A History of Screen Printing: Tracing Our Industry’s Roots
Today’s screen printing shops are filled with advanced technology and sophisticated screen printing equipment. You separate your colors on computers and make your stencils with top-quality HD machines. You can find inks custom formulated to achieve just about any desired effect, and oftentimes, prints are laid down by automatic presses. You flash cure with high-powered units and cure our garments on automatic conveyor dryers. When you watch the process from start to finish, it surely seems fully modernized. You might be surprised to know just how far back the roots of today’s modern, high-tech industry can be traced. Here’s how screen printing transformed from a simple, pre-historic artform to the fully automated process creating products that have found their way into every office, every home and every nook of modern society.
The earliest roots of screen printing
There is no one early root of screen printing. Rather, experts say the process evolved from prehistoric artistic and cloth-decorating technique into the high-tech industry we recognize today. Using stencils to create imagery has been done since man began painting; there is evidence that some prehistoric cave men used stencils to make their rough imagery. In France and Spain, stencils were held against cave walls, and prehistoric paints were blown through a straw-like device to form images that have lasted for centuries. The same technique has long been used throughout the Pacific Islands for decorating cloth and clothing; modern batik prints and Hawaiian shirts both have their roots in this type of apparel decorating.
Most historians agree that the first time screens were used to decorate fabrics was in Japan and China in the first and second century. In China, delicate screens were woven from silk, and in Japan, they were woven of human hair. Images in waterproof waxed paper were sandwiched between layers of the mesh to block out the desired designs, and stiff-bristled brushes were used to force ink through the screens.
Screen printing made its way to Europe in the 17th or 18th century. There, screen printing and stenciling were used to make common items such as playing cards. They also were used to make elaborate wallpapers and décor for extremely wealthy upper classes. The process became more common as silk became more readily available from China, but it remained an art used to decorate fabrics, décor and other items for the upper classes; it was a far cry from the mass-production, readily available printing we know today.
At the same time screen printing was being introduced to Europe and the American colonies, flocking — a process still used today — was used to add interesting textured designs to wallpapers and fabrics. Stencils were used to apply adhesive in a specific pattern to a substrate, and wood dust or other material was sprinkled onto the adhesive to produce a lasting textural design. In fact, some examples of American colonial flocking still can be found in museums and early colonial homes.
In the late 1880s in Europe, the process truly began to take shape. Often to recreate handwriting, stencils were etched into wax paper and secured between screens. Just as it’s done today, rubber squeegees or rollers were used to force ink through these handwriting stencils to producethe final image. This technique was used in the United Kingdom under the name Cyclostyle and in the United States under the name Mimeograph.
While all of these technologies and techniques undoubtedly inspired modern-day screen printing, it wouldn’t be until the early 20th century that modern day process would truly be “invented.” And once it was invented and embraced as a decorating technique, it would go through a cycle of innovation to become the industry it is today.
The early days of modern screen printing
From its earliest roots, screen printing would be revolutionized through the 20th century into what we know it as today: A way to quickly and easily produce images on a variety of items, as well as an art form that allows artists to create unique, interesting imagery on a variety of substrates. As with most modern-day technologies, the process evolved rapidly throughout the 20th century due to industrial and technological advances so that it could be used to cheaply and efficiently produce items for mass consumption.
The first screen printing presses
Englishman Samuel Simon is often credited as the father of modern-day screen printing, due to a patent he filed in 1907. In reality, many printers were filing patents around the same time for the types of machines that would become today’s presses. Perhaps the earliest design to reflect today’s carousel machines was the machine patented by Antoine Véricel in 1902. Véricel’s patent was for a carousel-style press intended for multi-colored designs on textiles.
While the credited inventors of screen printing were European, the process truly took hold and evolved in the United States. American companies began manufacturing and marketing screen printed images in the early 1900s. The earliest items to take hold would be felt pennants. In San Francisco, the Brant & Garner Company — later the Velvetone Poster Co. — marketed signs, posters and booklet covers, and would begin to make screen printed advertising displays. Brant & Garner competitor Selectasine, founded in 1915, would create large-format, multi-sheet prints. From there, Selectasine would go on to market the screen printing process itself, selling the earliest mass-market presses, which used hand-cut stencils and cylinders to lay down prints.
The growing popularity of screen printing
In the United States, screen printing would expand as an industry rapidly before World War I. Once the war was done, the technology would spread to Canada and Australia, and by the early 1920s, it was becoming popular in Europe, as well. Through the Great Depression and World War II, the United States government would commission artists to make posters that would be mass-produced via screen printing. Printers would realize that the technique could be used on a variety of substrates, including:
- Felt pennants
- Glasses and bottles
- Enamel signs
As with many industries, screen printing saw another boom during World War II, as governments used it to decorate military apparel, military gear like first-aid kits, propaganda posters and even decals for aircraft. With technology starting to noticeably advance, it would be during World War II that the first screen printed circuits would be made.
The modernization of screen printing
While the early 20th century brought about the true advent of modern screen printing, advances in technology kept the trade growing and evolving into today’s modern shops and popular screen printed apparel and items. These innovations have focused on making the process easier, faster and cheaper, as well as on expanding what could be done with screen printing technology.
