From Lagom #5

Enduring Crafts: Screen Printing

With its origins seated deeply in the past, the process of screen printing continues to intrigue people, with the craft seeing a revival in modern times. Screen printer Jonny Akers walks us through screen printing’s origins and current incarnation.

Words Jonny Akers

Photographs Elliot Jay Stocks

Screen printing in its basic form dates back over 2,000 years. Whether it be cutting shapes from banana leaves to make a stencil and forcing ink made from natural pigments through them, or making frames stretched with human hair to form a mesh, people all over the world have been using screen printing to reproduce imagery for quite some time.

I encountered screen printing for the first time in 2004 while studying a fine art degree in Leeds. After a brief introduction to the printmaking facilities, I used screen printing on and o throughout my degree, but I never realised how involved I’d become with the process in the future.

Today I run a wedding stationery business called The Old Market Printing Co. with my wife Charlotte. With her hand-lettering, illustration, and contemporary designs, we use heavyweight paper stock, and metallic and neon inks to make clean, modern, alternative wedding stationery.

Making and printing by hand is something I’m passionate about, and one reason why I’ve never ventured into automatic printing machines. I feel that once you’re no longer pulling ink through the screen by hand, the process is too commercial and loses part of the magic of printmaking. While I’m printing by hand, I’m still in full control of the finished print, and it contains more of the experience and skill that I’ve obtained over the past 10 years.

Fundamentally, the act of putting ink to paper has always been a very pleasurable thing to do.

And I’m not alone in my passion for screen printing by hand. Recently, there’s been a huge revival for all things artisanal, with screen printing included. Various websites have emerged, selling rudimentary DIY screen printing set-ups made from everyday objects, so you don’t need to have access to industry- level equipment to start out. Making screen printing so accessible has had a big impact on encouraging more people to set up in their spare room or basement and give it a go.

I think one of the main reasons why we’re seeing that increase is that, rather than trying to make a living from it, people are keen to develop a new hobby or skill that doesn’t cost a great deal to set up, where they can see instant results. Screen printing is also a traditional technique and perhaps they’re intrigued by these ancient methods. And perhaps, fundamentally, the act of putting ink to paper has always been a very pleasurable thing to do. 

In one of its earliest guises, hair glued to a wood- en frame was used to pass the ink onto the substrate. A breakthrough in the process was later developed by the Chinese during the Song dynasty when silk was used, allowing a far more even coverage of ink to pass through, resulting in finer detail and a more accurate reproduction of an image.

It wasn’t until much later, in the late 1700s, that screen printing first arrived in Europe. It was patented by an Englishman named Samuel Simons in 1907 who was worried that people would try to steal his secret printing technique. He used it to produce wallpaper for the wealthy by printing patterns onto silk and linen. At this point, stencils were still made from papers that had been heavily oiled to make them water resistant against the inks, and it wasn’t until the 1900s that light-sensitive photo emulsions were invented. This changed the commercial screen printing industry forever.

With the invention of photo emulsion, longer print runs were obtainable without the deterioration of the stencil on the screen. In 1960, a man by the name of Michael Vasilantone invented a rotary printing machine, now known as a carousel, which could be used to print multiple shirts, using multiple colours. Over the past 50 years, the USA has become famous for t-shirt and garment decoration, with commercial printers able to produce hundreds if not thousands of units per hour. 

Commercial screen printing lends itself to a wide range of substrates. Whether it’s printing circuit boards for computers using conductive copper inks, or correx ‘for sale’ signs using solvent ink, there are many examples of commercial screen printing we encounter on a day-to-day basis, probably without even realising. Within commercial screen print- ing, the process is constantly advancing with new technologies and more efficient methods, whether it be exposing and reclaiming screens, to the printing itself. With the introduction of automatic carousels and vacuum beds, printing no longer has to be done by hand. One person will operate a carousel, sometimes running up to 24 printing platens (print beds) and 24 different screens simultaneously. The machines are set up using a digitally controlled inter- face, operating everything from the squeegee angle to the snap between the screen and substrate. Once set up, it’s easy to produce thousands of units in very little time; the only job to be done by hand is loading the platen with a t-shirt or sheet of paper, and removing it once it’s printed.

On the other hand, arts and craft printmakers take a different approach to screen printing — or ‘serigraphy’, as they may prefer to refer to the process. It’s not really something you study as an individual subject at university, but more of a process that’s usually used by people studying subjects such as photography, fine art, surface and pattern design, or design-based courses in general.

Whichever avenue you learn the art of screen printing through, you just need access to a screen printing set-up, however basic, and you’re free to experiment and interpret the versatility of this process in your own way. There’s no right or wrong.

Choosing to screen print by hand, Charlotte and I try to explore new methods of designing for print to achieve a certain desired effect, like a gradient for example. When printing one unit at a time like posters or prints, you can create a gradient — or ‘split fountain’, as it’s known — through blending one colour into another until you have a seamless gradient. However, when you print multiple units on a screen and you want them all to be have a consistent gradient, a split fountain isn’t the right way to go about it. So we designed the artwork as a two-colour print incorporating a halftone on each layer that would then seamlessly blend each colour into one another. Once cut down, each invitation has a consistent gradient.

I think this is a good example of when to use computer so ware and a commercial design approach within a traditional printing process, instead of letting the process dominate the finished product. It’s a combination of old and new coming together to achieve a desired outcome.

Lagom #5 cover

Read this story in the print edition of Lagom #5 along with features on a cocktail bar at the back of a Mac repair shop in London, Riga’s role as a new destination for foodies, Prague’s blossoming specialty coffee scene, and more.

Buy Lagom #5