Making Swag or The Surprising Complexity of the T-Shirt

By: Mike July 13, 2012
Content Warning
This post may contain references to crass commercialism and the business of writing. It should not be read by those with romantic notions of authors scrivening with a quill pen in quaint, drafty garrets who don't wish to be disillusioned. This will be the first in a short series of posts aimed primarily at helping other authors. We'll return to your regularly-scheduled programming in a month or so.

P.S. Patty is still out in her drafty garret, er, office trailer, typing away!

You've decided to make some custom swag, congratulations. There's something magical and fun about sitting around the dinner table coming up with crazy ideas, selecting one and then turning that idea into a real product. Usually, this involves working with a specialty manufacturing company with the equipment and expertise to produce a quality product..

You'll need to do some homework, and you may need to get multiple suppliers. We are currently using four different suppliers for various items. Our patches are made by a company who specializes in embroidery, our prints are purchased directly from the artist, and we have a couple of different suppliers for T-shirts. We're also negotiating with two additional companies for additional items.

There are companies that specialize in customized promotional items. For example, our patches are built by the Custom Logo Factory. In addition to patches they offer screen printing, embroidered apparel, and a full line of water bottles, cups, pens, stationary, backpacks . . . And there are dozens of similar companies. So, if there are companies that offer one-stop swag shopping, why would anyone use multiple suppliers?

The answer is, unsurprisingly, that different suppliers offer varying specializations and capabilities. For example, let's consider the humble T-shirt, a mainstay of swag-mongers everywhere, and our favorite items to stock. Let's walk through some of the decisions between the "eureka!" moment at the kitchen table, and holding the finished shirt.

So, you've come with an amazing design, it's right there in colored pencil. Before you call the local print shop, you'll need to consider a few things. Is your design camera-ready, or do you need to higher an artist or graphics designer to re-render the image? Is your current image monochrome or color? If color, can you reduce it to two or three colors, or do you need a broader palette? How many shirts, realistically, do you expect to sell, and how many can you afford to stock?

How Much is Enough?

The stock numbers are surprisingly important, even a small store can tie up a lot of money, and authors aren't known for being fabulously wealthy. For example, let's suppose we'd like to produce two styles of shirt; one for men and a fitted shirt for women. Since making new shirts takes a week or two (and probably has a minimum order and some setup fees), you need to keep a few of each style and each size on hand. For a bare-bones approach, maybe you need ten of each size. If you stock sizes between small and 3X, that works out to sixty shirts in each of your two styles, or 120 shirts. Assuming our logo is simple to reproduce, we can probably get shirts made for somewhere around $10 each, or $1,200 (plus setup fees, artwork prep, and taxes). Remember, this was a simple example, now consider what it's going to cost to stock twenty hand-forged replicas of your hero's favorite sword. The inventory costs add up quickly as you add items.

Our web store is a tiny, pathetic thing with inventory stuffed into half of the office trailer, and there's generally between six and ten thousand dollars of inventory sitting out there. That's several thousand dollars that we can't use to fix the car, pay for college for the kids, or buy food in a lean month. We frequently get suggestions and requests for additonal items in the store, and it's hard to strike the right balance between maintaining and changing inventory, and controlling the amount of our savings that are tied up in swag.

One last thought is that many suppliers not only have minimum orders, they have progressive discounts based on the number you order. If you do decide to make replicas of your hero's sword, you may find that you need to order them fifty or a hundred at a go to get a reasonable price. A bit of homework and planning when selecting your suppliers can result in big savings and potentially reduce the amount of inventory you need to stock. For example, most of our shirts are done by a very professional local supplier. They're a little more expensive than some of the on-line shops, but I get face-to-face friendly service, and very quick turnaround on my orders. The fast turnaround means I can stock less inventory, and still deal with those weeks when thirty people suddenly decide they need a size medium shirt.

Screen Printing: So, You Want Color With That?

While we're speaking of cost, let's go back to that nifty logo you designed. Ever wonder why so many companies have simple logos that can reproduced nicely in a single color? It's because they're smart. Whether you're making shipping crates, DVD covers, or T-shirts color costs. To figure out why, let's look at what happens when we ask a print shop to make some shirts with our logo on them.

