When the call came for someone to head up the PTO’s spiritwear effort, it sounded simple enough. Get some T-shirts printed with the school mascot on them and you’re done, right?

Not so fast. Whether it’s your school’s first foray into spiritwear or just time to do things a bit differently, you’ll find that the items available to show your school pride are many and varied, from T-shirts and sweatshirts to boxers and bandannas—and almost anything in between.

The process, from selecting a vendor to choosing colors and sizes, can be confusing, but professionals and parents in the know have plenty of advice to help you size up whether this fundraising/community-building option is a good fit for your school.

Making the Selection

Once you begin to see the wide range of spiritwear options, you might be tempted to order several items for students and parents to choose from. But that’s not necessarily the best way to go. “A lot of schools try to do too much,” says Wally Schultz, president of Graduationshirts.com.

Instead, says Schultz, limit your selection to a couple of items. Why? The more choices you give, the more likely it is you’ll sell fewer of each item. And because price quotes are generally based on a minimum quantity purchased, if you don’t sell the minimum, the price goes up.

Despite the wide variety of spiritwear items available, T-shirts and sweatshirts are by far the most popular. But whatever apparel you go with, it’s best to choose a design that appeals to children of all ages in the school.

“You want the kids to love it,” says Lauralee Raddatz, FundRaising.com vice president of sales and marketing. “The key is bright colors. You want it to be fun and exciting.” Her company offers mascot T-shirts personalized with a school’s name and colors. To add to the fun factor, the mascot name is spelled out in animated characters. For example, if the school’s mascot is a tiger, then “Tigers” is spelled out in letters shaped like jungle cats.

Special T’s

Many parent groups sell spiritwear to raise money. Gardens Elementary School PTO in Marysville, Mich., did it to instill pride and foster a sense of community. PTO President Lori McVeigh says her school decided to change its spiritwear this year to a patriotic theme.

“We doubled our sales from previous years. We have 525 students and we sold 600 of a combination of T-shirts and sweatshirts,” says McVeigh. “We did not make this a fundraiser. We wanted everyone to be able to afford one so we could show school and American pride,” she adds.

The PTO went a step further and produced a flag approximately 4 feet by 6 feet with red, white, and blue stars. Each star holds a photo of students wearing their patriotic shirts.

Sherry McGuffin of Yogi’s Screen Printing and Graphics Inc. in Phoenix, Ariz., says one local high school drama club printed T-shirts advertising an upcoming production. “They found that really helps improve attendance,” she says.

Another popular use for spiritwear is as a commemorative gift, particularly for graduation. One shirt style features the last two digits of an elementary class graduation year in large print along with reproductions of the students’ signatures. Another version creates a design out of the names of every student and staff member in the school. Kids have a lot of fun trying to find their own and their classmates’ names.

Another way to use spiritwear is to build unity. As Blackhawk Elementary School in Burlington, Iowa, prepared to join with Prospect Elementary, which was closing, the two PTOs coordinated a spring funfest. They sold T-shirts that celebrated the union, according to PTO President Carole Whitcomb.

“We wanted to do a T-shirt with a new design, something that emphasizes a brand-new future,” says Whitcomb. “We thought it would be really fun if everybody wore their new shirts on the first day. That way you don’t know who’s from Prospect and who’s from Blackhawk. It’s just one big school.”

Choosing a Vendor

Choosing a vendor is like choosing any service provider: You should consider reputation, convenience, and price.

Local vendors say they offer convenience and control over the product you’ve ordered because they’re close at hand. Larger companies maintain that they provide more services, quick turnaround, and better prices. But whether you choose a local printer or opt for a larger fundraising specialist, relationship plays an important role.

“You’ve got to trust a vendor,” says Raddatz of FundRaising.com. “You’ve got to be able to pick up a phone and ask every question you want.”

