Rewind two years.
It’s fall 2008, and I’m living in Ottawa. I’d recently received a DIY silk-screening kit as a present, and I’m on the phone with my sister. We start brainstorming all the fun things we could silk-screen, ultimately hoping that we’ll figure out Christmas presents for our friends and family.
“What about underwear?” one of us finally asked.
And from there, Y.U.M. – Your Underwear Matter was born. We put the call out to our friends and family that we were selling hand-silk-screened, organic, sweatshop free underwear with three slogans on them – so beautiful, bliss and yum.
We had no idea how much interest there would be. Before long, an order for 200 pairs of underwear – that people had paid for – was upon us, and I needed to get silk-screening.
I’ll save the details of the story, and just say three things:
- The underwear did get finished.
- My sister and I didn’t talk for at least a week after the ordeal.
- I haven’t silk-screened since.
But, time is a funny thing, and two years later, without an order for 200 pairs of underwear, the silk-screen equipment came out again in time for the holiday season. So now, Ashleigh and I bring you a How To on silk-screening…
There’s a wonderful company called Speedball that sells silk-screening kits and supplies that are usually found in Canada in Deserres art supply stores. This is what I used when I first started, and I’ve been pretty happy with the results. I should also note that we were using the “photo emulsion” method … I’ll explain more later on.
The kit (plus other equipment I’ve gathered myself) includes:
- One 8”x12” screen*
- 1 squeegee*
- Masking tape
- Photo emulsion fluid & Sensitizer*
- Photo flood bulb (or 150W bulb, but a photo flood bulb is better)
- Photo flood bulb stand
- The images you want to screen, photocopied in the highest quality (laser) onto transparencies
- 1 large piece of glass (from a picture frame)
- Rubber gloves
- A toothbrush
- 1 Hard-bristled bathroom-cleaning brush
- Fabric ink*
* items included in the speedball kit
How To Do It:
For the photo emulsion method, you actually need 2 days to complete the project. The first day is spent preparing the screen with photo emulsion fluid, and then you let it set overnight. The real sweat, blood and tears come on day two.
Now, a note about the photo emulsion method. For people like me who are terrible at drawing things free-hand (or for those who want fine details in their prints), photo emulsion is the technique to use. It allows you to take photos or other images and expose them onto the screen. You can use a variety of other techniques if you want to draw your own image, but I’ve always used and preferred this method, because you get more detailed prints.
So… day one!
- Start by taping up your screen. You want to cover all the crevices where the screen meets the wood frame with masking tape,
so that none of the photo emulsion fluid gets into those cracks, and to help protect the wood frame. Basically, just tape up the wood and you’re ready to go.
- Put your gloves on and prepare the photo emulsion fluid. Usually, you can buy an 8 oz bottle of photo emulsion fluid along with a wee little bottle of sensitizer. You fill the wee bottle up with cold water about 2/3 way (follow the directions on the bottle), and shake it, sh-sh-sh-shake it, until it’s well mixed. Then add this mixture to the emulsion fluid and mix thoroughly. The previously thick blue liquid will now become green!
- Still with your gloves on (very important), coat the screen with a very thin layer of photo emulsion fluid. The squeegee comes in handy here to make an even layer. I can’t stress the importance of the thin-ness of the layer. If you use too much fluid, it will form into drips as it dries, making an uneven surface. I usually spend a good 5 minutes carefully squeegee-ing each side of the screen to get any and all excess fluid off the screen.
- Once you feel the layer is thin enough, you want to let the emulsion fluid dry. It’s important that this happens in a completely dark space. Any light that hits the screen will prematurely expose it, ruining your chances of a nice print in the end. To keep it in the dark, I either put the screen into a bathroom cabinet and tape the door shut, or (like this time) I put the screen into a big box, tape it shut and hide it under my bed for the night. It’s always handy to have your parents send you a wreath the day before in a silk-screen-sized box! Thanks guys!
- This is when the fun really begins. But first, a small caveat to explain photo emulsion. This is how I understand it. When you expose the screen with your photo flood bulb, you are heating up the photo emulsion fluid and causing it to clog the pores of your silk-screen so that no fabric ink can get through. The areas covered by your transparency are protected from the glare of the light bulb, and therefore don’t get clogged. Once the exposing is done, you flush out the area that was covered by thetransparency, and voila – you have your screen ready to print.
- So, you need to expose your screen. The first thing is to decide on what you want to print and photocopy your image onto a transparency or overhead sheet. It’s really important to make sure the image is well photocopied – I usually go to a professional store and ask them to print it using a laser printer.
- Gather all the materials you need before bringing your screen out of the dark – this means your images, the light set up, your rubber gloves, the hard-bristled brushes, and your pane of glass.
- For the light set up, you can apparently use a regular 150W light bulb, but I’ve always preferred using a photo flood bulb (500W). The thing is, you can’t screw a 500W bulb into just any old lamp socket. I invested in a light stand and set up, which included a heavy-duty reflector, to aim the light in a single spot. It cost about $100, but was well worth it for the YUMs run.
- When you’ve got everything ready, take your screen out and place it on the ground, screen side up. Place the transparencies on the screen so that they mirror the way you want them to appear (see above picture!) and put a pane of glass on top to keep them in place. Then turn on your light and start exposing!
- Exposure times vary depending on your light source, but for mine is about 12 minutes, holding the light source 12” from the screen.
- Once you’re done with the exposure, turn off the light (it’s hot!) and use your brush and cold water to flush out the screen. You want to use a strong hand to make sure that you get all the excess fluid out of the pores where your print was. A hard brush (like the kind you might use to clean a really dirty bathtub) is ideal for this.
- Once the pores are all clear and your frame is dry, it’s silk screening time! Place your screen carefully on top of where you want the image to appear (you might want to try on a scrap of fabric first). I usually stand on the screen to keep it in place. Then add some ink to the screen, and use the squeegee to evenly run the ink over the image you want to print on. You’ll figure out your own technique for keeping it all in place as you go – trust me.
- A few things to note – you probably want to put a piece of cardboard in the middle of things like shirts and underwear to make sure that the ink doesn’t go through to the other side. You can also expose several images onto one screen, but make sure you cover the other ones up with cardboard so that they don’t all appear on one shirt!
10. Once you’re done, let the ink dry. Then iron over the patch, using a scrap of material to cover the print, for about 3 minutes. Use a dry iron – no steam!
11. The clean up is a bit of a chore – you don’t want to leave any ink in your screen. But trust me, it’s worth it!
I’m off for the holidays now – in the woods without internet access – but never fear, the DIY-ing will continue! Check back in the New Year to learn about preparing mushroom culture, making sourdough starter, building a bike-powered generator and spinning your own wool!