In just seven years, Merch Asylum has gone from printing its staff’s own bands’ T-shirts to producing garments that sell in Topshop; we visited the Welsh print shop to find out the secret of its success

Merch Asylum’s staff are “fairly unique” and the company’s best investment according to Jay Jones

Last August, printing company Merch Asylum moved into a new unit in Llantrisant in South Wales. It’s the company’s third unit since starting out seven years ago and Jay Jones, who set up the business with Dan Rawle, hopes it’ll be the last for a while: moving units, he explains, is more stressful than moving house. “Moving house is a walk in the park! Seeing your machinery being picked up by cranes and thinking ‘Oh god, how is this going to end…’ Luckily we had no casualties, but your heart’s in your mouth.”

The move was worth it though as the new premises are a good two to three times bigger than the previous unit, which when Images visited a month before the move was only just big enough to house all the machines, stock and staff, and definitely not big enough to house their ambitions – for more machines, more stock and more staff. Less than a week after moving in they had bought a new Tesoma dryer from MHM Direct GB: there are plans to buy a new multi-colour press in the next year to join the three M&R autos they already have, and they have just taken on two new members of staff.

It’s pretty impressive for a company that began when a band Jay was playing in wanted some shirts: “I thought I’d give it a crack on this single-colour head in a garage and then we were printing for friends, then friends of friends, then people we didn’t know… It spiralled.” As well as playing the guitar, Jay was working in merchandising at Topshop from 6am to 2pm, while Dan, a drummer, was a graphic designer. Printing rapidly began to take up every spare minute they had. They were working in the corner of a friend’s unit, which they eventually took over, before moving to a bigger unit, the one they left in August.

These days they don’t have the time to be in a band as they work 10-12 hours a day. “Our customers are mainly retail-based, so when they need it, they need it, ” explains Jay. “We do as much as we can to cut lead time down for them.” The hard work has paid off as over the years they’ve seen these indie clothing start-ups grow into well-established businesses that supply Topshop and Asos.

One of the many bands that use Merch Asylum’s print services

Extreme print positioning

Part of Merch Asylum’s appeal to indie clothing companies is Jay’s and Dan’s attitude to experimenting with print. “Every day we get asked for extreme print positioning, print colours and anything really, and we’re up for anything as long as it’s within the customer’s budget,” says Jay. “But if it’s something we haven’t done before and want to do, we’ll tell the customers they can just pay for a regular print or whatever and we’ll give it a go because we want to do it, we always want to try something new.”

The customers themselves are always on top of the latest trends. “Whatever the big brands do, like the glow-in-the-dark and foils trends about a year ago, we get asked if we can replicate them. The indie clothing companies are straight onto us, we’re their first port of call: ‘Can you do this, can you do that?'” When they first started out the trend was for big prints, says Jay: “Almost bleeding off the bottom of the shirt, over the collar, over the bottom hem, as big as you can on every shirt. But now, it’s the complete opposite – we print so many 10 cm wide chest prints now.”

He says customers are much more clued up now when it comes to selecting garments and this increase in customer knowledge has been matched by a change in the companies’ output. “When we started people just wanted to print on a T-shirt. Now we get asked for long length T-shirts, over-sized T-shirts, baseball T-shirts, T-shirts with zips on – it’s endless. Clothing brands like Gildan, Bella and American Apparel, they offer more than a T-shirt now: slim-fitting tees, scoop-neck tees, pocket tees, that sort of thing. The brands are offering a lot more and our customers are aware of it.

“Stanley & Stella is another great brand. They do a lot of products, colours and yarn types that the other brands don’t, they are quite unique. Stanley & Stella is probably ahead of everyone.”

Merch Asylum still does a lot of work for bands such as Funeral For A Friend and Oh Wonder. “That’s a daily thing,” says Jay. “We do a lot of fulfilment for bands as well: when the bigger bands that we print for have large tours, we’ll work alongside the tour manager and merch guy. They’ll keep us updated every day with what they’re selling and how many they’re selling. We keep the screens for each design, we anticipate what they’re going to order and then we send it so it catches up with them on tour. We can ship it anywhere, so if they’re going to France, Belgium or wherever, we can make sure they have the merchandise that they need when they need it.”

The Merch Asylum team

Embroidery and digital

They also offer embroidery, although the four-head machine they have is based with the embroiderer rather than in their unit. It couldn’t fit in the previous unit and, given it weighs around three tonnes, moving it to the new unit didn’t seem very appealing. They are discussing upgrading to an eight-head – they had an order for 1,500 embroidered hoodies just the day before Images caught up with Jay again following the move to the new premises, so it’s a vital part of their operation. Any new embroidery equipment would be based in the new unit with them; however, a new press is higher up the list of priorities at present.

The only work they turn down are the smaller runs, but they have no plans at the moment to move into digital. “I wouldn’t say it’s something that we’d never do, because we do often get asked for smaller runs. If we were going to invest into it, then we would want to spend our money well, and for wholesalers I don’t think digital is really there yet.”

A problem voiced by some printers is that of customers sourcing T-shirts themselves, but Jay says only about 5% of their customers do that. “If someone did want to supply garments, we just ask them where they’re getting them from and how much they’re paying, and whatever they’re going to get them in for we’ll get them cheaper, saving the customer some money.”

Looking to the future, Jay says he anticipates in five years time that they will have gone from three automatic machines to five, and from nine staff to 15. While investing in machinery is clearly vital to the growth of the business, he maintains that their best investment so far has been in their staff: “We can invest in machinery and it’ll do the job, but we can’t fault the guys that we’ve got working for us, they’re fairly unique.”


The new unit gives the company plenty of room for future growth

Merch Asylum enjoys experimenting with print and will try anything that’s within the customer’s budget