Seems like a simple question right? Being in the industry for 23 sometimes a simple question is often what our clients need to understand. Not everyone knows the difference between screen printing and embroidery. So today my friends I will answer this simple age-old question.

I can remember back when my Great Grandma used to come to the farm for visits. She would bring her embroidery hoops and set them up (some were so large that they were on stands) and she followed a light pattern with her needle that was printed on a linen towel or pillowcase. Stitch by stitch, she placed the needle in the material on one side and would come up on the other. When she was done, it was a beautifully embroidered masterpiece. Little did I know, 30 years later, I would own an apparel company with my parents and husband, doing practically the same thing.

embroidery machine

Embroidery machine today.

My definition of embroidery is the art of creating a masterpiece with a needle and thread. Today, it is automated with machines to create works of art. Most industrial machines have 12-15 needles. There is computer software that tells the machine what type of pattern to follow, which colors to chose, and when to switch and or trim the threads. When you walk into some embroidery shops you’ll see single heads (which means one machine), double heads, six head machines, 24 head machines and up. Depending upon the demand, and types of jobs you have will depend on the type of machine you have.

Screen printing is one of the oldest forms of printing that there is. It is a method of creating an image on paper, fabric or some other object by pressing ink through a screen with areas blocked off by a stencil. That is the simple definition of screen printing. You’ve probably all done some type of screen printing while you were in grade school, and didn’t even realize it.

When we first started our embroidery business, we had clients ask about screen printing t-shirts. At the time, it was my Mom and me in the business. We decided to take a class at the Milwaukee School of Art & Design to learn about the process of screen printing. I must say it was an adventure every week as we drove out of Pulaski, Wisconsin to the big city. We learned a lot, and our final product was a breadboard that we printed a poem on for an actual client of ours. There are many other stories that go along with our adventures at MSAD, such as the nude model we were exposed too, and the semi-trucks that sandwiched us, but we can save those for another time.

Screen printing is done with screen print presses. The presses are circular looking and it is a spinning process with screen printing apparel. The shirts are placed on a platten. If the job is a two color job, there will be two screens. As each shirt spins around, the press operator pulls the correct color down onto the shirt and pulls the ink across. The platten is then lifted, the next shirt is spun into place and the step is repeated. It sounds simple, and for the most part, it is. However, there is a definite learning curve to screen printing. For example; the technique for screen printing sweatshirts is different than printing t-shirts. Sometimes, this take years to perfect.

Screen Printing Press

Screen Printing Press

One thing you must know about screen printing is that there are different inks for different substrates. There is also a specific drying process for the different types of apparel. Most apparel that is printed uses a plastisol ink, which cures with heat. The consistency of the ink is thick and gooey, like glue. Once it is pushed through the stencil with a squeegee and applied to the shirt, it is sent through a big heater, or as I liked to call it a “pizza oven”. I always wondered if we could have baked a pizza in our heater. When the ink runs through the oven, it must hit a certain temperature to cure. When it hits this temperature it turns into a plastisol and hardens. The final screen printed piece looks like looks like someone printed or painted right on the material with an even consistency.

If you’ve ever had a screen printed t-shirt where the ink has flaked off, this means that the shirt was not cured properly. For most garments the curing temperature is somewhere around 300 – 330º F. If it doesn’t hit this temperature, you may have an issue with the ink on the shirt sooner than later.

The process for making screens is a whole is another blog. However, to give you a little background, when we first started making screens, we did it in my Dad’s milkhouse on the farm, and we used the “sun” to expose the screens. With the technology that we have today, many screen printers are going right from the art department to an automated screen process. It is amazing how far technology has taken screen printing.

Generally speaking, screen printing is less expensive than embroidery. You’ll see with screen printing the decoration is produced on t-shirts and sweatshirts, while embroidery is typically produced on higher quality items, like polos, outerwear, hats, and higher end sweatshirts. With embroidery, the design typically will outlast the shirt itself.

Screen printing apparel is decorating with ink, while embroidery is utilizing thread to create a design. That my friends is the easiest way to explain the difference between the two processes. Next time you are in the market for decorated apparel, you’ll know the difference, and you’ll know where to begin with your project. Remember the more you know, the more you’ll grow.

If you have questions or need a quote for next apparel project call Dynamic Designs Unlimited at 920-822-4450. You can also fill out an online form for an estimate on our apparel page. We love it when our clients are educated. We know that you are able to make the right decisions for all your marketing needs when you know more about the process. Keep asking questions, and we’ll help answer them!