T-shirts printed with coffee ink

When most people spill coffee on their shirts, they see annoying stains. Alex White and John Mohr saw an opportunity. They embarked on a journey on which they not only figured out how to make textile ink from coffee grounds but also started a flourishing business.

When most people spill coffee on their shirts, they see annoying stains. Alex White and John Mohr saw an opportunity. Having worked as a screen printer for large commercial clients for more than three decades, Mohr wanted to do start something new. He and his son-in-law Alex White embarked on a journey on which they not only figured out how to make textile ink from coffee grounds but also started a flourishing business, called Domestic Stencilworks.

The team began by experimenting with a variety of natural pigments like beet juice, red wine, and even beer. “In the beginning it was pretty simple, if an ingredient was capable of staining clothing we figured it was a good candidate for experimentation”, says White in an email interview. But while staining was simple, printing with natural pigment on garments and getting the prints to last through wash and wear proved challenging. “In fact, this obstacle has taken us almost three years to overcome”, says White.

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Finally, they settled on spent coffee grounds as the ideal ingredient for their screen printing ink. The grounds are mixed with vinegar and later strained. The brew is then cooked to let extra fluid evaporate until the mixture mimics the consistency of screen ink. After cooling down, the ink is ready to print. Sounds simple? “There are a few little secrets that we are leaving out simply to honor the countless hours it took for us to begin producing a viable product, however, that’s pretty much it”, says Mohr.

Mohr has worked for more than 30 years as a screen printer but his new project is – to a large extend – uncharted territory for him. “The techniques and ingredients we are using to execute print work are unlike anything I have been involved with or been aware of in my years as a screen printer”, he says. But over the years, he has been able to acquire a bag of tricks. “Although this approach is brand new I am able to put a lot of those old trade secrets to work.”

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Printing with ink made from coffee grounds has a number of advantages. The first one is cost because quality screen inks are expensive, whereas vinegar is cheap and coffee grounds are usually free. The coffee inks are also sustainable, no chemicals are used in the process and the grounds are a waste product that gets reused and thereby becomes part of the circular economy.

The process only uses a modest amount of coffee grounds so there is no need for large-scale donations by coffee chains yet. But Domestic Stencilworks has developed a special offer for coffee shops and coffee chains. “We offer custom dye creation at no additional charge which means that a individual or shop or roaster or brand can send us their spent grounds and we will use them to create the dye their print run is completed with. This allows folks the opportunity to build on their own story and let their supporters know that the garments they are purchasing were created from their product after it had already been enjoyed in liquid form”, says White.

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While the creative duo has focused on printing t-shirts so far, they will soon expand their product line. “In addition to garments our coffee dye prints exceptionally well on paper. We are in the process of adding more pieces to our stationary line that rely on coffee dye”, says White. Conversely, Mohr and White will also try plant-based dyes that worked well on paper on garments. “Red wine, India Pale Ale, mixed greens, carrots, and beets are our favorites so far”, says White.

With the popularity of the t-shirts came many requests from other screen printers to buy the coffee ink but Mohr and White are not selling it at the moment. “Along with creating the dye there is a very specific technique, order of operations, and curing process that are necessary for it to turn out properly,” they explain. “We would hate to sell a bunch of ink and have folks be disappointed with their results, and the idea of coaching numbers of customers through the process seems daunting.”

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For Mohr and White who often stay up late to manually print the t-shirts, embarking on the journey was definitely worthwhile so far. “The joy of this project for me has been my freedom to focus on quality and execution in a more artistic environment as opposed to a corporate production setting,” says Mohr. “We still print in volume, and actually hope to continue increasing that volume but the craft comes first, and that makes me happy.