Craft Club: How to Silk Screen T-shirts

As part of my New Year’s resolution to “Create More” I knew I wanted to bring back Craft Club meetings with friends. It’s fun to share a different craft with friends each time, and they really get into it.

So for the first 2016 meeting, we silk-screened T-shirts, tote bags and aprons with our new “Craft Club” logo. It was only my second time to silk-screen on my own, and the first time on fabric, but all of our pieces turned out great!

Screenprinting T-shirt

Here are the steps to creating your own silk screen project:

1) Gather your materials

Speedball screen printing kit – I picked this up on a whim from my local art supply store. You can get a similar screen printing kit on Amazon. The kit has three methods of printing, but this tutorial covers the DIAZO photo emulsion method.

Speedball Screenprinting Kit

Kit includes:

  • Screen
  • Opaque screen printing inks (I chose the opaque ones because they work on dark fabrics too. Plus they have a little shimmer)
  • Squeegee
  • Photo Emulsion
  • Photo Emulsion remover

You’ll also need:

  • Popsicle sticks
  • Newspaper
  • Pushpins
  • Disposable gloves
  • 150-watt bulb and lamp
  • Aluminum Pie plate
  • Black paper
  • Transparency with printed design
  • Sink sprayer
  • T-shirt, fabric tote bags or aprons
  • Cardboard
  • Freezer paper (or waxed paper)

2. Create the Positive

Screenprinting transparency

We should all create positivity in our lives. But, here, I mean create the transparency that will be used to print the screen. It’s like a negative. Except it’s the positive. You want to print your design the same as you would like it printed (right-reading, right side up). Whatever is black on the transparency will be what is inked. I used Illustrator to create my design, but this could be done in Word, too.

I had two 8.5”x11” black and white transparencies printed at my local copy shop. Make sure the design fits your screen. Also, even though I was going to print in two colors, I printed the whole design on the transparency, and we masked out sections of it later. If your two-color design is very intricate, you may need to print a different screen for each color.

3) Prepare the Screen

Follow the directions on the Speedball kit for preparing your screen.

For clarity sake, we’ll call the bottom of the screen the flat side, and the top of the screen the part that has the wooden frame extending up from it.

First mask the screen. Use masking tape and cover the edges of the screen so that the tape is halfway overlapping the wooden edge and half-way overlapping the screen. Do this on both sides of the screen.

Screenprinting masking tape Screenprinting masking tape

Add pushpins to the corners of the wood frame on the bottom side of the screen. I didn’t have any pushpins (go figure), but I had four sewing bobbins that I taped on. These are used to raise the bottom of the screen off of your surface while drying.

Screenprinting Screenprinting

A) Add emulsion

In an interior bathroom without a window, I cut open an old paper bag and taped it to the bathroom counter to protect the surface. You want the room to be dark to avoid fogging your screen, but a little indirect light is ok. I left the door open with a lamp outside the room.

Lay the screen on the counter with the bottom side up. Wearing disposable gloves, use a popsicle stick to add a line of emulsion at the top. Then take the squeegee and pull the emulsion across the screen, covering it completely. Do the same on the other side, going back and forth until the screen is completely covered. You may have to add more emulsion as you go. I did, but then found I had too much on the screen. You can return excess emulsion back to the bottle. Squeegee until both sides have a smooth layer of emulsion. Let the screen dry in the dark room with the bottom side down, resting on your pushpins (or bobbins).

Screenprinting materials Screen with emulsion

People say they put the screen in a box or a drawer to to dry for days. Who’s got that kind of time? I let the screen dry in the dark bathroom overnight and it was fine. The first time I made the screen, I let it dry in the same space with the bathroom fan on and it dried in a couple hours. Keep the screen in the dark until you’re ready to expose it.

B) Expose the screen

I really wanted to print the screen in the sun, originally, because that’s how I do cyanotypes. And while it’s possible, it seems to be the least preferred option for exposure because of it’s variability. It’s recommended to use a light bulb setup instead. Sure enough, the day I went to print, it was hopelessly cloudy. So, I went to the light-bulb store nearby and bought a 150-watt incandescent light bulb. In the end, it’s a pretty good setup. Here’s how I rigged my exposure unit:

Screenprinting exposure setup

I started with my Ikea lamp and replaced the bulb with the 150-watt bulb. But first I cut an X out of the middle of an aluminum pie plate (I happened to have a rectangular aluminum to-go plate that I stretched to do the trick. I taped the pie plate to the outside of the lamp (trying not to touch metal to the electric parts—that might be bad). Then I put the bulb in.

