Silk Screen Printing 101

So you want to order some custom clothing for your small business, bachelorette party, or baseball team? Well this blog post will tell you both what to do when making the actual order, and what happens between then and the delivery of the clothing. My source is that I am currently working at a t-shirt shop and deal with these orders all day long. I know what people do right and what some people do wrong. Here is a guide so you can be the former.

Before placing the order

Before you even get to the point of making the order, you have some decisions to make. Sure, there are the obvious ones, such as what garments do you want and what do you want on them, but there are some less obvious ones people don’t often think of.

Firstly, what are you getting printed on? While silk screening is extremely versatile, there are somethings that are hard or impossible to print on. Weather proofed jackets, duffle bags, fabric that will possibly shrink, and hats are all things that present challenges during printing. Many places will at least try before they turn you away, so make sure you ask the specific shop before assuming one way or another.

Along with that you’re getting printed on, where and how large on those garments will you be printing? Make sure that the print shop can accommodate the location you want in the size you want it in. For example, if you want a print all the way down the sleeve of a sweater, the print shop you’re working with might not be able to print on a sleeve that long. They might also be restricted by the size of screen they have available.

Along with where and how large, having the art is important. Not all shops also do art design, and will expect you to have your own art. If you don’t have anything, ask them if they provide that service before placing the order.

You also need to know if you’re going to buy the garments yourself, or have the print shop supply. Not all print shops supply, but the ones that do can almost certainly get them cheaper than you could alone. Not only will they be ordering bulk, but they will often have certain agreements with providers that will get them a better deal. This is just another question you should ask your printer before placing the order.

Placing the order

When it comes to placing the order, here are all the details you will need to know:

How many pieces

This is the total count of garments for the entire order.

Print locations and sizes on the garments

The most common are full front, left chest, full back, and left sleeve. Specify where you want the shirts to be printed. If you know specifically what size you want, also include that, but the shop should be able to decide on the size themselves. For example, we have standard sizes that we use for each location, dependant only on customer request and size of garment.

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# of colours in the prints

Silk screening is done by layering the different colours of ink down one at a time through silk screens which have the shape of the print burned out of them. Therefore most print shops will charge by the colour, since they need to use a different screen and set up for each colour.

Any names or numbers that are individual

Especially with teams and wedding events, people tend to like their shirts to have their names and/or team numbers on the back. It’s important to ask about this ahead of time because many shops will have completely different systems for pricing printing like that. If the order was for a team of 12, it basically changes the order from 1 screen and set up to 12 individual ones.

Whether you are providing the garments or the shop is ordering for you

This is important to mention right away so the shop can order them to be on time for the order. Ideally, provide exactly the product you want. For example, just saying Gildan tshirt doesn’t mean anything. There are multiple styles, sizes, and genders, so you should be as specific as possible. If you don’t know what you want that specifically, mention you’re want to know their suggestions, and they should be happy to provide some options. Also be prepared to pay a deposit if they are ordering the shirts for you.

If you have a specific date you need them for

This is more important the closer to the date it is, but even if the due date isn’t until months away, I recommend mentioning it. That way they can schedule the job most effectively on their end and will definitely not miss your date. The shop might have turn around times of 3+ weeks depending on how busy they are.

The art itself

If you already have the art you want, give it to them right away. They will likely need it to be in a vector format, because they will need to manipulate the artwork before it’s ready to print. If you only have it in a bitmap format, ask if they provide conversion services, but be aware that there might be additional charges.

During the order

So you’ve sent all the information and made the order. Now what? First of all, they will book the order. When the print date approaches, you should expect an art proof. This is a form that they will create with a mock up of the garments with the art, the details of the final sizes and locations, and the list of garments to be printed. It’s your responsibility as the customer to carefully read the proof and mention any issues. If there is a colour you don’t like, a location looks off, or the list of garments is different than the one you provided, it is up to you to bring it up. Then they can issue a revised proof. This is basically the last chance you have to make sure the order is going to be correct. If you approve it, that means they are going to start the printing according to that proof, and if you approved anything that was incorrect, then that is how the order is going to look. Please carefully read art proofs before approving. 

After the art proof is approved, they will begin the printing process. The first step is separating the artwork. This means the artist will take the art you sent and separate the colours into different layers. Then they change each colour plate to entirely black. This is for later when the image is burned into screens. Then they individually print out the different layers each onto their own sheets on transparent/translucent vellum.

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Then these sheets of paper are used in something called a light table. That is a large machine that uses powerful lights to burn though the silk screens, allowing for ink to be pressed through. You place the vellum on the table, then the silk screen on top, and then the lights will burn through only the places where the pure black is. This recreates the shape of the art perfectly. Then the printer will take the screen and press the ink through them to the garment. One colour at a time, they will dry them in between. In the example I gave for separating, the printer will most likely print the yellow down first, and then place the smile in afterwards.

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Diagram of the ink (A), the squeegee that presses down the ink (B), the hole through the screen (C), the unburned screen (D), the screen frame (E), and the image print (F).

After that, the garments will go through a big dryer to set them completely, and then they will be folded and packed to be picked up.

After the order is complete 

You will be contacted and either pick up the order or you may be able to have it delivered. Whether they provide shipping varies shop to shop. Congratulations! You have made your very first silk screening order! You garments should now be decorated exactly how you wanted them and are good to last for years. Now you just pay for the services as usual. If you have any problems with how the order turned out, make sure to bring it up as soon as you notice it. It would also be a good idea to check that it wasn’t an oversight on your part, for example if the art proof was approved with the mistake included.

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