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A history lesson in Omaha Shirt Printing

The history of Omaha shirt printing ties closely together with the history of Omaha, the history of textile printing, and t-shirts themselves.

Historical Omaha Printing Photo

Omaha was founded in 1854 and incorporated in 1857. The town was known for beefpacking stockyards, as a hub of railroad expansion, and as a frequent stopping point for settlers and prospectors heading West.

The 19th century brought about a soaring population, the great depression, World Wars, and civil rights.

Common threads between these eras have been people's desire for clothing and the growth of printing technology industry.

The t-shirt industry has evolved from formal wear and undershirts to mass-market customized on-demand t-shirt production with online sales. The industries growth has been exponential.

The printing industry has seen even more growth. In the span of 100 years techniques have been revolutionized. Printing has gone from 1,000-year-old stamping techniques to digitization, the internet, computer graphic design, and industrial machinery.

Shirt printing in Omaha is now at the forefront of digital printing with companies such as Retro Shirtz. Combining high-speed state-of-the-art machines with on-demand graphic design, no minimum orders, and full color, Retro Shirtz looks to continue the evolution of Omaha's rich printing and apparel industries.

Printing techiniques have existed for thousands of years.

It wasn't long after the first person smudged dirt on a cave wall, that another person decided painting with a tool would be more efficient. Not to mention, having less finger grime is always good.

Man performing historical block printing technique

Over time tool use progressed. In parts of ancient China in 220 AD, paper and cloth textiles were printed using carved wooden blocks.

In the photo to the right, a modern day printer is using the ancient handcarved wooden block technique to ink a fabric roll. Also shown is an assortment of hand carved wood block stamps

Hand carved wooden print blocks were essentially modern day stamps, but instead of rubber ink surfaces, each wood block was meticulously carved by hand.

By using wood as a carving surface, the complexity of an printed image was completely dependent on the skill of the woodcarver who created the block.

Example of before and after wood block printing sketch and final fabric print

To the left is an original template sketch made by a wood carver. These sketched carving templates would be used as a guide in the carving process.

The other image displays how the printed ink looks on the finished fabric roll. The symmetry of the finished product was highly dependent on the printer. Each printer applied ink to the block by hand, with each color sperately added as needed. The printer then aligned and pressed block to the textile by hand.

Notice how the before and after is nearly identical. The skill level of the original artist, the carver, the inker, and the printer is such, that there is little difference between the sketch and the finished product. Note the seamlessness of the final product.

Without a steady hand and eye for detail, prints could easily be crooked or uneven.

Hand woodblock printing dominated the high-tech printing industry for one-and-a-half thousand years.

Innovation brought ceramic movable letters in China in the 11th century. In Europe, Gutenberg invented his own technique in 1440. These methods pioneered the use of individual stamps for each letter or image. These individual pieces could be placed into large groups and later re-arranged.

After these re-arrangeable letters were placed, they were placed face up and then a layer of ink was applied. More complex machines would have rollers, similar to apaint roller, that wold apply ink automatically.

Once the letters were placed and inked, the fabric or paper was placed over the top and attached into place. Many early machines used clamps and presses to prevent the material from moving. The final product eventually became known prints, and the machines became known as printing presses.

By 1500, nearly every major metropolitan European city had it's a printers workshop operating a printing press.

Pictures of a letterpress printer and letter blocks

Individual hand powered printing presses were often modeled after existing trechnologies, like the screwpress like the machine to the right. It has many similarities to a winey screwpress, used in wine making. Above, notice the interchangable print blocks attached inside the machine. Each and every letter was placed by hand, and entire books were created one letter at a time.

Exact placement of blocks meant exact copies of printed materials could be generated reliably. Blocks were made of paper mache, wood, ceramic, and metals.

Then came the industrial revolution. Energy was harnessed in the forms of steam and electricity.

Printing was industrialized with gigantic mechanized printing machines that would print hundreds of yards of newpapers, fabric, and textiles.

Newer printing techniques were slowly making letterpress printing obsolete as a production method. Screen printing, sublimation, and garment printing all were developed as methods of producing small to medium runs of shirs and apparel. But with the rise of computers and digitization, also started the re-emergence of small scale of production.

In present day, letterpress printing is not lost. Several modern printers have dusted off and refurbished old machinery, and letterpress printing is enjoying a rise in popularity as a boutique craft business.

Even Omaha has seen a revival, with businesses such as the Fairmont Antique Building in downtown Omaha beginning their own private letterpress print shop. The industry is growing yet again, as entrepenours begin to dabble in the idea of letterpress shirt printing in Omaha.

While the history of printing goes back thousands of years, the modern t-shirt is a fairly recent invention.

T-Shirts have their origin in undershirts. These undershirts were primarily worn by men under their normal formal clothes.

A picture of historical shirts

The first historical records of t-shirts come from the U.S. Navy. During the Spanish-American war of the early 1900's, servicemen and sailors were issued undershirts as part of their uniform.

The shirts were originally designed to be worn under the man's military uniform. But over time, hot climates, stuffy submarine interiors, and informal parties resulted in men wearing the undershirt without their military attire.