I decided to hang the lamp upside-down from my desk, to expose the screen laying on the floor in a room with the blinds closed. The bulb needs to be about 12 inches from the screen, so I raised up the base (now the top of the lamp) on a box and taped it all to the table so it wouldn’t fall. Make sure there’s no other direct light.

I laid two pieces of black paper overlapping on the floor. This helps to prevent light from bouncing back up under the frame.

Screenprinting exposure setupI placed the screen over the black paper with the bottom side up.

I took the two transparencies with the design printed on them, lined them up and taped them together using clear tape. Two transparencies together helps make a more opaque image. So I’ve read, but I haven’t tested myself.

Place the transparency on top of the screen so that it is REVERSED. Think about it this way—when your screen is done, you will turn it so that the bottom of the screen is on the bottom and print through the screen. So it will need to be a mirror image from the bottom.

Make sure the bulb is centered over the screen about 12 inches above. Then turn on the lamp and let it expose for 45 minutes. (If you use other bulbs, the timing may be different. Refer to your kit instructions). It’s bright. Avoid staring into it. You might go blind, or just get a headache like me.

Once the time is up, remove the screen. The area that was exposed will be a darker area, and the area under the black part of the transparency will be a lighter green.

Screen after exposure

Add another row of masking tape and cover the edges that did not get emulsion. This helps create a “tight” screen and prevent ink from bleeding through on the edges.

C) Wash the screen

Place the screen in your kitchen sink, and using the sprayer on the sink faucet, focus a hard spray of water on the areas you want to wash out. After a few minutes, you’ll see the unexposed emulsion rinse away and the image will come through. Let the screen dry completely. I was in a hurry, so after dabbing with a paper towel, I used a blow dryer, and it worked well.

Screenprinting washing out emulsion

Screenprinting - two girls review screen

4) Prepare the fabric

We worked with T-shirts, fabric tote bags and cotton aprons as our fabric. Some needed to be ironed to provide a flat surface. Inside the T-shirts, I placed a piece of cardboard and a layer of freezer paper, to prevent the ink from bleeding through to the next layer.

5) First Ink Run

If you’re using the same screen for two or more colors, use masking tape on the bottom of the screen to block out the portion of the image you don’t want printed. If you’re covering a large area, you can also use a plain sheet of paper taped onto the screen.

Screenprinting masking out part of screen

Place the screen (bottom side down) over the fabric where you want the design to be printed. Have a friend (or begrudging husband) help you hold the screen down while you print. Use a popsicle stick to place a line of ink across the top of the screen. Use the squeegee and pull the ink down across the screen in a fluid manner. Hold the squeegee at a 45-degree angle and try to make an even flood of ink, pressing it into the screen. I pulled the ink down, up and down again for an even print. You’ll have to practice to see what works best for you and your fabric. Carefully remove the screen an admire your beautiful print!


Return any excess ink from the squeegee to the bottle.

Once you’ve finished your print run, remove any sections that have been masked (not the edges, though) and wash your screen.

6) Next ink run(s)

Let the first run of ink dry before you attempt a second color. Again, we used a blow dryer and heat gun to speed up the process, which worked great. If you’re doing a second run of ink, make sure your screen is dry and mask out the sections that you printed the first time. Repeat the printing process as above.

Screenprinting girl with finished apron

Here’s Cat showing off her finished two-color apron! It’s perfect for holding craft supplies.

7) Remove the emulsion

If you want to keep the screen for future print runs, wash and dry it as is. However, if you want to reuse the screen for other images, you’ll need to remove the emulsion immediately after printing. Otherwise it will become permanent on the screen.

Take off all the masking tape and put the screen in the sink. Wear disposable gloves for this part. Using the emulsion remover and a foam brush, brush the remover all over the emulsion part of the screen. Do this on both sides of the screen, and let the screen rest flat in the sink for two minutes. If you give the emulsion enough time to work, you shouldn’t need to do much scrubbing. After two minutes, use the same foam brush to brush away the emulsion. It should come out pretty easily, but if not, add more emulsion. Once it’s cleared, rinse and dry the screen.

Screenprinting emulsion remover Screenprinting - washing out emulsion
Then clean up!! And enjoy your new silk screened project!

five girls with screenprinted projects

In the end, we all got to walk away with a cool printed T-shirt or bag, and we’re ready for the next Craft Club meeting!

What did I miss? Do you have any tips for silk screening? What would you like to print on your own T-shirts or bags?


Photo credit: All the good photos on this page of us printing are by my talented friend Cimela Kidonakis. Any bad ones are by me.

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