The Origins of Silk Screen Printing (Serigraphy)

Posted by Jeffrey Gononsky on

At Holden’s Screen Supply Co., we sell a variety of screen printing supplies used for printing images on shirts, wood, paper, and many other surfaces. Over the years, this method of printing has become extremely popular due to its diversity and quality. The technical term for silk screen printing is serigraphy. So, you might be wondering what is serigraphy, how it works, and where it came from.

Whether using a screen print press or silk screen stencils, knowing the history of the art can help you better appreciate it as it is today.

What Is Silk Screen Printing?

Silk screen printing is a specific printing technique that is also referred to as serigraphy. The term comes from both Latin and Greek words that have been meshed together. “Seri” is Latin for silk, while “graphy” derives from graphos, an old Greek word for writing. Already, this goes some way to explaining how old the technique is. 

But, what exactly does serigraphy entail? 

Serigraphy utilizes a screen that is tightly stretched across a surface. This ‘screen’ is usually made from a very thin mesh-like material, which allows ink to pass through onto the surface. Multiple screens can be layered over whatever material you’re printing on, with each color in the print requiring its own screen. Ink is then pressed or rolled over these screens to leave the design on the surface. 

Here’s a more detailed run-through of the typical steps involved during the silk screen printing process: 

  • Step 1: Create the design - First, you need to come up with a design that you want printed. From there, you can load the design into a silk screen printer. The silk screen printer will take any design and print it out onto a special type of film. This design then forms silk screen stencils that are used to convey the design onto the material. 

  • Step 2: Prepare the screen - Next, you will take your mesh screen and prepare it for printing. It has to be coated in something called a light-reactive emulsion. Your design is then laid onto the screen and exposed to a bright light that hardens the emulsion. In essence, this leaves the part of the screen covered by the design in a liquid state - everything else hardens. As mentioned earlier, multiple screens are needed for different colors in a design. You can then wash the emulsion off, leaving you with a perfect stencil of the design. 

  • Step 3: Print - Your screen now gets placed on the printing press with a surface below it. The ink gets pressed through the screen onto the surface underneath, creating a print in the desired design stencil. Once this is done, the surface is dried, and you have a perfect screen print!

What Are The Origins Of Silk Screen Printing?

The origins of silk screen printing are complex. History books suggest that this method of printing can be found in Asia as long as 1000 years ago. Back then, Chinese and Japanese communities would use a very similar technique to try and get stenciled patterns and designs on fabrics and other materials. It continued to largely be used in Asian countries until the 18th century when the concept finally made its way to Europe. 

Nevertheless, the technique of silk screen printing that most people know of today didn’t really start showing its face until the very early 1900s. This is when it burst onto the scene in a lot of European countries, specifically the United Kingdom. A man by the name of Samual Simon from England is recognized as the first person to obtain a patent for silk screen printing. From here, this technique quickly rose to prominence throughout the commercial printing world.

Fast forward to the 1930s, and we see the first mainstream uses of the technique in the US. Many people within the printing industry pinpoint this period as when serigraphy was truly established and born. This is because it was the first time you saw instances when pieces of fine art were printed using the method. It was a period that shone a light on the true potential of silk screen printing and the different designs you can print on various surfaces. 

Consequently, the technique was picked up by a lot of famous artists - most notably Andy Warhol. Serigraphy exploded in the 1960s with the birth of the Pop Art scene, meaning the technique gained more and more recognition and coverage. From here, it became one of the most popular printing methods in the country, and throughout the world. Nowadays, it is used by most commercial printing companies that place designs on all kinds of surfaces. 

How Has Silk Screen Printing Changed Over Time?

The technique and process have undergone lots of different innovations and developments since it first came to prominence in Ancient China. Japanese artists and professionals adopted the technique, and they were the ones to eventually bring it to Europe. It was here that we saw one of the biggest changes in the technique. 

As mentioned above. Samuel Simon obtained the first patent for silk screen printing. He attended many fashion shows and markets in England, noticing that many Japanese garments were selling well because they had such elaborate patterns on them. So, he learned about the techniques used, adopted them, and sought a patent. This led him to be the first person to actively use silk in screen printing. He believed this particular material was necessary to print the more elaborate designs people might want. 

A few years after this, there was another big innovation in serigraphy. During the earlier part of the 1900s, many people experimented with different chemicals to perfect the art of screen printing. This was when we saw the emergence of emulsions, allowing people to create photo-reactive stencils. It was thanks to this new development that we eventually saw screen printing explode onto the scene in the US. 

