In September of last year, I officially registered Lincoln Apparel as a business. I had finally decided that after my success earlier that year with my “Back to Springfield” and “Equality” designs, that I’d take my artistic Lincoln T-shirts seriously and turn them into a clothing line. I had always loved creating Lincoln T-shirts; I feel they are a great way to spread Lincoln and his legacy, and their large canvas size makes them perfect for creating large, colorful, complex wearable art.
The month prior, I had set up an Etsy store, and later, my own website, with the one design I had printed to sell on line at the time – “Equality”. It wasn’t long until I made my own run of “Back to Springfield” shirts (my most popular design in 2009) to sell on my own website and elsewhere.
That run of shirts is when I decided to have all of my shirts be American made, and printed as close to Springfield as possible. I didn’t like how so many of the shirts for sale in Springfield are cheaply made in China or other third world countries (likely with sweatshop labor), nor did I like how so many of them are poorly designed by large companies who probably have never even been to Springfield. I wanted my shirts to be high quality, something that would still look and feel great after many washings. And with the economy being the way it was (and still is) I thought it was time to focus on our own prosperity, so with all of these factors in mind, I decided I’d make my T-shirts right here in the USA, in ways in which Lincoln would approve of – no sweatshop labor or anything. I wanted my Lincoln T-shirt line to be something Lincoln would be proud of, something that respects his legacy, something people would wear and that he would want to see other people wearing – and NOT something that Lincoln would have a moral problem with. I just don’t think Lincoln would sleep well at night knowing that T-shirts with his image on it are being produced with the very thing he fought so hard against – slavery.
So, I eagerly posted the new run of made-in-the-USA “Back to Springfield” shirts to my website (after taking out the extra shirts I ordered for myself to wear, something I always do with each design), and gradually posted them to my Etsy store (since I read on the Etsy forums that it’s not a good idea to post everything at once). I did the same in late October of last year for my 3rd design, “Immortal Words at Gettysburg”.
It’s hard to believe that at this time last year I was only selling two designs through my website and Etsy. Lincoln Apparel has now grown to 6 designs, and my shirts are available locally now as well. Some highlights from the past year:
- Mid-November 2009: My shirts begin to be carried by Springfield Novelties and Gifts on 6th Street, near Monroe Street, in historic downtown Springfield, on a special order basis. This included all three of the designs I had at the time – “Equality”, “Back to Springfield” (in all 3 color variants), and “Immortal Words at Gettysburg”.
- Late November 2009: I sell my first shirt under the Lincoln Apparel name, an “Immortal Words at Gettysburg” T-shirt to someone from Ireland. The sale was made on my Etsy store. I was ecstatic when it happened. It still gives me a great sense of pride and excitement to this day whenever I sell one of my T-shirts. It makes me feel like I’m furthering my mission to spread Lincoln and his legacy, through my artistic T-shirts.
- December 2009: I come up with my “80s Abe” design. The design was literally something I thought of after looking at that “crew cut” portrait of Lincoln in one of my Lincoln books as I was falling asleep. I remembered it after I woke up the following morning, and felt that it would be cool to make an 80s-style “full front print” Lincoln design out of it. Over the following days I spent many hours (and a lot of fun) working on the design, combining my Lincoln interest with my 80s interest. Due to the Christmas holiday it was not printed until January, and it became my first design of 2010. It is now my most popular design, and one of the designs that (along with “Back to Springfield”) I am the most proud of. “80s Abe” and “Back to Springfield” both share the bright colors and large, complex, detailed artwork that typify my designs, and I feel they represent my work the best.
- March 2010: My 5th design, “Purpose”, is created. Like “80s Abe”, it’s a full front print shirt, as are all of my designs from “80s Abe” and this design onward. I was going through a rough couple of weeks and decided to create an inspiring Lincoln T-shirt. It also became my first women’s T-shirt. The original design featured pink highlights in Lincoln’s face and hair, so I created a turquoise version for guys after the original one was finished. The shirt remains more popular amongst women than men (my other designs I sell about equally to both men and women). Also this month, my main site’s traffic and sales surpass Etsy, which suffers a traffic nosedive this month.
- April 2010: I apply to become an artisan in the artisan area of the Old Capitol Farmer’s Market. I find out later that month that I am accepted. I’m excited (and nervous) to do my first craft fairs.
- June 2010: Springfield Novelties and Gifts begins stocking my T-shirts (all 5 of my designs, and all the color variants). No longer are they only on special order. They begin to sell rather well there, and at the market which begins this month. In fact, due to selling locally my sales explode by 10-fold. I also have “Immortal Words at Gettysburg” reprinted as a full front print design, the way it was originally intended. (Most of the original shirts had sold out by this point). Due to my presence at the Old Captiol Farmer’s Market I also get noticed by the Abraham Lincoln Observer, a Springfield blog at the State Journal Register newspaper, who interviews me about my Lincoln T-shirts (though he does not have one yet – tsk tsk).
- July 2010: I come out with my 6th design, “Wide Awake Club”. I designed it in the spring to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election in 1860. I just didn’t have the money to print it until now.
