To save money (and let’s be honest, to maintain control over everything), I learned how to screenprint fabric for dust covers that I make. Going in, I knew this wasn’t THAT hard - I was somewhat familiar with the process from working at a letterpress company in a former life. But, I don’t own a bunch of fancy screenprinting equipment, and I didn’t want to invest in it either. So, if you’re looking to do a run of t-shirts, or art prints, follow along with how I do it.
Access to a transparency printer (any copy shop should be able to do this)
Stencil Pro Emulsion Sheets (or any other brand)
Screen ink (for fabric if you’d like to print on textiles)
A squeegee, or plastic putty knife
The power of the sun
Decent washer pressure
A dryer (for fabric heat setting)
Buy these, or create makeshift versions of these:
A contract frame, or a clear plastic/glass and cardboard to press down the transparency on the emulsion paper with bulldog clamps, or Document frame from the dollar store
Opaque paper bath with opaque lid (You can buy a kit with the emulsion sheets, or just a pyrex dish in a cardboard box works too. I used a pot with a well fitting opaque lid)
Plasticor, or sturdy mat board or cardboard (for making a frame), approximately 11 x 14
You’ll first need a design. I typically just use text, so I format it how I want it in inDesign or Illustrator. Vector images are great for screenprinting but, you can use photographic images, you just have to bitmap them first. Bitmapping breaks down your image into dots, instead of gradients, and the size and density of dots gives you the illusion of gradients, but prints just like solid colors. There’s plenty of tutorials for doing this in Photoshop, or other photo-editing software to be found online, and you can do it single color, or, with more advanced technique, separate out colors and do a CMYK 4-color print (but that’s a bit more ambitious than I would ever want for my dust covers - I just stick to 1 color). Either way, what you should end up with is an image that is fully black (as black as possible - #000000), and white. (Note: make sure your design fits whatever emulsion paper you have, with about 1” on all sides. The blue line on my design represents the 8.5 x 11 sheet I will be using. Also, in the blank space of my sheet, I added an extra “extra ordinary” so I could do a test before I do the larger sheet.)
Now make a transparency. You can do this at a copy shop, or at home if your home printer will allow. Make sure you’re using the proper print settings to get a real jet black - it NEEDS to be completely opaque. This is the key to a good exposure. (I actually cheat and use my vinyl cutter to transfer a vinyl image onto acetate, but the results are the same. The design is opaque and the negative space is clear.)
Here comes the hard part (not really, but it’s involved). It’s time to harness the power of the sun!!! I use Stencil Pro Stencil sheets, to make my screens, but there’s other brands that work the same. These are great because they don’t require the use of any chemicals, or heavy duty equipment (like aluminum frame, wash out station, power washer), and it doesn’t take much time at all. I’ll outline the basics of the process, but follow the directions that your sheets come with. They might be different.
In low light, remove the plastic from the emulsion sheet if any, and place down on cardboard back with SHINY SIDE UP (it’s not super critical if you can’t discern the two). Then put your transparency on top of that RIGHT SIDE DOWN. Sandwich the emulsion/transparency with the other piece of plastic and make sure it’s all lying completely flat. Cover it with something opaque.
Set your timer, depending on instructions, place your contact frame outside flat on the ground or a table with full sun exposure, remove the opaque cover and start timing. When the time is done, re-cover the frame, and then stop the timer. (I did 25 seconds at 1:30PM on a bright day.)
Go back to low light, and place the emulsion in a water bath and let it sit for 10 minutes. Then wash it out with a strong tap or a hose. You’ll start to see your design appearing to pop out of the emulsion. Use a soft brush or the pads of your fingers to help any stubborn pieces hanging on. Do a good job on this part because what you end up cleaning out here will be the resulting image. Dry it off, then expose it back outside for 10 more minutes for the emulsion to harden.
If that was a test, try it out by squeegeeing some ink through it on scrap paper. See how you did. If the image isn’t somewhat obscured, you may need to add time to initial exposure or clean more thoroughly, if the image is blown out, reduce time (or clean more gently). Hard part complete.
Optional: I made a frame using scrap plasticor, just cutting out an area somewhere between the size of the design and the limits of the emulsion sheet. Then I tape them together on both sides using sealing tape. Now my stencil’s edges are blocked, and it’s more sturdy to work with. It can also be washed and used over and over again. (Make sure you cover up all paper with the sealing tape if using cardboard.) Alternatively, you could extend the size of your screen’s edges with just tape, giving you more area to work in. Note that your squeegee should comfortably fit in the screen space.
Now, determine the stencil’s position on your fabric or paper. I put marks on my frame for reference since I don’t need precision, but if you do, or are doing multiple colors, I highly suggest setting up a jig to consistently have your paper and frame in the same position for each run. It will make lining things up way easier.
Do some tests. Using screen ink and a plastic putty knife or a squeegee, run a line of ink along one edge of your screen, then drag with consistent speed and pressure across your design. Make sure your squeegee covers the whole of your design to avoid streaks. Figure out your pressure and ink levels on scrap before you go to the good paper/fabric. When lifting the screen, be careful to come straight up and not smudge the print, then place so that the screen doesn’t touch anything. Set up two strips of wood in parallel and rest the frame on them to keep the inky area suspended.
Print your little heart out.
Account for failure. Not every print will be perfect, and there is a learning curve, so build in some wiggle room with your quantities, and test on scraps until you’re feeling confident.
Make sure the screen is pressed down very well when you do your printing or you’ll get fuzzy edges, and will have to clean the bottom of the screen to prevent compounding the problem
Once the screen is down, that’s where you should print. Don’t shift it after placement. Otherwise ghost images may appear (spooky!)
Test out alternate methods and directions of dragging the ink to see what works best with your surface and tools.
When you’re done for the day, remember to clean out your screen, to reuse it on another day.
Give your prints lots of time to dry. Don’t stack them. Hang them on a clothesline, lay them on a table top, drape them over your chairs, and keep pesky pet paws and butts off of them.
If printing on textiles, make sure your screen ink is made for that, and then, when dry, run them in the dryer to heatset the ink.