by T Max
The short-sleeved T-shirt, first made for the U.S. Navy in 1913, accounts for $30 billion in annual sales in the U.S. Noise readers know that a majority of musicians and bands supplement their audio income with related merchandise. The most popular non-audio item on the merch table, the T-shirt, tends to be one that best serves another important purpose – advertising the act. The desire to self-identify with the things that inspire us is woven into our DNA. Music is arguably one of the healthiest outlets for this kind of evolved behavior. And wearing a band’s T-shirt is the ultimate way to show the world where our sense of musical taste lies. So I decided to have a chat with Peter Rinnig, the friendly owner of QRST’s, Boston-area’s most popular supplier of custom printed T-shirts for local bands and businesses.
Noise: Peter, what was the first T-shirt you designed and printed?
Peter: In high school I bootlegged shirts on Springsteen’s River Tour, I also bootlegged shirts for a Who tour and a Pretenders tour. I did not print those shirts – I only designed them and had them printed at a local print shop at that time (early 1980s). I made a ton of money from those shirts. On Springsteen’s River Tour – I was “detained” at the old Boston Garden until 4:00 am and had the shirts that were on me confiscated, but then he played Providence the next night and I sold out the rest of what I had.
Noise: Where did you get your education in art?
Peter: I have a B.F.A. in painting and a minor in graphic design from Westfield State University. I have taken many courses at the museum school and also went to University of Alaska Fairbanks for a semester
Noise: What other forms of art do you create in, if any?
Peter: I have been painting all my life. Mostly oversized pop art type stuff. I have also designed over 50 albums, CDs and 45 covers.
Noise: Ooo – what are some of the local band covers that you designed?
Peter: 6L6, Binge, Big Wig, HonkeyBall, Pajama Slave Dancers, Orifice, Pessimist, Steve Westfield, Blood for Blood, Nisi Period, Go Dog Go, The Neighborhoods (photos only), still selling merch for The Neighborhoods when the play out.
Noise: Can you share a story about running a mercy table?
Peter: The ONLY time that I had merch taken (stolen) was when Concussion Ensemble was playing the Central Square World’s Fair and there was a whole crowd of people around the table and I saw a hand reach through a bunch of people and crab a CD. I could not see who it was or where they went afterwards… this was the only time in 20 years that I had something stolen off a merch table.
Noise: How and when did QRST’s come about?
Peter: Before I owned QRST’s I used to be the Art Director for Marketing and Promotions at a search engine called Lycos.com. I was there for about three and a half years. Before Lycos in the mid to late 1990s – I was on the original design team for a website called BigYellow.com – now known as superpages.com. When I was at Lycos (1997-2001) I was doing a ton of freelance design work for a lot of local bands at night. I was designing albums, CD’s, flyers and posters at night. Then bands wanted to know if I could design their T-shirts and print them. Designing T-shirts was not a problem. But I did not know where to go to have them printed. I asked my dad at that time where I should be going and he told me about a friend of his who owned a large warehouse in Brookline that had a T-shirt shop in the basement (it was QRST’s). I started to go to QRST’s as a customer to have band shirts printed and then we were going to QRST’s for Lycos shirts. Thousands and thousands of Lycos shirts. I got to be friendly with the two owners at that time (Mike Smith and Peter Moller who both started QRST’s in 1989). They actually showed me the ins and outs of screen printing. Then they moved QRST’s over to Cambridge and they bought an automatic press and sold me their manual press for screen printing. I put that manual press in my mother in-laws garage in Newton and started printing my on my own for bands that needed them. When I got laid off from Lycos in 2001, I was going to buy into QRST’s as a third partner but I decided that what I wanted and what Mike and Peter wanted were two different things. I ended up buying them out and taking over QRST’s all on my own. I started with one automatic press and grew from there. I now have two automatic presses, six heads for embroidery and five digital presses and we have been located in Somerville for the past 15 years that I have owned the shop.
Noise: Someone gave me a T-shirt the other day and I noticed how thin it was. None of the T-shirts I bought at QRST’s have been this thin. Can you talk about the quality of T-shirts you print on?
Peter: Without writing a whole chapter on it – there are tons of different styles, weights, colors etc. of shirts available. The most basic bullet proof shirt is the Gildan G200 basic 100% cotton T-shirt. This shirt can be washed and washed and last for years. It’s not the most expensive shirt and not the least expensive, but a good quality basic shirt. A lot of people do not know what quality to ask for when they order, so this is our “go-to” shirt. When you get a much softer, more fitted shirt, it is usually a 50/50 style or tri-blend style shirt (think American Apparel or Bella/ Canvas brands). These usually cost more then a basic cotton shirt but would be much softer and more fitted. More people are asking for this type of shirt. We can print on almost any type of material.
Noise: How many people do you employ, and what are their jobs?
Peter: We have nine people who work at QRST’s: Myself. One person who does all the embroidery. Two people who do all the digital printing. Two people who do all the traditional screen printing. One person who cleans, coats and keeps all the screens in order. One person who is the art director. One front office person who handles all the phone calls, UPS and deliveries.
Noise: Oh, that’s right, you do embroidery too. Do you print hoodies and baseball caps too? Any other items?
Peter: We can embroider on any type of hat or cap, any type of fleece, hoodies, and most types of jackets. We also can do aprons and bags.
Noise: One thing I noticed about your digital printing is that the ink blends right into the fabric – invisible to the touch. Have many of your customers notice or mention that?
Peter: A lot of our customer are now requesting only digital printing. With digital printing you can get full color and order as little as one piece. QRST’s is the only shop in the Boston area that has five digital presses. We have been doing digital printing for over 12 years. I do not think anyone in Boston has that many presses or has been doing digital printing for that long.
Noise: With whom is your biggest account?
Peter: We have several large accounts in the tech area. QRST’s is located about a two minute walk from Kendall Square. It is pretty funny that when you read about some tech start up getting millions in funding – we usually see an email in a day or two from them wanting hundreds of shirts ASAP… so you know what they are doing with their money. I have 10-15 accounts from former students at MIT and Harvard who now run huge companies in the Boston area. In their college days they got their frat shirts from QRST’s and they come back to us when they start their own companies.
Noise: Who are the top T-shirt purchasing bands you deal with?
Peter: If you consider Boston Calling and the JP Music Fest as bands – those are probably the two biggest music type orders we do. We do a lot of stuff for Session Americana. We have done shirts for Bearstronaut, John Butcher Axis, Barrence Whitfield, Mr Airplane Man, Sidewalk Driver, Johnny Blazes.
Noise: Have you ever made a big mistake with a T-short order?
Peter: Well… we once printed approximately 500 shirts for an event at MIT with the front on the back and the back on the front… but – when the customer saw the shirts – they actually liked them better that way! I still took off some money from the final cost. We also did around 300 shirts last year for a big customer of ours on the wrong colored shirt. Those we had to eat the cost and redo the shirts. We still got the second batch done correctly by the original due date.
Noise: What’s in the future for you and QRST’s?
Peter: QRST’s continues to roll along at the same 100 mph that it does in our busy season. With five digital presses, two automatic presses for screen printing and six heads for all types of embroidery, we can handle any job from one piece to 10,000 pieces (which we did once for Dunkin Donuts when they changed their corporate name to Dunkin Brands).
Noise: Well, thanks Peter. Noise readers will know a lot more about QRST’s business and where to go for their own custom made T-shirts.