American Apparel Warehouse in Downtown Los Angeles, circa 2012
Although American Apparel earned a tarnished reputation for its racy ads and the repeated sexual harassment lawsuits filed against its founder, the company produced the best available shirts for screen printers. This is not to mention its commitment to manufacturing in the United States, specifically southern California, and some innovative designs. As one printer mentioned on a website I can’t find in my bookmarks, before American Apparel, it was virtually impossible to find 40-single, lightweight ring-spun cotton shirts. After American Apparel, this became an industry standard. In other words, that soft cotton t-shirt you’re wearing right now wasn’t widely available before American Apparel.
The company as we knew it no longer exists. American Apparel filed for bankruptcy in 2016 and, earlier this year, it was acquired by Gildan, a leading manufacturer of imprintables that manufactures most of its products outside the US and its home country of Canada, for $88 million.
For someone who preferred to use American Apparel for printing, I found that I have three options going forward:
Source from the new American Apparel. Earlier this year, Gildan revived the brand and its made-in-USA offerings, but the selection is extremely limited. Gone, for example, are the poly-cotton neon heather pink shirts that my Ball Busters team wore last year. Pricing seems to be about the same as it was with the old company, but, given that Gildan intends to recover its $88 million investment in the company, it seems reasonable to presume that there must be some differences in manufacturing.
Source from another mill. Since I knew that I wasn’t going to reliably source American Apparel shirts forever, I started to look for some alternatives. I used a few Gildan cotton shirts, particularly the ring-spun Soft Style, and a few other shirts from Bella and Canvas and Next Level Apparel. But I found that for the price, the best shirts I’ve printed come from Tultex. The shirts are made overseas, but they work almost as well for water-based printing as American Apparel shirts. The innovations of American Apparel have indeed become “industry standard.”
Source from Los Angeles Apparel. American Apparel founder, Dov Charney, returned with a new company. Los Angeles Apparel manufactures its shirts in South Central Los Angeles, with the seemingly identical business model that he used for American Apparel. The company’s offerings are very limited, but the first ones are similar to the best-selling products from American Apparel: a ringspun cotton jersey shirt, a 50/50 poly-cotton t-shirt, and a poly-rayon-cotton triblend t-shirt, for example. The colors are also similar to the American Apparel line, but they by no means match the old or current American Apparel line.
Los Angeles Apparel Tri-Blend T-Shirt in Tri-Black
American Apparel Tri-Blend T-Shirt in Tri-Black
While the old American Apparel is gone, the seem to be some choices for us. Each of them offers some advantages. There seems to be some continuity between new and old American Apparel products and, for those cases where I want to match the look of an older style (and where such stock exists), this seems to be a good option. I’ve been using the Tultex shirts, and those shirts have been well-received. Finally, Los Angeles Apparel seems to be a good option for a new look with a manufacturing process that we liked with the old American Apparel and to support manufacturing in Los Angeles, and I plan to these these shirts for upcoming projects.
As I’ve written before on the site, I have become a fan of discharge screen printing, but sometimes the results can be unpredictable. For example, I printed a whole batch of American Apparel jersey cotton t-shirts. Most of them came out to a light brown color, but some came out blue.
Discharge printing works by removing the dye from the fabric, and it really works only on all-cotton shirts. It sometimes works on poly-cotton blends, but you might not get the results you wanted. I was tasked with printing some more shirts for the softball team sponsored by Bar Matchless in Brooklyn.
They didn’t have any specific instructions in terms of print color. I was allowed to do what I wanted. At first, white seemed like a good choice, but I didn’t like the result. It looked like I had printed on top of the shirt, instead of printing in the shirt. Also, black seemed to fade away into a low contrast color. (Please excuse the poor white balance.)
I tried a series of different colors, including clear discharge. This “ink” removed the dye from the fabric but does not add any color. I was concerned whether this would work with a poly-cotton shirts that was dyed blue, but the results looked great.
You can see that the natural color of the fabric complements the heather blue denim color really well, certainly much better than what I saw in my tests using white ink or black ink.
