Written by Micah Allen (shop employee, summer intern & WVU Business Marketing student)
Do you ever wonder what happens between the stages of shirt design to shirt-in-hand? Well, there is a journey behind every shirt made here at SustainU! The journey consists of many procedures and steps that most people probably wouldn’t think about. Here is a look inside the printing process of our shirts after the design and planning stage is over.
Our screens are pre-meshed, aluminum framed and are coated with emulsion. EMULSION is a coating that, when dried, keeps ink from running through the screen. Before we can print shirts, screens must also be “burned” to hold the design of the print.
BURNING A SCREEN consists of shining a UV light underneath a screen that is taped up with a film positive; this film positive will have the image or part of the image that we want to create, and this stage uses a special machine we have here at SustainU. The UV light essentially hardens the emulsion surrounding the film positive and leaves what’s under the film positive soft so that it can be easily washed away in our washroom. What’s left is the exact image we want to be printed onto our shirts. Complex and/or multi-colored designs require multiple screens. In these cases, each screen will hold a separate part of a whole print as well as separate colors. (see below).
Following the burning stage, screens are rinsed, dried and taped up (sides are taped to keep ink from coming through). After these stages, the screen(s) is now ready to be set up on one of our printing machines!
Each burned screen print is accompanied with registration marks. These marks help us line up the print so that it is centered and straight (see below).
Prints that require multiple screens and/or colors are lined up so that the final print image is created. This sometimes requires an “eyeball” test to make sure that there are not gaps within the print image. Multiple test prints are conducted to make sure the perfect print image is created.
Once everything is lined up, the screens are locked into place and registration marks are taped up so they do not show on the final shirts. Each screen slot on the machine is then equipped with a flood bar, squeegee and appropriate ink color (see below), before one last test print is conducted, and then its go time!
Our printing machines consist of our newer machine, the RPM (Real Performance Machinery), and our older machine, the Brown ElectraPrint. These machines do not operate fully on their own. It takes workers to program, put shirts on, take shirts off, make sure enough ink is flowing and that each shirt/print is coming out correctly. We have specific names for some of these positions that will make sense once described.
Driver (left) – Timely and carefully places shirts on the printing machine; also responsible for controlling the printing machine, hence the given name “driver.”
Passenger (left) – Carefully removes shirts off of the printing machine as they have finished printing; the passenger, who stands next to the driver, is responsible for checking the shirts and passing them through the dryer, which cures the shirts so that the print is permanently stuck to the shirt.
Caboose (right) – The employee(s) at the caboose position stands at the end of the shirt dryer and removes shirts that have passed through; the final person(s) responsible for checking the print/shirt for errors and fixes; also responsible for counting shirts and matching the number to the order; gets its name from being the last position in the printing, somewhat “train,” process; then, shirts are packed up and sent out to the respected customer.
SustainU’s print shop has given a great employment opportunity for locals living in the surrounding areas of Morgantown, as well as West Virginia University students who major or are interested in graphic design, or that just want to experience something different.
The shop has a friendly, upbeat feel to it, and all employees who work directly with the printing dress in old jeans and T-shirts that you wouldn’t mind getting dirty since the job can get a little messy. Somedays, the print shop can hold its different challenges, but that’s what helps make working here unique.
It’s a rewarding experience being a part of the SustainU’s printing team because one week you will be printing shirts that are going right down the street to a local brewery, and the next you could be printing shirts for MLB teams across the country or for one of the largest concerts in the nation like Lollapalooza.
It’s a cool feeling to know that these shirts are going to so many different places and that you had a hand in every shirt that leaves here. You get to view the final product before it leaves as well, and that’s a type of satisfaction that you don’t always get somewhere else.
Summer Internship Recap:
I really hope you have enjoyed this look inside SustainU’s print shop. I have spent over two years working in the print shop and had the great opportunity of interning this summer under Jordan, our Online Marketing and Sales Manager.
Currently, I am about to head into my last semester at West Virginia University, where I am a Business Marketing Major. Before I started my internship, I was asked to come up with some projects that I wanted to work on and two ideas that stuck out to me were tapping into a new social media area as well as somehow shining a light on the printing that happens at SustainU, so, that’s exactly what I did!
SustainU already has an array of social media areas that we use, so it took some researching and thinking outside the box. Ultimately, I decided to start a Flickr account for the company. I have always enjoyed taking pictures, so I thought this was a great area for us to showcase our shirts, designs and attended events, like FanFest. I looked at this as being more of an area for presenting an online portfolio of our work and less of an advertising space, although it is still good advertising. Please, feel free to check it out here: SustainU Flickr.
My other main project this summer was writing this blog post to help tell the story of how our shirts are printed. I thought it was important for us to tell people exactly how are shirts are printed as well as give some recognition to the people that work hard to get it done. A lot of times, I feel that people forget about the smaller labor jobs within companies that are equally as important to making a company successful. SustainU has done a great job at supporting everyone that they employ and creating a family bound that you want to be a part of.
Overall, I am grateful for both the opportunities that SustainU has provided for me. They have helped me create stability during a confusing time and allowed me to expand my knowledge through this internship, all while still being a student. Being able to watch this company grow over the years has been a great educational experience in itself. I never thought I would become a somewhat amateur expert in the area of screen printing T-shirts, but I have, and it is a skill that I will remember forever—no matter where I end up next.
The most exciting part about my experience working at SustainU is that you get to be a part of something new that is having a positive impact on our society and is also leading a change within the apparel industry.