What Apparel Decorators See When They Go to a Mall

Apparel Printers in the Mall - Marshall Atkinson

I’ve done it.  You’ve done it too.  You are sitting there waiting for your spouse, mind wandering and bored, when someone walks by wearing a t-shirt.  Your first thought to yourself is “Geez, who printed that?  Look how off-center it is!”  Once you start, you just can’t stop.   I’ve even had a store clerk ask me, “Who are you?” when she noticed me micro-examining a t-shirt next to a big rack of their latest designs.  “I’m the t-shirt police ma’am.  This print was under-cured; and I’m afraid you are under arrest.”

For no reason whatsoever let’s take a minute and ponder what can happen when we visit the local retail megaplex:

Get all Touchy-Feely.  How many times have you skimmed through the rack and checked out the print or embroidery on a shirt?  You’ve pulled at the ink to see if it cracks, checked the sewing on an embroidered piece for loose threads and even stitches, maybe even admired the complexity of an intricate high density Mark Ecko print.  Personally I can’t walk by a stack of t-shirts and not at least touch the print to check out the hand.  It’s a curse.

Recon.  Destroyed graphics and text from Abercrombie & Fitch, tattoo inspired Ed Hardy designs, right shoulder The North Face logo placement, discharge one color shirt print from Lucky Brand, Juicy Couture butt prints on pink sweats,  Old Navy American flags…  What leads American popular culture will sooner or later turn up in your shop.  If you can’t get out to the MAGIC show in Vegas, you can at least spot trends while wondering where your kids went at the mall.

Marvel at the Prices.  Yep.  This t-shirt is on sale and they are still asking $24.99 for it.  As you sip on your Orange Julius you think to yourself what size boat you could buy if you sold shirts at that price.  Should it have the helicopter landing pad, or the double jet-ski transom?  Why not both?  Ahhh, dreams.

QC ASAP.  One thrill that I always get is when I spot a shirt for sale in a store with the same problem that we just rejected last week and didn’t send to our customers.  It feels good to know that your standards are higher than other shops.  And then it hits you.  Why aren’t you doing work for these people?

You see your work.  One of my favorite things has been seeing my creative work on people just going about their business.  It’s a secret connection.  You want to yell, “Hey, I did that!”  Nobody would care, but you still want to yell it.  Oooh.  There goes another one!  “Hey, I did that!”  What’s even better is when you go to a football or baseball game and you are surrounded by your creative effort and you are all cheering on your favorite team.  That’s a good feeling.  That multiplies exponentially when you participate in the same charity event that you had you print 5,000 shirts, and your logo is on the back as a sponsor, and you are in the middle of a sea of pink, purple or blue shirts to start the walk.

You see your work, part II – the nightmare.  Then there’s this.  Someone with the job from hell walks by.  Twenty-seven art revisions, as it was approved by a “committee”.  Shirts were ordered, but arrived in seven different shipments, from four different warehouses.  The two XXXXL shirts didn’t show up until the day the job was running on press.  The press operator dropped a flood bar onto the screen and popped it during the run.  It was an event, so the crew stayed until 1:30 in the morning printing so it could be ready the next day for pick up.  All that work paid off though, as the shirts were ready, the client happy (they even sent a nice note with the tray of cookies the following Monday), and damn those shirts look great!

Inspiration.  In the back of your mind you’ve been thinking about what to do for that big project on Monday.  Suddenly you have to grab a pen and an envelope and jot down the solution you just observed.  It’s a texture, or a double-outline, or using rhinestones, or mixed media with embroidery, or perfectly placed clear-gel, or trying out that indigo colored garment dyed tee.  It’s everything and anything, but your creative juices wash over you in a tidal wave of inspiration all in one moment.  Who would have thought your eureka moment would happen in line at Chick-Fil-A?  It must be their chicken biscuit.

Entrepreneurial Spirit.  How many times have you been to the mall and contemplated what it might take to get one of those cart kiosks and fill it with shirts?  Or a one-off embroidery machine.  Or a DTG printer.  People could bring in their logos, monograms, and crazy ideas and watch in amazement as their garment gets decorated right before their eyes!  Or maybe the cart could be a remote order taking spot for the shop.  Or I could invent my own line of shirts and sell them right there!  Or I could…

The phone tag guy is there.  Might as well take his order…  You’ve missed each other all week, and now in front of Cinnabon he stops and starts a long winded ramble on how many polos he needs, with hats to match, and maybe some baby onesies as Cheryl the receptionist just had her baby…will the logo have to be resized?  You used to jot everything down on the nearest napkin, but thankfully you have that brand new gigantic smart phone.  Which app is the one for taking notes, and where did I hide that so it wouldn’t be in the way?  Can your finger keep up?

The Mona Lisa.  Strolling through a store, you notice a fantastically designed print on another shopper.  You know it would win award after award if it was entered in any trade show competition.  The race is on.  How fast can you whip out your phone and snap a nonchalant pic of the person without looking like a total stalker.  The bravest in our industry would actually walk up to the person and ask where they bought the shirt.  Would you?

Ambling back to your car you are impressed with all you’ve learned.  Maybe you should grab your art department and take a field trip to the mall next week for some creative inspiration.  Bring some sketchbooks!  Mall chores handled, you drive away and remember that you have to go to the hardware store.  What kind of stuff for the shop could you see there?

Share your mall stories in the comments section!!


  • One of the things that got me into screen printing and wondering how awesome shirts were printed was being a mall rat. Marc Ecko reference to be specific and FUBU / JNCO Brand.

  • Marshall,
    Very well written. One question: How did you enter my brain and find my exact thoughts to put on paper? Hahaha. Great read!

    • Ann:


      BTW, I entered your brain through a peculiar phenomenon called “squeegee reverse osmosis”. It’s an industry technical term. -M

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