As military vets began coming home with their shirts, their families were introduced to t-shirts. Younger men and boys began wearing t-shirts as an informal and inexpensive alternative to their other clothing. On hot summer days and in field work, t-shirts became even more common.

In the 1950's t-shirts gained even more mainstream acceptance. Marlon Brando appeared in the Movie A Streetcar Called Desire and famously wore a t-shirt through much of the movie.

The general public's view of t-shirts was changing from that of an undergarment to a stand-alone fashionable clothing item.

By the 1970's t-shirts were a commonly accepted and worn clothing item. Additional styles such as v-necks, long sleeves, fitted crop tops, and midriff style shirts all came into popularity.

Today, t-shirts are a common household clothing item for nearly everyone in every society. The industry boasts thousands of shirt brands, with hundreds of colors and styles of t-shirts.

Omaha's shirt printing industry is no exception, as companies such as Retro Shirtz continue the evolution of the t-shirt industry by carrying a wide range of styles for thier customers.

It was not long after t-shirts became fashionable, that enterprising individuals began personalizing their plain white shirts.

A photograph of some of the first known shirt printing

Itt is likely that military men were the founders shirt printing, with basic art supplies such as paint, one of the earliest actual records of t-shirt printing is from a movie.

The year was 1939 and the movie was The Wizard of Oz.

The popular movie contains a scene with the Cowardly Lion being attended by Oz's Clean and Brushup Company. Each of the employee's green shirts is cleary printed with an Oz logo.

Given the popularity of the t-shirts today, it is amazing seeing the t-shirt go from an overlooked undergarment, to being used in main-stream media less than three decades later.

Fashion truly does evolve quickly.

A magazine cover showing early shirt printing

Then, in 1942, the cover of Life magazine was featuring a man wearing a t-shirt printed with an Air Corps Gunnery School logo.

Shirt printing was on the rise, and the public was beginning to understand the variety that could be printed on a personalized t-shirt.

Tourist towns, particularly in Florida, began seeing resort themed shirt prints with names of towns, locations, resorts, and theme parks.

Companies began seeing the lucritive side of the t-shirt printing industry with licensing deals to major names and brands, such as Disney characters.

By the 1960's and 1970's the t-shirt was evolving into a medium for personal expression. Screen printing, tie-dying, and ringer shirts became the tools of a generation of youthful thinkers and dreamers.

Now for relatively little investment, an individual or group could wear their beliefs and ideas on their clothing. Shirt printing in towns across America flourished, including shirt printing in Omaha. Local attractions, such as the Zoo, Peony Park, Aksarben, and the Royal Grove, had their own graphic screen printed shirts.

Nationally iconic shirts such as the yellow smiley face, Rolling Stones tongue, and Che Guevera rebel shirt were designed and mass produced. Mega companies began to form that distributed thousands of shirts to bands, festivals, and local clothing stores.

The age of t-shirt printing had begun.

Omaha shirt printing is enjoying vibrant and rapid growth. T-shirt print shops and graphic shirt stores are becoming commong both online and in malls across the city and state.

New technologies are entering the market that allow reduced prices, faster production, no-minimum orders, and full color printing.

A photograph of an Omaha shirt printing business

One such technology is called digital printing.

In digital printing, shirts are placed inside ultra-large format printers that print ink directly into the fabric fibres of the shirt.

The custom shirt printing process takes minutes per shirt, and most customers can have their shirts designed and printed same day. The process is quick, clean, and very personalized.

Compared to older methods, such as screen printing, digital printing saves time. And when a printer saves time, they also save money - which can be passed onto the customer in the form of less restrictive printing processes.

Local companies such as our own Retro Shirtz and Omaha Shirts are at the forefront of digital shirt printing in Omaha. Unlike screen printers, shirt printing is offered same day on most shirt orders. This is in addition to cutting edge graphic software, advanced machinery, and a business model rooted in midwestern values.

Click here to learn more about Omaha Shirts.

A photograph of t-shirt graphic designers

Another key to the evolution of shirt printing in Omaha has been the invention of on-demand graphic design.

Print shops, such as Retro Shirtz, have resident, full time graphic designers on hand and ready during all business hours for customer's graphic design needs.

By allowing walk-in customers instant access to professionally trained graphic designers, customers now have the ability to see their t-shirt design vision translated into a reality.

The garment printing industry is also bringing an end other infamous parts of the t-shirt printing industry: Minimum Orders and Pay-by-Color.

Garment printers have no minimum orders. This is because garment printers are on-demand shirt printing machines. After a design has been finalized, garment printers can automatically print shirts with just a push of a button.

Unlike screen printing with color seperation and multiple screens per colors, garment printers do not distinguish between single color and full color. The garment printing machine treats the print order the same way, uses the same print settings, takes the same amount of time, and costs the same amount of materials.

With these time and money saving features, the cost to produce individual shirts in full color is now not only feasable, it is economical.

The future of shirt printing in Omaha is bright, and new techologies are only going to make the industry better. As printing technology advances in colors, speed, and design, customers will see even quicker print times and better designs in their custom shirts.

We hope that you have enjoyed this article on the history of shirt printing in Omaha. Please check out our other articles for great information on shirts and shirt printing! Thanks!

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