Screen printing is the process of transferring a design through a stenciled mesh screen, and each screen is used to transfer a different color to create a vibrant design. This is a great technique for creating bold and unique artwork. It’s widely used in various industries such as textiles and fashion.
But how do you screen print on different types of fabric? To screen print on different types of fabric, there are several factors to consider, including the fiber’s construction, whether it’s woven or knit, and its thread weight. Certain fabrics, like cotton or silk, are easier to screen print than others.
While screen printing is a fairly straightforward process, there are a few things to note if you’re working on different types of fabric. In this article, let’s learn more about how to screen print on various types of fabric to get the best results possible.
What Is Screen Printing?
Screen printing is used to transfer a design onto a flat surface, typically paper or fabric, but you can also see this technique used in printing on wood, plastic, or metal as well.
Before screen printing, stencils are first printed on mesh screens; each screen is then used to apply one single color on the surface. You can use one screen for a simple monochromatic design or four to five screens for a full color spectrum.
Screen printing is a popular technique, especially in textile production, because it produces vibrant colors, even on darker fabrics. Since the surface is coated with ink during the printing process, the colors appear with better quality without losing any design details.
As you can imagine, one or multiple stencils need to be crafted for each design, so this method works best for mass production of a design since it allows a printer to reproduce a design or pattern multiple times without losing color quality in print.
The complexity of the process, especially the stencil production, means that there’s a limit to how many colors the printer can use. However, you would be surprised at how vibrant the design can look just by using a few primary colors in the screen printing process – it’s comparable to digital printing.
How To Screen Print
Although screen printing sounds simple enough, there are actually a few different methods to achieve the same results. Below are some basic steps that screen printing requires:
1. Creating The Design
The first step is to have a design you would like to transfer onto your surface. This design is then printed on a transparent acetate film, which will then be used to create the stencil.
2. Creating The Stencil
With a mesh screen suitable to the design and the surface being printed, you will need to coat the screen with light-reactive emulsion, which will cure under bright light.
The acetate film, which contains the design, will then lay on top of the coated mesh screen. Afterward, the two layers are exposed to bright light, causing the emulsion to cure in the negative space (the space covered by the film will stay liquid).
After that, you can wash the excess emulsion off to reveal the stencil. This can then be used to transfer ink onto your surface.
Depending on how many colors you want to employ in printing your design, you will need to repeat this process to create as many stencils.
3. Printing Your Design
Now you can use the stencils to transfer the ink to your design. Your surface should lay flat on a printing board; then, the screen is applied to the surface.
You can then add ink on top of the screen and use a squeegee to spread the ink around so that it can be transferred through the mesh onto the surface underneath.
If you are using multiple screens, then you can repeat this step to transfer the other colors onto your surface.
The ink will need to be cured before your garment can be used. This can usually be done by running the garment through a dryer.
After the mesh screen has served its purpose, you can use it again! Just wash the emulsion off using a washing liquid, making sure that all the hard emulsion has been washed off so that it doesn’t affect the next design. Then, you can reuse the mesh screen for other designs following the same steps!
Fabric For Screen Printing – What To Consider
Screen printing is a very versatile method that can work well for almost every type of material, but of course, each type of fabric has its own caveats. To get the best final look for your screen print, you will need to understand the different characteristics of your fabric.
Your fabric’s fiber construction is probably the most important factor in determining the feel and printability of your garment.
Common fibers you will encounter with screen printing:
- 100% Cotton T-shirts – These are commonly used in the screen printing industry as they are cheaper and more durable, and cotton works very well with ink. However, these are often very basic options seen in promotional products.
- Ringspun Cotton – This is a higher quality material that has a softer feel compared to the cheaper 100% cotton mentioned above. Although this is more expensive, it’s usually more popular because it has a very luxurious feel. Similar to 100% cotton, this type of fiber works very well with screen printing ink.
- Cotton Blends – Cotton can be blended with other synthetic materials, such as polyester, to enhance the fabric’s durability, stretch, and moisture-wicking abilities. However, depending on the blend, this type of fiber may not work well with water-based ink since the ink can shift around or bleed during curing.
- Polyester/Synthetic Fibers – Similarly to cotton blends, synthetic fabrics are quite popular because they are inexpensive, lightweight, and have superior moisture-wicking abilities. However, synthetic fibers don’t “absorb” the ink very well, causing issues during the curing process.
2. Woven Vs. Knit
How the fabric is constructed, specifically whether the fibers are woven or knitted together, can affect the quality of the screen print.
A knitted garment is made using a single long piece of yarn, which is looped into and out of itself. Knitted fabrics often have a soft and slightly stretchy appearance. Most t-shirts and sweatshirts are made out of knitted fabrics.
When screen printing with a knitted fabric, it’s worth noting the degree of stretch that the fabric offers. A light stretch is okay, but if a fabric is too stretchy, the print won’t be able to stretch with it, and the ink may crack, causing the design to look distorted.
On the other hand, woven fabrics are usually constructed using perpendicular rows of yarn that are interwoven. There are many weaving styles that create different woven designs. Denim, canvas, and linen are popular types of woven fabric.
Woven fabric can have a light stretch or is not stretchy at all, so they usually work well with screen printing.
