Silk screen printing may be the oldest and most practical printing technique dating back to ancient times. The history of silk screen printing has been traced back to China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD). This method first appeared in a recognizable form in China during the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD). Japan took hold of the idea to use silk as a mesh, and advanced the process for many years. At this time stencils were cut out of paper and the mesh was woven from human hair. Stiff brushes were used to force ink through the mesh onto the fabric. Due to the scarcity and expense of silk in the rest of the world though, screen printing took a while to find its feet, until more readily available silk mesh was available in the 1700s, and interest in Western Europe began to get established.
In the 17th century silk screens were being used in France as a way of printing onto fabric. Stiff brushes were still being used as a way to push ink through the mesh. It was here that the practice of stretching silk over a frame to support stencils was initiated but it is now known by whom.
In the Eighteenth Century, it found its way to Western Europe where it became a prominent method for printing and duplication. Perhaps the most important historical development of the screen printing process was made in the late 1880s in both America and the UK, using similar principles but going by different names. This took the process of screen printing further, by using wax paper handwriting stencils patented in 1877, but were then fixed into a frame, so that the ink could then be forced through them by using a rubber squeegee. The use of a frame with these delicate stencils was called the Cyclostyle in the UK, and the Mimeograph in the USA, and used a fine and porous waxed paper called Yoshino.
The Englishman Samuel Simon patented the screen printed form most familiar in the Western world in 1907. While Europe was introduced to the process in the 18th century, it would take the affordability of silk mesh and commercial use of the process to make it more available. Simon’s use of his patented process was primarily used for printing expensive wall coverings on silk, linen, paper and other fine fabrics.
In the 1960s, the United States and other countries experienced a number of social activities, including the Civil Rights era, women’s rights and antiwar movements. Sharing the ideas that motivate movements requires media, and silkscreen printing provided a method to create stunning graphics. Students and artists alike learned how screen-printing techniques could help them produce strong, colorful images faster than other techniques, such as painting. Consequently, screen printed t-shirts and other media became an important tool used for artistic expression. One of the most iconic silkscreen creations was Andy Warhol’s 1962 Marilyn Diptych—ironically, the image became an icon of an icon.
Today, screen printing is an international, popular printmaking technique. In fact the business of screen printing onto garments is so popular, it accounts for over half the screen printing done in the US today.