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How does silk-screening work?

One of the many things I have thought of over time is just how amazing it is to print on a sheet of paper, and how hard it is to print on cloth. Anyone can buy a laser printer or an inkjet printer for a couple hundred dollars and print on paper all day long at rates up to 50-60+ sheets a minute. On the other hand, you would be really lucky to print one T-shirt every five minutes -- the machine is also going to cost a lot more, and you will have to do each one by hand!

In the traditional silk-screening approach, you start with a square wooden frame about the size of a T-shirt. Over this frame you tightly stretch a piece of sheer fabric (originally silk, now polyester). This is the screen. Over this sheer fabric you put a thin sheet of plastic into which you have cut holes where you want ink to appear on the T-shirt. You can either cut the holes with a scalpel (an arduous task), or you can use a liquid plastic coating that's sensitive to ultraviolet light and "cut" the holes with light.

Next, you place your T-shirt on a flat board and press the screen onto the fabric. By coating the screen with thick ink using a sponge, you cause the ink to flow through the screen onto the T-shirt. For multi-color designs, you do this multiple times, starting with the lightest color and moving up to the darkest.

This has been done since it originated in China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD) as a way of transferring designs onto fabrics. Japan was one of the first Asian countries to start make recognizable forms of screenprinting. The Japanese used simple stenciling techniques to create imagery on fabric. It has not changed drastically ever since.

The alternative is to use iron-on transfers. You typically find these in T-shirt shops at the beach and other tourist attractions. The shop may offer hundreds of designs, and iron the design you pick onto a T-shirt while you wait. The design is created with thin thermoplastic inks on a paper backing. By heating the design, you bond it to the fabric of the shirt.

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