People - August 2005

For customers, he's dyeing to tie one on
By Joe Rauch

Erik Chumley will tell you with something approaching pride that he’s never done much of anything in “the rat race.” Such disdain is not surprising from someone whose résumé includes carnival work, horse-trailer assembly and just about anything else to keep the wolf from the door. Chumley, 38, is the owner and operator of The American Tie-Dye Co. in Taylorsville. Customers include Wal-Mart, and his shirts have been featured on the Survivor television show.

The company makes tie-dyed shirts for wholesalers and markets them primarily through a Web site. Sales doubled from about $50,000 in 2003 to more than $100,000 last year, when Chumley sold more than 25,000 shirts.

He and his wife, Dawn, are the only full-time employees. During his busy season, March through May, he hires as many as five temps. “I sell to a lot of schools and youth organizations, sports teams.” An average order is 250 shirts.

Early on, Chumley dyed shirts in his kitchen sink. Now shirts are dyed in and shipped from a 3,000-square-foot building that he leases. “The orders just kept getting bigger. Beginning of last year, we got a huge order — 2,400 shirts — and they needed them in 10 days. Man, we jumped to supersonic speed overnight.”

A plain white T-shirt is bound and folded before specific areas of the shirt are hand-sprayed with dye to create a design. The dye must set for 24 hours. Chumley’s most basic shirt costs $5 wholesale, with a minimum order of two dozen. “The more basic designs, I can train our temporary workers to produce those at a pretty good rate — usually a couple hundred or so a day. The toughest ones, though, only I can do them and usually only about 20 a day. And that’s pushing it.”

Tie-dye became popular in the 1960s and remains the signature couture of neohippies. But some of Chumley’s customers have a larger corporate design in mind. Wal-Mart wanted its shareholder-assistance team to stand out at an annual meeting. Survivor decided to merchandise replicas of a tie-dyed shirt made by Chumley and worn by popular contestant Rupert Boneham.

Chumley’s route to the garment industry was circuitous. A native of Hillsboro, Ill., he dropped out of high school at 18, got his GED two weeks later and joined the Army at 19. Discharged 11 months later for alcohol abuse, he settled in Arkansas, stopped drinking and took jobs that included finishing horse trailers, selling lemonade and running games at carnivals. In 1993, he was attending the University of Central Arkansas in Conway when a friend asked for help tie-dyeing shirts for an upcoming festival. Chumley got a fast course in the basics. For the next decade, he alternated selling tie-dye at flea markets and roadsides with carnival work and other jobs.

In 1996, he came to Taylorsville with a carnival. “My third day here, I met a girl. Eighteen days later, we were married, and I settled in here.” He and his wife dyed shirts part-time until setting up the wholesale business in 2003. He wants to open a store to sell his most elaborately designed shirts. “We think they’ll be more successful at retail, and that’s the opportunity for all of us in the shop to be creative — which is why we got into this to begin with.”