The first thing the print shop will decide is which technology they'll use to make your shirt. Most shops specialize in screen printing. In screen printing, a negative mask of your image is produced on a very fine screen which is mounted in a mechanical frame. Your shirts are individually laid out on a platen below the frame, the frame is lowered onto the shirt, and a very thick ink is spread over the screen with a squeegee. The ink passes through the unobstructed portions of the screen, and your shirt is inked. Later, the shirt will be passed through another machine to rapidly cure the ink. Screen printing is relatively inexpensive and produces bright, vibrant durable colors. The major drawback is that since the ink is spread across the entire screen, adding a second color requires using a second screen.

Most screen printers can handle somewhere between four and seven colors, but because each and every shirt must be processed through each and every screen, the prices tend to rise rapidly with multiple screens. Our "Mercy's Garage" logo is produced using six colors. It's pretty, colorful, and sadly expensive to produce. Quite often the shirt color can be used for one of the colors in the design, cutting down the number of screens needed. For example, if you're printing on a black shirt, you may not need to ink the black portions of your logo. If you use the same screens to print on a pink shirt, however, your logo may look a little strange!

Another drawback of screen printing is that it's difficult to mix colors. The colors are added one at a time. If you print red on top of blue, you won't get purple, you'll get red with some nasty blue specks showing through here and there. Some half-tones can be created by dithering -- printing individual dots in various colors. However, the mesh of the screen limits the resolution, and these images often show some disturbing pixelation. In the end, screen printing is best suited to designs with large areas of solid color. It's perfect for the local bowling league, your company picnic or any occasion where you need affordable, customized garments in relatively small quantities.

More Color, and Hang the Cost!

And now I'll prove I'm psychic — here's what you're thinking: "But my awesome logo features full color graphics, soft gradients and subtle shading!" Obviously, it's not impossible to produce, there are shirts with beautiful full color printing in every store in town. If you can't simplify your logo you'll need to offer up your credit card on the altar of technology. You're now looking for a shop that offers direct-to-garment printing. Basically, an oversized inkjet printer loaded with fabric ink is used to print a nice full-color image directly on the shirt. This technology eliminates virtually all of the drawbacks of screen printing, but at a price.

Although direct-to-garment printing is gaining in popularity, not all units are created equal. These machines are specialized, and currently prohibitively expensive. The units commonly seen in smaller shops may have difficulty correcting colors to compensate for the color of the shirts being printed (though this can be remedied by a skilled operator). The inks also vary greatly in vibrancy and durability. We had some done by a shop several states away. The printing was very expensive, but the shirts looked great. Then we started getting complaints from customers that the ink was fading badly after a few washings, and suddenly all the expensive shirts became useful only for giveaways or grease rags. Caveat Emptor!

"So what about those shirts at WalMart or Target? They don't fade, and they're pretty inexpensive. That's what I want!" And you can have it, as long as you're willing to order in kind of quantity that WalMart or Target do! We recently ordered some shirts from The Mountain, a company that's been producing beautiful, high quality shirts for years. We've long admired their shirts, and they recently started handling custom orders from small customers. By small customer, they mean a minimum order of six hundred shirts. Compared to WalMart that's a tiny order, but for our little operation, that was a huge order.

Still, we were able get custom-dyed shirts with our logo rendered in full color, including gradients and shading. They ended up being less expensive, per shirt, than most of the shirts we'd had screen-printed at our local printer (and if I'd ordered a few thousand more, I could have gotten an additional discount). The only drawback is the amount of money now tied up in inventory, and the fact that when we run out of a particular size, I can't order another twenty, I'll need to order another six hundred shirts!

Cotton or Silk?

With most items, from jewelry to shirts, you'll get to make some choices about how economical or extravagent you want to be. It's often tempting to throw caution to the wind, and order something awesome. Just remember to keep your swag-lust in check, and focus on your goals. Which better suits your goals, ten dollar tee-shirts or custom-woven cardigans? Basic cotton, or some exotic high-performance fabrics? The number of choices is bewildering, which is both the joy and the curse of doing something completely custom. Just remember to have a little fun -- your mistakes make great giveaways, and it's all marketing!

Parting Thoughts

Making custom swag for your books is actually a lot of fun Do your homework before you jump in, particularly with larger purchases. On custom work, prices and quality can vary widely between suppliers. Finding the right product, from the right supplier, will make sure that you have a grin a mile wide when you hold something in your hand that ties back to your characters, and your world. It's kind of like the feeling you get when you first see an awesome cover painting for your story, and you realize that that's not just any sword-swinging barbarian, that's your sword-swinging barbarian.

Coming Soon: Part Three. The Virtual Construction Zone — Building a Web-Store.