One of the most popular methods of creating elegantly patterned silks, screen printing is a traditional, high precision printing process used by many merchants and manufacturers all over the world.
Screen printing has been used for over 100 years, in both the commercial industry for printing images and designs on to clothing and accessories, and in the artistic sector to bring creative designs to life.
This traditional method of printing still remains one of the most popular techniques to date, and there are tons of great reasons why screen printing is often more favourable than alternative procedures such as digital printing. In this article, you will find out everything you need to know about screen printing and why we continue to offer it as one of our core services here at Biddle Sawyer Silks.
What is screen printing on silk?
Screen printing is essentially the process of transferring a design on to a plain piece of silk, with the use of manmade screens and ink. It’s a slow and meticulous process, and one which requires a high level of skill, but the stunning results can’t be beaten.
Beautifully patterned silks can be found everywhere from home furnishings to the garments sported by high-end runway models, but these silks all started out as plain fabric before they were transformed via printing.
Why is screen printing used?
Screen printing is popular for the high quality look and feel it typically generates in its finished products. The thick layer of ink applied sits on top of the fabric as opposed to soaking in to the material, and generally offers a sharp, smooth finish.
Natural fabrics are the ideal candidate for screen printing, as they tend to absorb the ink much better than manmade fabrics – so for this, screen printing works perfectly on silk. Despite advances in technology meaning that we are now able to print much faster and more efficiently through digital printing, screen printing very much still has its place due to the outcome it offers.
The step-by-step screen printing process
Screen printing can be carried out in a number of different ways, but the basic technique remains the same. The lengthy process involves various steps to achieve the desired results. Below is a general outline of the screen printing method.
1. Design creation
First and foremost, the design to be printed on to the fabric is printed out on to a transparent acetate film, which will be used to create the stencil, or screen.
2. Preparing the screen
The method gets its name from the use of a screen to print the design. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach here, and choosing the right mesh screen involves assessing the complexity of the design to be printed, and the material which is to be printed on.
Once the mesh screen has been chosen, it is then coated with a layer of light-reactive emulsion.
3. Exposing the emulsion
The transparent acetate film which holds the design is then carefully placed onto the emulsion-coated mesh screen. This is placed under a very bright light, which causes the light-reactive emulsion to harden and develop. This is an important step in creating the design imprint, as any areas of the screen which are covered by the design will remain in liquid form.
This step becomes more complicated when multiple colours are involved in the design, as separate screens must be used for each separate colour. This is why the high precision process requires highly skilled printers, as each stencil must be carefully designed per colour, and then precisely lined up to ensure the final design is an exact match to the original.
4. Creation of the stencil
The screen must be exposed under the light for a set amount of time, before the emulsion has hardened on any areas that are not covered by the design. In order to leave a clear imprint of the design on the screen, any emulsion which has remained in liquid form will be carefully rinsed away.
Once the screen is in a position where only hardened emulsion remains, it will be carefully dried and the printer will be able to make any necessary corrections manually, to ensure the imprint is as precise as possible. This will mean that the printer is now left with a completed stencil ready to be used for print.
5. Preparation for print
The silk to be printed on is laid down flat on the printing press (we use an automatic rotary carousel printer), and the screen is carefully placed on top in the desired position, ready to print.
This is when the printed design finally starts to come to life! The screen is lowered down onto the printing board, above the piece of silk. A thick layer of ink in the desired colour is applied to the top of the screen and a squeegee (a rubber blade attached to a long metal handle) is used to drag the ink across the whole length of the screen, covering the full stencil.
The way this works, is that the ink is pressed through the open areas of the stencil and transfers on to the silk underneath, leaving an ink pattern in the desired design. This can be repeated as many times as necessary using the same stencil, if multiple products are to be created.
Once the order is complete and the stencil is no longer required, the screen will be washed using a special fluid to remove the hardened emulsion, leaving the mesh ready to be used again to produce new stencils.
7. Quality check & finishing
Finally, the ink is cured by passing the silk through a special dryer to reveal a smooth, colourfast finish design. The final product will be checked and thoroughly washed to remove all traces of emulsion residue and ensure it’s ready for use.
Screen printing v digital printing
The main difference between the methods of screen printing and digital printing is that screen printing requires print making, as opposed to straight forward replication of a design as with digital printing.
Unlike digital printing, screen printing is done completely by hand from start to finish and requires an extensive set-up procedure prior to each print. Due to this, screen printing is generally reserved for larger bulk orders to ensure that it’s a cost-effective process. For smaller order quantities, digital printing is generally the preferred method.
Digital printing transfers designs on to silk using a specialised fabric printer, which works in a similar way to standard inkjet printing. Due to the streamline technology involved, digital printing is typically more effective than screen printing when working with complex, detailed designs that involve multiple colours. While screen printing does allow for more than one colour to be used, there is a limit to the amount of colours that can be used.
The use of computerised images as opposed to needing to create individual stencils in this case means digital printing is better for reproducing more photographic designs.
The benefits of screen printing
Screen printing is the preferred method for many manufacturers and designers for a number of reasons, including the following…
Despite the limitations of using multiple colours in any one design with screen printing, the colour output that this method gives is one of its main benefits.
The application of a thick layer of ink directly on to the fabric in screen printing typically produces far more intense and vibrant results than the CMYK-style dots of colour used in digital printing. Therefore, if a print is needed to be particularly bold and bright, screen printing will be a better choice for achieving the desired results.
In a similar way, if a printed design requires a raised texturised effect, this is something that only screen printing is able to offer. The thick layers of ink applied allow a design to achieve a 3D look and feel.
As we mentioned previously, screen printing is generally reserved only for large quantities due to the high set up costs.
However, this can also work in its favour as a benefit – as once the stencil has been created, it can then be used time and time again for hundreds, or even thousands, of the same print. This means that the lengthy set up time only applies in the initial creation of the screen, and repeat designs tend to run quicker and more efficiently going forward.
Screen printed silk at Biddle Sawyer Silks
Here at Biddle Sawyer Silks, we have been screen printing for over 50 years and the method is engrained in our heritage. All screen printing projects are completed in-house at our factory in Macclesfield, operated by our sister company Adamley Textiles.
We have mastered the process from start to finish, and produce on average 60,000 metres of silk every year in our production room which is fully equipped with 6 printing tables. Operating an artisanal production process, we produce all of our colours and dyes in-house, which also means we are able to offer an exact match dye colour to any client’s submitted design.
As screen printing requires high set-up costs, we are only able to offer this service to clients purchasing larger order quantities (minimum order 200m/colour). Find out more about our screen printing service here.
Want to know how our order process works? Check out our how to order page.
To find out more about our screen printing services and how to work with us, please get in touch.