We’re all familiar with the process of screen printing. From startups to fully automatic shops, the screen printing industry is diverse and filled with community and competition. But at its core, what is screen printing? How did we get here? In this blog, we’ll look at that history and talk about the future for screen printing.
Photo by Golden Press Studio
The dictionary defines screen printing as “the technique of creating a picture or pattern by forcing ink or metal onto a surface through a screen of fine material.” Screen printing has been around for centuries, and has evolved in many ways. Let’s talk about the history of T-shirt screen printing.
Screen printing originated during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) in China. It was their way of transferring designs to fabrics. The Japanese, however, were one of the first countries to create screen printing art through recognizable means. They cut stencils out of paper, created mesh screens with woven human hair, and pushed ink through those screens using stiff brushes.
Screen printing made its way to Europe in the 18th century. But the art form wasn’t widely accepted. Printers in France had been using a similar technique to familiar screen printing earlier, in the 17th century. They used silk screens to print on fabric, but it didn’t catch on until much later, when silk mesh could be traded from Asia.
Squeegees were created as a method of pulling or pushing ink through these stencils. With their creation in the early 20th century, screen printing could be more exact and easier. Then, three men (Roy Beck, Charles Peter, and Edward Owens) introduced photo-image stencils to screen printing. This revolutionized the industry.
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In 1938, a group formed known as the National Serigraph Society. They coined the word “serigraphy.” Seri means “silk” in Latin, and graphein means “to draw” in Greek. This was a way for the group to set themselves apart. Their work was art, not simply a commercial process.
By the 1960s, serigraphy was used by pop artists such as Peter Blake, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg. Perhaps the most recognizable form of serigraphy art is Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych. And in 1960, inventor Michael Vasilantone created the first silk screen machine. It’s evolved over time into the press we’ve all come to know and love.
Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych.” 1962.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN “SILK SCREENING” AND “SCREEN PRINTING”
In the early days of screen printing, the mesh screens used to push ink through to the fabric were made of silk. In modern times, the silk mesh has been replaced with other synthetic fabrics. The most common is polyester.
If you have a customer come to you and ask for “silk screened” shirts, don’t worry. The term means the same as screen printing. The three terms “serigraphy,” “silk screening” and “screen printing” are all interchangeable. The term “silk screening” is still commonly used.
WHO SCREEN PRINTS?
According to IBISWorld, the screen printing market sits at $7.9 billion USD. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the market has shrunk from around $9 billion USD in 2019. However, the industry is expected to grow 1.8% in 2021.
In 2021, the research site reported 11,094 individual screen printing shops in the United States. This number has increased from 0.5% in 2020. California boasts the highest number of businesses, stacking up to 688 in total. Texas comes in second with 411 screen printing businesses, and Florida takes bronze, coming in at 376 shops in the state.
Chart by IBISWorld
T-shirt screen printing is alive and well in many other states. Take Alabama, for instance. Stark Screen Printing is doing big things in Phenix City, printing 100-200 shirts a day. Daniela Murphy, owner of the company, has watched it grow from the beginning.
“I was just going through shirts from what I printed about a year ago,” Daniela said. “I was looking at them and I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe how far I’ve come and how good my quality is now compared to when I first started.’”
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Photo by Stark Screen Printing
Press or Dye, run by Ashley Corr (aka Chainsaw Betty) and Ashley Stone, opened its doors in June 2020. In just a few short months, the Nashville-based pair has gained a huge following. Sometimes, a garment will sell out within hours of its release. Their artistic, creative approach to dyed garments and printed tees resonate with many.
“We can honestly say with 100% confidence we enjoy every part of it, and we can't wait to see what the future has in store,” Chainsaw Betty said.
Photo by Press or Dye
If we mentioned every print shop thriving in the industry today, we’d be here forever. Screen printing is only growing. Printers are constantly experimenting, learning, and honing in on their skills. Artists, designers, and makers are what keep this industry thriving.