The History of Screen Printing

silkscreen printing history Warhol

Classic Andy Warhol print, Turquoise Marilyn

Some of the earliest art images on cave walls are stencils of hand prints.  At heart, silk screening is a method of stenciling images.  Silk screen printing may be the oldest and most practical printing technique dating back to ancient times. There are hypotheses that silk printing’s origins started in China at least 12 centuries before Christ when silk began to be produced there.

Silk printing may have originated not far from the Mediterranean Sea between Mesopotamia and Phoenicia according to available historical facts.  There are a number of archeological finds and historical studies that indicate that the Phoenicians found a way to reproduce patterns on fabrics using techniques uncommon to those used today.  However, they can be credited with pioneering a system of image duplication by using stamps to reproduce simple patterns.

The method was later improved in Japan to a printmaking technique that created sharp-edged images using a stencil and a porous fabric, known as screen printing, or serigraphy.  The Japanese used simple stencils which were glued onto a screen made of human hair that was stretched over a wooden frame.  This printing technique was then further improved throughout the Middle Ages and became widespread in Europe.

The screen printing process that we know of today emerged in the early 1900s when a man from Manchester, England, Samuel Simon, received a patent for using a silk screen fabric as a printing screen. Simon patented this process of printing through a silk screen, which guaranteed a higher tensile strength and better size stability.  Simon’s process also used rubber blades, or squeegees, to push the ink through the screen which is still used today.  The invention coined the term “silk screen printing.”

It was not until the First World War that screen printing took off in America.  The process was used for printing flags and banners.  The use of photographic stencils at this time made the process more versatile and encouraged wide-spread use.  The actual use of silk for screens was discontinued in the mid-1940s during the Second World War because of its use in the war effort.  Since then a polyester material has been used for the screen mesh and other improvements have been made in the presses, inks, and chemicals used.  Otherwise the same basic screen printing process patented by Simon is still used today.

2 thoughts on “The History of Screen Printing

  1. The only history that I knew about screen printing was that it was invented in China many generations ago, but I knew nothing about how it became so popular in United States. It’s pretty cool to know though, so thanks for sharing!