It’s not everyday that you get to rub shoulders with a bona fide rock god, view the only M&R Gauntlet 111 automatic in Europe, and pore over a T-shirt design printed at 150 lpi, but then it’s not everyday you get to visit Advartex

Some examples of Advartex’s boundary-pushing work

It was a perfect moment. Midway through my visit to rock and pop T-shirt specialists Advartex, Andy Hodgson, owner and MD, Darren Goodsell, production manager, and I retired to the local pub for some lunch. Andy and Darren had barely got started on the topic of today’s tour shirt business when who should walk through the door but Roger Daltrey – lead singer of The Who, a man who played Woodstock and The Isle of White Festival, and a paid up member of the music biz aristocracy. Rock ‘n’ roll or what? It would be like visiting one of the top workwear printers and Sir Richard Branson ambling up to the bar: Andy and Darren couldn’t have scripted it better. Just perfect.

 A 6-week Thriller

The reason for my visit to Advartex’s printshop, tucked away in the heart of the rolling Sussex countryside (yet, as Andy points out, only a 50 minute journey from central London), was to view the company’s new Gauntlet III 14-colour auto – the first to be installed in Europe and only the second worldwide.

The press is part of a major investment programme that has seen Advartex expand its operations in the UK (and potentially further afield). The expansion has been steady and carefully planned over recent years and is certainly impressive, with the company doubling the size of its printshop (to 25,000 sq ft), enlarging and reequipping its art and screen making departments, updating and totally reorganising its screen storage area, and constructing both a custom-built ink room and new separate stock storage facility.

The latter would have come in especially handy back in 2008. Advartex had just opened a new printshop extension, only for business to go a bit quiet. To make matters worse, it had missed out on the forthcoming Michael Jackson tour merchandise contract, although it had landed the (seemingly) less lucrative contract to print the retail merch. Andy recalls working at home when news that Michael Jackson was unwell popped up on the news. Five minutes later the internet went into meltdown with news of the star’s death. Five minutes after that Andy’s phone rang and his retail client uttered the immortal words: “This is going to be huge.” He wasn’t wrong.

The demand for all things MJ catapulted Advartex into one of the most hectic six week periods of its 42 year history. The company printed 400,000 shirts over the initial 6 weeks. “We were buying up all the red shirts in the UK,” Andy recalls. “At one point we had five artics backed up along the high street waiting to deliver shirts.” The brand new printshop extension was converted into a makeshift warehouse packed with a mountain of cartons from floor to ceiling.

The new stock storage area has ample capacity, though these days Advartex holds less stock than before due to the stock availability and speed of delivery from the likes of Gildan and Fruit of the Loom. “We always hold 50,000 black shirts, but there’s no need to tie up large sums of money in stock – we can order 40,000 shirts and have them the next day or two,” Andy comments.

Gildan shirts are especially popular with bands at present due to Gildan’s high profile in the US music market. Andy, however, particularly enjoys printing on the Fruit of the Loom Heavy T because of its smooth surface.

The company’s M&R Gauntlet 111 automatic – the first in Europe and only the second to be installed worldwide

1412 shirts per hour

The aforementioned printshop extension currently houses four M&R autos – including a Challenger III 14-colour, which was installed 18 months ago, a Performer 14-colour, which is ideal for jumbo sized prints and all-over printing, and a 10-colour Sportsman – plus a 10-colour Chameleon manual sampling press, and three M&R dryers, which were chosen because they can cope with the high volume of shirts going through each and every hour. (There’s an additional M&R 12-colour Sportsman auto next door in the original printshop area, along with another dryer, plus a 2-colour neck label printer.)

Gleaming away in this sea of blue metalwork is the new Gauntlet III. Andy and Darren are clearly smitten with the machine and are full of praise for the press. “It’s so fast and the index is so smooth. The pallets arrive so quickly you have an extra second or so to load the shirts; you never feel rushed,” says Andy. He adds that the mid-size Gauntlet III is like a “scaled down Challenger” with a lighter build and smaller maximum print area, (Advartex squeezes 24.5” deep prints onto the Gauntlet, 30.5” prints onto the Challenger 111), “but the same smooth index!”

Press operator Shaun is equally enthused by new machine. He especially likes the Laser Locator System, which uses laser beams to help with the quick and precise positioning of garments on the pallets. A few weeks before my visit the company was asked to print a couple of extra tour dates on a band’s tour shirts. “Before you would have had to get the ruler out… With the lasers it was easy to line up the screen and add the extra dates to the bottom of the tour list: it was so precise – you would never know it wasn’t all printed at the same time,” Shaun comments.

Darren is impressed by the machine’s job reporting and recall functions – especially the ability to turn on the stopwatch as soon as a job is completed to monitor how long it takes to break down the press. “For a production manager it’s great, but I’m not sure I would have liked it so much when I was a young printer – the feeling of being watched all the time!” Shaun maintains a diplomatic silence.

