T-Shirt Screen Printing – Where It All Began

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​​Printed T-shirts are everywhere. They are so universal nobody thinks about the technology behind them. The brightly-coloured shirt with a logo on the front can essentially be what started the decorated apparel industry. 

I Love NY, Nike’s Just Do It, and the Batman Logo are the most common prints you must have seen in your lifetime. You see these slogans emblazoned on shirts everywhere. In Canada, you can see people wearing these graphic tees during the summer months of June to August. You can source these T-shirts anywhere. They are in department stores, boutiques, or even T-shirt printing stores in Toronto.

Yet, none of these iconic T-shirt designs would have been possible if not for a Chinese invention first used some 18 centuries ago. Read on to discover more about the origins of T-shirt printing and its evolution.

It Started with Silk Screen Printing

The first documentation of the practice of silk screen printing was in China. It originated sometime between AD 221 and the Song Dynasty, between 960 and 1279 AD. 

They placed a piece of silk between stencils made from tough, waterproof paper. They glued the stencils to hold them together. This allowed the paint to flow through the exposed silk, thus creating a printed design.

By the Middle Ages, silk screen printing was a well-practised art in most of Asia. However, it didn’t spread to the rest of the world until the 19th century. 

T-Shirt Printing in the Early 1900s

At the dawn of the 20th century, the use of screen printing was still limited. Wallpapers and the occasional domestic fabrics were the only products made using this method. It wasn’t until the 1930s that people caught on to the technique’s potential.

During this time, New York artists experimented with screen printing on paper. These artists included Anthony Velonis and Max Arthur Cohn. The move elevated the process to an artistic medium. 

In 1940, Velonis, Cohn and these other artists founded the National Serigraphy Society. They also coined the term “serigraphy.” It’s a combination of the Latin word “sēricum” (silk) and the Greek word “graphein” (to write or draw). 

Serigraphy differentiated the technique’s industrial use from its artistic application.

Inks and Technology Propelled the Industry Forward

The 1960s is vital to modern-day screen printing. 

The technological advancements during this period fast-tracked screen printing production. Now, screenprints could be mass-produced and could adapt to mainstream demand.

A man named Michael Vasilantone gets the credit for streamlining the process. Vasilantone and his wife Fannie opened Vastex. It was a textile screen printing operation in Philadelphia in 1960.

In 1967, Vasilantone patented the dual rotary printing press. The machine sent revolutionary shockwaves through the industry. It could print on fabric with greater speed and a lower margin of error than any other method available. 

The developments with inks were also another crucial factor in developing the screen printing process. In 1959, the invention of plastisol ink came about. 

PVC particles suspended in a plasticizer make up plastisol. It’s more viscous than water-based inks, making it easier to pour. 

Plastisol ink is also more stable when drying. It bonds to garments better, thus resulting in a more durable print. 

The availability of this more reliable ink opened up the practice of screen printing. With it, practitioners were able to experiment more with designs too.

Now, Everything’s Digital

Computers completely transformed the screen printing process. Silkscreen printing is still a practiced art form. But, many people now create graphic designs and print them on fabric digitally. Larger print studios feed the material through an automated printing press. 

The evolution of T-shirt printing and all innovations that came with it are testaments to the origins of the graphic tees we all love to wear. Knowing everything about all these will make us appreciate our favourite apparel better.

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