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Taking a Quick Look at the History of Screen Printing

Screen printing is a diverse process that produces beautiful products. It is commonly used in everything from advertising to customized clothing. The history of screen printing is diverse and rich, and it has allowed us to get to where we are today.History of Screen Printing

What Is Screen Printing?

Screen printing involves pushing ink through a mesh screen to the design of a stencil. It is a reasonably simple process and well-loved for its versatility. It is relatively easy to adjust technique and material being printed, and stencils can be created in a number of ways. The number of available colors is very broad, and the final results are very vibrant when compared with other methods of putting ink to fabric, not to mention fabrics that have been screen printed will not wash out.

In order to understand the history of screen printing, it is important to understand what the process entails. The first step is to create the design: what words or images are going to be printed and in which colors? Next the right screen is chosen and is affixed to a frame, usually made of metal or wood. The mesh screen is coated with emulsion that hardens when it is exposed to a specific light. The emulsion creates the stencil on the mesh screen. 

After a few touch ups, and once the materials being printed on are set up on a printing board, the screen is then lowered to the printing board, and the ink is added to the top. The printer then uses a squeegee to pull the ink across the entire screen. The pressure applied with the squeegee pushes the ink through the mesh of the screen that is not covered with emulsion, transferring the image onto the material being printed. To finish up, the emulsion is washed away, and the ink is cured by putting the garment through a dryer. 

The History of Screen Printing

The history of screen printing is filled with many mysteries, which is common of practices as ancient as screen printing. However, though some uncertainties remain, screen printing’s journey across the world is a fascinating one.History of Screen Printing

When Was Screen Printing Invented?

Credit for where the history of screen printing begins lies with ancient China in the Song Dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279 CE. The process was used to apply designs onto fabric from the very beginning. The introduction of utilizing a stencil may have been of Japanese origin as screen printing methods began to disseminate across Asia. 

Japan already had a rich history of block printing with paints applied by hand, and the introduction of a new art form appears to have been readily adopted. The Japanese woven their mesh screens from human hair, and stencils were cut from paper. To force the ink through the screens, early printers used stiff brushes.  

Across the Pond

As the process made its way into Europe in the 17th Century, screen printing did not gain ready popularity. The French seemed to be the most open-minded recipients of the technique, but while some elements caught on, others did not. The use of stiff brushes remained consistent, but a new mesh medium took precedence over human hair. 

The French instead began stretching silk over frames, introducing the concept of a “silk screen.” As silk and other textiles from the East became more accessible commodities in the 19th century, the process truly gained traction and popularity across Europe.History of Screen Printing

Making the Transition to Modern Screen Printing

The squeegee was introduced to the process in the early 1900s, replacing traditional brushes. This innovation allowed printers to pull ink through the mesh of printing screens more evenly. Photo-imaged stencils introduced by Charles Peter, Roy Beck, and Edward Owens also changed the face of the industry around that time. These early years of the twentieth century shifted the focus of the art form toward commercial replication.

Artists such as Andy Warhol, Peter Blake, and Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960s solidified the association of screen printing and modern art. At this same time, Michael Vasilantone (an artist and inventor) developed a rotatable multi-color garment screen printing machine. This advancement in screen printing technology resulted in a boom in printed T-shirts. The machine is still in use today.

Screen Printing Today

The history of screen printing has led us to how the process is used around the world today. In the United States alone, customized printed T-shirts make up more than half of all screen printing done around the country. 

Perhaps the most important mysteries about screen printing include what is yet to come. The process to adapt, offering an innovative method that allows business owners, artists, and everyone else to express their unique visions through customized printing.