Fine Print: Screenprinting in Columbus

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

To most people, T-shirts are two things: a threadbare, comfy fallback and a personal billboard.

And plenty of local designers and entrepreneurs have embraced the universal nature of tees, choosing them as a canvas to express their passions or spread a message. For those who wear them, these limited-edition, Columbus-born screenprinted shirts appeal to their indie sensibilities.

Cascading ginkgo-leaf patterns. Ohio State-inspired designs. Exaggerated animal sketches. Block lettering that proclaims, "Money, cash, clothes." It's all coming from Columbus. Even though designers may be screenprinting on hoodies or tote bags, too, tees reign supreme.

"We've done other garments before. It always comes back to the T-shirt," said Alex Weinhardt of crazy-animal brand Choonimals. "Because everybody wears T-shirts."

In a world full of status messages, T-shirts are a way to let people know how you're feeling without saying a thing.

"We're such a visual culture," said Skreened owner Daniel Fox. "Big text or a big graphic on a shirt - immediately, you've got some rapport with someone."

The low cost of entry has allowed the screenprinting market to explode, and Fox has been watching first-hand. He launched his customizable T-shirt printing business in 2006.

Through his site, customers are able to create a design or pick one of more than 30,000 designs someone else has uploaded. The images are sent to computers in his Clintonville storefront, where souped-up printers pump out about 75 shirts a day onto American Apparel blanks.

Skreened staffers heat-press the shirts to finish then, then ship orders to customers who could be on the next street or the other side of the globe. (Columbus customers can also walk in and pick up their orders.)

"We've got a 12-year-old kid who lives in the neighborhood that came in, and he's doing stuff that's awesome," Fox said.

"He's got this little Clintonville hand sign that he put on a shirt. He doesn't have a bunch of money to throw into it, but here he is. We've lowered the barrier of entry far enough so he can come in and be successful with his friends and wear one of his shirts to school."

The self-service aspect of creating T-shirts has democratized the screenprinting industry, Fox said.

"You don't have to be a designer, you don't have to have a whole bunch of money. You don't even have to know how it works. You just have to have a graphic. I love it," he said.

In this issue, we take a look at Columbus' burgeoning screenprinted T-shirt scene.

Of the four companies you'll find profiled in the following pages, two are run by people with professional design training. Two are not.

Only one brand is sold in stores; the rest are available online. All have customers wearing their shirts outside of Ohio.

All of these entrepreneurs see tees as their first foray into fashion, and hope to eventually support themselves with their lines full-time - whether or not they were thinking big from the beginning.

Still, they struggle with the challenge of standing out in a saturated market and keeping prices competitive while giving themselves credit for handmade work.

"By no means am I going to retire on this," said Raj Shroff, who started Wearlane this summer. "I don't want to give this perception that it's huge. It's just one person, in an office, with some friends that are inspiring."

Ryan Vesler, a Columbus native who created Homage two years ago, urges calculated branding for long-term success. Of course, he recognizes others are just out for a quick buck.

"It's different for a lot of people," Vesler said. "Some people are in the business of printing one shirt that they think is funny or quirky. For me, I've always been into brands and how they develop. I don't just take the logo of whatever I'm doing and, bam, stick it on a shirt."

Vesler's retro imagery requires jumping into a time machine and zeroing in on the single image that best captures a person, moment, place or brand. He researches meticulously, and the result pays homage through its authenticity.

Vesler uses local screenprinting shops and is constantly studying techniques and tinkering with settings to make the best possible product. He's dedicated to the trade-show circuit, and that's gotten Homage into Urban Outfitters and boutiques across the country and as far away as Japan. Vesler plans to open his own signature storefront in the Downtown area soon.

Meanwhile, Jillian Corron gets about a dozen online orders for her Delicious Tees line every month. She keeps her inventory organized in her Grandview home - and keeps dreaming.

"Of course I want to be expansive. Of course I want to be in boutiques all over the country," Corron said, mentioning Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters. "I have my hopes set a lot higher than just selling through my website. So it's one step at a time. I see the vision, and I'm taking it from there."

What is screenprinting?

Screenprinting can be done with craft-store-quality supplies in a basement or in a larger-scale workshop operation.

Either way, the process is generally the same: A piece of a screen is stretched over a frame, and both sides of the screen are coated in a light-sensitive emulsion solution and allowed to dry.

Using a computer printer, an image is printed onto photo transparency paper, then placed on the screen. When the screen is exposed to light, the emulsion that's exposed is hardened and the sections covered by the screen stay liquid, creating a stencil.

After the screen is rinsed to reveal the image, it's positioned on a flat surface on the tee. Acrylic paint is spread across the screen using a squeegee-like tool, then heated to set.

The screen can be used repeatedly to make more shirts. For shirts with multiple colors, each color must be printed through its own screen. Silk is also sometimes used in the same way for printing - that's called silkscreening.

Fellow Screeners

On the following pages, we'll introduce you to four of the city's homegrown graphic designers. Here's a look at several others around town who are screenprinting their dreams on tees.

Alison Rose

Understated, hand-drawn designs, including the "Ohio mixtape" tee that gets plenty of play around town, are made by Alison Bartlett and Nicholas Nocera.



Designer Casey Cahoy's tees feature simple, earthy imagery and stark depictions of machinery and technology, with plenty of designs wrapping from front to back.



These super-soft tees with retro imagery first caught on with a now-ubiquitous "Script Ohio" shirt.


JWork Ltd.

Symbols and sayings of power are scrawled across graphic tees from this label, the work of Jermaine Jenkins, Andre Wilson and Darrell Hunter.


Modern Material

Creator Annie Weihrauch favors rock- and royalty-inspired images, mostly in crisp black on white men's and women's tees.



Owner Daniel Fox will print any image you can dream up - or your pick from a large selection of featured designs - onto American Apparel T-shirts.