Organic printing is an important thing to consider when shopping for organic clothing. Organic garments printed with toxic inks are not completely environmentally friendly. The good news is there are earth-friendly screen printing methods that are a good choice over conventional screen printing methods.
The Process of Screen Printing
Screen printing is popular as a novel technique or art form in the West. It has its origins in China more than a thousand years ago, according to the Encyclopedia of Art Education. Also called serigraphy or silk screen printing, it has come a long way from printing only textile and paper.
How to Screen Print
Screen printing is a stencil technique. The Future of Screen Printing explain that a fine mesh stretched tightly over a frame acts as the stencil, through which ink or paint is forced through with the help of squeegee (a rubber blade) on the textile placed below the frame. The stencil acts as a negative, where parts are blocked to create an image or design, and the ink colors flow through open parts of the stencil to color the textile below. Earlier the fine mesh was made of silk. These days, the mesh is created with materials like nylon, or cotton, or metal, so the technique is commonly called screen printing according to the Encyclopedia. The frame is made from wood or aluminium.
The method described above is called the flatbed and is simple enough for use at home for printing t-shirts or other textiles. The Future of Screen Printing article, published in 2015, elaborates that commercial screen printing involves simple or highly mechanised methods like the flatbed, cylinder press, and cylindrical printing press.
The printing technique is the same in both conventional or organic. As long as the dye used is organic and has no negative effects on health and environment during production and use, the process is then organic.
Organic Printing Certification
To be certified as organic screen printing, the dyes and process used must meet Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS). GOTS stipulates that "Discharge printing methods using aromatic solvents and plastisol printing methods using phthalates and PVC are prohibited". In addition, use of chlorine bleaches or azo dyes, or chemical bonding agents are not permitted either. Moreover, the process must also be environmentally friendly, where energy and water consumption are minimised. Waste generation should be reduced and proper treatment facilities for waste water should be ensured.
Organic Ink Versus Traditional Printing Ink
It is not the technique of screen printing that is the problem, but the ink and its byproducts and disposal.
Conventional Ink and Disposal Methods
Conventional printing ink poses a danger because of toxic chemicals produced during the manufacturing and disposal processes, as well as during its use, which are released into the environment. Plastisol, the common dye employed for screen printing, is polyvinyl chloride or PVC based. In addition, the plasticizers used are made up of phthalates which the Environment Protection Agency considers a health risk and in 2014 it decided to assess its impact on people.
To make screen printing organic, conventional dyes need to be replaced by alternatives. Some companies use non-toxic, water-based inks for their screen printing needs. The advantage of this over conventional ink is that it leaves the fabric soft, washable and is easy to iron without fading or releasing toxic fumes. The disadvantage is that it only can be used on light-colored fabrics, and can involve use of large quantities of water.
Many of the dyes being used are naturally extracted from plant material. Natural dyes which were originally used centuries ago are therefore also becoming popular again for organic screen printing.
Screen printing can be used for designing t-shirts or other small garments at home by ordering GOTS certified dyes.
One company that supplies organic dyes is Permaset, an Australian firm, with stockists in a variety of countries, including the United States. While not all of their dyes are organic, some do meet GOTS requirements for organic clothes, like the Permatone range of ink for screen printing that are environmentally friendly water-inks. These are "color matching set for printing on textiles and fabrics" that leave the fabrics soft and are wash and dry-clean resistant. They are available in base colors black, white, blue, yellow, orange, red, green, violet, magenta and extender. They come in one and four litre containers. The price for one liter costs around $25 to $70, with four liters from $71 to $213, depending on the color.
In addition their Permaset Aqua Process colors are also certified by GOTS. They are suitable for cotton, silk, polyester, and other synthetic fabrics. They come in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.
People with an organic garden have the means to produce their own organic dyes. Using simple stainless utensils from the kitchen, dyes can be made from apple leaves, fig leaves, eucalyptus or fennel, to get green and black color, at no cost at all. The process is described by the University of San Francisco's Community Garden Outreach.
Five Organic Screen Printing Companies
It can be difficult to find a company that not only has organic garments, but also uses organic inks for screen printing.
MetaWear in the United States
MetaWear, which boasts of being the first company in the U.S. to be certified by GOTS, use natural seaweed based dyes for screen printing organic cotton t-shirts, with custom prints. "SeaInk, a proprietary dye process" produces dark colors useful for light background and is the GOTS certified process they offer. The t-shirts come in unisex sizes up to XXXL and women's up to XXL. You'll need to contact the company for a quote.
Several companies in other countries have GOTS screen printing available. It might be worth checking to see if they offer shipping to the U.S. if you live in the States and need organic screen printed items, although this might not be possible or be very budget-friendly. However, if you're living outside the U.S. and want some options, these are a few places to try:
- Black Star Cotton - One of the first European companies to take advantage of the new GOTS certified screen printing dyes is the German firm Black Star Cotton.de, who offer organic t-shirts and cotton bags. Sizes range depending on the color you'd like (anywhere from XS to 5XL) and pricing depends on the quantity ordered. Shipping is throughout the European Union.
- Rajlakshmi Cotton Mills (RCM) - RCM uses "low-impact, fiber-reactive dyes" certified by GOTS, and come in vibrant shades that are color-fast. They use the dyes for 100% organic textiles and their products are also certified by FairTrade. Their product range includes garments like sportswear, fashion, baby and children clothes, and home textiles like accessories, towels, bedding and spa blankets. They produce items for businesses, so contact them to get a representative to put together pricing quotes.
- OP Tiger - A Czech company, OP Tiger uses sustainable GOTS certified screen printing to produce 50 items. These include T-shirts, polos, sweats, sports, outdoor jackets and vests, business wear, work wear, baby clothes, caps and hats, towels, bags and accessories. They also undertake GOTS certified printing on order, with up to 16 colors. Contact them for pricing.
- MELAWEAR - MELAWEAR is an Indian firm working in collaboration with Hipsy, a German company. The clothing is produced in India and marketed from Germany. They offer custom screen printing using dyes that are GOTS certified. Pricing is in Euros and depends on the number of colors used and quantity ordered.
Organic printing is not very widespread, and the move to organic dyeing and printing has just started. As awareness and concern for environmental and human health increase, so does the demand for 100% organic and wholesome life choices, including clothes. This could spur the growth also of organic screen printing.