Wearables Business

Grateful clients prefer tie-dye apparel

Grateful clients prefer tie-dye apparel

Brian Anderson

They aren’t just for Dead Heads anymore

The Grateful Dead may be gone, but they are not forgotten. And as long as tie-dyed shirts are around, people will be forever reminded of one of the greatest jam bands in rock ‘n’ roll history.

And like most everything else from the old counterculture era, tie-dyes have gone mainstream and just may fill a promotional niche in any number of clients’ programs.

When most people see tie-dyed shirts, they think of the Dead. If you ever went to a Grateful Dead show — or, in many cases, a couple of hundred of them — you saw an audience filled with joint-smoking hippies wearing tie-dyed shirts typically made by fellow Dead Heads. Thousands would follow the band from city to city for various lengths of time, camping out in tents and VW vans. These makeshift Deadvilles were easy places to pick up band memorabilia, among other things related to the “lifestyle.” Tie-dyed tees were always among the most popular souvenirs, which helped the makers finance their travels with the band.

While the passing of Dead front-man and counterculture guru Jerry Garcia in 1995 put an end to the band’s incessant touring, similar crowds still flock to see bands such as Ratdog (former Grateful Dead member Bob Weir’s band), Phish (instead of Dead Heads, there are Phish Heads), and Widespread Panic. Tie-dyed shirts are still as common at these shows as the herbal aroma.

But rock concerts are not the only venue for tie-dyes anymore. School groups love them. Companies are using them for trade shows, promotions and incentive programs. And they are an ideal way to commemorate a 25th anniversary.

When end-users are looking for something a little bit different that will attract a little more attention than your typical tee, show them a tie-dye.

Demand to dye for

There are a number of suppliers in the industry that specialize in or at least carry tie-dyed apparel. Most of them got their start in the basement or the kitchen of their homes — or even their parents’ homes (see “What a long, strange trip it’s been” on page 40).

Even some suppliers who did not get their start in the basement or the kitchen have seen a demand for a fun, unconventional tee, and are answering the call with tie-dyes. One such supplier is MV Sport of Bay Shore, N.Y., which is also the industry’s exclusive supplier of Weatherproof jackets and shirts.

“We’re trying to give something different to the T-shirt market. Tie-dyes are a commodity item that can really spice up your promotion,” says MV Sport Marketing Director Byron Reed. “Everybody owns a regular T-shirt, but not everyone has a tie-dye. We had a lot of interest in our tie-dyes at the Dallas show.”

While it can be argued that the tie-dye never really left, suppliers told Wearables Business that the style is definitely picking up momentum again.

“Tie-dyes have always been around, but they are now becoming popular in the mass market, not just the Dead Head group,” Reed says.

Michael Cox, partner in Equinunk, Pa.-based supplier Aura Tie-Dye, says the most important factor in the strong tie-dye market is the strong economy in general.

“People are spending their money and want a product that will set them apart from the crowd,” Cox says. “Also, social changes have made tiedye more acceptable. They have become a nostalgia item for the babyboomers.” He adds that children of Baby Boomers are not nostalgic when it comes to tie-dyes — but they like them anyway because it is simply a cool shirt.

At Banzai, a Downington, Pa. supplier, president Louis Marks says tie-dyes have evolved to keep up with the public’s interest in new and unusual garment styles.

“During the past eight years, American tie-dyers have expanded their craft and honed their manufacturing abilities to meet that demand,” Marks says. “We don’t see this as a comeback so much as a coming of age.”

Wanna buy a tie-dye?

Besides the concert crowd, school groups may make up the biggest end-user market for tie-dyes. Senior classes like to have tie-dyes as a class shirt, often sold during homecoming week or near prom and graduation. Just about any school group is a candidate for tie-dyed tees — the band, porn squad, chess club, student council, volleyball team, etc. They are a natural because they can easily be customized to match school colors.

Banzai’s Marks says tie-dyes are popular in corporate incentive programs, as promotional giveaways, and as new product advertising.

“Smaller businesses from restaurants to amusement parks use tie-dyes as employee uniforms or use them for direct sale with their company name printed or embroidered,” he says.

Just about every tie-dye supplier we talked with said the casual atmosphere of company picnics are perfect for tie-dyes, particularly if the company happens to be celebrating a 20-, 25-or 30-year anniversary.

“Tie-dyes also make an excellent promotion at trade shows because they are so eye-catching,” says Aura Tie-Dye’s Cox. “Bloomberg Financial Network is a good example of a traditionally conservative company that has used our tie-dyes as a giveaway at a trade show.”

Aura has also supplied some other unlikely end-users through a PPD.

“One of our biggest customers supplies Daimler/Chrysler, Delphi Automotive and the United Auto Workers with tie-dyes in their company stores,” Cox says.

Keep an eye on the dye

Make sure the tie-dyes you source are made with fiber reactive dyes. If the supplier you are dealing with tells you their tie-dyes are made with pigment dyes instead of fiber reactive dyes, but look just as good and will cost you less — be very skeptical. A pigment dyed tie-dye will start to fade and muddle after a few washings. Some clients might like the faded tie-dye look of a pigment-dyed shirt. They can work well for subtle designs, but pigment-dyed shirts by nature will fade a little bit more with each trip through the wash.

