An abbreviated history of custom T-shirt printing

Would you believe that the ancient Chinese were some of the first people to fire off batches of custom printed T-shirts?

Archaeologists and historians have found records showing that ancient Chinese textile traders, merchants, and entrepreneurs were using different dyes and different materials to create custom printed pieces of clothing for their customers all the way back in 960 A.D.

Now, if you told someone running a custom T-shirt printing press at a flea market or carnival that they had ties to ancient China, big probably send you back to the beer tent.

But it’s true!

The ancient Chinese pioneered silkscreening

Silkscreening, the precursor to screenprinting, was originally developed and mastered between the years 960 and 1280 A.D. by Chinese people living during the Sung Dynasty. These ancient Chinese merchants and entrepreneurs began to use different natural dyes combined with stencils so that they could impart different patterns (originally maker marks, kind of like the ancient precursor to the Nike swoosh).

Would take another 500 years or so for the first screenprinting and silkscreening presses to make it over to Western Europe, but by the time that this technology landed almost everyone that could afford one of these presses were using them to differentiate and “brand” their clothing from other suppliers.

The first carnival barker’s setting up a screenprinting shop

From the early 1800s all the way up until 1853, the Japanese really began to design and develop incredible silkscreened and screenprinting technology that they pretty much “kept secret” from the rest of the world – but that all changed at the 1853 World’s Fair.

Professional clothing manufacturers and merchants from Japan exhibited the incredible designs that they were able to produce from their silkscreening and screenprinting technology, and because they demonstrated the finished products on the world’s largest stage (at the time) word quickly spread to all corners of the globe about this amazing capability.

Rapid iteration of the technology begins

It wasn’t long after the World’s Fair that Samuel Simon patented the very first mechanical screenprinting method in England.

A tool and piece of technology that he used almost exclusively to print different designs on wallpaper (of all things), you have into blame for your grandparents choosing that absolutely terrible and dated wallpaper all throughout their home!

It didn’t take long for people to discover that they could use the newly patented technology on expensive (and not so expensive) clothing and fabric as well, and an explosion in rapid iteration and development of this technology really kicked off.

All throughout the early 1900s all the way up until today people have been tinkering with screenprinting and silkscreening technology, refining that the actual process and finding new ways to produce stunning results without increasing its cost.

Amazingly enough, the original designs are still foundational elements in the silkscreening and screenprinting process for creating custom T-shirts today. This remains a testament to the imagination and engineering of those early pioneers, and really helps to hammer home the fact that “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it”.

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