As best as the archaeologists can reckon, screen printing was one of the earliest reproducible printing methods invented. Some of the earliest screen printing forefathers are believed to have lived in China sometime around 1000 A.D., where stencils were first turned to the purpose of laying down water-based ink on paper materials. In the earliest forms, patterns were likely wood or paper stencils, and ink was likely laid over a pattern with a brush. This process advanced in the far east until it eventually involved screened patterns made from silk. But when the rubber bladed squeegee finally became available in the early 1900s, screen printing became a valuable technique in the western world, and is today used for the vast majority of the $165B textile printing market, including the custom apparel industry that makes up about 5% of the $165B industry.
Known under the guise of a number of different terms - including silk screening, screen printing, and serigraphy - what we call screen printing at OpportuniTees is fundamentally a mechanical process, where an image is created and then used to mechanically (by hand or machine) lay ink down on a product. In the midst of a digital age, mechanical screen printing has remained a key worldwide industry because of its ability to be easily and cost-effectively used at different scales (from small to large images) on many different material types and for nearly any number of products - from 10 of items to 100,000 items.
The key to screen printing is the screen itself, and hence the name screen printing. In the early 1800's, unknown inventors likely made the first mesh screens using silk. On top of these screens, they overlaid patterns, leaving openings where ink could be pressed through the screen and onto a fabric or paper. The screen was instrumental to this process, as it allowed the printing to maintain the shape of both the stencil and the underlying fabric as the ink was laid down.
In the 1900's, the western world claimed patents for screen printing, and the invention of the rubber bladed squeegee meant that ink could very consistently be laid down on product with fine detail. Since then, screen printing has steadily advanced to today's state of the art, where many meshes are available made from a variety of materials - from polyester to steel - and many printing systems exist from single item printing machines to high speed rotary presses. Meanwhile, the screen printing industry remains at the forefront of today's messaging and imaging industries for the same reason it initially had importance - screen printing is still the best technology for laying down ink on a wide variety of materials. What seems like an obvious advancement - digital printing - remains a complex technology, and for most textiles, requires stabilization and complex pre-treatment of fabric before printing, while yielding inferior consistency and durability in many scenarios. Take a quick look around you, and we bet you'll see a dozen or more screen printed items in the same room you're in right now. In addition to other items, today, whether you're buying a t-shirt at Target, or picking up the latest t-shirt for your kid's school event, it is likely screen printed. Screen printing can easily make your latest custom t-shirt possible because it can easily happen at different scales, so you can get that special shirt for ten soccer players, tens of employees, or ten-thousand conference attendees.
At the largest scale, screen printing happens with high speed, continuous rotary printers where the screen is attached to a rotary drum and the ink is pressed through the screen from the inside. These high speed machines are often used for manufacturing tens of thousands of items or very large materials, and are estimated to account for 65% of the screen printed textile industry today.
As with other screen printers, at OpportuniTees, we use several screen printing presses that allow us to produce smaller custom jobs cost effectively for our customers. While these presses do not produce product as fast as the biggest rotary presses, they allow screen printers to easily change screens and overlay many different colors that make nearly any custom job possible.
What this means though, is that custom screen printing is an art. The art comes into play in assessing your artwork, identifying how to best print the image for a number of factors - the best detail, the best feel and finish on a fabric, and the best durability - and then applying the ink with the right skill and consistency. Many different screens exist, and the best screen for your artwork, the ideal inks, and the fabric of your product vary widely. Moreover, each of these screens require the exposure of an image onto an "emulsified screen" with different settings. Each of these issues requires tremendous expertise. Finally, it then requires serious skill and expertise to apply the ink by hand through these screens and onto the fabric of your product . That custom silk screen tee shirt you might be wearing today was likely individually touched by the hand of some screen printer, and it is his or her skill that made it turn out like it did.
With custom screen printing for apparel being a specialized skill and bit of an art, the expertise and skill of your printer is the key to a good print job and your successful event or message. To figure out whether you're in the right place, when choosing a screen printer, ask yourself a few questions:
At OpportuniTees, this is where we're the expert, and we're ready to help you get your job done right.