Gildan’s Jeff Bartley talks about Comfort Colors’ unique dyeing process, how this one-time contract dyeing company evolved into a major apparel brand, and how Gildan has developed and expanded the Comfort Colors collection for 2017

Consistency is key for garment decorators. When 100 blue T-shirts are ordered for a job, each shirt needs to be the exact shade of blue that the client requested or there will be complaints. Many customers will also expect their shirts to be the exact same shade of blue on all subsequent repeat orders, even several years down the line. It’s no wonder then, that the industry’s apparel brands invest so heavily in colour control processes that will guarantee such consistency. And then there’s Comfort Colors…

This US brand has built its reputation on doing the complete opposite – selling T-shirts and sweatshirts that, because of the special dyeing process used (more on that later), are subtly unique. Highly popular with US college students, these super soft, vintage-look garments arrived in the UK last year following Gildan’s acquisition of Comfort Colors in 2015 and instantly captured the imagination of students and a wide range of other end users on this side of the Atlantic too.

Comfort Colors may be a relatively new brand to UK decorators – and, indeed, to the Gildan stable of apparel brands – however the label boasts a long and rich heritage stretching back more than 40 years. It was this heritage, along with the unique selling points of its dyeing process, that persuaded Gildan to complete the $103.3 million acquisition of the company in March 2015. Jeff Bartley, key account executive at Gildan, fills in some background detail. “Comfort Colors was founded in 1975 by Barry Chouinard, an entrepreneur who started a small contract dyeing operation for hosiery manufacturers in the northern US with a 1,600 square foot space and a single employee.

One year later, the company ventured into T-shirts in response to the growing demand for colourful tees among US customers.

“In the mid-1980s, the company developed a revolutionary method of creating neon T-shirts that were truly unique on the market. This method then evolved into a proprietary dyeing process that allowed Comfort Colors to achieve a vintage, worn-in look and feel, and a collection that’s crafted for ultimate comfort.”

T-shirts to dye for

Comfort Colors’ unique dyeing process is what sets its garments apart from those of most other imprint brands. “Comfort Colors apparel is dyed in garment form as opposed to dyeing the fabric,” Jeff Bartley explains. “Our dyeing process gives the effect of 50 wash cycles: it achieves a worn-in look and ensures that our garments won’t shrink more after dyeing.

“Within the garment dyeing process, we have two different sets of colours: pigment dyed and direct/reactive dyed. Both of these processes have their own characteristics that make them unique.”

Pigment dyeing is a dye process that gives apparel a vintage, lived-in look. Pigment dye produces washed down colours that continue to soften and age with repeated washing. The pigments are insoluble colour particles that attach to the surface of the fabric with the use of a binding agent. Slight shade variations are inherent in the pigment dye process.

Direct/reactive dyeing is a process that uses a set of dyes and chemicals that will react with the fibre and which will become embedded in it. This is similar to the process that is used to dye fabric, but the difference is that an additional enzyme wash is used to make the fabric super smooth.

Garment dyeing is a more expensive process, but it’s what makes Comfort Colors garments unique. This process results in an extensive array of colours from bright, bold colours to soft, muted tones, and also creates the softness that consumers want, says Jeff. “Comfort Colors’ premium products and unparalleled garment dyeing process is what has fuelled its exponential growth over the past few years,” he explains.

Before Comfort Colors was acquired by Gildan in 2015, the company sold the T-shirts that it dyed to outside companies – including Gildan, which was one of its main suppliers of ready-for-dye garments. Gildan acquired the company as a means to further penetrate the fashion basics market with trendy, worn-in and weathered-looking garments with a soft and comfortable feel, explains Jeff. Since the purchase, Gildan has maintained the ringspun garment dyeing process because, as Jeff notes, it is the distinctive dyes and processes that give each garment the one-of-a-kind hue that is the signature feature of Comfort Colors’ tees and sweatshirts. “It is the customised, in-house dyeing process that makes them the consumer’s go-to favourites.”

The Adult Hooded Sweatshirt is made from 80% ringspun cotton/20% polyester

The Ladies’ Tee is available in 12 shades

The UK collection

The acquisition has led to some changes at Comfort Colors. “Following the acquisition of Comfort Colors, Gildan expanded its Honduras operations to create increased manufacturing capacity and added a new distribution centre in Eden, North Carolina,” explains Jeff. “Gildan’s acquisition brought the scale and manufacturing expertise to take the Comfort Colors brand to new heights and expanded markets. The combination of Gildan’s vertically-integrated manufacturing operations and extensive distribution networks is enabling the brand to create the capacity to meet growing demand.”

Jeff also mentioned that Gildan will “leverage its well-established manufacturing platform as well as its marketing infrastructure to introduce additional products, colours and fabrics for an even broader reach. Additionally, our ability to control environmental impacts and provide ethical working conditions right from yarn spinning through to finished product, means that Gildan brings to the Comfort Colors brand the added dimension of sustainable production.”

Comfort Colors has eight styles and more than 45 colours for UK garment decorators to get their hands on in 2017. The range includes T-shirts and sweatshirts for women and men, and is available in a range of sizes and silhouettes. “The 1717 Adult Tee is an exciting addition to the 2017 Comfort Colors UK line,” comments Jeff. “It has been a strong seller in the US market and we expect it will be very well received in the UK. With 39 colours, from saturated brights to vintage earthy hues, this style offers a shade for every occasion.”

According to Jeff, most decorative techniques, including screen printing, discharge printing and embroidery, are suitable for Comfort Colors garments. He says the key is to choose the right weight and colour of garment for the chosen technique.

Decorators do need to remember to take the dyeing process into account, he adds: “With pigment dyed colours, loose pigments may remain on the surface of the garments and some colour migration can be expected. This is more likely to happen with darker colours, but we recommend using a white underbase to prevent this.”

When asked why garment decorators should recommend Comfort Colors to their customers, Jeff comments: “We’ve spent over 40 years perfecting our unique dyeing process, which allows us to achieve vintage earthy hues that look better with time. And our relaxed apparel offers easy silhouettes with unmatched softness in a rich spectrum of colours.

“Comfort Colors’ tanks, tees and sweats have become synonymous with ease and relaxation, and have built a loyal following among American consumers. As the brand expands into new markets, including the UK, Japan and Canada among others, it is staking its place as a wardrobe staple with consumers of fashion basics.”