Surface Active art-to-wear, T-shirts in the spirit of fun
By the mid 1980s T-shirts had become hot promotional items, garments on the outskirts of fashion, and a relatively new medium for the Graphic Designer’s art. What had for a long time been considered a poor medium for Graphic Design grew to an almost essential one. All you have to do is walk down the street anywhere in the world since the early 80s to see what a ubiquitous promotional vehicle they have become. If you mail out 100 potential clients a direct mail brochure and perhaps 200 people will see it. But mail out, or better yet, sell 100 T-shirts, and assuming they’re at all decent looking, you launch 100 walking billboards.
The trend over the past several decades has been to embrace more casual clothing, to the point of stone-washed and distressed, though this has in no way meant this sort of clothing has become less expensive or stylish. Brand awareness, including personal brand awareness has been part of this trend—to such and extent that people want, or are at least willing to flaunt, the name of the brand or designer of their shoes, jeans, and bags on the items in question. In short clothing manufacturers made their products promotional vehicles for themselves.
Surface Active art-to-wear
Promotional teeshirts take this walking billboard concept one step further by being clothing that promotes other products and services in such a way that the wearer is willing to be identified—whether through a sense of aesthetics, humour, social responsibility, or irreverence, or loyalty to a watering hole, cultural institution, environmental organisation or charity. People are willing to wear someone else’s message because they feel it says something about themselves—which is the essence of fashion.
Initially our Surface Active art-to-wear T-shirts were designed to be retailed by us and also to be wholesaled to environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and the Maruia Society, for inclusion particularly in their annual pre-Xmas direct mail catalogue campaigns and sold in their retail stores.
As design pARTners in the visual arts Chrissie Terpstra and I sought to apply our teeshirt design skills to everything from promoting small businesses and one-time events, to our Surface Active art-to-wear wildlife, Kiwiana and nuclear free collections for the likes of Wild Places and The Epicentre, Christchurch’s two ecostores, and for Greenpeace and the Maruia Society. Our market developed to include DoC visitor centres and similar conservation themed retail outlets in National Parks the length and breadth of the country, and the prestigious Te Papa store at the then brand new National Museum in Wellington. As our business and reputation grew we were commissioned by the likes of the International Antarctic Centre, Orana Park and certain Doc conservancies to design and produce custom ranges of adult and children’s shirts.
This delightful collection is from our SurfaceActive Art-to-Wear range 1996–2000.
In terms of our T-shirt design itself, it evolved from straightforward application of a symbol or logo, screenprinted on the kitchen table in our flat in 1986, sometimes hand painted to finish, to approaches that treat the shirt as a canvas, involving printing the garments as piecework prior to being stitched up by local seamstresses. Whereas our early designs simply applied graphics to the front of the shirt, our designs developed into appearing on the front and back, wrap around, and encircling the hems and sleeves. Treating the T-shirt we were printing on as the design of a piece of clothing in the round. We also developed from printing initially printing white and light coloured shirts to having our locally made pure cotton garments custom dyed in vivid dark hues in small batches prior to their speciality “dark shirt” printing.
The mechanics of hand-screen printing fabric
When you are printing on cotton fabric with seams you cannot get the kind of fine detail you can printing on paper. The fabric absorbs the inks or dyes and the colour spreads through the fibres—the fabric equivalent of dot gain.
With our layered or hand-separated multicolour designs the colour is laid down in areas with the hand-pulled silk-screening process, with “flash-curing” of the print between colour passes, in some cases up to 10 passes to print one garment, front, back, hem and sleeves, one colour at a time.
Fabric colour and the issue of “hand” or feel of the fabric printing inks
The other reason other than avoiding toxic (and highly hazardous) solvents that are used for printing “Plastisol” inks, and for selecting water based inks and dyes as the better option is that of the “hand” or feel of the ink. Water-based inks have a nicer feel to them but they are more difficult to work with as they easily cure, “dry in” or clog the stencil especially in peak demand hot summer weather, rendering it useless and in need of remaking. Waterbased dyes have no “hand” to them as such as the screenprint literally dyes the light coloured fabric.
Custom designed and built in-line printing workshop
We developed a custom in-line sequential printing methodology, rather than rotary print methodology in our back-shed “sheltered workshop” to successfully overcome the drying-in drawback of soft-hand waterbased printing dyes and Supercover inks. It was achieved by way of additional manual labour and an innovative use of my own design of home-built screen holding humidifier boxes for keeping the ink and screens moist between print runs. On the 8-colour garment designs the period between each colour being printed could be up to 40 minutes.
If you want to lay down a light colour on a dark shirt you have to use acrylic Super-cover inks, in some cases laying down two light coats to best build opacity while preserving detail. Flash curing in between, or lay down a base of light grey first then flashing off is the only way ensure print quality is maintained throughout the garment print run. If your dark shirt design has a lot of solid light ink coverage you end up making something that has the feel of a bullet-proof vest when you’re wearing it. We avoided this by planning our designs to combine both ink and dye passes, colours darker than the fabric colour are dyes, lighter ones are super-opaque acrylics, all required flash curing between.
The other huge benefit with water-based inks, aside from wash-up with water, and their “thinners” being water, is that the finished garment once flashed off to the point of being touch dry is given a final cure in just 20 minutes in a domestic tumble dryer rather than a 6m long high-tech curing oven.
Optimising the illustration workflow for easy printing and graphic quality
One of our specialities is one colour “puff printed” designs, the so called puff inks contract when cured and so draw up the fabric surface. This has a tremendous tactile and visual effect on single colour dark shirt prints such as the Tuatara and children’s Ocean and Forest floor designs.
I developed a variation of drawing wildlife art for reproduction from classic zoology methods, using mixed media charcoal pencil with pen and ink on coquille board to achieve a crisp “line and tone” effect from one colour “line” images.
Garment prices scaled with print cost
With hand-pulled screen printing the cost of printing a batch of shirts scales with the number being produced up to a certain point, set-up and clean-up time being equal regardless of quantity. The number of graphic “placements” (a graphic on the front is one placement, front and back, two placements, etc.), and the number of colours, type of ink used,. per graphic also determines the printing cost.
Regarding the gallery and our T-shirt models
As with other some portfolios on the site Archive the over 40 designs included here are collected from the period between 1988–2002 of our Surface Active printed garment editions. Other than ordering them from monoprints descending to multicolour designs I have made no effort to force the shirts into defined categories; rather, I present them in a manner intended to inspire and entertain—an approach appropriate to the spirit of fun that T-shirts represent.
In that light-hearted vein a shout-out must go to our T-shirt models from back-in-the-day, the kids are all 20-or-30-something now at time of writing. Our compliments and lasting gratitude are also due to their T-shirt modelling parents, our friends. SurfaceActive employed most of them as our highly-trusted sales crew selling from our stall at the weekend Christchurch Arts Centre Market, come rain or shine, year-round 1988–2002.
Design and Art Direction: Design pARTners, Chrissie Terpstra and Shaun Waugh
Illustrator: Shaun Waugh
Hand-pulled screen printing: Surface Active: Chrissie Terpstra and crew