Here’s a look at the whole print on the shirt:
This example reinforces something I’ve learned over the years. Order a bunch of extra blank shirts to run test prints. You might be surprised how well one combination might work.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve become a fan of discharge screen printing. The process was popular in the 1990s but has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years because time is a flat circle and these kinds of trends are cyclical.1
Most screen printing today is with plastisol inks. These inks offer a lot of advantages including precise color matching and allow the printer to correct their mistakes. Plastisol inks, however, have one big disadvantage: a shirt printed with plastisol, especially one with a large print area, can feel like you’re wearing a heavy layer of rubber. Water-based inks, on the other hand, dye the fabric and feel exactly as if there was no print. This makes for very comfortable t-shirts and it’s something I’ve seen in “high-end” fashionable t-shirts. The process works very well, except for black or any other dark fabric. To print on those, you can either use an opaque ink—with a white base—or remove the dye from the fabric and then print on to the natural color.2 The latter is what the discharge process does.
Sometimes you get some very desirable results just using discharge base without any dye. Most all-cotton black t-shirts discharge to a light-brown color, which is the natural color of the cotton fabric. For example, this basic American Apparel all-cotton jersey t-shirt discharged as such.
This is what I expected to get with this all-cotton shirt, and the last run I did for Roebling Sporting Club looked as such.
However, not all of the shirts discharged as such. For example, some shirts, specifically the small-sized shirts, discharged to this blue color.
Don’t get me wrong. That color looks beautiful, but it was not at all what I was expecting.
Upon closer inspection, the “black” fabric on the small shirts does look a little more blue than the rest of the shirts. Whatever American Apparel did to make that batch of shirts, it was enough to cause them to discharge to a different color.
Thankfully, the client was open-minded enough to accept the results, but in the future I will be inspecting the fabric of each shirt to ensure they are actually made from the same fabric to ensure consistent results.
It also might be because of the toxicity of the process. ↩
This only works for 100% cotton fabrics. Poly-cotton and tri-blend fabrics work, but you might be surprised with the results. ↩
The end of the semester is a challenging and stressful time for both students, teachers, and administrators alike. It can be a very creative and productive time for most, but sometimes, it can be a frustrating as there might not be any immediate result to all that work.
Screen printing t-shirts can be a therapeutic, creative outlet where I get to work with my hands and make something tangible. Here are some shirts I’ve printed at the end of spring semester in anticipation of summer!
With summer coming, I convinced the proprietress of Kilo Bravo that she should stock some t-shirts for their thirsty and overheated customers. The t-shirts are Gildan Soft Style, which is a blend of 65% polyester and 35% ring-spun cotton. She chose shirts in Heather Military Green, for the military theme that “Kilo Bravo” evokes (although it also stands in for her initials).
The print is a single-color, white discharge ink that I thought would not be very bold because of the polyester fabric, but I was wrong. They really pop! In retrospect, I would have used clear discharge in hopes of getting the natural fabric color that would evoke the military color even more. Print and learn.
On sale at Kilo Bravo, 180 N. 10th St, Brooklyn, NY
Easily one of the most “adult” logos I’ve ever printed, Balls Deep is a softball team founded by one of my oldest softball friends. As you can imagine, the logo has raised some eyebrows over the years, and some players have gone as far as quit the team rather than wear the shirt.
This particular shirt is printed on American Apparel’s Fine Jersey all-cotton t-shirt in red. This t-shirt model is such a stalwart of the industry that you most certainly have one in your closet, if not wearing one at the moment. The print is nothing more than Holden’s water-based black ink.
The manager of this softball team, sponsored by Bar Matchless in Brooklyn, has a favorite t-shirt. Printed for the Oregon Humane Society, she wanted to use that t-shirt for her team because it is so comfortable. She showed it to me, and I saw that it was an American Apparel Tri-Blend t-shirt in Tri-Athletic Blue. Wanting to do something different that the usual white print, she had me print the front logo and the back jersey numbers in water-based orange ink.
I even printed a couple for myself on Tultex poly-cotton shirts in a similar color.
The Tultex shirts look fine, but as I examine the shirt, I notice that the weave looks a little pixelated.
Nonetheless, for what both shirts lack in “pop,” they both make up in lightweight and soft-feel. It’s perfect for summer softball.
Having surrendered managing the Robots years ago, the current manager wanted to get jerseys made, instead of my usual t-shirt offerings. The jerseys haven’t materialized yet, but I made a t-shirt version of what I think he made for our team.
The t-shirt is nothing special, just a Gildan Soft Style 100% ring-spun cotton in black. But the print is discharge ink with red pigment.
Were I to do a full run, I would print on American Apparel’s sheer jersey “Summer Shirt” in black. That is, by far, the most comfortable all-cotton shirt I’ve ever worn. However, because they cost three times as much as this Gildan—and because they only ship from the Los Angeles–area mill, I would only offer it as a premium product for a sizable run.
