The T-Shirt Factory

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The T-Shirt Factory Part 1

Murphy's Tavern image

In the late 70's I got a job as a production artist at a sportwear company. Their business model was to offer free custom made silk-screened designs as an incentive to buy sportswear in quantities of a dozen or more. The salesmen preferred to sell higher margin nylon jackets, but they sold quite a few T-shirts too.

I was one of the two or three staff artists in their small art department. There was a lot of production work cutting amberlith and pasting up block lettering in preparation to burn silk-screens. I learned to become very proficient using a swivel knife to cut out designs in amberlith.

I wasn't fond of working on orders for jackets because the ink was nearly always white. In effect, the printing looked like a negative image. If I'd stayed there longer I would've started working with that requirement more effectively, but things were geared toward production and we were encouraged to just "crank 'em out". This was one of several factors contributing to the average art department tenture of 3 to 6 months.

The best thing about the job was when I was able to draw cartoons for T-shirts. Most often these were one or two color designs, but that was fine - I was earning my living as a cartoonist.

Most of the work was done for small businesses that were sponsoring a softball team or some other sport. This castle design, like so many, was purchased by a tavern. Unless you're using a very fine mesh, artwork that's going to be silk-screened requires fairly bold lines. I think that's why I used a felt tipped pen to draw this one.

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The T-Shirt Factory Part 2

The Striking Dragons of Kenpo design

Kenpo is an American form of Karate used for self-defense. It's based on natural body movements, but Kenpo moves are quick and precise. They're designed to redirect force or immobilize an attack.

This illustration was done for a group called The Striking Dragons of Kenpo. This is the original pencil drawing. I wasn't able to take the inked version with me when I left the T-shirt factory.

The factory I worked at for about a year was located in a large building in a funky area of town. There was a retail shop out front where sportswear and silk-screened "seconds" were sold during regular business hours. The rest of the building was the production area where the silk-screening was done. There were several small workstations designed for printing one garment at a time. But there was also a large silk-screen "press" designed for large orders and for multi-color jobs. It was really impressive to watch when it got up to speed.

The art room was in the back. My boss used to call it the "art womb", because we could shut the door and be temporarily sheltered from the company politics and fire drills that seemed to always be going on in the plant or the front office.

There wasn't any air conditioning in the plant, and it got to be 80 or 90 degrees during the Summer months. So we'd open up the windows to let in whatever breeze might be available. Unfortunately there weren't any screens on the windows. The flourencent ceiling lights above us acted like a beacon attracting half a dozen paper wasps into the art room. The more they buzzed around us on those hot days, the more I wanted to be someplace else. There were some good days in the art room to be sure, but there were others when nothing came to mind except the word: sweatshop.

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The T-Shirt Factory Part 3

Lucky Lager T-Shirt

I was still a smoker during my days cranking out production art and cartoons at the T-shirt factory. There was a tavern across the street from the plant. The kind of place that was not too well maintained on the outside and without a window in sight. If it didn't qualify yet to be classified as a dump, it was working on it. One morning on the way to work I stopped in to replenish my nicotine supply. I was actually surprised the place was open at 8:00 in the morning. But when I saw the hard luck cases at the bar well into their current round of beers I understood why. No wonder they named the place The Buzzard's Roost.

My boss ran the art department at the T-shirt factory. He was a very creative guy. When Orville Rendenbacher Popcorn became a national brand, he called Orville himslef one day and asked if he could send him some sample T-shirts. Orville loved the samples and placed a big order that kept the 6-color press going for about a week straight.

Another speculative job was a design for a local brewery called Lucky Lager. The black linework for this design I created was photographed as a film positive and then colored with acrylic paint on the back, just like a cell for an animated cartoon. Unfortunately, there was a lot of consolidation in the brewing industry around this time so the Lucky brand didn't last much longer.