3. Thread Thickness
The thread weight is a vital factor that affects the feel of a garment. The thread weight refers to the thickness of the individual yarn that makes up the woven or knitted garment.
The thicker the thread, the lower the thread count, the stiffer and coarser the fabric will feel. On the other hand, if the thread is very tiny and the thread count is high, the fabric will drape well and feel very luxurious.
You can also easily compare the thread weight of a garment by looking at its single count. This is the number of fiber plies that make up a single thread. Usually, a basic cotton t-shirt has around 18-20 singles. A luxury garment has around 30-40 singles.
The higher thread count makes a garment more superior due to its ability to adapt to, drape over, and hug the wearer’s body. A higher thread count also makes up a smoother surface for screen printing, which will allow the design to appear more vibrant and detailed.
Screen Printing On Different Types Of Fabric
If you have a basic understanding of fiber composition and fabric construction, then you can get to screen printing. Of course, different types of fibers have different abilities to absorb screen print ink, so let’s take a look at ways to screen print with popular types of fibers below.
1. Cotton Fabrics
As we have mentioned, there are many, many types of cotton fabrics, and some are definitely superior to others.
Types of cotton fabric:
- Carded – Carding is a very basic process used to remove impurities from raw cotton. This just means that the cotton is very cheap and barely processed at all, resulting in a coarse fabric.
- Combed – This is the next step after carding, where the fibers are combed to even out the length and get them going in the same direction. Fabric made from combed cotton is a little softer than carded cotton, but it’s still very basic cotton.
- Open-Ended – This cotton is the basic level of cotton fabric. It has a loose-knitted outer surface that allows the cotton fibers to stick out. This means that a t-shirt with open-end cotton will have a rougher feel, causing textures in the screen print.
- Ring-Spun – We’ve mentioned ring-spun cotton previously. This is very high-end cotton that has been heavily processed to create a very smooth and soft fabric with a premium feel.
Regardless of the type of cotton, cotton fabric, in general, is still preferred by many screen printers because it is still a natural fabric that is more durable and will absorb the ink more readily.
One thing to note when screen printing with cotton is that the fabric tends to shrink under high heat. As we have mentioned, the last step of screen printing requires curing the ink by popping the garment in the dryer. If your cotton hasn’t been pre-shrunk, it may shrink during this process.
Before you screen print with cotton, make sure to wash your garment and run it through a cycle in the dryer first. This step will help you get rid of any shrinkage before printing. Then, you can proceed with screen printing as normal.
After you have finished transferring the ink onto the cotton fabric surface, make sure to let the ink air dry completely before running it through the dryer at low heat to help cure the ink. Alternatively, you can also bake the garment in the oven at low heat to cure the ink.
Then, make sure you wash the garment again to get rid of any residue before you wear your newly screen-printed cotton T-shirt!
2. Silk Fabrics
Silk is a lovely, luxurious fabric that is also amazing for screen printing. It has a smooth surface with a tightly woven construction that allows the design to be transferred in detail, and similarly to other types of natural fibers, silk also has a superior ability to absorb screen print ink.
However, since silk is a very lightweight fabric, the lightfastness of the colors may not be comparable to cotton or wool. You may get a more subtle look when screen printing with silk.
With a light fabric, keeping the surface flat while transferring the ink can also be quite difficult, so you can also use adhesive to keep the silk in place while you print.
A final thing to note when screen printing with silk is that it can also shrink slightly during the heat curing process. To prevent shrinkage, you should prewash the fabric before screen printing and tumble dry the garment afterward to allow the ink to cure while preventing further shrinkage.
3. Wool Fabrics
Wool and wool blends are lovely natural fabrics to screen print with. Similar to cotton, it can absorb the ink very well, resulting in long-lasting and vibrant details, especially if you have a thicker wool fabric.
If you want to use wool for screen printing, pay attention to the texture of the fabric. If the wool has a very textured look with pronounced fibers, then it may not be suitable for screen printing – the details won’t show up very well, and you may ruin the garment altogether.
Instead, opt for a wool fabric that has a smooth texture, which will compliment detailed designs very well.
Another thing to note is that wool fibers can become matted in the dryer because of the friction caused by the tumbling motion. If you are screen printing with wool, you will need to use another heat curing method, such as baking or specialized tools.
4. Polyester Fabrics
As we have mentioned, polyester and other synthetic fabrics are much less absorbent than natural fabrics, so if you are screen printing with polyester, the ink will not stick to the fabric very well.
To screen print with polyester fabrics, you will need to use additives with the screen print ink just to help the ink grab onto the fibers. With a little help, the colors can become lightfast and durable when you screen print with polyester and other types of synthetic fabric.
5. Jersey Fabrics
Jersey is a popular fabric seen in sportswear, and it is usually a cotton/polyester blend that is very durable and lightweight. Since this is a synthetic blend, jersey fabrics don’t absorb regular plastisol ink very well.
When screen printing with this type of fabric, you can opt to use a water-based ink rather than plastisol ink, which will have a better chance of soaking into the fibers, creating a more durable screen printing result.
Since jersey fabric is also very lightweight, similar to silk, this type of fabric also tends to move around while you print. Using an adhesive to keep the fabric in place while you print will reduce your chance of messing up the design.
Up Next: How To Fringe Fabric