How to Screen Print!
Silkscreening at Home.

Wayyyy back around Christmas I took some time off to partake in my latest adventure.

Relaxing.

As many of you may remember, relaxing consisted of knitting a sweater, perfecting homemade pizzas, reading and … teaching myself to screen print these tea towels.  I also spent a little time looking up the *exact* definition of relaxing.  I’ve always been a bit iffy on it.

At the time, I promised I would, when the time was right, teach you how to screen print at home.

That time is now.

If you’re anything like me, and I know you are, you thought screen printing (otherwise known as silkscreening even though they’re kindda different) was really hard.  Something only magical hippies could do with the help of marijuana and an unemployment cheque.  Not true!  Turns out it’s actually pretty easy.

When I first started this little nod to the 60’s adventure, I was going to get all set up professional style.  Build a light box, use all professional materials, maybe even get stoned and sell my wares out of the back of a Volkswagon camper van.

Then I didn’t.  I figure I tend to go a bit extreme at times, and chances are ..  you might not be willing to go to the edge with me.  To your credit.

So I figured out a way to screen print (silkscreen) that pretty much anyone can do with mostly stuff from around your house. Providing you  have a 250v generator and 17 taxidermied squirrels in your house.

Just kidding.

So let me explain the type of screen printing I’ll be showing you.  It is screen printing with a photo emulsion.  In general terms, you paint a screen with light sensitive paint, let it cure, put your image on top of the paint when it’s dried and cure it under lights.  The area of the screen that is covered up by your image will not get cured because it won’t be exposed to light.  Therefore after your screen is “exposed”, all the area under your image will just wash away under water.  This clean area in the shape of your image or text … is your screen printing pattern, where you will drag ink across to create your screen printed tee shirt, bag, or tea towel.

Understand?  No?  Kay.  Let’s try again with pictures …

 

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The first thing you need to do is decide on an image you want to print.  I drew up this tree as an example for you.  For your first screen printing subject don’t do anything with very fine lines.  Something like this tree or lettering is perfect.

You can either print your picture out on regular paper and cut it out, or print it onto transparency paper.  Staples carries transparency paper for inkjet printers but it’s expensive.  Around $50 for 50 sheets.  If you’re doing just a basic image like the tree below, you can get away with just printing it onto regular paper and cutting it out.  When you get into more detailed images you’ll want to invest in the transparency paper.  Whatever you do the image has to be OPAQUE.  If you’re unsure as to whether it’s dark enough, hold your image up to the light.  If light comes through it isn’t dark enough.  Either print another copy and double them up on top of each other, or colour in your paper with a black marker.

 

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You’ll also need a frame with “silk” on it.  The silk is actually polyester.  You can buy it in craft or art supply stores.  Make sure you’re buying “110” mesh.

You have a couple of options here. You can either buy a frame that already has the silk on it for around $20 or you can buy the frame and a few yards of the silk and staple it on yourself.  If you’re really crafty you can build the frame out of 2×2’s.  I did all of the above.

 

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To apply your own silk just use a regular staple gun.  Pull it tight, but not so tight the silk rips through the staples.  You can also fold the silk under so it isn’t as likely to rip.  Make sure your staples are pressed right in because your screen needs to lay flat when you flip it over.  Staples that aren’t pushed right in will make the screen wobble.

 

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Once your screen is stapled, cut the edges off.

 

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Tape the outside and inside of the silk so paint can’t drip through.  I’m using duct tape because that’s what I had in my workshop.  There’s special papery tape you are supposed to use.  Next time I go to the art store I’ll buy it, but the duct tape works fine for now.  After more than a few washings of the screen it’ll unstick though.

(update: since taking an advanced screen printing course I’ve learned that painters tape works great for this)

 

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Even though I did, you shouldn’t need to tape the inside of your frame.  Because I made the frame on my own and the silk wasn’t as tight as it could have been, I taped the inside to prevent ink from leaking.  Again, if you buy your frame or just do a better job than I did making mine, you won’t need to do this.