Chandler T-shirtMeanwhile, the annual Portland Comic Book Convention was coming up and Jim Steranko was one of the guests. He'd recently completed his landmark Chandler: Red Tide Illustrated Fiction book published by Byron Preiss Visual Publications, so I made the cover image into a T-Shirt design. I reduced Steranko's painting into a high-contrast illustration and cut the image out of amberlith using a swivel knife. I wore a snap-buttoned shirt over the finished T-Shirt and "ripped" the shirt open to reveal the design to Steranko at the convention. I think he was impressed and promised to consider ordering some. I gave him a couple of sample shirts to help him mull it over. A friend of his came by the plant a few days later and asked for another sample, but we'd only printed the ones Steranko already had, plus the one I kept. Unfortunately, those were the only ones we ever produced. The shirt I had is long gone now and after 15 or 20 years even the original amberlith artwork disintegrated. So as far as I know all that remains of this speculative project is this photograph of me wearing the shirt.

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The T-Shirt Factory Part 4


Once the 6-color press was up and running, the T-Shirt factory's management started soliciting full color work from national brands. One of the companies they approached was a O'Brien International, a manufacturer of waterskis and related products. Each of the artists in the shop was asked to submit a T-Shirt design as part of the pitch. This was mine. Of course, none of the artwork ever graduated to fabric, but they helped get the conversations started and the factory did eventually print some sportswear for O'Brien.

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The T-Shirt Factory Part 5


The majority of the work I did at the T-shirt factory was production art, but I did get to spend a fair amount of time drawing cartoons too. Once in a while a special project came up like the time the owner was booked to present at an industry conference. I drew all of the cartoons to illustrate his talk. It was a great chance to work in full color.

Another fun project I was assigned was the cover of the Employee Handbook. I drew this cartoon featuring some of the tools used to design and print T-shirts and jackets. The original was black-and-white, but I added color for some extra punch here on the web.

There was an artist who had worked in the art department at the T-shirt factory longer than anyone else. A little over 2 years and counting, as I recall. She'd seen every kind of order the salesmen would send in as they traveled all over the West. "Good speed lettering", "brush letters", yet another "frosty mug of beer" - she'd done it all. She even drew a drunken cat cradled in a martini glass to be printed on a pair of panties with the caption "Happiness is a tight pussy."

Sometimes she would have these weird dreams that she'd tell us about as we worked. One of them took place on a ranch. She and her sister were looking out of the window at one of the horses in a corral. Suddenly a cougar jumped the fence and began circling the horse. The horse reared up and began kicking at the cougar. The artist's sister turned to her and said calmly, "Look at that horse, puttin' up a fight!"

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The T-Shirt Factory Part 6

The Alaskan pipeline that runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez was under construction during the time I worked at the T-Shirt factory. The construction created a lot of jobs and brought a welcome infusion of new customers and cash into the bars and taverns in the Alaskan towns along its route. One Summer all three of the outside salesman headed up to Alaska to sell sportswear to the locals. The spike in orders kept the art department very busy cranking out designs for jackets and shirts. Most of the work is better forgotten, but I do remember doing a T-Shirt design for a place called the Leisure Corner. It was a cartoon of a couple of large pairs of blue jeans with a little guys riding around in them like they were automobiles.

Pickle Emporium T-shirt design

I've always enjoyed anthropomorphic cartoons, so when an order came in for a deli I jumped on it. First off, it was a 2-color job on a T-Shirt. Second, the name of the place was the Pickle Emporium Deli so I'd get a draw an animated pickle and wedge of cheese. The artwork above is a scan of the finished silk-screened shirt.

Pickle Emporium T-Shirt design

There was something about these characters that stuck with me. I refined them considerably and used them in a two page comic strip that was eventually published in Funny Paper #2. Plus I reworked the T-shirt design with only the pickle. The new comp was added to my sample book used to pitch freelance illustration work. I remember one agency art director who advised me, "Anyone can draw that sort of grotesque cartoon. The trend today is romance. Consumers are looking for beautiful illustrations that evoke the warm emotions that make people feel good."

Oh well, a good anthropomorphic cartoon always makes me smile.

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Image from The Michael Roden Benefit Portfolio
The Michael Roden Benefit Portfolio


Original content Copyright © 2007-08 Richard Krauss.
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