Rise Shirts & the 2nd Half of 2023

Long story:

I opened orders for the new shirt design in June 2023 with a special discount for pride month, with the announcement that these sales would be helping me stay afloat while I recovered from surgery. I was BLOWN AWAY by the response, I’ve never had a new shirt design get so many orders in the first few days before! My recovery period lasted longer than I expected, delaying my ability to start production. The UV purple vinyl also became backordered & I couldn’t get my hands on it until the end of the month.

However, upon wearing & washing the sample shirt I created for the promotion, I discovered a major flaw with the design: the thin lines were a little too thin & the vinyl was cracking & peeling off after only a couple of washes. This caught me completely by surprise; I couldn’t allow such a poor quality product to leave the lab.

Over the next few months, I explored different options & techniques… including talking to a screen printing company about using fluorescent inks & as an alternative option (in July), adjusting the design & thickness of my lines (four times over several months), obtaining a new professional-grade clamshell heat press to give me more consistency in temperature & pressure applied to the design (in September), & finally discovered the true solution when a client asked for a double-colored Metamorphic shirt (in August): double-layering the vinyl gave it a humongous boost to longevity!

I created a new test shirt implementing all these new changes, tried to damage it by washing incorrectly (right-side out in hot water/hot dry—don’t do this to any of your graphic tees!) & after six washes it still looked brand new! This was the best news I could hope for as it means I can now apply the technique to all of my vinyl shirts going forward! The trade off is that the design feels thicker & stiffer, but this means it resists cracking/peeling/wrinkling & the smoother surface makes the colors even more vibrant.

Then came the next problem to solve: Shrinkage

I already pre-shrink the shirts myself when they arrive from the distribution center so they fit the same as the day you bought it; this is done primarily to reduce making extra wrinkles in the vinyl. When the vinyl is heated to activate the adhesive to fuse into the shirt fibers, the design actually shrinks slightly. This makes multi-color designs a real challenge because you need just enough heat to get it to stick to the shirt & release from the carrier sheet, but not too much else it fully shrinks (or is overheated/burns/melts).

Originally I could make the shirt in three presses (one for each color), which does also means each shirt is ever so slightly different: each color layer would slightly shift or shrink, but because there’s a lot of spacing between each piece, there is some wiggle-room on the final resting position. It didn’t need to be perfect nor did it impact the design overall.

I cannot do it this way anymore. This is because the first pass needs to be the new bottom stabilization layer, which I have cut out of black matte vinyl, & then the colors go on top of it. But because of the shrinkage/shifting of the initial black layer, each color layers added on top will not match up perfectly in size & position to the black anymore, plus it gets worse with each press.

So now I am forced to cut & place every single piece individually by hand (& there’s like 50 of them!) The black vinyl is also hard to see (by design, so if I accidently have a piece that slightly shifts out of place upon pressing & it exposes the layer underneath, it will not be noticeable) which adds an extra challenge. And then to make things even harder—I swear this project is cursed—I have discovered that it is nearly impossible to move a shirt with all the pieces laid out from my table to the heat press without accidentally shifting pieces out of alignment again.

This meant I had to invest in a new tool: a mini handheld heat press (purchased in October). It’s a tiny iron that fits in the palm of my hand. Now instead of laying out all the little pieces & trying to press each color at once, I can use the mini iron to apply heat to very specific areas of the design: aligning & tacking each piece down as I go. I can apply just enough heat to get it to stay in place. After all the pieces are lightly tacked to the shirt in the exact position I want, I place the shirt under my big heat press & do one even, final press over the whole design front & back.


This means it went from like 15 minutes of labor per shirt to more like an 1 hour & 30 minutes per shirt. I’m definitely losing a lot of money & time on this project & all the roadblocks have been very discouraging, but I am trying my best & I really care about making this work because the design means so much to me personally. In the end I do finally have a solution that works!

I’m going to be experimenting next with the idea of making the black layer a little bigger than normal, to see if I can counteract the shrinking problem (assuming it shrinks uniformly enough). & then perhaps I can go back to the 3 color passes, or maybe I can get away with grouping more pieces together to do small sections at a time instead of each piece one by one. It wastes more vinyl that way but it would save a significant amount of time.

My motto for 2023: never stop improving! And I improved all my products A LOT over the year.



As for the rest of the timeframe… it was a perfect storm of tragic lab accidents that prevented me from working from October through January.

In October, right as I’m back in full swing knocking out my oldest work—successfully finished ALL of the 2022 crossing sign backlog in one day (that project had a similar amount of frustrating production issues as these shirts did, but over the past year & a half)—my cutting machine suddenly had a major computer malfunction. Then the one I borrowed from a friend had a mechanical roller malfunction, another brand of machine I borrowed from another friend couldn’t cut a proper circle (start & end positions of a cut wouldn’t line up, plus it had the worst software I’ve ever used). I was trying to get my old machine replaced under warranty too, but customer support would ghost me for weeks at a time. In the meantime I couldn’t work much since I basically used the cutting machine for all my merch & everything wasn’t cutting in the correct positioning or scaling anymore.

I hadn’t attended any conventions since FWA (in May) & I depend on the income from conventions to survive… so at this point with only a trickle of online sales over the past 5 months, I had no money to spare for purchasing a new machine. BLFC (Halloween) helped, although sales were about half what I expected from that event since the economy sucks & attendance dropped from being a midweek con.

In November I finally heard back from customer support & was approved for an RMA (aaaannnd then they ended up ghosting me for another month after that). Finally sick of waiting, I used the money I earned at BLFC & took advantage of a Black Friday sale to barely afford the very necessary purchase of a new machine, different ecosystem entirely & way better build quality this time. Means I have to learn the cutter & software from scratch which takes a bit of time. However, I didn’t even get to unbox it before I was on a plane to MFF.

Of course, then I caught a nasty con crud at MFF & was bedridden-sick. I was feeling so burned out in the 2nd half of the year, fighting not only a dozen artistic roadblocks at every turn, but also struggling with underlying mental & physical health issues (I was also diagnosed with ADHD in 2023… which has been a journey in rediscovering how to function, understanding my new limitations, & how to even work with my own brain).

I lost pretty much all of December to recovery from falling ill & holiday obligations. Customer support finally got back to me though! They apologized for the terrible customer service experience by upgrading me to the brand new highly-anticipated model that was released that month, free of charge. It arrived right before New Years, but then I was not home for three weeks straight doing back-to-back cons at the start of January (ANW, FC). Oh yeah & also a winter storm stopped me from going home from when I was supposed to from that, just to make this story even more ridiculous.

All in all, 2023 was an absolute trainwreck of a year for me.
But 2024 is the year of the dragon, so perhaps luck is finally on my side…