The Archive used to be a coffee shop and video store in the 2000s. Located off the Morgan Avenue L-train station and used to be considered a “far, far away,” the Archive also used to sponsor a softball team in our league: the Bears.
The Bears are still around, even if the Archive is long gone, and they wanted to print a new version of their shirt.
This shirt is another Gildan Soft Style t-shirt in dark chocolate. The print is a water-based opaque yellow color that has a soft hand without the extra chemical process of discharge.
On a whim, I printed a couple of copies of the stalwart Librarians t-shirt. Unlike our usual shirt, I printed the shirts on an off-white shirt in black ink.
I’ll debut the shirt at our season opening double-header and, perhaps, maybe even take a few orders for a lighter alternative to our current black t-shirts.
Four hundred years ago this month, Miguel de Cervantes Cortinas and William Shakespeare died. It is almost cosmic that the most celebrated Renaissance writer of Spain and the most celebrated Renaissance writer of England both died on same day: April 23, 1616.
If it seems unlikely that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the very same day, it is because they did not die on the same day. Cervantes died a day earlier, on April 22, 1616. And because England was still using the Julian calendar in 1616, Shakespeare died 11 days later on May 3, 1616. However, you cannot deny that it makes for a better story if the two did die on the very same day. In fact, the United Nations has—since 1995—observed a World Book and Copyright Day on April 23 to remember the passing of Cervantes and of Shakespeare, as well as that of other writers including Garcilaso de la Vega and Vladimir Nabokov.
The all-black t-shirts are made from 100% high-quality, ring spun cotton that makes for very soft and comfortable shirt. The artwork is discharged. Unlike most every t-shirt printed today, there is no layer of plastic ink nor is the fabric dyed. Instead, I removed (“discharged”) the black color from the t-shirt, leaving behind the natural color of the all-cotton fabric. On the black t-shirt, the artwork looks sepia-toned. It’s very cool.
The result is the most comfortable t-shirt you’ve worn and because the artwork is not dyed, it will never fade. It might even last until the quincentennial, although the t-shirt might not last that long.
Over the last couple of months, a few of cycling buddies and I have been entertaining the idea of riding along the north shore of Long Island to the North Fork town of Greenport. Like Montauk, Greenport is a worthwhile cycling destination because both towns are about 100 miles from New York City and are each the terminals of the easternmost Long Island Railroad lines.
This past Saturday, four of us rode the Ride Between the Greens, a 108-mile ride from Greenpoint, Brooklyn to Greenport, Long Island. Incidentally, we also rode a few miles south of of Greenvale and through Greenlawn.
The ride takes advantage of the fact that the two locations are on opposite ends of Long Island and that they are similarly named. Green also provides a nice theme when it comes to designing a t-shirt.
Regular readers of this site will remember that I am not new to riding along the North Fork. I went on rides in September, October, and November last year. However, each of those rides started in Suffolk County, either at Huntington or at Babylon, where I caught an LIRR train to save about forty miles of pedaling.
This ride, like my now-annual ritual of riding to Montauk, started in Greenpoint, at Transmitter Park. There, a sign signals the end of the road that ironically was the beginning of our ride.
The route followed some pretty major arterial roads that were lightly trafficked early on Saturday morning. We took Greenpoint Avenue, over the Newtown Creek, to Queens Boulevard and then east to Douglaston to ride the LIE Service Road for a 14-mile stretch to Syosset. In Syosset, we stopped for our first meal of the day at—where else—a Panera Bread location.
After filling up on egg sandwiches and coffee, we headed towards Cold Spring Harbor and then to Huntington, where two of last year’s North Fork rides started. As a sign that we were riding on well-worn cycling routes, we spotted markings for several other rides, including the Huntington Bicycle Club’s Gold Coast Tour, the Suffolk Bicycle Riders Association’s Bike Boat Bike ride, and, yes, faded marks from past North Fork Century rides.
Speaking of well-worn places, we stopped at Briermere Farms for a peach-raspberry pie. The pie wasn’t to our expectations, which was a little disappointing considering that peaches and raspberries used in the filling were both in-season and especially surprising given that we were famished from this ride.
The ride was especially tough. As happened almost on every Long Island–ride last year, we faced a stiff headwind most of the day, and as we got closer to the end, the wind intensified. Four of us started the ride, but only three of us finished: one guy bailed about 70 miles into the route. Another rider was riding her first century ride and was challenged by the sheer length of the ride. But regardless of our experience and our training, we all were physically and mentally drained on this ride.
