Behind the (T-Shirt) Design: Sanctuary Screen Printing

What makes a truly great T-shirt? You know, the kind of shirt that makes you want to do laundry far before the dirty-clothes basket reaches critical load, just so you can wear it the next day?

 Chuck models our   Beehive Treehouse T-shirt  , printed by Sanctuary Screen Printing

Chuck models our Beehive Treehouse T-shirt, printed by Sanctuary Screen Printing

After much deliberation, we’ve determined that peak T-shirt quality stems from three essential ingredients: 

  • Softness: we’re talking real comfort, rooted in a blend of super soft fabric that just gets better with more washes.

  • Rad art: we’re a crew of carpenters and architects—craft and design mean a lot to us. The designs on our shirts can’t just be OK. So what if our daily outfits consist, without fail, of a T-shirt and passably presentable pants? We’d like to think the art on our shirts makes up for it.

  • Made with soul: this is the clincher, the thing that ratchets a good T-shirt up to greatness. A truly great shirt will generate some good for some folks besides just you (the wearer) and the people you bought it from. Enter Sanctuary Screen Printing: the Seattle-based nonprofit we partner with to print all of our T-shirts.

Sanctuary Screen Printing offers internships for underserved youth to learn the tricks of the screen-printing trade, providing hands-on skill-development and job training. Throughout the programs, youth earn a wage and build self-efficacy by seeing projects through from start to finish.

 Sanctuary Screen Printing intern Jalynn. Photo courtesy of Troy Carter/Sanctuary Screen Printing.

Sanctuary Screen Printing intern Jalynn. Photo courtesy of Troy Carter/Sanctuary Screen Printing.

“Once someone makes something and gets acknowledged for it—told that making that something is good and worthy—it’s super beneficial,” says Sanctuary's Executive Director, Troy Carter. “These kids rarely get that essential feedback loop to building self-esteem.”

Most youth in Sanctuary programs come from unstable living situations and connect with the nonprofit through community partners like Interagency Academy and young adult shelters. By the end of their six-week Sanctuary program, interns master the technical skills of the manual screen-printing industry. Perhaps most importantly, they also learn how to evaluate their performance, meet goals, and navigate the workforce effectively—critical abilities that are often referred to as “soft skills.”

 Sanctuary Screen Printing intern Alex. Photo courtesy of Troy Carter/Sanctuary Screen Printing.

Sanctuary Screen Printing intern Alex. Photo courtesy of Troy Carter/Sanctuary Screen Printing.

“It’s so cool when our interns get to see their shirt on someone and it registers: ‘Hey, I’m a part of this, I do something of value,’” Troy contends. “As a creator, there’s so much joy in seeing your work out in the world. Plus, it gives these youth a connection to a community they often feel marginalized by. I see this light go on when our youth are creating and producing and feeling valued for it.” 

Troy joined Sanctuary in 2006, bringing a background in visual and performance art and YMCA homeless youth programming. He was well-acquainted with the resource exigencies of the nonprofit sector and wanted to develop a sustainable source of revenue for a vocational training program. It clicked: why not combine art and job-training, printing T-shirts for organizations like the YMCA? 

 Sanctuary Screen Printing Executive Director, Troy Carter (right) with Sanctuary intern Gregory (left). Photo courtesy of Troy Carter.

Sanctuary Screen Printing Executive Director, Troy Carter (right) with Sanctuary intern Gregory (left). Photo courtesy of Troy Carter.

Flash-forward twelve years, and Sanctuary’s powerhouse crew is now printing thousands of T-shirts each year for the YMCA of Greater Seattle, Pacific Science Center, Seattle Children’s Theater, Pearl Jam, Sasquatch Music Fest, and of course, Nelson Treehouse.

Our newest shirt, the Beehive Treehouse T-shirt, was printed by Sanctuary this summer. “With Nelson Treehouse shirts, we all get excited because the designs are so cool and the garments are high quality, so we feel good about the products,” Troy relays. “We’re a relationship-based company too, so feel resonance with NT&S. When we get a Nelson shirt everyone goes, ‘Oh these are important!’”

 Sanctuary Screen Printing Nelson Treehouse Beehive Shirt
 Wyatt, Henry, and Adam enjoy the quality experience of wearing our   Beehive T-shirt.

Wyatt, Henry, and Adam enjoy the quality experience of wearing our Beehive T-shirt.

 Sam rocks our   Burgundy Be in a Tree T-shirt  , printed by Sanctuary.

Sam rocks our Burgundy Be in a Tree T-shirt, printed by Sanctuary.

 Henry relishes our   Be in a Tree T-shirt in slate.

Working with youth is Troy’s favorite part of the job, but some days can feel devastating. “These kids are in really tough situations and I can’t ever do enough," Troy says with sadness. "There are some days when I just feel the weight of it and think, ‘This world sucks.’”

What keeps Troy inspired after days like those? Simply continuing to do the work and spend time with the youth.

“Coming here the next day and doing something good, something I know is impactful, keeps me at it. Getting to play with Greg on the guitar, or laugh because of Jane’s dark sense of humor, or just stand around the press talking—those are the moments.”

Now that makes a truly great T-shirt.

Find out more about Sanctuary at sanctuaryscreenprinting.org

And check out all our Sanctuary-printed shirts on our online store.

 Patrick wears our   Matcha Nashville Treehouse Shirt  , printed by Sanctuary.

Patrick wears our Matcha Nashville Treehouse Shirt, printed by Sanctuary.

 Jake and Henry move beams around the prefab shop in style. Specifically, in our   Be in a Tree T-shirts  , printed by Sanctuary.

Jake and Henry move beams around the prefab shop in style. Specifically, in our Be in a Tree T-shirts, printed by Sanctuary.

To the trees!