What is Screen Printing and How Does it Work?

So you may have heard of screen printing; perhaps you’ve heard the term or seen it on a sign.  But, what is it really and what is it for?  You might be surprised at the number of everyday items that were screen printed.   Below, we’ll try to answer those questions and maybe suggest a few uses of your own.

What the Screen Printing Process Is — and What It Isn’t

The screen printing process, also known as silk screening, is thought to be about fifteen hundred years old originating in China.  The silkscreen printing being done at the time involved basically the same materials and tools still used today.  Let’s say you want to add a big yellow and blue flower to your new favorite t-shirt.  Screen printing uses a screen, or more accurately, a stencil, which is applied to your t-shirt.  Then a thick dye is applied over the stencil in say, yellow.  Next, a different stencil is applied and the process repeats.  This can be done multiple times, however, only one color is applied at a time.  To finish, the ink is allowed to dry and there you have your new flower t-shirt.

What separates screen printing ink from other art forms is that the ink quite literally rests on top of the fabric, as opposed to dying the fabric where the actual fibers change color.  If you’ve seen the famous silk panels on oriental screens in movies, you’ve seen the original silkscreen process at work.

Emerging Technology Commercialized Screen Printing

Other methods of printing have emerged over the years, such as iron-on decals, digital garment printing and inkjet to garment printing.  Each differs from screen printing and have their own pros and cons. Iron on transfers, as they were popularly called really reached their peak in the 1970’s and the counterculture movement.  T-shirts became less of an undergarment and more of a fashion statement.  Especially among the younger generation, the opportunity to advertise your favorite band or beliefs on your chest became the go-to article of clothing.  These decals would be printed on special heat-activated backing, so you could match up your favorite shirt with your favorite logo right in the comfort of your own home, just using an iron. Unfortunately, they weren’t very durable and often fell off after a few washes.

DTG, or direct to garment printing is a relatively new printing technology that merges computer printer technology with fabric.  Originally known as ink-jet to garment printing, the advantage over screen printing is that theoretically, it can print up to sixteen million colors in one pass.  Think of it as putting a t-shirt in your printer, designing custom artwork on your computer and literally printing your new t-shirt.


Branding Apparel can be great for a variety of occasions such as job fairs, trade shows, or making sure your team looks official at all times. Embroidery and screen printing are both very good options for a variety of projects. Once you decide what the item is that you want to put your logo or design onto, you’ll be able to better decide which method to choose. For more information about NE Design’s custom design screen printing, embroidery services, branding, t-shirts, and apparel services, or for answers to general questions please contact us, or call us directly at (617) 247 2028!

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