If anything is more American than apple pie, it's probably the T-shirt. The loose-hanging garment, which debuted and still serves as underwear, has come a long way from its humble beginnings and grown into a mainstay of cultural expression.
And you have to hang loose to do this business said Stuart Millman, a proprietor of Millman's T-Shirt Factory off Route 44 in Arlington. "You've got to be artistic and hip," Millman said. "You can't have a stiff person working in the business."
Despite the T-shirt printing field being full of competition from makers small and large, it's a great business to be associated with if you've got the right stuff, Millman said. "You have to get a little wacky to be in this business," he said. "It's a fun business; it's a youthful business."
Because the screen-printing equipment investment is not out of reach for many mom-and-pop or young entrepreneurs, many people enter the business. "
There's a lot of competition out there. It grows every year," Millman said. "Screen printing can be done in a basement or a garage, but these small types of business do not last." To make a go of it in this line, one needs a small work force that combines production skills, artistic ability, solid business judgment and a keen sense of customer service.
"It's a lot of work," he said. "You can't do it by yourself." There's deadline pressure, price competition and a constant need to be clean in production to prevent waste. Having been in the business for about 30 years, the Millman name for screen printing is known throughout the Hudson Valley. Millman's does some advertising and sponsors teams in the area, but repeat business and word-of-mouth bring in a lot. The company will do small orders, like a dozen, up to a couple thousand.
The biggest order was for 5,000 shirts; the smallest and most notable was for one hat. That was the lid made for President Bill Clinton on one of his visits to the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park. Typical customers are sports teams, bands, clubs, churches, companies and people looking for small runs of custom work.
Shirts and hats are #1, but jackets, bags and other soft goods and wearables are also available. There are giants in the industry that use huge, automated presses to screen print shirts, but with automatic presses they will not do small orders of 12 shirts - it is too costly.
Picture T-shirts have become very popular with special messages added to the pictures. Precise numbers on how many people work in the business aren't kept by official sources, but the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association figures there are about 35,000 screen-printing operations in the nation who work on fabric.
"The average employment level is about 15," said Marcia Pinter, a vice president of the association. Internet-based companies are moving into the mix as digital media becomes ever more present, but Pinter thinks this trend won't hurt community based businesses such as Millman's.
For one thing, most digital apparatus is being shipped to retail establishments, she said. And the other: "Sometimes people like to go down and talk to a person." Those who want to enter this business should start by exploring it at a trade show, asking lots of questions and going to seminars there, said Leah Herrara, managing editor of Printwear, which puts out a trade publication by that name and produces shows.
It's not enough to be an artist. Herrara said it's dangerous for people who just like to put art on shirts to think they can jump into the trade. To succeed, she said, "It really depends solely on the business knowledge of the business owner."
Ellin Millman seconds that point. "It's more than just printing the shirts," she said. She began the business when a client of her late husband couldn't pay a bill and offered in trade some heat-transfer equipment. That started Millman into thinking of beginning a T-shirt business. Customers asked for screen printing, so Millman added that, and the shop grew.
Stuart Millman thinks the American love affair with the T-shirt is long past the fad stage. "I think people will always wear T-shirts." he said.
Poughkeepsie Journal Article by Craig Wolf