Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Lesson in "you can't have everything"

For months and months and months now I have been trying to find a way to get my animal artwork onto T-shirts. It has proved to be one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted. I do have a history of being difficult (as in trying to do things that aren't supposed to be done), and this is the epitome of my attempts at conquering the unconquerable. 

The dream: Affordable Verabelle T-shirts screen printed onto vibrant-colored organic cotton.

Problem #1: watercolor.
My animal collages consist of acrylic paint, watercolor, and newspaper clippings. The way traditional screen printing works makes it impossible for me to print my artwork as is on a T-shirt. In order to print, each color has to be broken down into a different screen, and with the way the watercolors mix and blend, there are just too many. Even if we were to condense colors (say blue-green and blue) to make the circle fit into the screen printing square, it wouldn't look like the same artwork. Like at all. 

Problem #2: I don't want white T-shirts.
There is some direct printing method I can use (and I have seen other artists do it) where I can print the image directly onto a white T-shirt. But I feel like using white and not the vibrant, beautiful colors I have chosen, compromises something of the idea of this project, not to mention that this process also compromises a little of the vibrancy and saturation of the image, in the way that the inks soak into the fabric.

Problem #3: The manufacturers think that people who are likely to wear organic and recycled cotton shirts only like granola nature colors or are traditionalist red-blue-green-yellow-black-white kind of folks. Don't they understand that we are colorful people who require innovation in all areas of our lives! Nature is full of color. Surely there are some vegetable dyes or something out there that could provide a greater palette to work from.

Problem #4: T-shirts should be my inexpensive offering.
My redesigned vintage pieces are reconstructed by hand and are little pieces of wearable artwork, each completely one-of-a-kind. Each piece is thoughtfully considered during the creation process, just like any other piece of artwork. Prices on these items range from $38 (for accessories) to $120 (for dresses). These are pieces to be carefully chosen and treasured. Verabelle T-shirts are supposed to be something more affordable and more readily available in larger quantities.

Yesterday I sat down with a new screen printer and talked through a lot of these issues and tried to come up with some solutions. We came up with something pretty amazing that I hope will work, but I'm afraid it's going to affect the price and availability of the shirts. The idea is that she would screen print everything except the watercolor, which she would leave as blank space. Then I would come into the studio and hand-paint, with the same inks, all of the watercolor sections. This means that each T-shirt would be unique; no two bits of watercolor would look the same. I think this is an amazing idea. It would maintain the idea of clothing as artwork - the most personal form, shared by both by me, the artist-creator, and the wearer. I consider that to be a beautiful idea and one that really carries the ideas of Verabelle. This would allow me to produce limited-edition T-shirts, which I could sign and number with embroidery stitching. Again, a beautiful idea. But with this level of labor, these shirts would have to cost more for the buyer.

This project has definitely been a lesson in "you can't have everything." I know that I am going to have to compromise on something - the shirt colors, the organic, the printing process, the price, or a combination of a few. I just hope that while I am compromising, someone in these respective industries will be working to provide more choices with better environmental impacts.

Right now, I am being pulled in the direction of the hand-painted shirts and am hoping this process will work. Tomorrow I am going to pick up some ink from the screen printer and experiment with my brushes and an old T-shirt at home. I need to see how I can work in this medium - if the inks will blend to create the watercolor affect. Next week we're going to run some of my samples through the shop dryer and see how they turn out.

What do you all think? As the consumer, what do you want? As you can see, my head is all a muddle, so I would definitely appreciate any advice, opinions, or if you're in the business, other ideas!

Amanda Aileen


  1. I like the idea of a one of a kind shirt. I mean, why not? All of Inhabit's stuff is one of a kind. why should the tee's be any different? :) Just how much more expensive are we talking?

  2. T-shirts are definitely a staple in my casual wardrobe, so I'm willing to spend a little more if they are unique and will be durable enough to last a few seasons. If I were you, I would still do the the direct print on the white t-shirts to have something more affordable for the masses. I think this would help fulfill in important goal - to get your art out there and to generate interest in your more unique handmade creations.

  3. I'm not a screen printer, but I'm a graphic designer and recently designed a SUPER detailed shirt for a client that involved a special white ink being printed on a dark colored tshirt first, and then inks being printed over that. The printer even said the ink wouldn't be raised off the shirt, but dyed softly into the fabric, which is what we wanted. I would talk to other printers..

    Also, I think if you decide on going in by hand, as long as you explain the method people will be interested!
    xoxo sid

  4. Have you considered doing a line of scarves for fall? They could either be knit or a polar fleece material and feature the fall animals. They could still be an inexpensive addition to your line but a great way to get your beautiful art out there!