Fabric painting and block printing have been a favourite of mine for the last couple of years, but I always wanted to expand into screen printing. This is because block printing does not deliver the same thick coat of paint that screen printing can, and lots of fabrics, particularly knits, need this for a printed motif to look solid with a crisp edge.

I used to screen print years ago and know that it is not really difficult, but getting it going needs a bit of time and energy. First I needed some means of creating a screen printing stencil or mask. I did not fancy the light sensitive solution method, which is a photographic process where you expose the screen with the dried solution to light, which hardens it, and then wash away the unexposed bits where you want the paint to penetrate. This is because I don’t have anything I can use as a darkroom, a light box for the exposure needs to be kept somewhere and I am too impatient to apply the solution, wait for it to dry, wash out the screen and wait for it to dry again before I can print.

So I decided to go the route of a cut stencil, but I didn’t want to cut it by hand either. I had been eyeing the various stencil cutting machines on the market for craft, but decided they were too pricey in Australia, and on top of that the companies force you into buying lots of expensive proprietary consumables once you have invested in the machine.

But these days I buy lots of inexpensive sewing and art materials via Aliexpress, and when I went looking for a cutting machine there were quite a few to choose from. It was a bit of a gamble, but I have very rarely been disappointed with my purchases, so I decided to risk it. Aliexpress seems to keep a tight reign on their suppliers to provide a useable product of reasonable quality when you purchase through them.  So I bought the following machine, called a cutting plotter, and marketed to businesses for displays and advertising materials.

It cost around AUD 220 including the software, cables and some spare knives, and arrived in a week! Then it took a weekend to learn the software and set up the machine, find the right material for stencils and generally get going. That was the easy part.

The next weekend I wanted to screen print with the stencil I had cut, only to find that tesselating my motifs into an all over pattern on my fabric was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. It is easy when block printing because you stamp the motifs one by one and all you really have to worry about is to space them regularly. But with the screen I had wanted to print several motifs at once to save work, then repeat each screen to create an even pattern. Not easily done! Parts of the screen need to be placed on previously printed areas, they pick up paint and when you put the screen down again the paint gets on the fabric — not good! I tried covering wet prints with newspaper, but because the screen is pressed down with some force the paper sticks and pulls the tacky paint off the fabric. Arghhhh!

Then I discovered that the grey ink I was wanting to print with was thick and gluggy and probably past its use by date. Double arghhh!

But I had a Plan B with a pattern easier to tesselate, which turned out to be something I could have easily cut out by hand, but Rome was not built in a day! I could print it in black, of which I had plenty of ink in good condition and so I managed to print a pair of PJs I had cut out. Although nobody could possibly mistake it for a professional job I was reasonably pleased with the result. I learnt quite a bit, along with what not to do, and got better as I went along.

The print quality is not great, lots of ragged edges, little smudges, bits that didn’t print properly like you can see on my thigh just below the hem of the top. Black on white it is all very noticeable and I am thinking I might dye the Pjs a darkish grey blue which will disguise a lot of the oopsies and make them less obvious.

I also learnt which problems I need to overcome before I will get the results I want. I think I probably need to use a large screen that prints a lot of my fabric in one go, so I don’t need to move it around too much.  Then when the screen needs to overlap a previously printed part I might have to dry that bit first with a hairdryer. Or maybe clean the paint off the screen before putting it down again for the next print. The screen can’t be too big, because my stencil cutter will only do a maximum of 35cm in width. That means a 150cm width of fabric will need 4 repeats, although when printing garments in the flat it will be less per cut out garment piece. Sounds more doable than lots of repeats.

And for those of you who wonder where all this is headed, here are a few pics of what is on my mind. I don’t have the skills yet but we all need to start somewhere!