- August 2010: “80s Abe” sells so well that I get it reprinted and add a new color – yellow.
And finally, some observations and things I’ve learned in the past year:
- All of my designs so far have sold well overall. I have yet to have one that turned out to be a dud.
- While my T-shirts remain the most popular amongst people who are relatively young (in their 20s or 30s), I’ve sold to people of all ages. You’re never too old to love a good artistic Lincoln T-shirt.
- Different designs sell well in different places. I have some that sell well at the market, some that do well at Springfield Novelties, and some that do well on my site. What sells well at one venue won’t at another, and vice versa. It’s helped me greatly to diversify selling venues.
- Selling locally generates lots of exposure and sales and doing shows allows you to see how people react to your designs. It’s also very much helped legitimize Lincoln Apparel and make people realize it is a serious T-shirt line created by a serious T-shirt artist. I’ve even had other shops contact me due to my local presence – maybe some of them will start carrying my shirts in the future. I can’t imagine how much I’d still be struggling if I only sold online.
- Generating attention online is very difficult. I didn’t sell in significant amounts until I started to sell locally. One of my biggest mistakes was spending 100 hours or so on Facebook and Twitter earlier this year (and late last year) talking about Lincoln and trying to get the right people to notice my Lincoln T-shirts. I learned that those sites are mostly a (very frustrating) waste of time, filled with chit chat and white noise. “Social networking” (in the modern sense of the term) is an oxymoron. It’s hard to get replies to anything you say, and everybody writes stuff (often the most mundane things), but nobody reads anything. So much for the much hyped “ineraction” in “social media”. This is in stark contrast to forums and message boards I’ve participated in, and blogs I’ve commented on and read. I maintain a minimal presence on Twitter now (I’ve got a few Lincoln friends there), and I quit Facebook in February. I absolutely love to spend the time I’ve saved by not using “social” sites on new designs and other Lincoln related creative projects, or on fun activities out in the city, not to mention I feel better too, since I don’t have to care about how many online “friends” I have, or wonder why somebody’s post about what they had for dinner gets more attention than my post about Lincoln. As Lincoln said, "This habit of uselessly wasting time, is the whole difficulty; and it is vastly important to you [...] that you should break this habit." I wish the whole “social networking is free, it only takes time, you gotta be there or else” proponents would listen to Lincoln and realize that time is the most important resource.
- Etsy never worked out for me. My main site, lincolnapparel.com, does the vast majority of my online traffic and sales now (over 90% of it). I thought that Etsy would take off first and that my main site would take longer, but that wasn’t the case – it took all of two weeks after my first sale on Etsy to get my first sale on my main site (and that was for two shirts, not just one). I started to realize after my traffic crashed in March there that it might not work out, and during the busy summer tourist season I pretty much quit doing anything on Etsy (unless I got a sale). I was never able to get my shop to take off, but my main site always had steadily increasing traffic and sales. I started to realize Etsy was more expensive than my main site, with a lot less control – 20 cents to list something for 4 months plus 3.5% commission if it sells. And there’s no size dropdowns for T-shirts, so that makes listing things there a pain. To list my entire inventory over there (all the size and color variants) now would be over $15 for only 4 months, and if a shirt sells, I have to pay about $1 extra for the 3.5% commission. I’m not selling anywhere near $15 worth of listings every 4 months on Etsy so most of that is wasted. To top it all off, Etsy doesn’t properly advertise, and as a result a lot of people don’t know about Etsy and are confused about what it is or how to spell it, so my main site is trusted more. I can list as much as I want on my main site for $10/month, and only pay PayPal fees when I sell something, and as my site has become more well known, that cost has more than paid for itself.
- It’s one of the greatest feelings to see people in your shirts. It’s part of why I made a “Wearing Lincoln Apparel” page – so that people can show off their purchases. If you have one of my shirts I’d love it if you added your picture to the page!
So, what’s the next year going to be like? I hope it’s even better than the last one! I plan to release my next design, tentatively titled “Young Abe Lincoln”, sometime this month, which will be the first design that includes long-sleeve shirts. "Equality" and "Back to Springfield" will eventually get replaced by new designs, once they start to sell out. I’m not sure what will happen to my Etsy shop, but my main site at lincolnapparel.com will always be there, and contain my full selection of T-shirts. I think I might list a few popular shirts on Etsy for the Christmas season, then close it, or maybe just keep a minimal amount of shirts there “just in case” somebody finds me there. I also plan to look for other shows in Springfield, particularly towards Christmas time, where I can sell my shirts, and at other shops here that might be interested in my shirts also. Hopefully next year, you’ll be able to find my shirts in more places!
And, lastly, thanks to all of my customers, both local and online, in the past year who have purchased Lincoln Apparel T-shirts and helped make Lincoln Apparel a success. I appreciate every one of you. You’re supporting a small, local artist who lives in Mr. Lincoln’s Hometown who is dedicated to keeping Lincoln and his memory, and his legacy, alive. Thank you!