Advancements in technology have also made the entire screen printing process easier and more affordable. In the early days - circa the 1930s - it would take individuals days to craft the screens needed for printing. Alongside this, they also had to manufacture different frames by hand as part of the printing process. It was a tedious task that required extremely skilled hands. These days, manufacturing technology allows people to create stencils, frames, and screens in a matter of minutes. The accuracy of the printing improved as the technology became more and more refined. 

Is Silk Screen Printing The Same As Screen Printing?

You may encounter the term screen printing, but this is just another way of describing silk screen printing. In fact, as time has gone by, more and more people are dropping the silk and just calling it screen printing. 

So, if you ever come across this term, don’t worry; it means the exact same thing. 

Where Is Silk Screen Printing Usually Applied?

Originally, serigraphy was used to print images onto canvas or wood materials. It is still used to print designs on these surfaces today, but it is now used to print images, messages, and more on just about any surface. Wood is still extremely popular, and many artists are still using screen printing to get their works of art onto big canvases or posters. 

Nevertheless, one of the biggest areas where screen printing is applied is in the textiles industry. Specifically, it has been used as the main way of printing designs onto items of clothing for many years. The technique involved in screen printing makes it very easy to take logos or specific designs and put them on different fabrics. 

Consequently, screen printing is a popular method used by companies that provide custom clothing or merchandise. Businesses will often get uniforms with printed logos or names on them from companies that offer silk screen printing services. 

Alongside commercial use, serigraphy is still used in the artistic world. As touched upon above, artists call upon the technique when creating large posters or when replicating a work of art. 

How Does Silk Screen Printing Differ From Digital Printing?

In the clothing industry, there is another popular printing technique that often gets confused for silk screen printing. It is called DTG (Direct To Garment) digital printing. DTG printing uses a specialized printing device that is different from a silk screen printer. Effectively, it takes a printer that has been modified for use on fabrics, directly printing a digital design onto an item of clothing. 

How Does This Differ From Screen Printing? 

Direct to Garment digital printing can be a lot cheaper than serigraphy because fewer resources are needed. The design also goes directly from a digital file straight to the item of clothing. However, the key difference is that screen printing allows for much more intense and vibrant colors. Digital printing simply cannot replicate the true colors that screen printing brings, meaning designs often look a bit faded or washed. 

Likewise, the silk screen printing method allows printers to add textured effects to designs. You can’t do this with digital printing, which goes some way to explaining why the older method is still preferred by a lot of commercial printing businesses. 

What Are The Advantages Of Silk Screen Printing?

For something to still be used centuries after it was initially born, this must point to it being advantageous. Indeed, this method of printing does have some significant advantages when compared to a lot of the other techniques out there. Whether you’re using it for commercial or artistic uses, here are the benefits of silk screen printing: 

Long-Lasting Prints

Thanks to the unique techniques used when printing designs onto surfaces, screen printing offers exceptional durability. The colors and designs take much longer to fade or diminish when compared to other techniques like digital printing. This is all thanks to the inks used during the process. Screen printing inks are much thicker than other ones, so they last for much longer when printed onto garments or other surfaces. 

Easy to Use

Anyone can get their own screen printing kit and begin putting wonderful designs onto clothing, sheets, and canvases. The technique might seem complex when it is described and the steps are laid out. However, most of the process is automated. So, you don’t have to worry about doing too much at all. All you need is the design, and then you can effortlessly create the stencil and get your ink printed onto the subject. It is extremely easy and requires very little training. 

Impressive Results

We touched upon this earlier, but silk screen printing delivers much better colors than other printing methods. There’s a richness and vibrancy to the colors that you don’t get from many other techniques. This allows designs to stand out and be seen from much further away. It also adds so much quality to a piece, making it look far better when compared to something printed using other methods. 

In turn, the excellence of the results makes screen printing a fantastic value-for-money option. While other methods - like digital printing - can be cheaper, you don’t get the same bang for your buck. Screen printing allows you to experience the best possible results, bringing your designs to life. Coupled with the impressive longevity of the prints, this means your money goes a lot further. You pay for something that looks fantastic and will stand the test of time. 

Very Versatile

One of the reasons serigraphy has become so popular is that it’s so versatile. Silk screen printing can be used anywhere and on so many different materials. We’ve mentioned the idea of printing onto garments, wooden surfaces, canvases, and so on. But, you can also print on metal surfaces, glass, plastic - the list goes on and on.

Get Started Silk Screen Printing With Holden’s Screen

Understanding the history and current options available for serigraphy helps demystify the process. You can see where it came from and why it is so popular. If you are interested in getting started with screen printing, we can help you out! Holden’s is home to all the screen printing supplies you could possibly need - including inks, frames, squeegees, screens, and even screen printing kits. Start your journey today by browsing through our full collection of supplies. Remember that we’re here to help if you have any questions.