The trouble with tie-dye

Lauren Gifford doesn’t look like much of a city hall brawler. Her hair is dyed at least four colors—purple, gold, green, orange. “Not pink,” she says. “I never do pink.” She’s wearing glasses with bejeweled white cat-eye frames. When she smiles—dimples.

She smiles when showing off the new hand-painted sign in front of Prism Magic Clothing in Sparks. Lauren and Steve Gifford sell vintage clothes harvested from stores in San Francisco and ornate garments imported from Thailand. But the pair is best known for handcrafted shirts, dresses and baby clothes tie-dyed into bright rainbow colors.

Steve traveled with the Grateful Dead. He’s been doing tie-dye ever since. Lauren majored in music and has a minor in art from Cal State, Fullerton.

The couple makes a living doing what they love. Four days a week, the Giffords’ Sparks home is a studio filled with cotton garments—canvasses destined for vats of hot water and dye.

Lauren Gifford doesn’t smile as she recounts her trials with the city of Sparks over the couple’s booth at the Sparks Hometown Farmer’s Market.

“We’ve sold shirts at markets in Southern California, Northern California, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona,” she says. “We’ve never run into this problem—and this is my hometown.”

For six summers, the Giffords have sold tie-dyed T-shirts at the Farmers Market. Even at the start, gaining admission was contentious.

“They almost didn’t let us in,” Lauren says. “Because they said, ‘T-shirts are not agricultural products.’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, cotton is mined.’ Sometimes my mouth gets me in trouble.”

This spring, the Giffords were informed that their fee for the vendor space was doubling from $75 to $150 weekly. The lesser fees were reserved for arts and crafts vendors. The Giffords would be charged a “commercial” rate.

“They told me clothing was not an art form,” Lauren says. “Because they said art is manipulating something into something else. You take beads and string them, now you have a necklace. We weren’t manipulating our shirts into something else. … By that logic, the Mona Lisa is not a painting, it’s just a canvas hanging on the wall.”

Over the years, the Sparks Market has changed, and new categories were needed for vendors, says Greg vonSchottenstein, special events coordinator.

“It’s a home and garden show,” vonSchottenstein says. “It complements the growers and farmers. Having said that, we don’t invite retail in. Everything brought into the market is homemade, not store bought or from a distributor.”

But don’t the Giffords make their shirts in their home in Sparks?

“Lauren also sells retail,” vonSchottenstein explains. “We’re just trying to establish categories and be consistent.”

So artists don’t do retail sales.

“She looks at her work differently in terms of art,” vonSchottenstein says. “But that’s subjective. We’ve established a consistent category that we can move forward with.”

There’s only so much space at the market. At times, there’s a waiting list for vendors to get in. The Giffords’ frustration mystifies city workers.

“The part that baffles me is that they’re in,” vonSchottenstein says. “It’s not like we told them they can’t be here. … We were very clear at the beginning with them. We’re not being argumentative, just trying to establish consistency.”

Will the Giffords be allowed back next summer? vonSchottenstein is noncommittal.

“There are no guarantees for anybody,” he says. “We work in good faith.”

For the Giffords, weekly T-shirts sales add up to a significant part of their income. But Lauren’s not as upset about the money as she is about the message.

“We put our heart and soul into everything we do,” she says. “To be told, ‘You’re not an artist'? It’s just insulting.”