It’s been 40 years since Geoff Thorne of Jester Prints first bought some iron-on letters to make T-shirts for his friends. Images talks to Geoff about the past four decades – and the possibility of finally getting a website

Geoff outside his factory in Somerset

The factory is packed with quality equipment

In 1976, a 22-year-old Geoff Thorne was working part-time in a potato-packing factory, spending the rest of the time building up his work as a photographer. He had pictures published in magazines as well as taking portrait shots, but, he says, “I wasn’t happy with how it was going so I thought I’d try and find something else, something that could subsidise the photography.”

He came across the then quite new idea of printing T-shirts using transfers. He bought some transfers from Image Transfers, who produced a large range of novelty design transfers and individual iron-on letters, and, armed with a domestic iron, started printing shirts for friends at university. And so began Jester Prints, a company now known across the UK for the transfers it makes in its Somerset factory with a staff of nine.

In the early days, Geoff worked out of a spare room in his parents’ house before upgrading to a corrugated iron shed on the lane where they lived. “That became my factory basically – it was like an oven in the summer!” The turning point in his business came when a friend wanted some prints done for the rambling club at university. “They wanted special designs and of course I couldn’t do that, so I went to see a friend of mine who was a jobbing screen printer. He tried to make the transfers but didn’t have the right equipment. He said if I wanted to do it, I had do it myself. I thought ‘Okay, I will.’ He was throwing out some old wooden frames and squeegees, which he gave to me. I made a table that incorporated a crude vacuum base – this essentially was a cavity into which I stuffed a vacuum hose. I cured the prints in an old RAF hot cupboard that a local electrician had modified to make hotter – health and safety wouldn’t have liked it.”

Transfer improvements

He used this set-up for the first couple of years, improving it where he could. It wouldn’t stand up to modern standards, but everyone’s transfers back then were severely limited too, he explains. “They were colourful and looked good when first applied, but they didn’t wash anything like as well as today’s equivalents.”

As the equipment and ink improved, so did the transfers themselves. Image Transfers may have been a big player, but other companies started to pop up, Target Transfers amongst them, explains Geoff. In the early days, transfers were used primarily to decorate T-shirts and sweatshirts, he adds, but developments meant they were soon able to decorate many other types of textile products, including shoes, bags, caps and sportswear. “They’re incredibly versatile,” says Geoff, commenting on today’s products.

Celebrating 40 years of being in business

Geoff 20 years ago giving some T-shirts to a local youth group

Looking back on the early days, Geoff comments: “It’s a bit sad really, but I remember some of the transfer designs I made 30 or 40 years ago. For instance, I remember the hedgehog transfers we made for a guy called Phil Wilkinson who owned a sports shop in Sheffield. He had a press in his shop to decorate T-shirts and football shirts and obviously had a demand for hedgehog T-shirts!”

The advent of the plotter cutter

Jester was producing its transfers by screen printing ink onto release-coated paper then applying an adhesive, which is activated by the heat from a transfer press, and it was a worrying development when companies started selling alternative ways of decorating shirts with transfers using plotter-cutting technology, recalls Geoff. “Overnight, our small quantity runs were depleted because it was quicker and cheaper to make transfers using the new method,” he comments, before adding, “What people quickly began to realise, however, is that plotter cutting, especially in fine detail, can be very trying, takes ages to do and, when labour is costed in too, isn’t as cheap as they expected it to be.

“Many people who’ve come into the industry in recent years have done so via vinyl cutting and they’re not even aware that transfers can be screen printed. When we show at Printwear & Promotion Live! people come onto the stand and look at some of the transfers on display. After a minute or so of silent puzzling they’ll ask, ‘How did you cut that and how did you weed it?’ They’ve experienced the problems and frustration of cutting and weeding or been asked for transfers featuring impossible-to-weed, fine, detailed designs.”

While un-inventing the plotter cut method of producing transfers wasn’t possible, Geoff quickly realised that everyone who had invested in plotter cutter equipment had also purchased a heat transfer press – making every printer using vinyl cutters a potential customer for Jester’s custom-printed transfers as no further capital investment was needed.

“My message to the vinyl cutters I talk to is to use their cutters for smaller runs where it’s economical to do so, but when they get an order that is a high quantity or too finely detailed and time consuming to plotter cut, then let us make it for you. Jester transfers arrive ready to use with no weeding or secondary processes needed to make them printable.”

Another benefit of using Jester Prints is the experience the team brings to any job. “I consider that part of our job is to point out to clients any potential issues before they waste money trying to achieve an unachievable result,” explains Geoff. “We’ll recommend the best transfer to use for a particular design or fabric and try and stop our clients wasting their time going up blind alleys.”

Billy models an outfit decorated with a transfer created by grandad Geoff

Transfers from Jester Prints are used by many companies

Changing times

In some small ways, Jester Prints hasn’t changed much. The phone number has been the same for 40 years, customers return time and again, and Geoff still advertises Jester’s services in trade magazines. And, unusually, there is no website for Jester Prints, although Geoff says this is set to change. “I’ve been badgered into it,” he laughs. “It’s time we joined the 21st century. People say ‘You won’t get any more business without a website’, but we’re pretty busy actually.” Proof that despite the many warnings that those without a website and a comprehensive social media strategy will fail to flourish in this tech-obsessed world is the number of online shops that are customers of Jester Prints. That those in this relatively new sector have heard of Jester Prints is testament to the work that Geoff and his team do, and the testimonials that are passed around in the industry – the word of mouth kind, not the ‘clicked on a star rating and typed out a one line review while updating Twitter’ kind. It’s a good – and cheering – reminder that while being online is important, it’s still not as important as being good at your job.

In other ways, the business has changed hugely since the first few years. Jester Prints has its own purpose-built factory just outside of Burnham-on-Sea in Somerset. It is well equipped with modern machinery including a Sakurai cylinder press, an Atma 3/4 automatic, a couple of other Sakurais, and one small format and one medium format semi-automatics. Artwork is all done on Macs and short runs are done on a Roland VersaCamm. The team has made transfers for all types of companies to apply, from souvenir T-shirts for the Peppa Pig live shows and a range of children’s Frozen T-shirts, to Shell Oil and computer game companies.

Now 62, Geoff is still working fulltime with no immediate plans to slow down, although it’s still fewer hours than he used to do when building up the business. “It’s just a case of keeping going, having a lot of determination and a ‘never say die’ attitude,” says Geoff. “It’s been an incredible journey.”