An unerring ability for spotting new opportunities has led to garment decorators Tshirt Group setting up an innovative – and successful – dyehouse

Tshirt Group has always aimed to stand out from the pack. It was an early adopter of DTG technology in the UK, using NeoFlex machines to print merchandise for urban artists. Then, spotting the emerging trend for independent brands, the company started helping people to set up online shops.

“We’re quite a creative team, and we are always looking for the next thing to do “ explains Paul Godfrey, director of group sales. Realising that screen printing was a saturated market, the team decided that sublimation was the next niche to fulfil.

Armed with sublimation printers and heat press Tshirt Group was soon printing for screen printers and other companies. “But we realised there were shortcomings with sublimation print: it’s great, we can get nice colours from it, but a lot of people don’t like polyester or polyester blend T-shirts. They want 100% cotton, and of course you can’t sublimate on cotton.”

The Red Snake shirt

One of Tshirt Group’s unique dyed effect T-shirts

It was time to find yet another new niche, says Paul. “We looked at tiedyeing and wondered what we could do – was it just Woodstock-style, twisted, dyed T-shirts, or was there more to it? The more we researched, the more we realised that there were a huge amount of effects that come under the tie-dye umbrella. We could do the standard tie-dye style, but we could also create really ‘out there’ garments – anything from faux-acid-wash to Pantone matching to bleach effects and, well, pretty much anything really. We’re always trialling and creating new effects.”

The research to set up a dyeing business began three years ago and cost £20,000. This was spent on looking at different garments and flying out to other countries to meet people already involved in tie-dye and understand how and why they were doing it in a particular way.

The next step was buying and installing the equipment – an investment that, combined with the on-going research into new dyes and new techniques, currently sits at around a quarter of a million pounds. That’s equal to the company’s (also on-going) investment in the DTG side of its business, which now includes a Kornit Hexa machine. The dyehouse operation was officially launched in June 2017.

Depending on the type of garment, tie-dyeing can be a labour-intensive process

Both the retail market and the merchandise sector are keen buyers of the garments Tshirt Group produces. “We realised there are a few companies out there at the moment that are supplying the major retailers, but they are doing pretty standard dye stuff . We’re giving them other options, such as vintage clothing, acid-wash effect, dip-dye… We’re doing really well. We’ve got a couple of garments that are going to major retailers, and we’ve also just done a hooded garment for a very large international band that wanted to break away from using the standard black T-shirt with a print on it.”

Depending on what look needs to be achieved, it can be a labour-intensive process, admits Paul. “If it’s an overdying effect, it’s all done inside the machine. But if it’s a more elaborate effect, then it’ll be tied or scrunched or manipulated in a particular way, perhaps multiple times, to get the desired result. It really depends on the garment. We do a lot of dip-dye as well, where the garments are dipped into a dye solution [creating a graduated effect] and then left to cure.

A dip-dye tee

The Atomic T-shirt

Ingredients list

“Each garment comes with its own ingredient list and methodology on how to produce it. What we wanted to do was to be able to create a T-shirt that is unique, but whether it’s a run of 100 or 10,000, a batch of T-shirts would look very similar. To a retail customer, if they were looking at a shelf of T-shirts in a shop, they would look the same, but there would be slightly individual parts, so each customer would get an individual T-shirt.”

While tie-dye might sound like a short-lived fad, that would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the different dyeing techniques available, Paul explains. “When you say tie-dye, people think of the standard twist with pastel colours, but it’s much more than that. We’ve just taken on a really well-known independent brand that for years has been looking to get its own colours that it couldn’t get from the manufacturer. So we do Pantone matches, and the vintage ‘70s vogue has been very big for the last couple of years, plus this year we’re seeing an abundance of the acidwash effect, where we’re producing a two-tone effect on a standard garment.”

Clearly, the list of techniques found under the tie-dye umbrella is vast and constantly being added to.

Paul Godfrey, director of group sales

The company’s go-to T-shirt is the Gildan Softstyle. “It’s one that’s accepted by all major retailers and screen printers. We wanted to create a dye-effect T-shirt that we could easily print and finish, but we also wanted it to be able to fi t into any screen printing company as well. Any of our screen print customers can take a garment from us and then print it. It’s a T-shirt that they use all the time, they know its limits and everything’s set up for that kind of garment. It was important to us that we didn’t introduce a new garment into the market that was untested.”

The dyes are all water-based and come from a GOTS-certified and ECHA- and Reach-approved supplier that belongs to both the Bluesign and ZDHC organisations. This was important to Tshirt Group, as it is proud of its environmentally friendly stance. The dyeing machines are CE and WRAS-approved: they boast low emissions and carbon footprint, offer high energy efficiency, and consume a minimum amount of water. A treatment programme ensures the dyes don’t enter the water system and Tshirt Group is also part of a recycling programme. Paul adds that dyeing products in the UK where the end product is then used, further reduces their carbon footprint.

The other advantage of dyeing in the UK is the ability to respond quickly to the demands of fast fashion. “Websites such as Asos, Boohoo and MissPap have changed the thinking of the British buying public,” says Paul. “We’re finding a lot of our retail customers want stuff in smaller numbers and they want it much more quickly – lead times of four to eight weeks are no longer viable, retail buyers now want it within two weeks.”

The company’s dyeing machines

The dyeing facility, based in Stoke-on-Trent, with a finishing unit in Leicester, can produce up to 1,000 dyed garments a day depending on the complexity of the design. The minimum order is 100 garments, and Paul says that they already supply, amongst others, “the three largest screen printers in London, as well as two large UK retailers”.

Tshirt Group still runs its DTG and sublimation printing businesses, as well as a screen printing arm. “The printing side has done extremely well over the last five years, which has given us the platform to be able to go out and research new ideas like the dyeing,” Paul says. He’s looking to add a new DTG machine soon, with the choice currently between another Kornit, the Brother GTX or the Ovaljet – the new DTG option from the US that is yet to officially launch; Paul and production manager Joe Richardson are hoping to fly out to the States soon to see it in action. [See Marshall Atkinson’s review in the March 2018 issue of Images.]

The growth in all parts of the business has seen the company adding a 3,000 sq ft mezzanine floor in January this year, and there are no signs of Paul and the team slowing down anytime soon. “We’re working on something at the moment that can be added to the dye to create an extra dimension to it; I can’t say too much at the moment, but it should be ready in six months. We’re constantly working to make sure we offer something fresh – we want to buck the trend of boring tie-dye products by using our creativity to produce unique effects that no-one else in the industry is offering.”