We had a chance to tour local t-shirt company Cotton Factory during last month’s Unblurred, the monthly gallery crawl in the Penn Avenue Arts District. I remember the company occupying a small retail space on Craig Street in Oakland when I was in college back in the early 00s. It’s nice to see they’re still going strong after all this time. They’ve had new ownership for about three years now, and we got the chance to chat with Stephen Streibig and Samantha Ginsburg, the husband and wife team who run the show. We talked about their favorite aspects of the business, as well as some of their passions as entrepreneurs. Here’s what they had to say:
Kymbo Slice: How did Cotton Factory come about? How do you get from a small retail space on Craig St. to a studio like this?
Stephen Streibig: The space on Craig Street was before we owned it. When Cotton Factory was under the previous owner, it was based out of New Kensington. When the owner decided he was done with the world of screen printing and wanted to move on to other things, there were designers there that were looking for an opportunity to keep the company moving forward. That’s when we stepped in as investors and began working with that group of folks out there, eventually renovating a studio here (in Garfield). The Cotton Factory was one of the first online t-shirt companies.
Samantha Ginsburg: Our company’s name is TeeRex Syndicate. Our online store is Cotton Factory, we figured if we changed the name we’d lose the equity of the website.
KS: Do you guys have a background in the t-shirt biz?
SS: No, I’m actually from the multimedia marketing and design side of things, but the folks that were out there had the experience to help us move forward and bring it from the garage to a big studio and take on more wholesale responsibilities. That’s the one thing that TeeRex adds, because the other place was just a little garage with screen printing capabilities. This has expanded to the shop on first Fridays (Unblurred) and all the events around town – Handmade Arcade, I Made it Market.
SG: They never used to do anything like that or any wholesale…. I have no screen printing background. I have a Master’s in environmental policy. I also have two other businesses. I do demolition and asbestos removal. We just wanted to do something different.
KS: Does the general public ever have an opportunity to submit t-shirt ideas? I know you have in-house designers, but do you ever do contests or take submissions? Where do your ideas come from?
SG: We have done some contests, but most of our ideas are all in-house. We have some amazing designers. Greg – he’s the sky. I come up with crazy ideas and it comes out exactly how I envisioned it. I can’t draw. He’s (Steve) amazing. Every time he has time to make one, people are like – “Stephen made that one, didn’t he?” And it will sell like THAT. He usually doesn’t have enough time to be designing t-shirts.
SS: We do take suggestions. Very recently someone suggested we make a t-shirt with a skeleton riding a bicycle, waving a peace sign. Not only did we make it, but it became the #1 best-seller during the Halloween season and continues to do really well. There’s a current request that’s a good one. Someone said they wanted a shirt with spiders because there aren’t very many good t-shirts with spiders, and in fact, we have a beautiful spider shirt that was never officially released on Cotton Factory. The TeeRex shop gets a lot of really cool test prints and things that the designers working on new techniques or working out ideas on their own come up with.
SG: Half of the stuff in our store is one-of-a-kind. People make me laugh, they’ll ask “Do you have this in a…” And I say, what you see is what you get.
SS: Or I’m like – I’ve never even seen that shirt before.
SG: Yeah, where did that come from?
KS: What is your favorite part about the t-shirt business?
SS: I really like Unblurred and getting to meet folks in the neighborhood. We have a nice space. Most people have never really seen a screen printing shop that looks quite like this. So when people come through, they’re always energized by it, whether they’re people who are working with us, artists, or other folks. I really like to be able to showcase that. Every once in a while we’ll do an open-house or special tours for the Mattress Factory.
SG: It’s fun because most people don’t understand the process, and it really is a process. So it’s interesting to expand peoples’ minds and help them to see that it is a huge process.
SS: We’ve also had student groups through. For us, part of the interest in owning a space like this is to be able to share it.
KS:Do you do the same thing for each Unblurred or is there something different every time?
SG: I try to have three local vendors or nonprofits at each Unblurred. We don’t charge anything and they can come and sell, or tell people whatever they want. So, one of my favorite parts about doing this is finding people for that. We try to do three per event, but this time we overbooked, so we’ll have five for December. Friday will be super packed. It’s everyone from the nonprofit Hello Bully to people who make honey, jewelry and even cupcakes. We always try to have the Goodie Truck or Franctuary. We’re always open to people or artists.
