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Screen printing vs. silk screening: What is the difference?

A lot of people get so confused between “screen printing” and “silk screening” that they don’t even realize it’s the same thing.

Drew McCoy
Drew McCoy
Chief of T-Shirt Express, screen printing expert

That’s right! It’s the same printing method, and it’s been used for centuries and is still considered very popular today.

In this article, we’re going to tackle everything you need to know about screen printing. We’ll delve into the history of the technique, explain a little bit about the printing process, and even give a glimpse into the processes of other printing methods that are also being used today.

A short history of screen printing

The screen printing process can be dated as early as 960 AD. It is believed to have originated during China’s Song Dynasty. Back then, the screen used for screen printing was a silk screen. Hence the name “silk screening”.

The technique was adopted in many Asian countries, such as Japan, and it slowly made its way to the United States and Europe around the 1910s.

In the 1960s, silk screening began gaining more attention, especially in the art world, thanks to Andy Warhol and his silk screen artworks. You may recognize the use of silk screen printing in his iconic Marilyn Diptych.

But as time went on, the value of silk continued to rise. Silk became a luxury and a rarity, and even today, it can be very expensive to get your hands on silk. That’s why modern screens used in screen printing today are now made of synthetic threads such as polyester and nylon.

Because of this, most people no longer used the term “silk screening”. People found that the term “screen printing” was more fitting. And although the material of the screen was changed, the screen printing method stayed the same.

How is the screen printing process done?

Now that we’ve clarified all the confusion about screen printing and silk screening. It’s time we dive into how the screen printing process is done!

Creating the stencil

The screen printing process always starts by creating the stencil. Depending on the design you’re trying to achieve you may need to create more than one stencil.

Usually, if there are plenty of elements in the design you will separate each element by color. Once you’ve separated each element of your design, you need to create a separate stencil for each color group. Make sure that when you layer each stencil on top of each other that the various design elements are properly aligned.

There are two different ways to create a stencil:

Traditional paper stencil

The first and simplest way to do it is to make a traditional paper stencil using freezer paper or adhesive paper. This technique is usually done by beginners or people at home looking to DIY their shirts.

If you want to try out screen printing for yourself this is a great place to start. Simply print out or draw the design that you want, cut out the design neatly, and you now have yourself a traditional paper stencil!

Photo emulsion process

The photo emulsion process is the most common way people in the screen printing industry create stencils. It is also the most accurate way to reproduce your design and has been done since the 1900s. Here’s a step-by-step explanation of the photo emulsion process in four easy steps:

Step 1: Create transparency of the design

Once a design is selected it is printed or drawn out on a transparent overlay. Depending on how detailed the design is you may have to split the design elements on multiple transparent overlays.

Step 2: Coating the screen with photo emulsion

After you’ve selected the design and printed out the layers. You need to select a mesh screen where your stencil will be placed. Again, depending on the details of the design one or more mesh screens will be needed. Each layer should have a screen of its own and all will be coated with emulsion.

Step 3: Drying and exposing the screen

When the emulsion is fully dry, you place the design on top of the mesh screen and expose the mesh to ultraviolet light. The design blocks parts of the mesh from the UV light which will stop the emulsion underneath from hardening.

Step 4: Rinse and finish!

The last step in creating the stencil is to rinse the mesh screen. The parts of the mesh which was covered by the design will have unhardened emulsion which will be rinsed away revealing the stencil underneath.

The screen printing process

Screen printing is a pretty easy and straightforward technique. Once the stencils are on the mesh screens, the t-shirts are laid out flat under the mesh.

Select the desired color of ink and place it onto the mesh screen. Grab a squeegee and spread the ink across the screen. The ink will pass through the stencil and neatly transfer onto the shirt.

This technique can be used on a number of different materials, fabrics, and garments. It is often used for posters as well and not just t-shirts.

What are the different shirt printing methods?

Aside from the screen printing technique, there are tons of other printing methods being used today as well. Here are a few of the most common shirt printing methods:

Direct-to-Garment Digital Printing

Direct to garment or DTG printing is a type of digital printing used to apply different designs, logos, or lettering onto t-shirts. It is quite literally a printer but for shirts. You select a design on the computer, feed a blank shirt into the printer, and it prints the desired design.

