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From Garage to Dead

Tie-dye business flourishes in Fairfax City.

Bob Shiver wasn’t thrilled when his son Cas dropped out of college to tie-dye shirts in the garage. But his skepticism faded the day Cas came home from a Grateful Dead concert in Richmond with $3,700 in his pocket from selling the shirts.

"As a colonel in the Air Force, my feeling was, ‘wait a minute, you’ve got to be part of the society, son, you can't just stick money in your pocket,’" said Bob Shiver, 70. "Well, I’ve kind of been his tagalong finance guy ever since."

Sundog Productions has grown a great deal during the 19 years since Cas Shiver, now 38, began selling shirts from the garage. The hand-dyed clothing producer recently moved from a shop on Pickett Road to an old medical plant on Main Street in downtown Fairfax. Instead of selling T-shirts in the crowd at Grateful Dead concerts, Sundog now makes the band’s official shirts. Disney World, the Smithsonian, Universal Studios and Harley Davidson are among the company's clientele. Its staff also grew, from a handful in 1986 to about 75 today.

A testament of Sundog’s success is its ‘rose garden’ T-shirt, which is the Dead’s best-selling shirt of all time. "We’ve been making the shirts for Grateful Dead for three years, but (the band) has been around a long time," said Bob Shiver.

Recently, Gov. Mark Warner (D) and the Virginia Small Business Financing Authority awarded Sundog a small business loan, which Cas Shiver said he’ll use for improvements and training new employees.

"The state realizes that manufacturing is a big part of where the jobs are and is willing to help out," said Cas Shiver. "It’s a neat deal."

Many of Sundog’s employees are in high school or college, said Cas Shiver, because the flexible hours are attractive to students. The Shivers recalled a student who put himself through college working at Sundog.

"It’s pretty fun," said employee Kim Pizzi. "We get to listen to cool music and hang out all day."

The warehouse resembles a cross between a factory and an artist’s studio, with screen-printing machines, large commercial washing machines and dye-spattered floors. Mishaps do occur occasionally, such as the day a water main problem caused rust to get into the water and ruin the dye on an entire order of American flag t-shirts. On the whole, business is good, said the Shivers.

"It sure beats getting a real job," Cas Shiver said.