SS: First Friday has been happening in the Friendship/Garfield area for years and I’ve lived in this general vicinity for a while. I’ve always thought it would be fun to be a part of that. When we decided to open our doors to this event, we were pleasantly surprised at all the folks from the neighborhood that came out, all the other businesses that came out. There is a really good mutual support network amongst the local businesses around here and the people who are in the arts community. We have a great relationship with the people from the Glass Center. What an amazing, world-class resource – not even national resource, world-class, and it’s right THERE. It’s really phenomenal to be able to spend time with those people. We’ve helped them out in terms of printing shirts, which is really quite awesome for us. Ultimately, if we were going to have a t-shirt company that was going to try to print, we would have a giant robotics system up there. We could do that, but this is sort of a different approach. When it’s all done by hand, it’s more artistic and a little bit more patience is involved in the overall process. It certainly is rewarding.
KS: How did your relationship with Hello Bully come about? Are you animal lovers?
SG: I am dog/animal crazy. I was born that way. I’ve always had at least five animals. Cats, dogs, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs – you name it. My poor husband doesn’t even really like animals, so it’s interesting that he married me. I rescued my first pit bull in 1987 and since then I started volunteering. The one thing I found out about Hello Bully was that they didn’t have a shelter or house at the time. I thought oh great, you can just do education, you can go to schools, you can talk to people. They have a free spay and neuter program. So you aren’t seeing these dogs come in with cigarette burns or starving to death. I thought this was the perfect fit for me. Right around the time where I was signing up to go to my orientation, I sent an e-mail to area shelters telling them we wanted to give back and we’d do anything they wanted, and they were the only people who got back to me. They got back to me in 5 minutes and were like “What do you want to do?” They’ve been very receptive. I like the positive aspect of it.
SS: Just to clarify, it’s not that I don’t like animals. In comparison, she’s crazy about animals. I like them, but nowhere near close to her standards.
SG: The two things I love most about The Cotton Factory is one, I love meeting people when they say – “Hey, can you do this?” Having them come in and showing them our space and them being like, “This is so different than anyone we’ve ever worked with. You’re actually going to do a test print?” We want them to be so happy when they leave. We want it to be what they want – a shirt that they like. There are so many options out there that people don’t even know about. There’s bamboo, there’s hemp, and usually people end up with these Hanes 50/50, boxy shirts that are probably too itchy to even sleep in. The second is that I post an animal every week on our Facebook page and I’ve found a lot of animals homes. I love that I can reach out to our 14,000 fans.
KS: What has been the strangest t-shirt request you’ve ever received?
SG: I would say the one from the other day! The Freddy Krueger thing with those fingers…or do you know one stranger than that? That’s a great question.
SS: We’ve had some really strange requests and we also just printed some pretty strange t-shirts. Somebody dressed in a costume of an iPod that crashed, drinking a beer, but more or less pouring it on himself. One of the guys that works here knows that person and took a picture, and then made the shirt. It randomly shows up.
SG: We print for almost everyone on the whole street and the neighborhood is pretty supportive. But you definitely get some weird requests, but in general, we have a pretty positive fan and customer base.
SS: I think a lot of the ones that have come out of the designers have been impressively strange. I can honestly say that the one thing I’ve learned that is I have no idea how something is going to sell. I’ve looked at something and thought, that is the dumbest idea and it will go to the #1 shirt, like that. Then you’ll see another one and think, this is amazing! But no, flat line.
You can see some of their crazy creations on their website, or at tonight’s monthly installment of Unblurred, get all the deets for tonight’s event HERE. They will be selling t-shirts alongside hosting five vendors, and the taco truck will be there! As a business who really strives to support other local businesses and strives to purchase only American-made tees, we’re happy to return the favor. Check out these fantastic tees they made for Pittsburgh Brewing Company’s recent 100-year anniversary party:
Photos taken by: Daniel Smithson ( Kid Erudite )