The History of Custom Screen Printing on T-Shirts

Screen printing has been around much longer than most people might think, although it is now a commonly used method to apply color and design to clothing. In fact, the first records of printing on any type of material can be dated as far back as 960 AD in China. Screen printing can also be referred to as silk printing because of the process used to transfer the ink onto the surface such as paper, wood, rock, and most commonly today, clothing like t-shirts. A screen comprised of silk is used to help filter color onto t-shirts, tote bags, and countless other items. Fans of just about anything ranging from a favorite sports team, a musical band, or even a TV or movie favorite can now be purchased on t-shirts, all thanks to the screen printing process.

960-1280 AD: Members of the Sung Dynasty period began printing designs and patterns using stencils.

Late 1700s: Screen or silk printing was first brought to Western Europe, but it was scarce because silk was not as readily available.

1853: The World’s Fair hosted an exhibit of Japanese silk screens, and these beautiful prints brought a lot of attention and admiration for the art form.

1907: Samuel Simon patented the first screen printing method in Manchester, England, which was most commonly applied to wallpaper and expensive fabrics. He used rubber bands or squeegees, which are still commonly used in the screen printing process today.

1910-1915: Printers began using chemicals that reacted to light and combined them with gelatin to create a more defined look to their applications.

1914-1917: During World War I, hand painted stencils and prints were created for the use of war related posters and advertising.

1930s: The National Serigraphic Society was formed to help signify the difference between screen printing in industrial applications, and screen printing as art. In 1930, an American artist named Guy Maccoy was credited with creating the first original work of art using screen printing as a legitimate format rather than just using it for reproductions.

1936-1943: The WPA, which was part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, helped create thousands of silk screened posters exhibiting different areas of the country, enticing people to visit many states, national parks, and other landmarks. They also displayed public health related messages, public programs, and theater and musical performances. The Library of Congress has the largest collection with over 900 posters on site.

1940s: The use of screen printing increased during World War II because of its common use in propaganda, and then it continued as a popular form of printing and media once the war had ended.

1947: The Germans were interested in screen printing and adopted a new method using stencils that was known as “pochoir.” Famous artists Henri Matisse created his well-known work entitled “Jazz” and created reproduced prints using this very same method.

1949: English artist Francis Carr is credited as being the first Briton to create an original work of art using the screen printing method.

1960: Michael Vasilantone invented the first rotary multicolor screen printing machine and was granted a patent for the invention in 1969.

1962: Pop artist Andy Warhol brought screen printing to the forefront with his artistic work. His depiction of Marilyn Monroe was screen printed in very bright colors, and helped to peak interest in the screen printing world. Ironically in this same year, the National Serigraphic Society closed its doors due to a lack of interest.

1980s: Color and graphic screen printing in more mass produced quantities becomes much more popular. The full color versions of screen printed t-shirts today typically have the color combination of CMYK, which is cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (also referred to as key).

1990s-Present: Today, screen printed t-shirts are more common than ever before. Wide use of the Internet has sparked countless new businesses specializing in screen printed shirts. Just about any logo, wording, or picture can be screen printed onto clothing and sold for wear.

For more information about screen printing and its history, please refer to the following websites: