Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thread's Not Dead

Guys, the apparel industry is calling! Learn how to screen print!

It seems like there's always one kid who's drawing when he should be taking notes, making logos and flyers for his friend's imaginary bands when he should be doing homework, having his talents "recognized" and getting roped into helping decorate some part of the school. Does this sound like the beginnings of a career in the fashion industry? No? What if we called it the the apparel industry, that vast market of clothing you see worn daily by friends, musicians, graffitists, baristas, hipsters and other assorted consumers?

We're talking here about the fine art of the t-shirt.

For any teen who's walked into an Urban Outfitters, seen the selection of $40 t-shirts, and thought to himself "I could do that." Guess what: you can! You can start small, start local, keep expenses low while building a true business, and perhaps become legendary within the industry before most of your friends even clear out of college. If you've got a good eye, a little bit of business hustle in you, and a copy of Thread's Not Dead: The Designer's Guide to the Apparel Industry you could be well on your way in no time.

 Jeff Finley had graduated from art school who thought his future was in CG special effects for animation or video games. Times were hard, jobs were scarce, and suddenly that CG work didn't seem as inspiring as it once did. What did inspire him were all the great t-shirts and posters he was seeing for bands he was into. It didn't take much for him to see what had been there all along, that there was a world of commercial art that was both lucrative and full of expressive freedom. Finley started as a freelancer then built up a name and career for himself. He admits it wasn't easy, but then no one does the things they love because they're easy.

Thread's Not Dead is a down-to-earth approach to designing and building a career in the commercial end of the apparel industry. Throughout the book Finley gives practical advice on good design, building a portfolio, how to find and get work, and eventually builds up to practices in professional design that include computerized printing and embellishments like special inks, foil, and embroidery. As a road map for aspiring t-shirt designers, this is a great start.

do not let this boring cover fool you!
But Finley is more concerned with design and business-building than the practical hands-on matters of screen printing. For this one could turn to practical guides like Print Liberation: The Screen Printing Primer by Nick Paparone, or  any of a dozen other books, but my favorite is an old, out-of-print title you can still find online and at libraries called 57 How-To-Do-It Charts by Harry L. Hiett. Hiett was one of the pioneers of screen printing and his entirely hand-drawn charts are both clear and works of art unto themselves. Certainly, most screen printers can buy these materials from local art stores, but Hiett shows ways to construct various frames, how to screen print on curved surfaces, alternate methods for creating stencils, and how to build and design table rigs. Hiett manages to cram in more no-nonsense information in his 57 charts than many books do in twice the number of pages.

But what good is all this printing if you've got nothing to print? As Finley mentions in his book, drawing is not designing, and a good eye (and some flexible thinking) can yield incredible design. While Thread's Not Dead is full of inspiration, another equally inspiring title is Some People Can't Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry. In the 70s Chantry was headed down the road of traditional graphic design – logos, advertising – when punk rock and the photocopy aesthetic emerged. The raw DIY style of flyers for local shows appealed and Chantry was quick to test the limitations of the copy machine and design. By the time the 90s hit Chantry, who was living in the Pacific Northwest, found his refined designs well-suited for the grunge movement, and his screen printed posters for bands and shows became iconic. Appropriating images from older sources – catalog illustrations, old advertising – Chantry created great design from what amounted to artistic cut-and-paste. Mind, some of this was digitally created, but the images still have the same DIY charm that could easily be done with a pair of scissors and a glue stick.

Here's the thing: a guy who learns to screen print can become a rock star at school. Once you've learned the basics of screen printing and have some feel of control over the process, it's not impossible to crank out a new design weekly. Designs could be local, topical, posted at the beginning of the week and printed out on a Friday afternoon (on shirts brought by friends, minimizing expenses) and worn at that night's football game. Create a viral campaign for a student government candidate and print crazy shirts... for a price. Create limited edition shirts for friends as advertisements of your work, and print them them posters to be sold like fine art. And stickers! Street artist Shepard Fairey got his start with his Andre the Giant OBEY stickers, progressed to screen-printed posters and cut-stencil street art, and now has shows of his work traveling art museums (not to mention designing the Obama HOPE poster).

Bottom line: guys, learn how to screen print for fun, and profit!

Thread's Not Dead: The Designer's Guide to the Apparel Industry
by Jeff Finley
Go Media 2011
check out the website, and download the digital edition at

Print Liberation: The Screen Printing Primer
by Nick Paparone
North Light Books 2008

57 How-To-Do-It Charts
by Harry L. Hiett
Signs of the Times 1959, 1980

Some People Can't Surf: The Graphic Design of Art Chantry
by Julie Lasky
Chronicle Books 2001

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