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Some parent group leaders say they prefer to support local businesses, while others feel that small vendors don’t always offer the most varied color and size selection. Traci Fox, PTO president at Sugar Loaf Elementary School in Taylorsville, N.C., believes her local vendor’s limitations hurt last year’s sales. “I think we could have sold more shirts at our fall open house if we had more colors or if we had larger sizes,” she says.

Be sure to interview vendors thoroughly, regardless of whether they’re local or national, urges McGuffin of Yogi’s Screen Printing and Graphics. “Get your bids in writing. If you get a little uncomfortable, search out another. Good vendors kind of become like extended family. You should be able to be comfortable, to walk into the building at any time.”

Taking Orders

There’s a debate over whether it’s better to take orders from samples or to prepay for a certain number of shirts in a variety of sizes and colors and hope to sell them all.

Lee Longo, PTO president at Frank T. Wheeler Elementary School in Plainville, Conn., says her group learned its lesson about prepaid orders the hard way. The group bought sweatshirts from a vendor just before Christmas 1999 and hoped the school community would buy them as gifts. The solid navy blue sweatshirt featured the school’s name on one side.

“We actually only sold 10 percent and were stuck setting up a table at each event to sell more and finally raffled off the rest of them,” says Longo. She surmises the plain design detracted from sales. But her advice on ordering is “always take orders and payment up front.”

Whitcomb of Blackhawk Elementary agrees that pre-ordering is the safest way to go, especially if you change the designs frequently. “That way you’re not stuck with a lot of shirts you can’t sell. And a new design every couple of years just encourages people to buy a new one,” she says.

But Wally Schultz of Graduationshirts.com says pre-paying for a set amount of merchandise has its advantages. “It’s nice when you actually have the shirt to sell. It’s easier for the supplier and easier for the school” because people know what they’re getting, he says. “If it sells out, we’ll take orders for more.”

Buyer Beware

As with any venture, it pays to ask questions, read the fine print, and know what you’re buying. Be aware of potential hidden charges, such as fees to make changes and higher prices for reorders. The charges may be legitimate; just be sure you know what you’re agreeing to, and don’t assume anything. Read the contract and make sure you get all your questions answered before you sign.

Be especially aware of art charges, as some companies charge as much as $60 an hour for graphic design, warns McGuffin. There also may be a charge for screen changes as well as color separations. If you are charged for art, it should become your property, she says.

Also, says Paul Dubbell, president of Wild Hare Sportswear, “Anybody who’s going to be a consumer needs to find out the quality of the shirt, who the manufacturer is, the weight of the shirt. You want to make sure the vendor is reputable in terms of the garment and decoration that’s going to be put on it.”

Some parent groups recommend you ask for a sample of the item you’re going to sell to determine the quality. Also, think about your audience: Kids outgrow clothes fast, and moms prefer wash-and-wear garments. Most vendors say a 50/50 cotton/polyester blend is best for youngsters’ sweatshirts and T-shirts, while adults tend to prefer 100 percent cotton T-shirts.

Finally, choose a reputable vendor, get references, and check their policies on returns and mistakes.

“There are lots of people who can print a shirt,” says Ron Phelan of Educational Products. “You need to know if they stand behind it. If a shirt gets to the customers and they’re not happy, is the company capable of reprinting shirts and taking other ones back?”

Make Sure You Know

Before you hire a spiritwear vendor, be sure to ask these questions:

  1. How long have you been in business?
  2. Do you have references?
  3. Do you provide graphic design support, or do we need to provide you with camera-ready art?
  4. Are there charges for graphic work?
  5. Is there a setup fee?
  6. Are there charges if my design features more than one color?
  7. Are there extra charges for large sizes, such as 2X and 3X?
  8. Can I see the design before you print the item?
  9. Are there charges for shipping and/or handling?
  10. If I have a rush order, is there an extra charge?
  11. Do you provide a customized order sheet, and is there a charge for that?
  12. What is the turnaround time for an order?
  13. Is a deposit required or can you bill us?
  14. What is your policy if there is an error in printing?
  15. Is there any additional charge to reorder?
  16. Can you put it in writing?