 

6 B

 

 

Now that your screen is ready, it’s time to coat it with Photo Emulsion. This is the stuff that reacts to light, so you have to do this part in a dark room, close to where you’ll be storing it to dry.  It must be stored until dry in a COMPLETELY dark room.  Black.  If you put it in a closet to dry, make sure light isn’t getting through the cracks of the door.  Hang a towel, or housecoat or flat monster on the door to block the cracks if you have to.

Your photo emulsion comes in 2 parts.  The container you see here, plus a little bottle of stuff you have to add to it to activate it.  No big deal.  Instructions are on the bottle.  You just shake it up.

The photo emulsion is applied with a squeegee.  You can either use a squeegee you own, or buy one at the craft store.  They’re cheap.  Coincidentally, so am I.

 

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In your dark room, run a bead of emulsion across the top of your screen.  Apply the emulsion to the “bottom” of the screen.  The part of the screen that isn’t recessed in the frame.

 

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With your squeegee, draw the emulsion down over the entire screen.  You want the thinnest coat possible.  I only did one side of the screen, but technically you should do both sides.  Make sure you have a nice even coat, but work quickly.  Immediately put the screen in a dark area to dry.  Set it down horizontally, not vertically.  Depending on how thick you put your emulsion is on, drying will take 1-3 hours.

(update: Since taking an advanced screen printing course I’ve learned you can also turn a fan on low pointed at the screen to speed the drying time.  With a fan it will take around half an hour to dry)

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I interrupt this post to remind you my “The Art of Doing MORE Stuff” workshop takes place on March 17th.

Close-up of a pencil on the page of a calendar

Always Pinning, Planning and Pondering but never actually doing anything?  Join me in this fun 4 day live, video workshop. I’ll show you had to make THIS the year you get stuff done!  See the course page for more details.


 

 

While your screen is drying, you can set up your exposure area.  Technically you can expose your screen outside in the sun, but it’s risky.  You see, the screen has to be exposed for the exact right amount of minutes.  If you overexpose it, you won’t be able to wash away your photo emulsion.  If you underexpose it your image won’t show up and all of the photo emulsion will wash away.

The best way for you to expose the screen is with a 150 watt lightbulb.  Your photo emulsion kit will tell you how long you should expose your image depending on the size of your screen.  It will also give you the distance your light source should be from your screen.  I’ve rigged up one of my photography lights to use as my light source.  It has a dome thingamabob on it, so this helps focus the light where I want it.  If you do not have a dome thingamabob you can either McGyver one out of a tin pie plate, or expose your image for slightly longer.

You also need something that’s matte black to put your screen on for the exposure.  I’ve used an old chalkboard. A black piece of cardboard or bristol board would work well too.

 

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Once your exposure area is set up you can cut out your image, if you chose to go with that technique as opposed to printing onto transparency.  I cut this image out with a swivel head X-acto knife, but if your design is very simple you could use scissors.

 

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When your screen is dry, cover it with a towel to prevent light from hitting it and carry it to your exposure area.

1. Place the screen on your black matte background.  The “back” of the screen where you applied the emulsion will be facing up.

2.  Place your image onto the screen IN REVERSE.  Hold it in your hand so you’re looking at the image how you want to see it on your tee shirt, then flip it over and place it on the screen.  You’ll notice my image appears white now, because I’ve flipped it over and the dark portion of it is now touching the screen.

3.  Place a clean piece of glass over the image to hold it tight against the screen.

4.  Turn your light on.

Because of the screen size my image required 35 minutes of exposure with a 150 watt lightbulb set to 18″ away from the image.  Yours may be different, but if your screen and image are around the same size as mine this exposure time and distance should work for you too.  From everything I read I figured this would be a disaster the first time.  Most instructions say you’ll fail the first time and not to be discouraged.  It takes a while to figure out the right exposure time for your images.

However, this worked on the first try for me.  Everything did actually.

 

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Set your timer and leave your image alone.  Don’t push, prod or bother it.  Just go away and leave it alone.  Once the time is up, remove your glass and transparency or paper cutout.  You’ll see a faint image right away.

 

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Take your screen to any tap with high pressure.  Your shower head or outdoor garden hose work well.  Spray the image with luke warm water.  Not hot, not cold.  Just keep spraying and eventually you’ll see the image start to appear more and more as the emulsion washes away.  You’ve just made your first silkscreen.  You’re very impressive.  Eat a cookie.

 

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In your work area (which is my workshop) lay  your tee shirt (pre washed) or whatever you’re printing over something you don’t mind wrecking.  I used a piece of masonite.   ‘Cause I wouldn’t want to mar my beautiful workbench that I’m obviously very particular about.

 

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Lay your newly created silk screen over your tee shirt.  You’re now laying your frame the opposite of how you’ve laid it before.  The back of the screen will be touching the tee shirt and the recess will be facing up.

 

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Run a glug of paint across the top of your screen.  My paint/ink is a mix of black and white to make a very, very dark grey.  Your paint will dry MUCH darker than it appears when wet.  Drag the paint over your image with your squeegee without applying pressure to “flood” the image.

 

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Then, going in the same direction, run over the image with the squeegee again with some pressure.

 

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Light pressure will get you a faded looking screen print.

 

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More pressure will get you a more solid image.

 

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Hang your item to dry.

 

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Once it’s dry, you need to set the image by ironing it with a hot iron.  Your bottle of screen printing paint will have instructions on this.

And that’s it.  How to screen print.  In 742 steps or less.  It really isn’t all that difficult and for what it takes in energy it more than gives back in fun.  Much like  Dodgeball.  Or shoving a lima bean up your friend’s nose.

The total investment is as follows:

Squeegee – $9.39

Photo Emulsion  – $10  (good for many, MANY screens)

Ink – $8.00  (good for many, MANY tee shirts)

Frame with screen – $20 – $40 depending on size.  (or make your own screen and buy the polyester)

150 watt lightbulb – $3

Total Initial Investment for start up supplies:  Approximately $50.

If you have any questions feel free to ask me.  I probably won’t answer them but I might chase you down and shove a lima bean up your nose.

Fella

 


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304 Comments

  1. cheri says:

    Yahoo! I’ve been waiting (and waiting) for these instructions. And now that I am pretty much completely confused, yet in awe that this works….I’m trying it. I plan to make this my new career actually.

    Thanks, Karen!
    Cheri

  2. Shannon V. says:

    Great tute. Very easy to follow. Will have to try this this summer….going to pin it now!

  3. Amanda says:

    I used to do screenprinting. Little tip – if your dark room has a RED light you can take your time spreading the emulsion and make sure it is nicely covered without the panic that you are already exposing your activated emulsion. You can also place your design in the red light so when you take your towel or sheet off of the screen it can immediately start to process. Like Photo paper Red Light does not activate the photo processing chemicals in emulsion. also you can “bake” your t-shirts in the oven at 250 for 5 minutes or so. This was useful for me as I burn everything with an iron… all my ironing is done in the dryer with a wet cloth LOL

  4. Pati N says:

    Thank you Karen! I have so wanted to do this.I was just scared thinking I had to invest a lot of money… I have been using freezer paper to stencil designs onto the bags I make.It works fine but I cannot reuse my stencils as much as I could with a screen print.
    Also just wanted to say that I just feel we are always on the same wave length…you and I. So many of your posts directly relate to my life. Seems uncanny sometimes:)

  5. Angela says:

    Thank you for including a picture of the fella, that was a nice reward at the end of the post.

    The tutorial was very helpful, I’ve always wondered how to silkscreen! Sadly, I won’t be adding this to my list of projects, the list is already about 3 miles long and my husband is threatening to have my craft supplies end up ‘misplaced’ during our upcoming move.

  6. Sandy C says:

    Looks like a fun project! Who pee’d in the fella’s Wheaties before the photo shoot?

  7. ladymonana says:

    You know me so well! Detailed description AND pictures to follow! Also, thank you for the great suggestion on what to do with that flat monster I have lying around. I can’t wait to try this.

  8. Michelle says:

    You are one of those annoying people that can’t sit still on their relaxing holidays while I’ll happily sit on the couch at home watching everyone else on the home shows doing the clever things!
    He looks well impressed by his early xmas pressie 🙂

  9. Leena says:

    Ok, question, even at risk of getting a lima bean up my nose. If you want to make many different images, do you have to have many frames too or can you change the “silk”? Can it be stapled again on the frame?

    • Karen says:

      Leena – It depends. The silks can be washed with a special solution if you know you’re never going to use that pattern again. That way you can just clean the screen as opposed to changing it out. You *can* remove the stapled screen for use later on, but I wouldn’t say it’s recommended. You can reuse frames. ~ karen

  10. Sevi says:

    Wow, this sounds like rocket science to me now. I think I need to drink a few more cups of coffee and wait for the afternoon to read it again. Thinking again… No, no clue…

  11. I’ve been reading this blog for what feels like forever, and I think that’s the first picture I’ve ever seen of the fella! Now I know how hot he is I’ll definitely keep reading.

    • Shauna says:

      my honest answer – if that is the first picture you’ve seen of the Fella, then you’ve missed some really great posts! I know there’s at least one with his shirt off – it’s not to be missed;)

  12. Tara says:

    Sorry if you covered this already, just wondering how often you can reuse the screen. Can you wash the paint off and use it again, with different colours etc?

    We did silk screening in high school just with a paper stencil sealed with shellac. This probably has a totally different name and is nothing like actual screen printing!

    • Karen says:

      Tara – You can wash the screens with Photo Emulsion Remover as long as the screens aren’t years old. Then it’s harder to remove. ~ karen

  13. jenny says:

    Could you tell us what you for a darkroom, and how you make it “light tight”?

    • Karen says:

      Jenny – I use my closet or my laundry room. Neither one has windows. Any room w/out windows will be fine. I closed myself into each room and took a look at the door to see where any light was coming through. Then I just taped up some tea towels on the outside of the door to make sure no light got through. ~ karen!

  14. Jen says:

    Wow…this makes me appreciate those tea towels…in a whole new light! Great tutorial….great shirt for the Fella.

  15. Amy Schmucker says:

    love it. I took printing class in high school. That was enough for me.

  16. sarah says:

    is your fella henry rollins baby brother?

  17. Leslie Zuroski says:

    He looks quite fine and so does the shirt. Thanks so much for this Karen! I’ve been wanting to make some stuff.

  18. Deborah says:

    Impressive to say the least! but as another worshiper said, if I try to add any more craft things on my To Do list, hubs will have my a$$ in a sling 😀 THANKS for taking the time to show us how it’s done. I will bookmark this for later though, perhaps when hubs goes golfing I can set up a silkscreen sweatshop… (evil grin) 😛 Oh, and the Dude most definitely looks fetching 😀

  19. Mary Werner says:

    I don’t understand how you work in the dark – then leave it to dry for hours. How did you get out of the closet without light getting in? Or did you stay in the closet and have a little nap? Or did you do all this at night – so confused.

  20. steph says:

    My favorite posts typically feature the fella looking like you dragged him outside with begging and promises of whatever he gets excited about. That face says, this is the 20th time you’ve taken this picture, and you promised a quick shot. Are we done yet?

    • Karen says:

      Steph – That’s funny. That’s *exactly* what that face is. If I remember correctly we were just about to eat dinner, but I was losing light outside so we needed to do it right there and then. 🙂 ~ karen

  21. Mary Kay says:

    Hi Karen,

    Did this in art class in high school – but we used a different product and had to cut the image out of this green stuff. But that was MANY moons ago – I saw on the internet where someone had used an embrodiery hoop, pantyhose and modge podge to create a silk screen. I think I pinned it on Pinterest. If I do this right here is the link to check it out.

    http://mycalicoskies.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/52-week-challenge-10-diy-screenprint.html

    BTW – love ur blog ur my new hero!

  22. Langela says:

    I love the faded look. I may have to try this someday. Maybe next winter when all the outdoor work is done on the farm. Thanks for the inspiration, Karen!

  23. Rose says:

    The fella is sporting the universal expression for hurry-up-and-take-the-picture-so-I-can-get-on-with-whatever-I-was-doing-when-you-stopped-me-and-asked/made-me-take-a-picture. My husband always looks like that in ALL of our impromptu photos. It goes well with the other set of photos with the fake smile he does when I ask/tell him to NOT be like that.

  24. Melissa says:

    This is so cool! I kinda sorta think I could actually pull this off, based on your directions.

    I love the fella being your model for this too.

  25. Brenda says:

    Whoa Karen..thanks for this..have to try it!! oh and I think the fella deserves the purple cross for allowing you to exploit him…..

  26. Kim says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this detailed tutorial with photos. My favourite picture is the one showing the jar of photo emulsion. kidding!
    Not sure if I’ll give this a try but as always, Karen, great read!

  27. Kelly M says:

    I’ve got some photo emulsion, I’ve got some screens that I’ve used with those sheets of pre-made photo emulsion… I’ve also got the paranoia that I’ll never get the liquid photo emulsion out of my precious screens. Any problem cleaning the tree screen?
    Signed Screeny in AK

    • Karen says:

      Kelly M – Nope. No problems at all. The screens cleaned up just fine. I was a bit worried too but it worked great. Just follow the instructions on the photo emulsion remover bottle. Brush it on, scrub, rest, rinse. Something like that. ~ karen

  28. Melody Madden says:

    The fella looks great in his T. Was it difficult to get him to wear it for the photo? Great tutorial and I enjoyed reading it but will I ever attempt it … no, I will just live vicariously through you instead …

    • Karen says:

      Melody – I’ve made him a few tee shirts … he wears them all the time. He just wanted to hurry up and get in for dinner. ~ karen

  29. Tess says:

    You continue to amaze me, but seriously, instead of attempt this, I think I would rather set my hair on fire.

    • Karen says:

      Tess – LOL. It really isn’t hard at all. I’ve just done a through enough job with the tutorial to make it seem that way. ~ karen 🙂

  30. Kaitlen says:

    You’ve done it again, Karen. Awesome post! I’ve allllllways wanted to know how to screen print at home.

    And I quite like the fella’s expression–it says “yeah, I have a wee pine tree on my shirt, you gotta problem?”

  31. You are my new best friend. Iron on is so tired and crafty where as this is fine art (well….) I just spent hours photoshopping a bunch of owl photos I took at our Raptor Center and they are begging to be put on t-shirts and tote bags. Thank you. Thank you.

  32. J9 says:

    Whoa. Nope, never gonna happen. I would get frustrated way too early. I’ll just stick to being jealous of your craftiness.

  33. Barbie says:

    Karen, you always inspire me! I LOVE the wee tree! I love even more that photo of the Fella wearing it! He is a looker for sure! Forget that he was hungry! W/out that “look” on his face…the pic just would NOT be the same…..it’s really sorta bad A, ya know? As always your work has paid off!

    PS: how is the front yard garden going? I know I asked before….and can’t remember “which” post I asked on ….so I do apologize if you already answered….please don’t shove a lima bean up my nose or slug me in the va ja ja!

    • Karen says:

      Barbie – The front yard is coming along. I’m doing a post on it next Tuesday to show my progress. 🙂 ~ karen

  34. WOW thats very involved and professional. I was expecting something less involved like this one http://mycalicoskies.blogspot.co.nz/2012/04/52-week-challenge-10-diy-screenprint.html which has been floating around pinterest.
    I have also been contemplating silk screening and watched some youtube videos on it but decided it was too much of an investment given you need a new screen for every design. And a lot of space. Good job though and very informative post!

  35. Nancy Blue Moon says:

    The Fella does look quite fetching in the tree shirt..but then he looks good in most anything..I think you should screen print a nice pair of undies for him to model for us..Hey just an idea..You said you wanted to attract more readers..Please don’t shove a lima bean up my nose Karen..I shoved a peanut up my nose when I was a little girl..It got stuck up there..It was quite embarrassing and I never lived that one down..

  36. Beth says:

    A very informative post. Thanks for the insight. Interesting how your fella looks just like Mr. H Rollins!! Nice 🙂

  37. Shauna says:

    Do you have to put anything between the shirt so it doesn’t bleed through to the back?

    When you put the photo emulsion on the screen, does it drip through onto your counter?

    And, like someone else asked, how do you get out of your closet without letting the light in? I think the dark room part would worry me the most – I’d be sure to somehow ruin the whole thing by getting some light on it.

    • Rhonda says:

      Oh I’d like to know these answers too.

      As well as, once you mix the photo emulsion does it stay good for a long time in the jar? You said it was good for many prints.

      • Karen says:

        Hi Rhonda! Well … it depends on who you ask, lol. I’ve used it after 3 months and it was fine, but most people suggest keeping it no longer than 8 weeks after it’s mixed. You can buy better more expensive emulsion that you don’t have to mix that will apparently last for up to a year! ~ karen

  38. Beth says:

    Truly wonderful tut!! I did a screen project in High School and back then it was all about rainbows – had like 4 screens to go thru – but it was cool!!!! For the folks asking about re-using screens – I would suggest separate screens for different colors – it’s a pain (drying time and all) but the end product is so worth it!!!) Thanks so much for taking the time to put all the pictures in – they answered the questions as I was asking them!!! Sadly my to do list is too long as well, and might not get to this now — but in the future…. Love the Lima bean – and have a few friends that might actually let me try it if I can run fast enough!! ha ha Thanks for making me LOL again!!!!

  39. Amy in StL says:

    OMG, I used to date an engineer who had that look in every photo I have of him. Now I’m dating a guy who not only smiles, he poses for most pictures. It’s not as annoying as it sounds, except when he decides to pose like a girl…. then it’s annoying.

  40. lori says:

    Hey Karen how do you get out of the “dark room” with out letting in the light?? do you cover the project? or do you turn yourself into a ghost??

  41. Candace says:

    Great tutorial! It’s funny you say it’s pretty easy…I’ve always found it to be a royal pain in the ass because I NEVER get the initial exposure time right. You’re lucky you did! My screen-print teacher told me to always do a test screen to get the right exposure (uncovering sections in minute increments), but I’ve always been too stubborn to devote an entire screen to that!

    Another cool technique is to get the screen filler (or you can just use house paint) and drawing liquid and just draw or trace your image right onto the screen. Then you spray the drawing fluid off like you would the emulsion.

  42. Laura Bee says:

    Wow, very cool. I think this will be a project to do with my sister. We have made candles, soap, wreaths…for gift at Christmas. For the last 10 years or so, we have been stuck on fudge & cookies (well, friends & family have been) Maybe time to try something new.

    • Karen says:

      Laura Bee – It’s *a lot* of fun. Even the fella said it looked interesting and he’d like to try it. ~ karen

  43. debra b says:

    I’m going to try this

  44. Maureen @theThriftyLass says:

    Does the fella come with?

  45. Dana niemeier says:

    I would love to try 2 colors. Maybe I’ll try my business logo…or not.

  46. Melissa L. says:

    I think you should invent (make ) a screen frame that opens up (but attaches securely) so you can slip the screens out and save them and put in a new screen. Then you’ll make zillions (or hundreds) of dollars and send me a tea towel as a thank you. (Man, do we make an awesome team or what?!)

  47. Amanda says:

    @ Karen yes you can bake them in the oven… I will have to double check the temperature… and if you can buy a clean cookie sheet (dollar store one will work… you just don’t want to bake old food on your new shirt) it’s better to put it on a cookie sheet so you don’t get grill marks on your shirt… I did that once LOL It is alot more carefree and like you are baking SUPER FAST cookies that you can wear LOL

  48. Oooh, yay!! So excited to try this! HA, you made me laugh out loud envisioning you chasing someone down to shove a lima bean up a nose.

  49. Katrina says:

    The fella always looks royally pissed (“disgruntled” for the non-Americans out there) in your posts. I LOVE IT! Curmudgeons for the win!

  50. Dominique says:

    I really love your sense of humor and that guy was obviously glad to be your model! Thank you for making screen printing seem attainable, you know not like giving up soda or winning the gold!

    • Karen says:

      Dominique – Hah! Good luck with the silkscreening. But be warned! Once people find out you can do it, they’ll all want you to do it for them. You might want to start distancing yourself from family and friends now. ~ karen

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