How to Make Great Screens for your Fiber Reactive Dye Printing – Experiment #1

I’ve been on a voyage of experimentation, trying to understand how I can make a very detailed but easy to make screen for dye printing on fabric. We wanted a lot of flexibility with the screens, and we wanted them to be reusable and easily washed out. The method needed to work with very detailed designs as well as those with fewer precise cuts. I didn’t want to get into photo-resist screenprinting.  Having a good space for exposing a screen and washing out the resist was a problem. Here’s a peek at experiment 1:

Screen Printing with Dye and a Silhouette, at

The method we’ve been testing gets us 80% off the way to where we want to go. There is some fine tuning that we hope to present soon, but here’s what we have so far.  This is printing with fiber reactive thickened dye on cotton, but I’m sure this is all applicable to using inks or even some paints.  Thickened dye is just what we do.

This post assumes a lot.  Like you know how to use fiber reactive dyes, dye thickeners, soda ash, etc.  Paula Burch’s site contains a wealth of information. The books I have by Ann Johnston (Color By Accident and Color By Design) are also excellent.

Other than dyes, a dye thickener, and fabric ready to dye, there are a couple of other things we are using. You may be able to make some  substitutions for some of this, but I’ll describe what we do.

We have a Silhouette electronic cutter, which enables us to cut various materials including several kinds of vinyl. If you are unfamiliar with this device, think of it as sending a file to a printer,  but instead of printing on your media of choice, it cuts your image out instead. Cutters like this run between $250 and $270.  We use it for a variety of things, but this has become our primary use.  Scrapbookers also love them.

If you create a design in a vector program like Inkscape (free), Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw or in the Silhouette Studio design software that comes with the Silhouette, you can send this “cut file” directly to the Silhouette, and have it cut on the media of your choice. If you choose to use Adobe Illustrator, you’ll also need the Silhouette Connect plug-in software, if you want to drive the Silhouette directly from Illustrator. Otherwise there are conversion steps that we found tedious. The Silhouette Connect software is fabulous if you use Illustrator.  It also works with CorelDraw, although we haven’t tried that.

Now let’s get started……

A number of blogs describe how to use an embroidery hoop and sheer material (think curtain sheers) to create a simple screen. So that is where we began. You can find an excellent video here, or a blog post here, which describe this in detail. These folks use ink, not dye, but certainly give you the basic idea. How you cut the vinyl (with a Silhouette-type machine or just with a craft knife) will determine how detailed you can get.

Here’s the image I printed on paper, that I wanted to put on a cotton T-shirt:

T-Shirt Design, at Craftalife.comSo how do we get this image onto a T-shirt using dye?  That was the first experiment. If you are a fabric dyer, you’ll understand this process. I soaked a T-shirt in a soda ash solution, and let it air dry.  This is necessary to activate the fiber reactive dye and make it permanent.  It works by raising the pH.  I think it’s best for this purpose to pre-soak and air dry your fabric, rather than adding the soda ash to the dye.

Meanwhile, I cut my image onto vinyl using the silhouette.  I used Expressions permanent outdoor vinyl.  After weeding the image (taking out all the bits I want to print) I used transfer tape to move the image to the screen.  Transfer tape is like a giant 12″ wide roll of masking tape. Here’s a picture of the image on the transfer paper.  That’s why it is reversed here. The transfer paper lets you move everything intact – like the bit inside the A and all the little bits inside the Firefly Serenity (nerd reference).

Screen printing with the Silhouette and Dye, at Craftalife.comMeanwhile I prepped my embroidery hoop with a piece of sheer curtain material. Good thing I just replaced the curtains on the stairs, and have plenty of curtain material.  Be sure to pull it as tight as you can, and cut off the excess. I should have cut off a lot more.

Screen Printing with Dye and Silhouette, at Craftalife.comPlace your image onto the screen, burnish the image down to the fabric using a credit card or other tool, then carefully remove the transfer paper.


Screen Printing with Dye and a Silhouette, at Craftalife.comScreen Printing with Dye and a Silhouette, at

Tape off everywhere you want to block the dye, like so:

Screen Printing with Dye and a Silhouette, at

I had one place below ‘Wind’ where the tape wasn’t pressed down enough, and a little dye seeped through. So be sure all your edges are sealed.

I’m going to end this here, and continue in the next post.  So be sure to stay tuned to see how it turned out!

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