The great thing about the DTG method is that you can print almost any design you want, even extremely detailed photographs. But you can’t guarantee that the quality of the photo will be the exact same once it’s printed out on the shirt.

The DTG method is also not the best method if you’re ordering shirts in bulk. It is ideally used for smaller batches of shirts and they can be more expensive.

DTG printers also only work on 100% cotton shirts, the less amount of cotton there is in the fabric the lower the quality of the print. The colors from DTG printers are also said to wash out over time.

Not to mention, there are a limited number of design placements (usually just front and back) because machines aren’t as accurate as when real people are doing it.

Dye Sublimation

Dye sublimation is another type of digital printing that also uses heat transfer printing. The great thing about dye sublimation is that the design isn’t printed on top of the shirt as most shirt printing methods do. With dye sublimation, the design becomes part of the shirt so the ink lasts so much longer.

The problem with dye sublimation is that parts of the shirt that isn’t easy to reach such as the armpit or the area under the sleeves will remain undyed and it can look kind of weird. It also doesn’t work well on fabrics that aren’t made of polyester or have a low polyblend. Plus this method isn’t cheap.

Heat Press Printing

Do you know how some designs on shirts tend to fall apart or crack over time? Those are usually designs made from heat press printing or vinyl heat transfer.

Vinyl heat transfer is a process of heat pressing designs, mainly lettering, cut from vinyl onto a fabric. It’s a common method used for sportswear such as jerseys and sweatshirts.

This method is not an ideal printing technique for several reasons. It makes the fabric feel stiff, the colors look dull on darker colored shirts, and they don’t last very long. It only takes few washes for the print to either fall off or start to crack.

However, there is one advantage to heat press printing. You can put multiple designs onto a shirt and place them anywhere you want. But then again the output almost always looks cheap and it isn’t as durable as other methods.

Why the screen printing method is still the best method

Although there are several digital printing and heat press methods that have been invented over the years. People still find themselves coming back to screen printing. Why is that?

Here are some of the reasons why screen printing is still the best printing technique there is:

It’s best for large orders

Screen printing is one of the most cost-effective methods for large orders. Because each design requires multiple layers of mesh screens it makes sense to go for screen print t-shirts if you’re ordering a single design in bulk. In fact, the more shirts you order, the cheaper it’ll be.

It’s the most versatile printing method

Most digital printing techniques are very limited in the type of fabric it can print on, the type of ink it can use to print designs, and the placement of the designs.

Screen printing is a method that can be used on any fabric, garment, or material. It doesn’t have to be just shirts or clothes, you can use them on posters, wood, glass, or electronics which most digital printing methods can’t do.

Different types of ink can also be used with the screen printing method. It can use plastisol which is great for any fabric especially dark-colored fabrics. Water-based inks can also be used for more delicate garments. Discharge ink is a fun material to give shirts a vintage feel. Even foil can be used in screen printing resulting in a cool metallic finish.

It produces the highest quality t-shirts

The possibilities are just endless with screen printing and the best part of all is that they’re always high-quality!

Each screen print shirt is pressed by hand with utmost care and love that is why every shirt comes out with premium quality designs. Screen print designs are also known to last way longer and retain their vibrancy much longer compared to shirts that underwent digital printing.

Ask anyone in the printing industry and they’ll tell you screen printing is still the best method if you want the highest quality output!

T-Shirt Express offers the best screen printing service online!

Have a big event coming up?

If you’re looking for a screen printing service that can deliver bulk, high-quality custom t-shirts in just 10 business days, you can rely on us, T-Shirt Express Ohio! We’re the premier choice for bulk customized t-shirts online.

With order sizes ranging from as few as 12 to as many as 5,000 shirts, we can confidently say that we offer the best screen printing service online. At first glance, we might seem like a small team, but this small team is relentlessly dedicated to their work, and they love what they do.

Our team believes in pushing the boundaries of screen printing and delivering quality service every step of the way. From the moment you inquire and even after your shirts are delivered, we promise that customer satisfaction is 100% guaranteed, you’ll keep coming back for us for all your custom t-shirt needs!

Already have a design in mind? Don’t be shy. Visit our website and give us a call! We love collaborating with our customers and finding ways to turn their t-shirt visions into a reality!

Ready to take the next step? Request a quote today.

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Written by

Drew McCoy

Head honcho at T-Shirt Express Ohio. 12 years in the screen printing industry. Over-thinker.