Fashion to a ’T'

Screen printing in the biggest little city

Reno eNVy screen prints their products.

Reno eNVy screen prints their products.

Photo/Shaun Hunter

Column note

The chances are that if you or your child's closet contains a jacket with a graphic printed on it, or a T-shirt with a work or school logo inked onto it, these designs may have been put there through a method known as screen printing.

Although the screen printing process originated well over a thousand years ago using materials like banana leaves and human hair, Truckee Meadows Community College Graphic Communications instructor Ron Marston describes the method most commonly used today, where the “screen” part of the name refers to a fine mesh stretched inside of a wooden or metal frame. It's also referred to as silk screen printing due to silk being a common material for the mesh.

“The screens are a polyester mesh and the stencils are usually created by coating the screen with an emulsion that is light sensitive, then exposing the image onto the emulsion,” Marston said. “The unexposed areas are washed away, leaving the screen ‘open' only where the image exists.” At this point, one can use a squeegee to send a layer of ink through the screen and onto the fabric lying beneath it.

Marston, who grew up with parents who owned a commercial printing shop, says that a benefit of the use of screen printing in the context of design is that it “allows for all kinds of experimentation.”

One of screen printing's major contributions to the fashion world lies in its relatively simple process and do-it-yourself accessibility to putting designs onto a variety of fabric materials. Think a punk band making shirts with their own logo on it, or an artist creating their own design and then inking it onto a bookbag.

Mikey Burke has led screen printing workshops at Reno's Holland Project. He describes how he first learned to screen print.

“It was a self-taught thing where a group of friends wanted to make some shirts,” Burke said. “We got some picture frames from the thrift store, bought some panty hose and bought emulsion, then went to Kinko's and made our designs into transparencies. We stretched the panty hose around the frame, stapled it, and burned that screen in the bathroom with a regular light bulb.”

Burke discusses how the quality of his frames and prints have improved immensely since those early attempts. He talks about his current prints, which use multiple colors and a much faster process, but then recalls those first forays into printing, “It came out. Not great, but it worked.”

Today, screen printing kits are available at many craft and hobby stores and include all the basic materials needed to design, burn and print from your own screen as well as water based inks ideal for textile printing. For basic explanations and instruction, Marston says that there are many resources and tutorials available online.

“Screen printing is unique in that it can print on almost any surface—textiles, plastic, glass, metal,” Marston said. “For textiles, screen printing allows for images that can't be done any other way, such as raised images and fluorescents.”

He has taught screen printing at TMCC for the past 10 years, and admits that every year he continues to be amazed by the creativity and new ideas and applications he sees in his students' work.

Despite being a common entry point into image transfer and experimental fashion design, screen printing is also used on bigger scale commercial ventures. One that many Northern Nevadans might be familiar with is the Reno eNVy clothing line. Founder Scott Dunseath describes how he initially came up with designs and then hired others to print them.

“I started in the spring of 2005 with just one design, and by the end of summer we had maybe four or five,” Dunseath said. “We were just selling on the weekends at special events like River Festival.”

After opening a storefront and looking to lower his production costs, Dunseath and a friend started their own printing company called Fuel Promotions in order to print their own merchandise on a larger scale.

“Now for Reno eNVy, we print about 10,000 units annually,” he said.

Mirroring the sentiments of both Marston and Burke, Dunseath also says there are advantages to the screen printing medium.

“It allows you to experiment with different printing techniques, inks and textiles,” Dunseath said.

Differing from other commercial printing techniques, screen printing makes it possible to print one-off designs, meaning that a screen can be created and used to print just one time, or can be re-used many times. And printing the same design in a different color ink is as simple as rinsing out the screen and applying a new color to it. It is also often possible to re-use materials afterward in the building of a different design.

This allows for more uniqueness with screen printing than other printing techniques.

“I think the great thing, compared to other forms, is the authentic feel, and the consistent outcome and quality of the end product,” Dunseath said.

Burke said that there's a special connection to the end-product of the process, too.

“When you look at that first shirt you pull, it's a feeling of satisfaction, seeing that it all worked out and looks right,” Burke said.

TMCC offers a semester-long class taught by Marston, and, though nothing is currently scheduled, several art-friendly organizations in Reno and the Tahoe area such as the Holland Project and Sierra College will occasionally offer workshops aimed at all ages on screen printing.