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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Why Screen Printing Will Always Have a Niche

Photo purchased from …

Custom screen printing is one of the oldest technologies for decorating fabric. I’ve even read about its having existed in ancient China. But if it’s this old (and if it really hasn’t changed much in the time since then), why has it been going so strong even with digital commercial printing in existence?

First of all, here’s a refresher on custom screen printing. A block out stencil is attached to a nylon (or even metal) screen. Image areas are open, while non-image areas are covered with the stencil. When a rubber squeegee is used to force screen printing ink through the screen onto the substrate (such as a garment), the open areas allow ink to print.

This process has to be repeated again and again for each color (after cleaning everything up and applying a new stencil to the screen). Different colors can be printed in register with one another, and you can even chemically produce halftone images on the screens, but overall they are of a coarse halftone ruling, so you wouldn’t get the detail available with inkjet or dye sublimation. Also, since preparatory work (and clean up) take a long time, you would use custom screen printing for longer press runs rather than shorter ones.

Regarding the popularity of screen printing for garments, I recently found an article entitled “Opportunities Ahead for Screen Printing,” by David Savastano, dated 06/23/22, that answers this question.

Here are some thoughts:

A Broad Range of Substrates

If you print on cotton, you need to use inkjet technology rather than dye sublimation, and the printed piece will fade over time with multiple washes. Pre- and post-treatment with water and heat will apparently extend the life of the design, but not indefinitely. Dye sublimation will sidestep this problem, since the dyes bond with the polyester fibers. However, dye sublimation is only appropriate for polyester fabrics.

In addition, if you use heat transfer vinyl (bonding cut-out lettering or flat graphics to fabric using heat–which is not itself a screen printing process but which is still a good, durable garment-decorating option), you have to consider the heat resistance of the substrate. Some fabrics such as nylon and polyester break down with exposure to high heat.

That said, custom screen printing faces none of these problems. The ink is thick and vibrant as well as durable. It not only seeps into the fibers of the garment but also provides a thick, raised pigmented surface. And you can use cotton, polyester, or pretty much any other fabric without much concern for the durability and washability of the final printed garment.

You can even print on water repellent fabrics.

In short, you have a lot more flexibility regarding substrates.

Special Inks

The plastisol inks (water-based fabric inks) used in custom screen printing (among other inks) have many more options than do inks for other processes. For instance, you can use “glitters, puff, textures, and high build” as well as “mirror inks, pearlescent, and metallic inks” (“Opportunities Ahead for Screen Printing”).

Available inks cover a wide range of the Pantone Matching System colors, and they can be transparent or opaque (“Opportunities Ahead for Screen Printing”).

The screen printing inks “have high wash durability, strong print opacity, and vibrant colors, and excellent stretch and elasticity…excellent screen runnability and long open times, ready-to-use straight out of the tub” (“Opportunities Ahead for Screen Printing”). This means that once you have set up a print run (even if it takes a long time), you can proceed with the job smoothly without incident. And the inks are striking and durable. Plus for flexible fabrics, such as “athleisure” and athletic garments, the inks stretch and move with the fabric.

Industrial Uses

But it’s not just for garments. For a long time, screen printing has been a mainstay of functional (or industrial) printing as well. When you look at the dashboard in your car, or even the words and numbers on your microwave oven, you’re looking at functional printing. The goal is to inform the user in a few words just how to operate a machine. Your phone and computer reflect two more examples of functional printing.

Screen printing is ideal for functional printing.

First of all, you can screen print on films, which can then be used in injection molds when manufacturing printed bottles without separate labels. CCL Label defines in-mold-labeling as:

“IML (In-Mould Labeling) is the integration of the label with the packaging during the injection. In this process, the label is placed into the IML injection mould, then melted thermoplastic polymer combines with the IML label and takes the shape of the mould.” (

Combined with injection-molding packaging technology, custom screen printing is ideal for decorating and labeling the bottles. Screen printed in-mold labels on film can withstand the heat and the physical manipulation and stresses of this molding process, since the inks are flexible and since they adhere well to the film used in this process (“Opportunities Ahead for Screen Printing”). You can even print on the back of films and then integrate them into auto consoles (for instance) due to the flexibility of the inks. (This kind of screen printing would essentially be inside the plastic auto parts, so this would increase the durability of the ink.)

In addition, screen printing is great for printed electronics. That is, the circuit boards used in electronic devices can be screen printed with conductive inks, which can carry the electric charges that travel through the printed circuitry. All of this also lends itself to the interior electronic workings of automobiles (not just words on the information panels but also the printed pathways on the actual electronic circuits that control the car).

Plus you can print on glass, plastic, or metal. You can even print information on white goods such as refrigerators.

The Takeaway

Custom screen printing is flexible, vibrant, and durable. It lends itself not only to printing on garments but also to printing on appliances, cars, and computers. I’ve even seen screen printing being used to apply explanatory text to the walls of an art museum exhibit.

That said, it requires a lot of make-ready work, so it’s best for longer runs. Also, it lends itself to one-, two-, or three-color work rather than photo-realistic imagery. In part this is because the inks are thick and will plug up screens for images with a fine halftone-line-screen ruling (you can’t really print the high-resolution, 4-color imagery you can print with inkjet equipment).

So for work within it’s niche–keeping in mind its assets and limitations–it’s a good idea to know something about screen printing if you’re a designer or an art director. Perhaps you will want to print on pens, fabric messenger bags, umbrellas, even fold-up lawn chairs. Or sports caps. For these as well as the functional printing noted above, this time-honored technology is absolutely indispensable.

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