Screen print your own T-shirts at home

Embrace 2021 by learning new artistic media

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

A common lament among those who feel the need to express themselves artistically is having a lack of inspiration, as well as a lack of time to create. We can’t help free up more hours in your days, but hopefully this and future articles about learning new media will spur an idea or two to help inspire artists to continue creating. 

This week’s article focuses on creating own screen printed T-shirts at home. Stay tuned to future editions of the Reader for more artistic instructionals.

If you’ve ever seen a unique T-shirt design and wondered if you could make your own someday, you can. It’s actually quite easy once you learn the proper techniques to silkscreen printing.

There are a few different methods to employ when screen printing but here we’ll discuss the stencil method, in which an artist creates a reusable stencil to print an identical image on multiple objects, usually clothing. 

Tools of the trade include frame with mesh, fabric ink, squeegee, X-Acto knife, masking tape and media to create stencils. Courtesy photo.

If you are adept with computer graphics programs, look into screen printing using photo emulsion; but, for now, this is the quick and dirty way to make unique clothing. If you’re mass-producing shirts, or have mastered the stencil method, by all means hone your skills using photo emulsion printing. The following method, however, is the easiest DIY style to embrace.

You’ll only need a few supplies: a screen printing frame and mesh screen, fabric ink, a transparent sheet of plastic, an X-Acto knife, masking tape, a scraper, an iron, a few pieces of cardboard and some T-shirts.

Artists can purchase pre-made screen printing frames at art stores (aluminum frames last longer than wood), but if you’d like to build your own, simply purchase a cheap canvas stretcher wooden frame and some mesh to let the ink bleed through onto the cotton shirt. For a classic “athletic” look that is more worn/speckled, shoot for a loose 85-mesh count. For a “do-it-all” mesh, aim for a mesh count between 110-130. For fine printing on paper or plastic, mesh counts of 200-250 work best.

Pull the mesh tight and staple it to the frame. You want it as tight as possible without ripping. Buy extra mesh if you’re clumsy. Stretch the mesh across the frame and staple every inch or so.

To create a stencil, sketch a simple shape or outline on drafting paper and, once you’ve got your design in mind, get started making a reusable stencil. 

Stenciling can seem odd at first, as you are removing the “positive” parts of the design (i.e. anywhere you cut out will allow ink to bleed onto the shirt). We recommend contact paper or hard plastic transparency slides like teachers used with overhead projectors years ago, as they can get wet and be reused. Do not use paper – it will curl when wet and won’t hold up even after the first use, ruining the design.

When designing a stencil, remember not to be too intricate. The smaller the openings, the less likely a defined bit of ink will transfer through. Also, only one ink color can be used at a time, so if you’re interested in creating multi-colored T-shirts, you’ll have to do further research on your own.

Trace the design onto the transparency sheet and use an X-Acto knife to cut out wherever you’d like the ink to appear on the shirt. When finished, take the sheet and place it on the mesh frame on the outside of the frame (the part that will be placed against the T-shirt). Hold it up to the light and make sure everything looks as you want it to look on the shirt, because this will be how it transfers. Make sure it isn’t backwards — especially if you have incorporated words into the design.

Block any other parts of the mesh screen that aren’t covered by the transparency sheet with masking tape (this avoids any ink leaking through) and you’re ready to get started.

Take your preferred color of fabric screen printing ink (remember to use light ink on dark shirt colors and vice versa for better contrast) and a special screen printing squeegee that spreads the ink evenly on the mesh screen. Prepare T-shirts by inserting cardboard between the front and back of the shirt to avoid ink bleeding through the back of the shirt. Lay out the shirt and place the frame with the design taped onto the mesh screen where you’d like it to appear on the shirt. Spread a small amount of ink on the mesh and use the squeegee to evenly coat the screen with ink. 

There is an art to this technique — too much pressure bleeds ink through the stencil and sometimes gets messy; too little pressure doesn’t transfer enough ink, but also gives a more “distressed” look. Just be sure to use enough ink.

Once the ink has been transferred, carefully (and quickly) peel the frame off the shirt and let the shirt dry to the touch, then use a spare piece of fabric over the inked portion and iron this to “heat seal” the design. After it is dry to the touch, put the shirt in the dryer and the ink will remain on the shirt indefinitely. 

Artists can screen print multiple shirts at a time with a wet screen, just take care not to smudge the ink when placing the frame on a new shirt. When finished with the run of shirts with this stencil, simply spray the frame, mesh and transparency sheet stencil with water until the ink has been washed away and allow the pieces to dry. Without a thorough cleaning afterward, mesh screens will harden and won’t be able to be reused.

Start simple with your first design and, after learning the techniques, work on more intricate designs for your next ones. Once a shirt is dry, you can use another stencil on top of it with different colors, or you can experiment mixing colors onto one stencil. The sky’s the limit.

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