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What is screen printing and transfer printing?

We usually differentiate between two different printing techniques when printing textiles such as T-shirts or carrier bags: screen printing and transfer printing. Both techniques vary widely, resulting in the choice of printing technique having a major impact on the end result, or your project’s feasibility.

Screen printing is a printing technique used for, for example, textile printing, but can also effectively be used for posters and scratch cards. The image is transferred onto a screen, whereby the area to be printed is left open and the remaining part of the screen is closed. The ink is subsequently pushed through the screen. An image created using this graphic technique is referred to as ‘screen print’ or ‘serigraphy’.

With transfer printing the image is first cut out (a plot) of the (transfer) paper. The plot is subsequently peeled out, leaving only the image to be transferred. The item to be printed, together with the transfer, is then placed in a press at a high temperature and pressed together under high pressure, resulting in the transfer adhering to the textile.

We will briefly discuss a number of deciding factors in this article, allowing you to choose the best printing technique.

Colours

A very important factor when choosing between transfer and screen printing is the number of colours used in the design. This is because a different screen will need to be prepared for every colour in the design if you opt for screen printing. Suppose your logo includes the colours light red, dark red, white and grey, a total of 7 screens will need to be used. There is therefore a setting cost per colour! 

The preparing, using and cleaning of these screens is a very labour intensive process. This is why it’s often better and more interesting to use the transfer technique for designs or logos with 4 or more colours, or if your design includes a photograph. This will start with printing your design in full colour, after which it is ‘transferred’ to the textile.

Print run

The print run also plays an important role in your choice of printing technique. As discussed previously, screen printing is a very labour intensive process. The preparation phase in particular requires a great deal of time, in contrast to the printing, which is actually a very quick process. We can therefore state that (although this may be somewhat over-simplified) it would take almost as much time to produce 1 t-shirt, as it would to produce 10 t-shirts.

The time required for producing t-shirts is fairly linear with the transfer technique. You could say, for example, that producing 10 t-shirts would take as much time as producing one t-shirt ten times. This means the transfer technique is much more cost effective for small print runs, but screen printing is a cheaper option for larger print runs.

Sustainability

One final determining factor is the durability you require from the printing. Suppose you have a company where your staff wear t-shirts displaying your company’s logo every single day, then you would need to opt for screen printing. This technique ensures the textile fibres absorb a large part of the ink, leaving the colour in the fibres and also making it scratch resistant. This printing technique is the best option, as the clothing will be washed regularly.

However, if you are looking for t-shirts for a one off event or a special occasion such as a stag or hen party, or an open door day, then the transfer technique would probably be a more cost effective option. This technique results in great quality, but is less durable compared to screen printing. The design is first printed onto transfer paper and subsequently transferred onto the t-shirt using heat, resulting in an extra layer on top of the t-shirt. The printing therefore attaches itself to the fibre, but isn’t absorbed into the fibre, resulting in it being less colourfast and scratch resistant.

Following is a brief summary of the pros and cons of both printing techniques:

Transfer printing

Pros

Cons

Cost effective for small print runs

More expensive for larger print runs

Personalisation possible

Less durable

Photographs possible

Not suitable for uneven textiles

 

Screen printing

Pros

Cons

Durable

High start-up costs

Cheap for large print runs

More expensive for small print runs

High quality

Limited personalisation possible

 

Photographs not possible

 

Screen printing transfers – the hybrid form?

Combination techniques have been created as a result of these different advantages and disadvantages. Suppose you want the quality associated with screen printing, but you’re in need of large quantities. There is a solution for this: screen printing transfer. This hybrid form uses the screen printing technique. But a special transfer foil is used, instead of directly printing onto the textile. The transfers created can subsequently be transferred onto the textile under high pressure and temperature one by one.

This way of working will allow you to use screen printing and therefore enjoy better quality, whilst spreading the higher start-up costs across a higher print run. Any screen printing transfers not used can be kept in stock for use at a later stage.

Possible applications include sports clubs who want their sponsor’s logos to be produced for a few seasons, as the team will be newly kitted out again every year.

 

Conclusion

There obviously isn’t a simple answer. The choice between transfer and screen printing will depend on a variety of different factors. The best printing technique for your project can be chosen based on the number of colours in the design, the print run and the expected durability of the printing. The possible personalisation of the textile can also play a role when choosing the printing technique.

There are also other methods available for printing textiles. These include sublimation printing or embroidery. We’ll talk about this in more detail in a later blog.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us via info@printbirdie.com should you have any questions about printing textiles, or you would like some advice in relation to choosing the right printing technique.

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