T-Shirt Business

T-shirts Business

T-shirt vending is very popular at swap meets and areas frequented by tourists.  The thing is that you need something unique to sell t-shirts.

What can you put on a t-shirt?

You might think it would be a good idea to make t-shirts with an image of your favorite band or pro-team.  Well, this probably violates their trademark.  You cannot use a trademarked term such as a The Rams (yes the NFL team used to play at the Big A), a band’s name, or in most cases a private school’s name without their permission.  See this note from our sister website about using Sports Team’s names and logos.  You may not use something that is very similar to their name or their image if it’s copyrighted.   For example, a t-shirt with a rodent and the words mikey mouse would probably violate Disney’s copyright.

You may be able to use a name that is in the public domain like a city name.  That’s why Huntington beach has re-branded itself as “surf city” or “surf city usa”  The powers that be had no control over the name Huntington Beach.   Back in 2008, a small business in Santa Cruz California was selling t-shirts with the phrase “Surf City, Santa Cruz, California,USA.”  The city’s visitor borough–their insurance co.–ended up spending $250,000 in litigation costs to make their poing  against what was described as a “mom-and-pop business” over this issue (apparently the $15,000 settlement did not suffice); we are not sure how much Bruce and Ginger Noland had to pay.  2006 article   The point is that any close variant like “surfing city usa” or “Huntington Surf City” will probably not cut it.

Another interesting example is that if you have been to NYC, for some reason tourists feel a need to buy shirts, hats, coffee cups…  that have the I ♥ NY.   Even though you cannot trade mark the letter I, the heart symbol in the color red, or the letters NY.  The logo’s trademark by a company called CMG Worldwide.   So you cannot use it or anything similar to it without their permission.  And sometimes people file trademarks on things before they come into common usage.  For instance, when the Lakers were about to win their third championship everyone was saying three-peat.   But that had been trade marked so you would have to obtain permission an pay a royalty to put Three-Peat or 3-peat it on a t-shirt.

The main thing is to be original.  That will help you avoid violating someone else’s trademark or copyright.  In theory, you could go to court and challenged Pat Riley’s three-peat trademark because everyone uses the term, but what’s the point?  The court costs will be more than you would ever make.  And a lot of big corporations will go after the little guy to keep all the other little guys from misbehaving.   As the little guy, you are in a no-win situation.

Of course there may be many names that are in public domain,  like America, USA, and city names.  And there are many things that are in the public domain because they are in such wide use or nobody ever bothered to trademark them.  You also have the right to use a name if it is in the form of political speech such as “company x is unfair” or “politician Y is _____”

Putting Celebrity names and pictures on T-Shirts

From what we understand, celebrity names and images belong to the celebrities  and you cannot use them on a T-shirt to make money without their permission.  Magazines are allowed to chase down celebs to get their photo, but that seems to fall under the category of news and if they are in public view.  So you can write an article and display a photo of say Justin Bieber (sp?) going in to a restaurant in a magazine you publish as news; but you cannot put his photo on a T-shirt and sell “Justin Bieber” shirts.  The ownership of an image/name is commonly referred to as the right of celebrity.  People have the right to make money from their own image; and they needn’t have obtained a trademark on their own image or name to own it.

After a celebrity passes on the rights to use her name and image are based on laws of the state in which she was a resident when she died.  Generally those rights last for seventy years after death–but that may have exceptions if the image is being managed.  Until the celeb’s name goes into public domain, her estate has the right to use that celebrities image and name to generate money.  For instance CGM Worldwide http://www.cmgworldwide.com/index.html buys/manages these rights and they will often decide which product a deceased celebrity will endorse.

So, if you would like to use the name or likeness of a celeb living/deceased/retired, you need to get permission from them or whomever owns the right to use their likeness.

Getting Rights to use a Sports Logo or Star’s Name/Image

The hardest part it trying to figure out who wons the rights.

Sports OCSmallBusiness did an article about this.  See http://ocsmallbusiness.com/put-nfl-mlb-ncaa-team-logos-on-t-shirts/

Stars For those represented by CMG Worldwide, go to http://www.cmgworldwide.com/corporate/clients.html  Click on their official webpage, and then click on the business tab to get an e-mail for to talk to the brand manager.  But they will probably want serious money to okay a project.  Producing 100 shirts might not cut it, but it never hurts to ask.

Links above represent the most popular.  A good way to find it might be to search for the “official” web page, and contact their agent.  Most corporations have Brand Managers that manage the use of brand names.

But again there is an exception to the rights of famous people to control their name/images based on the constitutional freedom of free speech.  We have the right to discuss issues.  But it gets confusing defining what is free speech about a topic and what is commercial speech just to cash in on a topic.  An interesting example about the use of former President’s images was discussed by attorney Mich Stein on the NPR program Marketplace (see below).   The take-away was that if the celerity/politician  name or image is being used for political speech/art you can use it and make some money.



 Loads of Free Stuff in the Public Domain

There are tons stuff in the public domain that you can put on a T-Shirt.  For instance, we recently did a search for science T-shirts.  There is no copyright on the letter π (pi) so you can build a graphic around it(FN2).  This is a great market because you have science enthusiasts who are willing to pay for a shirt they cannot find at the mall.  They might be a science teacher, college student, or someone who actually has a job as a scientist.  Or more likely, someone who feels obligate to give said person a gift.  These might not move that fast at the swap meet, but you can move them over the internet.  And they have a nice markup.  For instance, at the swap meet, you could expect to pay $4.oo for a t-shirt.  And these on-line retailers were selling them for $18-$21 plus tax and shipping.

There are so many groups out there: professions, academic departments, hobbyists, hunters, fishers, sports …

The upper limit on pricing seems to be around $28 which is the amount on-line shops like http://www.zazzle.com/ that offer to custom print a T-Shirt for a customer.  That’s assuming the customer provides his/her own art work.

[we need to work more on this section.  if you know any good guidelines, let us know.]

Screen printing you own t-shirts

You can save money by making the t-shirts your self.  The main reason you would want to do this is so that you can react fast to market design.  If you find something that should be on a shirt today, you can have it for sale tomorrow.

But there are three draw backs to this.  First, you have to buy equipment.  A starter kit (new) goes for about $1,000.  We found one business that sells these supplies from Los Angeles http://www.silkscreeningsupplies.com/product/1008 And if you do artwork on the computer, you will need a printer that can print on clear plastic.  Most of them can do that.

This video shows how to transfer artwork to a screen which you can use to make t-shirts.

This is a long video on setting up a hobby silk screen kit called the Silver Press. It’s not ideal for a large volume, but if you just want to get started, a kit can be had for less than $300 new.  It does 1 color and you can print about 20 shirts/hour once it’s set up. The Screen Printing Hobby Kit, a complete silkscreening package, silk screen t shirts!  We added the long video to show that it’s not as easy as it looks to get started.


But you might be able to find a deal on used equipment.  Check out Craigslist for good deals.  We found a couple of complete sets of equipment ink tools … for around $2,500.

The other thing you will need is some space.  If you want to do a lot of production, you will need at least a couple hundred square feet of space.  You will not be able to set this up in an office and it would not be practical to operate in retail space.    It is possible to set up in a garage, but you may have zoning issues if your Neighbors turn you in to the city.

You can get blank t-shirts relatively cheep.  We found nicer quality t-shirts on this website http://www.shirtspace.com/ going for less than $3.50 each.   There were also some bargain shirts for less than $2.00 here http://www.rgriley.com/ — this company has sales in LA.  (Note if your are going to re-sell the shirts, show your resale licence to the wholesaler and she will not charge your sales tax.)

Screen printing business that can do the work for you

Local Orange County T-Shirt Suppliers

We found this business in Irvine that lets you do a custom color design.  http://www.socalscreenprinting.com/Monthly_Special.htm  (Didn’t reply to our e-mail–not sure they are still in business.)

We also found Kustom Imports near Anaheim Stadium.  They can do a shirt for under $5 if you order 300 of the same design.  It may be possible to work with them on price.

The Shirt Company http://www.theshirtcannery.com/specials_coupons.htm   They have more of a retail business, but offer fast turn around and discounts for large quantities.
(currently we are researching this.  If you know of any local companies, let us know  ocdave@OCBusinessStartUp.com )

Buying T-Shirts Wholesale

We have found a few shirt whole sellers.  If you are spending more than a couple thousand, the business is competitive.  So if you find a good price you can ask other whole sellers to beat the price.  And as always, have your California Resale Permit handy so that you don’t have to pay California Sales Tax on stuff you will re-sell.


