Making T-shirts, gangsta style

One of my favorite words is "poesis," from the Ancient Greek, meaning "to make," and the root for the English word "poetry."

As a writer and language lover, "poesis" is elemental for me - making stuff with words.

But I don't make much else, and lately I've been feeling sort of creatively deficient.

Anything involving saws, hammers, or most tools for that matter, is out.

I adore painting, but realized long ago I don't have the aptitude for it.

I'm obsessed with music, but whenever I sing or play guitar living things around me start to wither and die.

So what to do, or make?

Flashback to about a month ago, when I was having a drink with my friend, Hygienic resident artist Susan Hickman, and was blathering on about my love of T-shirts.

As the fashion designer Keanan Duffty writes in his book "Rebel Rebel: Anti-Style," the T-shirt is "wonderfully democratic" and transcends class and gender.

Duffty goes on to write, that "like jeans and sneakers, the T is one of the few pansexual items of clothing," and cites the famous New York Herald-Tribune logo T-shirt worn by Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Goddard's 1960 film "Breathless" as a liberating moment for T-shirts.

For me, T-shirts are timeless. You probably have a favorite T-shirt in your bureau right now and you most likely had a favorite in your past.

Or maybe you only remember a photograph of you in a beloved T-shirt. That counts, too.

For instance, I had a really cool retro Washington Senators T-shirt that I'm wearing in a photograph of my father and me outside the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

During the course of our conversation at the bar, Hickman, who has a side business selling bags, shirts and other items with silk screened designs, offered to show me how to make my own. All I had to do was send her a design and she would get me started.

Now, as I already pointed out, it's not like I'm going to be drawing anything, so I stuck to what know - text. I came up with the phrase "New Girl/Jet Fighter," a combination of two song titles I like, and then messed around with some sizes and fonts until I settled on Trebuchet. Sounds nice, right?

Hickman and I convened last Wednesday at her loft in downtown New London to make the shirt. She greeted me wearing a paint-flecked apron and holding a screen with my design already burned onto it.

"It's like a TV chef - it's the one I made earlier," Hickman said.

Then she produced a blank screen for my lesson.

"We're going to do this gangsta style," Hickman joked.

Hickman explained that college art departments and professional printers have elaborate equipment for silkscreening T-shirts. Conversely, we had her kitchen table, a medium sized cardboard box with a rectangular hole cut in the top, a 500-watt light and a bag of blank T-shirts - V-necks, of course.

First, Hickman slathered the framed newspaper-sized screen with a hot pink emulsion then, after a while, taped transparencies with "New Girl/Jet Fighter" printed in black onto the screen.

Then we put the box over the frame and placed the light over the opening and let it cook.

In the meantime, Hickman told me about all the trial and error she went through when she was first learning silkscreening.

In the past, she made T-shirts for the Pfizer softball team as well as local bands such as Fatal Film.

"It's fun and kind of addicting," Hickman said. "I've silk screened my curtains and even the wall of my old apartment."

So, then it came time to print the shirts. I picked out an orange paint, which Hickman mixed with some white, and then spooned some out onto the screen. We placed the first shirt underneath the screen and lined up the text.

Hickman handed me a squeegee and told me to press hard and pull the paint over the words.

For someone who can make a dog's breakfast out of unassembled IKEA furniture, it was a buzz to pull the T-shirt out from underneath the screen.

All told we made about 10 shirts. Not all of them were perfect - some got smudged and others had paint seep out on the sleeves - but we were both pleased with some of the mistakes.

"That's the thing about silk screening," Hickman said. "Sometimes when you make a mistake it can still look really cool."

I'm going to remember that for other occasions.

Stephen Chupaska is a writer who lives in downtown New London. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @schupaska.


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