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Oneida firm prints shirts for NASCAR, space station

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SHERRILL, N.Y. - Shirts hanging in the shipping room carry designs ranging from a chief in Plains warbonnet to a space-walking astronaut.

In between are race cars, plenty of them, all part of the output of Oneida Textile Design, a steadily growing enterprise of the Oneida Nation.

The custom sportswear imprinting firm was one of the nation's first business ventures, as Oneida Textile Printing. It was renamed in 1999 to reflect improved quality and growth of its in-house art department.

It employs 23 people who can screen-print more than 14,000 shirts and embroider more than 3,000 sweatshirts or caps a day on state-of-the-art equipment. It ranks 83rd among the country's top sportswear producers and hopes to break into the top 75 this year.

"We have a soft hand on the shirt," Bill Lynch, director of operations, said during a tour of the 25,000-square-foot, two-story building a short drive from the nation's Turning Stone Casino Resort.

Fingering the design on a freshly printed T-shirt, he said, "It's not laid on like bullet proofing."

The black T-shirt, featuring cartoon dog Scooby-Doo, is part of an order from the NASCAR auto racing circuit, one of Oneida Textile's largest clients.

The art department makes computerized separations for each of the different colors. A large circular printer in the second-floor workshop holds screens on stations radiating like spokes where ink is applied and the shirt rapidly rotates to the next station.

The printer can apply up to 14 different colors with a choice of 2,500 tints. Complete, the product moves through a dryer, spending a minute at 350 degrees.

"It actually cures the ink to the shirt," Lynch said. "It's not a heat transfer," referring to quickly fading decals on most souvenir-stand T-shirts.

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Among the company's more bizarre products is the Hot Topics line of stockings with skulls and barbed wire. "They're supposed to be big sellers," Lynch said.

Some of Oneida Textiles' own line of shirts hang nearby. Marketed as "The Eyes Have It" line, they feature various animals with a luminous stare.

The computer-controlled Tajami stitching machine applies embroidered logos to sweatshirts, golf shirts and caps and can turn out four items at once. It produces upscale apparel favored by large companies and Lynch said he hopes to expand it rapidly as he develops a corporate-client base.

Two full-time artists work on design ideas for clients, assisted by two local freelancers.

Most workers are non-Indian, Lynch said. Three Natives are non-Oneida. Only Lynch is from the Oneida Nation, a member of the Wolf Clan.

Oneida Textile serves a mix of clients in addition to NASCAR, ranging from upstate New York customers like Syracuse University, the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota and Matts' Brewery in Utica to the earth's orbit - a shirt produced for the Hamilton Sunstrand aerospace division celebrates the new International Space Station.

The company is seeking more tribal clients through the Nation-to-Nation program of the United South and Eastern Tribes. It produces casino-related items for the Mashantucket Pequots and the Mohegans and is developing ties with the Catawba of South Carolina and the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama.

Oneida has had a long-term relation with Auto Body Express, the Santa Fe, N.M., venture of Don and Fred Imus, made famous by the "Imus in the Morning" radio show.

Auto Body Express uses the art department to develop its designs. "We give them the idea of what we want to do," said Bob Sellman, I general manager.

"They provide us with art work, and we go back and forth.

"We deal with a lot of vendors, and I have to say that Oneida Textiles is one of the best. The quality of its work is second to none, and they're good people, too."