John Gwinup, 54, is the lead digitizer and embroidery/screen print production manager for Noble Works and has been working in the custom apparel industry for over 30 years now. Born and raised in Salem, OR, Gwinup attended North Salem High School and Chemeketa Community College growing up. Gwinup and his family previously owned Image Actionwear which has now evolved to be Noble Works.
How did you get introduced to the custom apparel world?
“Art has been part of my life since I was a little guy. My dad was an art teacher for a local high school here in town so from a young age I had been doing art such as jewelry, pottery, painting and drawing.”
“I really got into screen printing, when I was in high school. Back then it was real old school style. We were using Rubylith, creating and cutting all the stencils by hand for photo negatives. Screen printing was all manual. In 1987, families were always trying to make an extra buck one way or another. My dad, mom and I were starting to do oddball screen printing jobs on the side, from our home garage for about four years. At the time the process was so rudimentary that we would print enamel ink on a cotton shirt, let it dry out in the yard and hope to God it printed right.”
“Eventually we got introduced to a gentleman that was screen printing on glass and mirrors for waterbed companies. He was at a point in his life where he didn’t want to continue with the business anymore. And so we took over screen printing for a couple waterbed companies here in town. The business progressively grew to where we were doing work for pretty much all the waterbed companies here in the state of Oregon. We specialized in printing on all the headboards and glass mirrors.”
“The business continued to progress with us doing cabinet windows for Golden West Homes. From there one thing led to another and then we turned into Northwest Glass and Mirror. We were doing every manufactured home motorcoach company up and down the I-5 freeway. At that time, there were probably 12 companies that kept us in business for about 12 years.”
Heavy Duty Work
“I would probably cut about seven cases of glass in a week and each one was about a half a ton. So that’s just under four tons of glass and moving all that stuff by hand. By 1995, we decided it was time to sell the business due to how quickly our bodies were wearing down by having to handle heavy glass every day. With some leftover tax money from the previous year, we purchased a Hix brand four-head screen printing press (still here at Noble to this day), a dryer, and an exposure unit. At the beginning we thought we were just going to screen print t-shirts for our crew and staff. ”
“Once people started learning what we were doing, then came the screen printing avalanche because a lot of people knew who we were through the glass and mirror companies, plus connections through the high schools because my dad and I were both heavily involved in Sprague football for many years.”
There happened to be an overwhelming interest in custom apparel, so they sold the glass business and started Image Actionwear!
“With the most basic set up we started calling every company we thought could do a good job for and took off from there.”
The Team Behind The Machines
Gwinup and his sister, Kim Kopp, became the main ring leaders with six workers in the beginning of Image Actionwear. Gwinup would do all the artwork, digitizing, ordering, receiving, scheduling and sales.
“There were times that I got there at six o’clock in the morning and I wouldn’t leave there till sometimes eight o’clock at night. My sister and I were the one’s running literally all day long.”
How Embroidery Was Introduced
In spring of 97’ Gwinup and his salesperson at the time were on the hunt for a new embroidery machine so they could introduce embroidery to their screen printing shop. They decided it’d be best to take a trip down to San Francisco for a two-day embroidery expo, Screen Printing and Graphics Industry Show, where all the top embroidery companies like Brother, Tajima, Melco showcased their products and machine operations. Gwinup was in the search for the perfect machine for their shop but didn’t know anything about the brand he should pick and continued to ask lots of questions until he was able to make his decision. When he got back from the expo, he began learning Pulse Signature, an embroidery software.
The Self Taught Digitizer
“I started out with Corel Draw 3 for screen printing and then incorporated Pulse signature. Taught myself how to do everything. Back then there were manuals but they weren’t helpful. You just had to get in and do it. Knowing Corel Draw pretty well and learning pulse signature at the time, the transition was pretty smooth for me because I’m a little bit more computer tech oriented with how both of those programs were very similar, in node manipulation and stuff. Nodes, curl drop points, and pulse. A lot of the tools are very similar, they act the same way. The art aspect of it really wasn’t that much of a transition for me. The hard part was learning the different fabrics, how to lay a stitch down so it would look good.”
What is digitizing?
“Technically what I do is called punching. So I’ll lay down stitches each time the needle gets punched through the fabric and I’m placing all those points to make sure that they lay down correctly for the graphic to look like what the client gives us when stitched. That’s digitizing. ”
The Start Of A Beautiful Embroideryship
Kevin McColley, current Noble Embroidery Technician, was in search of a new job that led him to walk through Image Actionwear’s door. Gwinup and McColley hit it off during the job interview. Gwinup asked a lot of scenario questions that McColley was able to really speak about. He had a lot of embroidery experience and had worked for Custom Creations and Salem Emblem, a couple of Image Actionwear’s competitors at the time. Gwinup was impressed and decided to bring on McColley to be part of the Image Actionwear team.