Ten hours and almost 110 miles after starting in Greenpoint, we arrived in Greenport just after 4:30 PM. As soon as we arrived, we went to the Greenport Harbor Brewing’s taproom to fill our growler—yes, I carried a 64-ounce glass bottle for over one-hundred miles—for the train ride home. We then went to the Little Creek Oyster Farm and Market for a bucket of two-dozen oysters we shucked ourselves.
We caught the 6:11 train out of Greenport—the last train that runs on weekends—back to New York City. Credit goes to my Tom Bihn Daylight backpack because, despite its apparently small size, it carried a full growler of beer, a pie, and my wallet, keys, phone, snacks, and the mirrorless camera I used to snap some photos that day.
As we nibbled on our pie and sipped our beers, I asked, “so, when are we riding the South Fork?” The silent but stern glances I got in response suggested that it was a little too soon to consider a ride to Montauk.
One of the coolest parts of the ride was, when in Greenport, Ian Wile, the proprietor of the farm and market heard about our ride and came to personally congratulate us. He confessed that he always wanted to do a ride like this. I was tempted to quip that I always wanted to run an oyster farm and market, but honestly, I would even know where to start.
On July 15, a day after Bastille Day, the Soft Spot at 128 Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is hosting its tenth anniversary party. I went three years ago to their seventh anniversary, where they played up the 7 theme by turning the joint into a fake casino.
For this year’s festivities, I was commissioned to print five dozen t-shirts based on this design.
Printing these particular shirts involved every aspect of what I have come to appreciate as an easy job.
The shirts were mostly-cotton, heather grey shirts from American Apparel. It is much easier to print on light-colored shirts compared to dark ones because I can avoid…
using water-based opaque ink that dries in the screen and can extend production time
using discharge ink, which smells like rotting fish and is probably a little toxic
It is also easier to print on all-cotton or 90% cotton because they ink adheres better to the fabric.
It was easy to custom mix the ink. My ink supplier doesn’t make burgundy so I resorted to mixing a little bit of brown ink into vicon red which more or less made burgundy ink.
I printed the entire run inside my studio space. Because of the noxious fumes involved with discharge printing, I often have to print on the front porch. As nice as that might sound, it presents some logistical challenges: it requires sunlight, which is hard to exploit with my work schedule, and it leaves me exposed to blood-thirsty mosquitoes. Here, I could print indoors with artificial light and some light air conditioning.
Once I had the ink mixed, I was able to load each shirt on to my printing station and churn out one shirt after another.
As is common in the summer, the shirts air dry very quickly. By morning, they were completely dry, ready for heat treating, packaging, and delivery.
Speaking of delivery, aside from sourcing the t-shirts from American Apparel in Los Angeles, everything used to make these shirts was sourced within Brooklyn and Manhattan. It seems fitting that I will be taking these shirts to the bar on foot.
The first step is to print the artwork on two sheets, one for each color of the final print. The image of the waves, gazebo, and hilly profile is supposed to be in green so that is printed on one sheet of vellum. The text is supposed to be printed in black and is printed on its own sheet of vellum.
I used the two sheets to burn a single screen. You could use two smaller screens, but I chose to do it one screen to save some money.
The first step in the printing process was to print the green first. I arbitrarily chose to do that, but I later found that it was easier to print the black first and then print the green art around the black text. However, I am not convinced there was a wrong order to print these shirts since the two colors don’t overlap on the shirt.
Since I chose to print the green first, I covered the text with masking tape on both sides of the screen. However, in subsequent runs, I covered only the outside of the screen since it wouldn’t block the path of the squeegee as I print the shirts.
Before I started printing, I printed out the artwork—both the illustration and the text—on a single sheet of paper. The art on the screen and the paper print were the same size because I used the same laser printer. I taped the paper print down to the printing board and aligned the screen with the artwork on the paper.
With the screen in proper alignment, I printed the illustration in green. I let the shirts hang on a clothesline, which took about two hours to adequately dry.
After the shirt dried, I aligned the green print on the shirt with the sheet of paper on the printing board. Clearly, it helped that the shirt was white and that I could see through the shirt and the paper print underneath.
As I had done with the first printing run, I aligned the screen with the paper print.
The next step was to print the text in black. Since the screen and the shirt were aligned with the paper print, the black print was in the proper place on the shirt.
Repeating the process 200 times was fairly easy and worked with near perfect results.
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