02 03 The World in Relief: Putting your art on a T-shirt (UPDATED!) 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Putting your art on a T-shirt (UPDATED!)

Sometimes winning something can mean nothing much is asked of you... and sometimes it stretches you in new ways. Over the past week, I've been stretched -- by a T-shirt.

I am a member of the organizing committee for the Fourth Street Festival of the Arts & Crafts in Bloomington, Indiana, which is held the Saturday and Sunday of each Labor Day weekend. Each February, committee members are asked to submit possible images for the event's annual T-shirt. 

For my design I took part of my linocut Sydney Afternoon and combined it with vertical lettering inspired by the beach shirts of my adolescence in the 1980s. It was the height of fashion to have a long-sleeved T-shirt with the lettering of the particular surf shop running along the sleeves. I used Lightroom to increase the contrast of the linocut a bit so it would read better as a T-shirt.

A forest green t-shirt will now be the backdrop for my image.
When your design is chosen, you are in charge of the T-shirt production for the year -- soliciting bids, dealing with the imagery, considering the numbers and types of shirts, as well as supervising delivery and distribution. I have never put anything on a T-shirt before, but employing the Busey family motto I thought "How hard can it be?"

The T-shirts are intended for advertising for the festival, but the all-volunteer committee also wants to cover the cost of the shirts. So in planning this year's shirt, I was forced to grapple with many trade-offs:

• The more colors, the more expensive the shirt
The goal of the T-shirts is to promote our fine art festival, so we really want fine art on the T-shirt. This can mean many colors and gradations, all of which add additional costs to the printing of each shirt. In traditional screen-printing, each color is an individual screen and is printed separately. There was an option of a Direct to Garment process (which is used for printing photographs on textiles) but the textile artists on the committee felt very strongly that they wanted traditional screen- printing.

• 100% cotton vs. new-century blends
Many of the exercise T-shirts that are now sold are a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers. They feel softer and more drape-y than the traditional 5.3 - 6 oz cotton T-shirts. The thinner shirts might feel better, but also seem see-through, which might be objectionable to some people. Other people object to the boxy stiffness of the 100% cotton men's T-shirts. My compromise was to order a percentage of women's T-shirts, with the intent of creating some specific signage and labeling to make sure everything sells.

• Where is everything made?
T-shirts are often a promotional item, and are considered somewhat disposable in the United States. In my city, the most popular college-town bar orders 2,000 shirts per week during the university school terms. I use my family's worn out T-shirts as rags for my studio. I spent some time reading about the labor records of the factories that produce the T-shirts most often used, and it was a sobering read. This also doesn't take into account the production of cotton and its environmental problems. At least the shirts will be locally printed.

• How many do you order?
I am never so aware of the risk of entrepreneurship as when I plan for an outdoor event. In the four years I have participated in this festival, we have had searing heat, high humidity and torrential rains. One year the remnants of a hurricane came to visit. When it is very hot, people don't like to shop, and they don't want to buy heavy T-shirts. When it is raining, it is hard for the information booth to adequately display the shirts. Poor sales of shirts means more boxes in a committee member's basement, and T-shirt costs not covered.

So many trade-offs and considerations exist for something that is so ubiquitous in our culture. Consider this when you put one on this weekend...

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