Tie-dyes are made using 100-percent cotton garments (polyester actually repels fiber reactive dye). Fiber-reactive dyes actually form a chemical bond with the cotton fiber. After shirts are dyed by hand, they must sit for a full 24 hours to react with the fiber and ensure full color fastness.

“Once this reaction takes place it is virtually impossible to break them apart,” says Aura’s Cox. “If properly used, fiber reactive dyes provide bright, vibrant colors that will not fade.”

The Tye-Dye Factory guarantees that its fiber reactive dyed tees will never fade. The shirts pass all crock testing (meaning color won’t rub off from the dyed cloth), but Tye-Dye Factory still recommends washing its shirts once by themselves before washing them with other colors. Some tie-dye suppliers always recommend washing tie-dyes separately, and remind end users never to use liquid bleach.

Considering how labor-intensive it is to create tie-dyes, they are very reasonably priced. A typical case price from one supplier for a short-sleeve tie-dyed T-shirt is $6.50 for bold patterns and $5.50 for pastels, which require less dye.

Most tie-dye suppliers will also do contract and custom work, and some even offer in-house screenprinting.

There are endless arrays of patterns available, from very loud to very subtle. Lots of styles leave blank space for a screenprinted or embroidered design, usually in the center of the shirt but occasionally on the back, sleeve or left chest. The shape of the blank space can even be customized to accommodate designs or logos of a specific size or shape.

What’s hot

Traditional rainbow spiral styles of tie-dyes are the most popular.

The Tye-Dye Factory’s Weitz says a six-color rainbow spiral is by far their most popular item. Banzai’s Louis Marks says rainbow styles are immensely popular due to the recent “retro” trend, but “this year we are seeing a new trend towards subtle stripes and two-tone patterns.”

If you thumb through the pages of a tie-dye supplier’s catalog, you will find color-blocked designs, crinkle designs, circles, peace signs, “tire tracks,” stripes, slashes, and many more. They can be done in color combinations to reflect themes such as Independence Day or Rastafarianism. Whatever color combination or design pattern your client desires can be achieved.

You will also find many items in addition to T-shirts. There are lots of tie-dyed women’s items, such as baby doll tees, spaghetti tank tops, tank dresses and even bikinis. You can find tie-dyed boxer shorts, golf shirts, camp shirts, socks, bucket hats, hair scrunchies, bandannas, beach towels, shoelaces, children’s wear, and just about any other cotton garment or accessory you can think of.

Next time your client looks bored with a typical tee, suggest a tie-dye. Then count the seconds until that client brings up The Grateful Dead.

How to effectively decorate a tie-dye

Michael Cox

One problem that can arise when printing or embroidering on tie-dye is that the shirt is so loud and busy to begin with that the image can be lost in the confusion. There are a couple of remedies to this problem.

* The shirt can be custom designed so that the image can be showcased by the tie-dye. Also, an imprintable area can be incorporated into the design of the shirt, leaving an area open for the print.

* The intensity of the dye can be increased or decreased depending on the color of the print or embroidery. When printing or embroidering a dark or multi-colored image, a pastel tie-dye is preferable. If a bold tie-dye is desired, it is recommended to use white or a light-colored ink or stitch.

Multi-colored designs on a bold tie-dye usually require an under-base, which your screenprinter will likely have to charge a little bit more for.

Most embroidered designs are about a 10,000-stitch image on the left chest.

In the case of a school job where only two colors are needed for the tie-dye, I would recommend a design that leaves the entire left chest a solid color (usually the lighter color). This way the embroidery is not lost against the tie-dye background. Also, this conservative type of design maintains its appeal with the kids while not being too loud for the parents.

Michael Cox is a partner of Aura Tie-Dye in Equinunk, Pa.

What a long, strange trip it’s been

Here’s a quick look at how a few of the suppliers in this feature got started in tie-dyes:

* Andrew Weitz, president of The Tye-Dye Factory in Pompano Beach, Fla., got started in tie-dyes as a freshman in high school. He went to Grateful Dead shows, started selling to small stores and began attending promotional products industry trade shows in 1994. The ASI market makes up about 35 percent of The Tye Dye Factory’s business, while the remainder is direct to retailers.

* Banzai Inc. of Downingtown, Pa. got its start 12 years ago in the basement of company president Louis Marks. Marks did the Greenpeace table at Dead shows for a long time, and his environmentally friendly company now offers a wide range of hand-dyed apparel, including its new surfwear/juniors line.

* Brightside, out of Brattleboro, Vt., got its start in 1990 with the owner traveling to Dead shows before progressing to craft fairs and finally to trade shows.

* Aura Tie-Dye got its start selling tie-dyes made in a kitchen sink to annual summetime gatherings of hippies at the original Woodstock site of Bethel, N.Y. Requests from local screenprinters led them to a larger market, and a loan from mom & dad led to a printed catalog and a booth at the Imprinted Sportswear Show in Atlantic City four years ago. Sales have nearly doubled every year since.

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