Retrospective: Surface Active 1986–2003— t-shirts in the spirit of fun.
Back in 1986, as an illustrative graphic designer; I was a design pARTner with Chrissie Terpstra in our ‘auto printmaking’ garment screenprinting studio and clothing brand, Surface Active Artwear.
We learned over the next 17 years together aboard the good ship Free Enterprise, in what began as a shared hobby screenprinting on the kitchen table, that hand-pulled screenprinting is the medium of the hard labouring graphic artist. From the drawing board, to the darkroom, to the shirtfront with squeegee in hand, to folding great drifts of cotton, employing up to four people, manning our stalls at the weekend Christchurch Arts Centre Market, The Waiheke Island market and The Great New Zealand Craftshows from Cape Reinga to Bluff… busy, busy, busy.
Of course we were big fans of the humble t-shirt. By the mid 1980s they 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.
Back in the day, if you mailed out 100 potential clients a direct mail brochure 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, distressed—clothing that appears to have more life experience than the youth who wears it—though, isn’t it ironic (and oh-so bourgeois,) that all of this has in no way meant this sort of hip clothing has become less expensive or stylish. I recall my eyes watering the time I picked up a pair of name brand shotgun blasted and ripped men’s jeans in 2004, NZD$450 for the look of just having been assaulted in an alley! That’s fairly interesting.
Brand awareness, including personal brand awareness has been part of this trend—to such an 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.
But I digress.
Promotional teeshirts take this walking billboard concept one step further by being clothing that promotes products, services, cultural and ideological views in such a way that the wearer is willing to be identified—whether through a sense of aesthetics, humour, social responsibility, 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 T-shirts were retailed by us at our stall at the Christchurch Arts Centre Market, also by direct mail to the list we collected, and at Great New Zealand Craftshow events nationwide.
We grew to be wholesalers 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 and I applied our teeshirt design skills to everything from promoting small businesses and one-time events, to our wildlife art, Kiwiana and nuclear free collections. We wholesaled to the likes of Wild Places and The Epicentre, Christchurch’s two ecostores, and as mentioned, to Greenpeace and the Maruia Society.
Our market developed to include DoC visitor centres and similar conservation themed retail outlets in National Parks and in the brand new, prestigious Te Papa store in Wellington. As our business and reputation grew we were commissioned by tourist attractions like the International Antarctic Centre, Orana Park and certain Doc conservancies to design and produce custom ranges of adult and children’s shirts.
The 2021 delightful digital art collection in our two e-stores that I have been developing since 2008 is based on the archive of our ‘analogue’ and computer aided Surface Active Artwear range 1986–2004.
In terms of our T-shirt design itself, it evolved from straightforward application of flat shape illustrations like the Dolphins Leaping design, handcut from Rubylith, to hand separated multicolour drawings, cartoon images, to symbols or logos, all screenprinted by Chrissie and I after work on the kitchen table in our flat in 1986.
In the beginning sometimes these prints were devised to be handpainted to finish, or in the late 90s 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-shirts as the design of a piece of clothing in the round. We also developed from printing white and light coloured shirts to custom batch dying them in vivid dark hues and speciality, more technically challenging and laborious “dark shirt” printing.
The Direct-to-garment digital printing that enables the one-off printing of the Surface Active range of designs today, that is a whole ‘nother ball of wool. In a nutshell it is a process of printing on textiles using specialised water-based inks and inkjet technology whereby the prints form a very strong bond between the garment fibres and the pigmented inks.
What follows is a historical record of Surface Active’s methodology.
The mechanics of hand-screen printing fabric do not change
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.
With our layered or hand-separated multicolour designs the colour is laid down in areas with the hand-pulled process, with “flash-curing” of the print between colour passes, in some cases up to 10 passes to print one garment one colour at a time.
Fabric colour and the issue of “hand” or feel of the fabric printing inks
The reason for selecting water based inks and dyes as the better printing option, other than avoiding toxic (and highly hazardous) solvents that are used for printing “Plastisol” inks, is that of the “hand” or feel of the ink on the garment. 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 waterbased printing dyes and acrylic Supercover inks. It was achieved by way of additional manual labour and an innovative use of our own design of screen holding humidifier boxes for keeping the ink and screens moist between print runs.
High cover ink system
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 is the only way ensure print quality is maintained throughout the 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 based on 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.
Regarding the gallery and our T-shirt models
As with other 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.
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 at our stall at the Christchurch Arts Centre Market, come rain or shine, year-round 1988–2002.
Design and Art Direction: Design pARTners, Chrissie Terpstra and Shaun Waugh
Graphic designer, illustrator, print production/‘pre-press’: Shaun Waugh
Hand-pulled screen printing: Surface Active: Chrissie Terpstra and the Surface Active “screen gems” crew