The Gauntlet didn’t take long to earn its stripes. Installed at the beginning of the year, it was soon into the action as Advartex got off to a flyer, returning to night shifts in February to keep up with demand. One job in particular showed just what the machine is capable of: the company had printed and despatched 5000 tour shirts on a Friday when the call came through late in the day requesting another 5000 for the Saturday show, to be delivered the following morning. Darren and his team returned to the printshop at 9pm, set up the job and by 2.30am the printed shirts were ready to go. The Gauntlet had been running at 1150 shirts per hour. “It would have taken over eight hours on the old Sportsman,” notes Andy.

Printing 1150 shirts an hour is nothing if not impressive, yet even that pales in comparison with a job Darren printed on the Challenger III, which recorded a print speed of 1412 shirts per hour over three and a half hours. “People still don’t believe me when I tell them how fast the team was printing,” says Andy.

The installation of the new Gauntlet followed Andy and Darren’s trip to the SGIA show in Vegas last year. The pair spent five days planning a strategy for growth and researching the equipment they would need to realise the plans. As well as the Gauntlet they purchased an M&R i-Image direct-to-screen exposure unit, which has revolutionised the screen-making department. “We spoke to Peter and Dave at TOT (who have a Richmond unit): they said it would take time to learn the new system, but that we’d never look back, and they were right,” Darren recalls. He adds that it probably takes six months to really get to grips with the technology. On a recent sampling job, Darren noticed that on a particular design an amendment was needed. He sent the job back to Sam in the art department and within 10 minutes the image had been amended and the new screen had been created, loaded onto the Gauntlet and the print job was running.

The company is also in the throes of switching ink systems and is currently trying and testing Wilflex products. It’s a big decision for any printshop, but Darren is encouraged by the early results and confident it’s the right move. “I always like to try new inks anyway, and it seems the Wilflex system has solved the build-up issues we we’ve been having with other inks,” he comments.

The extension to the company’s print shop, which now houses the Gauntlet 111

Playing around

One comment that really stood out during my visit was Andy’s observation that Advartex never just run a job straight to press; they always look to see how it could be improved. “Darren likes to play,” he adds.

“Andy allows me to experiment, to try new things to see what will happen and we’re never worried if something doesn’t work out – it just means that we can rule it out in the future,” adds Darren.

The fruits of this “play” are evident in the gallery of stunning shirt prints that line the walls of the production office. Occupying centre stage is a Batman print. At first glance it looks as though it must be digitally printed: the reality is far more interesting, as Darren explains. “We were aware that Midi Print in Russia has been screen printing T-shirts at 150 lpi, so we decided to try it: the Batman design was the ideal opportunity.” The detail in the print is mind-blowing and even more so when the viewed alongside a shirt from the actual production run, printed at the usual 61 lpi. Darren is understandably reluctant to divulge too many details about how the print was achieved, and hastens to add that Advartex have no plans to switch to 150 lpi on its production runs. However, the lessons learnt have enabled the company to now confidently print at higher lpi in production, further raising the quality of its work.

Andy is more forthcoming with the details when I ask how they achieve such a soft handle on their prints. “Flora: we add Flora margarine to the inks,” is the deadpan response. When pressed to come clean he admits that Advartex don’t actually add Flora in the ink room: “We use Utterlybutterly!” he confides in a stage whisper, before adding that, “it all starts with the artwork…”

Alongside the Batman print hang two Eskimo Callboy tees, which were printed at 105 lpi on bamboo shirts. The production print is top drawer, but Darren’s experimental shirt, which was printed at 150 lpi and overprinted with a clear, really brings the colours and design to life: the difference is remarkable.

He has also been experimenting with rhinestones and used a combination of print and stones for a recent collection of Harley Davidson shirts. “Harley loved them,” says Andy. “We did 48 designs and all of them were approved.” He adds that this isn’t the first time the company has received such an endorsement. “We printed some Simpsons shirts and every sample had to be approved by Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons) personally. We sent the shirts off to New York and he approved all of them straight away: apparently it was unheard of and had never happened before.”

Overseas adventures

Looking to the future, Andy’s business development strategy won’t include an investment in direct-to-garment printing until such time as one of the manufacturers develops a printer based on a carousel format with individual heads printing single-colour CMY and K inks. “That way, you could still print a normal flash base with D2G ink on top and then maybe you could reach speeds of 500 pieces per hour,” he explains.

Sublimation has more appeal and he can see a place for it in the tour shirt printing business; however he’s recently backed off from a planned purchase due to what he perceives as a price war that’s broken out amongst UK subli printers, driving down prices and eroding margins.

In fact, Andy has much bigger plans in mind. He talks convincingly of setting up an Advartex print operation abroad – most likely in Germany – to compete for tour work on the continent. Can he see that actually happening? “Yes; there’s no point in expanding our operation further in the UK, and customers in Germany already collect from us twice a week. Setting up a printshop in Germany is the next logical step.”

Watch this space for news of ‘Advartex.DE’.