Looking to get started with screen printing? You’re in the right place. Read our guide what you need to know about screen printing for fabric, silkscreen transfers, silk screen stencils, and more!
How Does Screen Printing Work?
In order to understand which fabrics are best for screen printing, it’s important that you first understand what screen printing is and how it actually works. You may also hear this process referred to as “silk screening” or “silk screen printing”. Put simply, when you screen print, you transfer a stenciled design onto a flat surface using a mesh screen, ink, and a squeegee. Screen printing for fabric is the most common option, but paper is also a popular option. It’s important to bear in mind that (thanks to specialized inks), there are now a variety of other materials that you can screen print onto, including wood, metal, plastic, and even - in special scenarios - glass.
For now, let’s focus on screen printing for fabrics. When you screen print onto fabric, you will start out by creating a stencil on a fine mesh screen. These silk screen stencils are essentially the template that is used for your design. You then push ink through this mesh in order to create an imprint of your design on the surface beneath. To create a variety of designs while screen printing and to control which colors go where, you are likely to pick up a variety of stenciling techniques. These can vary from using masking tape or vinyl to cover specific areas of the screen to using screen blockers, which could vary from glue to lacquer. Some also like to use a light-sensitive emulsion. You can create designs with one color or multiple colors, depending on your design and needs.
Using Natural Fabrics
Generally speaking, natural fabrics tend to be the most effective option when it comes to screen printing for fabric. If you’re unfamiliar with the term “natural fabric”, this refers to fabrics that come from a plant-based or animal-based source. These materials include cotton from the cotton plant or silk from the silkworm.
Let’s take a look at a few material options below that could prove ideal for your screen printing projects.
Perhaps the most commonly used and popular fabric for silkscreen transfers and screen printing is cotton. This is for good reason. Cotton is a natural fabric that absorbs colors in dyes particularly well. It is also heat resistant - meaning it works well to create items that can be easily washed, dried, and ironed. Plus, it is static resistant for comfortable wear.
On top of this, cotton is one of the more abundant and affordable fabrics on the market, meaning that it is popular due to its accessibility. If you’re choosing cotton for your screen printing project, please be aware that this material can shrink if washed or dried incorrectly and may wrinkle, requiring ironing after each wash and dry.
Silk is another popular option for screen printing thanks to its smooth surface. This surface makes it easy to create an even design when compared to alternatives that have more friction and texture. It is a very stain-resistant fabric, which is ideal for clothing that can quickly become marked.
One challenge that you may face when using silk, however, is that this fabric doesn’t absorb colors as well as cotton. This means that you may struggle to get a bold and bright design - instead, achieving more pastel or muted tones. In terms of cost, silk is one of the more costly fabrics that you can screen print onto. This is due to its method of production, which requires countless silkworms and a lot of time.
Wool is a third natural fabric that we’ll take a look at. Wool is thick and dense, so ideal for winter clothing such as jumpers, scarves, and hats. You’ll find that it absorbs color particularly well due to its multiple layers and texture. However, it can pose difficulties when you try to ensure even absorption of ink. It can often be difficult to ensure the ink used in screen printing (typically plastisol or water-based ink) is evenly absorbed into every inch of a woolen item.
Using Natural and Synthetic Blends
While we’ve noted that natural fabrics tend to be best for screen printing, you may be wondering whether a natural and synthetic blend will produce your desired results. These blends combine natural fabrics and synthetic fabrics (which are man-made). Some examples may include a cotton-polyester blend or a wool-nylon blend.
When you combine natural and synthetic fibers, you can benefit from the pros and reduce the cons of the two fabrics that you’re opting for. You can find natural and synthetic blends that absorb colors extremely well while providing a smooth printing surface and greater longevity than natural fibers alone.
Avoiding Synthetic Fabrics
While natural-synthetic blends can be good for screen printing, all synthetic options tend to be a little more difficult to deal with. Synthetic fabrics tend to have a harder time absorbing color or in some cases simply won’t absorb color at all - even when using a silk screen printing machine. If you attempt screen printing for fabrics on these materials, you are likely to find a weak or patchy outcome. These fabrics are also likely to be heat resistant and can easily shrink. Some key fabrics to avoid when it comes to screen printing include:
- Faux Fur
As you can see, there really is a lot to take into account when it comes to choosing the right fabric for your next screen printing project. As time goes on, and as your experience expands, you’ll find different techniques, tools, inks, and other elements can have an impact on the result of your screen printing projects. Regardless of the quality of any of these elements, a huge factor in your final results is the fabric you choose to work with.