Silk Screening at the ATHM – Another Terrific Program for Teens


Frances Killam is a local artist who, we are pleased to say, has been working with the ATHM Education Department by bringing her many talents into the fold. Currently, she is teaching silk screening techniques to a group of eight teens from the United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) in Lowell in a grant program for us. I asked her to describe how this program, funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, is going, and this is what she wrote:

“In the spring of 2010, the ATHM Education Department won a grant to teach the process of silk screening to a group of eight youths from UTEC in Lowell. UTEC focuses on bringing “peace, positivity, and empowerment” to Lowell teens. Our class began on October 19th and has been running every Tuesday from 4 pm to 6 pm. The class meets at ATHM in the Webster Education Center. We start every class with a snack and then quickly get down to work.

Silk screen printing has an air of mystery about it, but it’s really pretty simple: stretch fabric on a screen, make a stencil on the screen, set the screen down on your print surface, force ink through the screen stencil onto the surface. That’s it – you’re done! I wanted to de-mystify the silk screen process for the students, so our first project was something I call ‘Guerilla’ silk screening. I learned this technique from the internet! This simple process uses no special equipment. Everything you need can be bought at Michael’s and Walmart.

The screen is made from an embroidery hoop and a piece of a sheer curtain. Buy one curtain for $7 and you’ve got enough material to make at least 20 screens. Pop the curtain fabric into the embroidery hoop and stretch it tight. Now you’ve got a screen! Draw a design on your screen and then paint Mod Podge where the design is white and leave the black areas alone. Once the glue dries, you’re ready to print. Place your screen over your t-shirt with a piece of cardboard in the shirt to prevent ink from bleeding through to the back. Squeeze a line of ink or fabric paint above your design and using a small piece of cardboard, smear the ink all over your design. When you lift up the screen, you have a custom designed, silk screened t-shirt!

The UTEC teens carried out this process very carefully. I was impressed with their focus and attention to detail. They used a variety of source materials for their designs, from hand drawings to the UTEC logo. One girl used her own sonogram for her design. Because of the nature of the process, the resulting t-shirts have a hand-crafted look, but now the students know how to do real silk screening affordably. Their t-shirts came out great!

Our second project used a more precise technique with photo emulsion coated screens that we exposed to the kids’ designs which were printed on clear transparencies. For this process, we used two Yudu silk screening systems, which the grant purchased. The Yudu machine is a great system for creating small scale silk screen products in a non-messy craft environment.

The students had to find source material or scan their own drawings. Photos needed to be converted to a pattern of black dots (a process called “half-toning”) to keep the images pure black and white. To create the design transparencies, each student had one-on-one time with me or Sherry (my amazing volunteer assistant!). We used Photoshop to help the students realize their designs, add text, and half-tone the photos. We printed the resulting images onto transparencies with an ink-jet printer.

The Yudu has its own proprietary silk screens. The photosensitive coating required for this process comes in sheets, which are applied to the back surface of the screen while it is wet. Once the screens were coated with photo emulsion and the transparencies were made, we used the exposure unit in the Yudu machine to expose the emulsion with the student transparencies. Special light shines through the transparency onto the photo emulsion coated screen. Where the transparency is clear, the emulsion is exposed to light. It hardens and becomes waterproof. Where the light is blocked by the black design, the emulsion remains water soluble. Once the screen has been exposed, it is carefully washed in the sink. The water soluble areas where the light was blocked wash away, leaving the hardened areas which were exposed on the screen. The process transfers the student’s design to the screen perfectly, with great precision.

Now the screen is ready for printing. The Yudu machine has special fixtures that allow for quick and easy set up for printing, but the process is the same as the embroidery hoop printing. The t-shirt is laid out and the screen is placed over it. A line of ink is drawn on the screen above the design, and then a squeegee tool is used to smear the ink over and through the design onto the t-shirt below.

What a whirlwind of learning! The UTEC students learned two very different silk screening processes, one completely manual, the other highly technical. They produced two different t-shirt projects. They got to know each other as a group. And they got to know the American Textile History Museum. I think the class was a great success! The grant allows for us to teach this class again in the fall of 2011. I wonder what results we will see next year?”
– Frances Killam

Thank you, Frances, for leading these teens through what could have been a complicated process to be able to express themselves in a new and dynamic way – t-shirt art! Their t-shirts ARE great, too, and will be on display at ATHM’s Textile Learning Center (TLC) starting this January. You can see what our local teens have to say by stopping in then.

Sue Bunker
Director of Museum Education

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