What is Screen Printing in the T-Shirt Industry?

To keep things simple for those of you that want a short working idea of what it is, screen printing (or silk-screening) is a printing technique that traditionally uses a polyester woven mesh that is coated with a light sensitive emulsion that, once exposed to light, hardens to make a stencil. The areas not exposed to light are washed away allowing ink to be transferred through to the substrate (in this case a T-shirt). A roller or squeegee is usually used to force the ink through the screen stencil.

The first records of screen printing recorded in history appeared about 1000 years ago in China and wasn’t introduced to the West until the 18th Century. First patented in England in 1906, the process of screen printing has changed a lot over the last 100 years as companies and individual worked to refine the procedures into more efficient processes.

Printers usually use a screen press for higher efficiency. There are a number of manufacturers that offer cost effective yet sophisticated printing presses. Some of these presses are automated but most are manual due to cost concerns. A few that are industrial-grade-automatic printers require minimal manual labor and increase production significantly.

Traditionally, designs on garments, such as T-Shirts, has always been done with screen printing; recently, new methods and technologies have become available. Digital printing has overcome a large majority of the short run market. With machines that can basically be considered glorified task specific modified ink jet printers. Screen printing, however, continues to do its share of garment printing due to its cost effectiveness in large quantities. Digital printing directly onto garments is referred to as DTG or DTS representing Direct To Garment or Direct To Shirt. DTG or DTS direct printing has advantages and disadvantages compared to screen printing. As noted above, the main advantage of DTG/DTS is its ability to do short, small quantity print-on-demand runs but also has a higher number of visually perceived colors with good photo reproduction and photo-like print. Screen printing requires skilled operation and often times artistic and innovative interjection on behalf of the screen printer to achieve a quality print but DTG/DTS can be run by just about anyone with nominal computer skills. Screen printing also has the disadvantage of involving several independent time consuming steps that DTG/DTS doesn’t have to. Screen printing is a high production process though and is definitely more cost effective in larger runs. Screen printing also has the advantage of a large selection of different types of inks that are all considerably less expensive per print than DTG/DTS inks. So, essentially, screen printing is usually the best option for large orders where durability is a concern but digital printing is the champion when it comes to short run photographic and colorful designs.

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