Using phototechnology to create a better screen printing stencil
Good stencils are essential to high quality, efficient screen printing. Stencils need to be able to stand up to the ink and the squeegee run after run. Early hand-cut stencils allowed printers to create the designs they desired. As presses made laying down ink easier, printers also began to look for ways to make more detailed stencils more easily. In the industry’s early days, photo-reactive chemicals used actinic light and glues and gelatin, along with the hardening traits of potassium, sodium or ammonium bichromate to produce durable stencils. Later, chromic acid salt sensitized emulsions were used to make photo-reactive stencils. Today’s printers use safer, less toxic photo sensitizers to make their stencils, but these modern chemicals trace their roots back to these early roots.
The modern screen printing press
Undoubtedly, when you envision a screen printing shop, you see a rotating carousel press at the core of its operation. The modern press as we think of it today way invented by artist and innovator Michael Vasilantone in 1960. Vasilantone created his press as a way to decorate bowling shirts. Vasilantone patented his carousel press in 1967 and began marketing the machine to manufacturers. Several purchased the technology and began producing and selling presses. Modern screen printing as we know it truly took off at this point, as entrepreneurs began purchasing their own presses so they could create and sell custom t-shirts, athletic wear, hats, mugs, glasses and more. The budding industry was bolstered in the 1960s as it was embraced by artists and trend setters; Andy Warhol’s famous image of Marilyn Monroe is a fantastic example of screen printing’s cultural impact in the 1960s. While the development of the automatic screen printing machine began with the first patents in the early 1900s, its refinement and widespread adoption would not begin until the second half of the century. With the increasing automation of the screen printing process, even small businesses could start decorating garments in volumes impossible to match with manual machines.
Plastisol: An ink for modern screen printing
Even as screen printing was emerging as a pop-culture phenomenon in the 1960s, it was still a mysterious art form. Water-based ink was the only option; these inks were pale on garments; they dried on the screen, making them difficult to work with; and printed garments had to be handled carefully until the ink dried and adhered to the garment fabric. Screen printers were few and far between, as the art was difficult to master and generally had to be learned through apprenticeship.
Just as the carousel press was revolutionizing screen printing, there was another innovation that would shake up the industry and help screen printers scale their businesses so screen printed goods could be massed produced: Plastisol ink. Plastisol ink is made of PVC particles suspended in a plasticizer. The viscosity of the ink allows it to fill a stencil and hold its shape until cured, and once cured, it creates a flexible print that bonds with the substrate for durable designs. With plastisol inks, printers had a thicker, easier to use ink that wouldn’t dry on the screens during long press runs, allowing them to mass produce garments without worries. Because the ink sits on top of the substrate, screen printers now could produce vibrant designs even on dark garments. And with the thicker ink that wouldn’t bleed, screen printers could try their hand at more intricate, even photorealistic designs. As soon as the printed substrates were sent through a dryer and the ink was cured, finished screen prints could be stacked or packaged for shipping.
The continued evolution of screen printing
Those who have set foot in a modern print shop know screen printing has continued to evolve since the industry took off with carousel presses and plastisol inks in the 1960s. Graphic designs are created on computers, and film positives are made in house, with high-powered exposure units used to burn stencils. Mid- to large-scale screen printing shops now use high-tech automatic presses. These presses feature computer controls that allow them to precisely control all aspects of their jobs. Someone is needed to load and offload substrates, but the press itself preforms the entire printing process. Ink technology continues to advance, as well. Plastisol ink remains king, but advances in making water-based and discharge inks easier to use are causing a resurgence in the use of these types of inks. Specialty inks allow screen printers to experiment with even more effects, thanks to puff ink, glow-in-the-dark inks, glitter inks and more. With the evolution of screen printing technology, the sky is the limit for printers looking to produce unique and interesting designs to meet their customers’ needs or pique their customers’ interest with innovative designs they never could have imaged.
And it’s not just the machinery and supplies that have evolved. New technology also has brought many new uses for screen printing. Textiles, posters and promotional items such as koozies, pens, glasses, mugs and key chains still dominate the demand for the industry, but the industry goes far beyond that. Screen printing is used to decorate CDs and DVDs, to create the defrosting elements on car windows, to establish the details of medical devices and even to print circuit boards. In short, the humble screen print that was established as an art form and a way to decorate apparel has become an important technology that allows many modern innovations to work and to be mass produced quickly and at an affordable price.
The future of screen printing
Screen printing’s origins are truly humble. From primitive paintings on cave walls to elaborate but prehistoric textile decoration, it has evolved into an important part of modern life, from the apparel we wear to the technologies we rely upon. The technologies used to make these products continue to evolve to make printing easier, cheaper, faster and more accessible. At the same time, more and more uses continue to be found for screen printing technology. Undoubtedly, when it comes to apparel, décor and marketing items, screen printing will continue to evolve to keep up with trends and stay relevant. And new inks, techniques and technologies inevitably will emerge that will allow printers to create designs and effects they have not yet thought of. Just as the earliest screen printers couldn’t have imagined the technology we use today or prints we create, certainly we can’t imagine how it will evolve and how it will be fully utilized in the future. However, we can be sure that screen printing is a technology and a process that will remain ingrained in our daily lives.
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