  • Fancy T-shirts wholesale LA http://www.downtownoffprice.com/category/54-wholesale-t-shirts.aspx and they have black men’s shirts http://www.downtownoffprice.com/category/61-wholesale-men-apparel-clothing-clothes-fashion-man-garments.aspx.  These go for at least $12 retail and can be purchased for under $6 for the woman’s styles and under $5 for the men’s styles.
  • This site has military and police related shirts (they also have a lot of caps) that start under $2.00 for wholesale buyers. http://www.buckwholesale.com/categoryItems.asp?id=45 If that does not work, http://www.buckwholesale.com You kind-of have to search through their site, but they have some stuff that will sell and they have very low prices.
  •  Kids Blanks www.kidsblanks.com  This family owned Santa Ana company drop ships children’s clothing and other supplies such as bibs, but they also have a supply of adult size shirts and hoodies.  As their name implies, their main business is selling blank clothes to businesses that screen print designs on them, but they have a supply of pre-printed items and they are a distributer for these brands The Laughing Giraffe, Rabbit Skins, LAT Sportswear, Alstyle, Delta Apparel and Code V.  You can use their photos in your advertisements.  They will also silk screen your design onto t-shirts, and even put your one label on the clothes.
  • This one has plane shirts and political shirts with sparkly things on them.  http://intertradecorp.com/store.cfm?event=showcatalog&catid=89724 They also have biker shirts, but that page is not working their website.  And they also have political/religions shirts http://intertradecorp.com/store.cfm?event=showcatalog&catid=33739 Their prices are a bit higher at around $4/shirt, but if you can find a design that sells, it might be worth it.
  • Shirt Champs  http://www.shirtchamp.com  This is the home of the $1.49 shirt.  They say their is no minimum order, but go on to say that there site is not the place if you want to buy only a couple of shirts.  Except for their loss leader T, they take an additional 5% ~ orders > $500, 10% ~ orders > $1,000 and give them a call if your order is over $2,500.  And if you are buying a large amount, they will quote against other whole sellers.  They have every major brand, and also carry most every other type of clothing you could screen print.   Although they take calls in San Diego, most of their where houses are out-of-state so you will have to wait a few days to get your order.
  • Wholesale Blank Clothes wholesaleblankclothes.com  This site specializes in selling clothes that you can put your design on.  You need to register to see their prices.

Again, get your resell licence and you won’t have to pay sales tax on wholesale items.  Info on getting a resale permit.

Buying Shirts Below Wholesale

Yes, thanks to our friend the internet it’s now possible to buy shirts at very low prices.  You can deal with manufactures directly in China, India and other countries.

http://www.alibaba.com This site links you up directly with the overseas factory–these are the same factories that supply the whole sellers above and your department stores.  But there are some things to think about.  First, even though the cost of the shirt might be less than two bucks, you have to pay for shipping to the Port of LA.  Deal with picking stuff up from the port.  There is a minimum order of at least 1,000 units for a these good prices.  And if you don’t get want you want, that’s too bad.  They also have silk screening factories that will put the artwork you send them on T-shirts, hats, or whatever you want.

FN2  Okay, maybe this isn’t the best example.  The greek alphabet/letters are not copyrighted, but make sure that a set of greek letters are not trademarked by a fraternity, sorority, or professional organization.  You might not get away with ΔΔΔ because it’s trademarked by a Sorority, and if you use Δ in such a way that it would be confused with the airline, you could get into trouble.

Website Resources

A reader suggested that we include this service.  They can add a utility to your website that will allow customers to play around and get the exact design they want.  See T-Shirt Design Studio  It allows you to put in your inventory, and allows customers to do the art work.  And it generates a quote for the customer; and they even have a pay-pal check out option.  We don’t know much about this company, they our of Vancouver.  The cost varies from $15-$30 (we are assuming US dollars) per month and another five for the pay-pal shopping cart.  The beauty of this system, is it allows customers to interface with your website and that saves you time.  Also, you can reach more customers.



© 2011-2012 OCBusinessStartUp.com


  1. Hi OCBS,

    What if you purchase some merchandise at wholesale (no tax) and then decide that you want to give some of it away as promotion. How would you account for the tax since it was not sold?

    • Thanks for the input. Looks like it was in our system for a while. I think that since you are giving the product away and it is not being resold, you should have paid tax at the wholesale level. Alternatively if the giveaway was part of another product, for instance buy a keg of beer and get a free t-shirt, the value of the shirt is implicitly included in the cost of the keg and hence taxed. This is a vexin tax problem so I am not really sure about your situation.


  1. Put NFL Team Logos on T-Shirts - OC Small Business - [...] someone’s bike.  For more information on trademarks and copyrights, see this page, and for more information about the T-shirt…

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