“For a couple of years, it was him getting used to the way I had my system set up, which was evolving at the time. We became friends and started working as a team, and that’s when everything started clicking. That’s when we started sharing information, trading secrets of things that we’ve learned over our careers in the industry. He explained to me what he sees when stitches are laid down. Then I’d say, ‘Well, what if I did this?’ And he goes, ‘Well, yeah, that would help a lot.’”
Their work chemistry is what took the embroidery department to the next level at Image Actionwear.
“In fact at the time, I was at a certain work plateau. He was also at a certain work plateau. We came together, and we just kind of accelerated each other. We’ve been together for about 13 years now. We’ve gotten way better at our craft. A force to reckon with.”
The dynamic duo started getting known in the community by being able to do embroidery jobs that other shops weren’t able to execute. Their work ethic reputation grew and has continued to carry itself to this day.
Taking On Salem (Image Actionwear)
“It never really hit me how well known we were until it started being a regular thing to see a bunch of people wearing shirts that we had created. It’s a really cool feeling thinking, ‘Hey I did that shirt.’ And I still do that today, somebody will be wearing a shirt that we printed years ago, and I go, ‘I did that, I printed that.’ And they go, ‘Image Actionwear?’”
“I didn’t realize that through all the years of screen printing from starting out with just a desk and phone book until years later to understand how much of an impact we had made in the community.”
“And that’s what Ariel is going to start experiencing with Noble as we continue to get the name out there, people will start recognizing Noble and it’s logo.”
The Impact of 9/11
“The financial hit after 9/11 took a toll on us. Sales were hit hard and clients were holding onto their money. Screen printing and embroidery weren’t viewed as a necessity so people stopped buying hats and t-shirts for their staff. We got to a point where somebody had to be let go. To avoid my friend from getting laid off; I decided to leave, look for another job and decided to go work for the school district. I started as a security guard at McKay High School.“
During his time as a security guard for McKay High School, Gwinup was encouraged to apply to be an Instructional Assistant.
“You got the right temperament for IA (Instructional Assistant). So for the last 10 years I’ve also been a senior IAA for Riverfront network working with medically fragile special needs kids from ages 18 to 21 year olds.”
Although Gwinup made a job switch, he never really stopped working at Image Actionwear. On top of his 35-40 hour week, Gwinup was taking on digitizing projects after his full-time job.
The Noble Transition/Vision
“I didn’t personally know Ariel (Noble Works Owner) until just before he bought the place. I knew who he was because we’ve done work for him through the Chemeketa Community Service and Corban University Soccer Teams he used to play on.”
“Kevin told me, ‘You know that Ariel is going to buy Image Actionwear.’
I’m like, ‘Who’s Ariel?’
‘You know, the soccer guy.’
And I go, ‘the soccer guy? The guy from Chemeketa? Really?’
‘Oh, yeah, he does vinyl wraps and does all this stuff.’
“And I’m like, well, cool. Why does he want to get into screen printing? Does he know anything about screen printing?”
‘Does he know anything about embroidery?’
‘I’m like, oh, dear God, he must be crazy.’
“Well turns out he is a little crazy. I told Ariel ‘Man, you’re crazy for buying this, you don’t know anything about this industry and where you’re going.'”
“But you know what? After getting to know Ariel for a couple years now. There couldn’t have been a better person to buy that business. I really admire his customer service philosophy about how to take care of a customer. His vision to become a multi-media conglomerate is kind of what I envisioned for Image Actionwear years ago.”
“I don’t think anybody else has done this. This is kind of uncharted territory for this kind of a business, but it works. It works great. I’m excited for the future of this company and to see what happens in the next couple years, because things are just going to be incredible for all of us.”
“Today’s new software has allowed for embroidery production to increase. Back then it took about three hours to digitize one piece of artwork. Where today it’s possible to get four pieces of artwork done in the same amount of time. It’s made things a lot faster for me.”
Do you ever see screen printing or embroidery going away?
“No, because embroidery is so embedded in sports, from grade school to the professional level. So I don’t think it’s ever going to change. Same goes for screen printing. I don’t ever see screen printing. I mean, it’s a great art. Nowadays there are a lot of people changing what screen printing looks like. There’s a lot of digital printers out there but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. It’s one of those arts that just can’t be fully replaced with technology.”