

Screenprinting became popular in Western society around the 1960s. Artist Andy Warhol is known for popularizing the technique in the U.S. He used screenprinting as an artistic technique, which came to be known as “serigraphy,” which distinguished the art form from the industrial use. During this time and into the 1970s, Sister Mary Corita Kent became famous for her serigraph work.

It was also during this time that inventor Michael Vasilantone developed a screenprinting machine designed to print logos on clothing. He initially used his invention to print shirts for a bowling team. It was thanks to Vasilantone that printing on t-shirts and other garments became popular.

Screenprinting Today

Today, screenprinting is primarily used to print on garments, such as printing logos, text, or images on t-shirts or hoodies. It’s one of the most versatile printing techniques compared to other traditional printing methods. For example, it doesn’t have to be printed under pressure as with etching, and it can be used on various materials, such as wood, paper, ceramic, glass, plastic, and metal.

Though the technique is common in garment printing, that’s not the only industry where it’s used. It’s also used in creating decals, product labels, pinball machines, printed electronics, snowboard graphics, and more.

When printing multiple copies, artists and printing companies typically use a screenprinting press, which can be manual or automatic. Another version is a rotary screen printer, which uses a tube with the ink inside that allows companies to print continuously. An example of this would be in printing wallpapers.

Silk screen printing has a rich history, and today, it makes for a cheap and effective printing method for tons of purposes. Whether you’re looking to print t-shirts for your bowling team, you want your logo on corporate promotional products, or you simply want to announce your political opinions,  screenprinting is the perfect method!

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