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Does This Shirt Make My Revenue Look Big?

Brian Martin, CRM, was following his customers’ needs when he got into apparel decorating 22 years ago. Like many recognition retailers, Martin had established a solid customer base in the awards business at his company, Winner’s Choice in Fairmont, WV. “It just became a natural tie-in,” Martin said. “Our customers were buying awards from us and started asking if we could do their team uniforms.”

Does This Shirt Make My Revenue Look Big?

Weigh Your Options Before Slipping into Apparel Decoration

Brian Martin, CRM, was following his customers’ needs when he got into apparel decorating 22 years ago. Like many recognition retailers, Martin had established a solid customer base in the awards business at his company, Winner’s Choice in Fairmont, WV. “It just became a natural tie-in,” Martin said. “Our customers were buying awards from us and started asking if we could do their team uniforms.”

Initially, Winner’s Choice outsourced the apparel jobs to contract printers. However, the turnaround time was too long, and Martin felt he didn’t have adequate quality control with outsourcing. He decided to bring the process in house by expanding into screen printing. Today, half of the sales at Winner’s Choice are generated by apparel design and decorating. Martin also sublimates apparel and plans to invest in a direct-to-garment (DTG) printer to handle smaller, custom color jobs.

Like Martin, many recognition retailers see opportunity in apparel. In a recent survey, apparel decoration was one of the most cited processes that Recognition Review readers said they hoped to add to their businesses. Successful recognition retailers already have the clientele, and many awards customers also need shirts, hats, or other apparel—whether for a corporation, sports team, or event. The retailers already have the design step in place, as well, since apparel design begins much like awards design—with a graphic designer with software expertise.

Among the other primary processes or products used for decorating apparel are screen printing, sublimation, DTG printing, heat transfers, embroidery, and rhinestones. How does a retailer decide which is the best fit? For the most part, each process caters to a different production level and investment of time and money.

Most apparel-decorating processes are relatively simple to learn, but each requires different skills and knowledge to achieve the best results. For recognition retailers, screen printing likely takes the most training simply because the equipment and production steps are so different from what most are used to.

For all the apparel decorating processes, the step that requires the most skill occurs in the design process, before the apparel production even begins, just like awards production. “The better your graphics are, the better your products are going to sell and the higher perceived value your company is going to have,” said Kevin Lumberg, a sublimation specialist at Johnson Plastics. “You never want to stop working on the graphics side of it because you can make better products for your customers.”

Even variety of apparel available to decorate is vast and includes towels, socks, hats, equipment bags, and hoodies, to name a few. Retailers can get creative and tailor their offerings to appeal to their own customer niche. To compare apples to apples, this article will focus on how each process or product would be used to decorate a basic T-shirt. While this comparison is by no means exhaustive it’s a good starting point for retailers who aren’t sure where to start in their apparel investigation.

Experts were interviewed to talk about the strengths and practical limitations of each of the various types of decoration processes and products. Recognition Review thanks each source for taking time to share their knowledge with our readers. They are: Mary Blondell of Stahls’ ID Direct (www.stahls.com/home); Joe Irmiter of Epson Professional Imaging (http://www.epson.com/cgi-bin/Store/jsp/Pro/Home.do?BV_UseBVCookie=yes); Kevin Lumberg of Johnson Plastics (www.johnsonplastics.com); Mark Stephenson of ColDesi, Inc. (www.coldesi.com); Parnell Thill of Chromaline® Screen Print Products, a division of IKONICS Corporation (www.chromaline.com); and Joseph Tovar of Synergy 17, LLC (www.synergy17.com).

SUBLIMATION

What Is It?

In sublimation, also known as dye-sub printing, inks turn into a gas when heated to 400° F, forming a permanent bond to 100% polyester fabric or items that have a polymer coating. The result is a premium full-color, photographic-quality image that will not crack, peel, or wash away from the substrate.

Decorating a T-Shirt

Create Transfer: Graphics for T-shirts will typically be no larger than 8 in. across by 10 in. high. Print graphic onto sublimation transfer paper using an inkjet printer compatible for sublimation inks.

Trim Foam: Foam size should be trimmed to a slightly smaller size than the transfer paper. Trim foam at a 45-degree angle to create beveled edges. Applying high-temperature foam underneath apparel keeps the apparel and sublimation paper secure while pressing, yielding an even image without pressmarks.

Prepare Heat Press: Place the foam and a blank shirt in the press to adjust pressure. Once pressure is set, remove the shirt and foam. Set temperature to reach 400° F and set the timer for 1 minute.

Prepare Shirt and Transfer: Once the press has reached desired temperature, the graphic is ready to apply. Stack protective paper, foam, and the shirt. Smooth out any wrinkles and use a lint roller to clear any potential lint. Place the transfer paper on the shirt so the shirt faces up and the image faces down. Apply another sheet of protective paper on top.

Press: Close the press to begin the sublimation process.

Remove Transfer Paper: Release the press, and remove the protective paper. Lift off the transfer sheet smoothly and quickly to reveal the image.

Production Capacity

The average user can position and press a sublimated shirt in about 1.5 minutes, and each printed graphic can only be used once, so the process is best for smaller, more customized runs.

Software

CorelDraw and/or Adobe Photoshop are recommended for graphic design. Printing software usually comes with the sublimation printer.

Equipment

Computer with graphics software, sublimation printer, heat press

Supplies

Sublimation inks, protective paper, sublimation transfer paper, scissors, high-temperature foam, polyester fabric blank

Advantages

  • Colors are vibrant and very high quality, so users can really get creative graphically.
  • Because the image essentially bonds with poly fibers, the sublimated shirt feels like an undecorated shirt and breathes more easily than a screen-printed image or iron-on transfer.
  • Colors will not fade with washing.
  • Customization is easy. Sublimation is great for a team that wants 15 jerseys with different names and numbers. It also can profitably handle the extra two jersey orders that inevitably come after the original order is finished.
  • Sublimation is the perfect process for decorating performance apparel, which has become incredibly popular thanks to brands like Under Armour.

Disadvantages

  • No cotton. While the variety and demand for polyester shirts has increased dramatically in recent years, sublimation printing works best on 100% polyester substrates. Graphics will be faded if sublimated on poly/cotton blends.
  • Garment color is limited because sublimation works best on white and light-colored shirts.
  • Not ideal for large quantities of shirts with the identical graphics.
  • Long exposure to ultraviolet rays could cause some fading, although Lumberg of Johnson Plastics points out that swimsuits are often printed with sublimated images.

Investment

When getting into apparel, retailers should use a larger sublimation printer that can print up to an 11-in. by 17-in. area. These are often sold as a package that includes printer, ink, paper, and drivers. The ongoing ink cost must be factored in.

SCREENPRINTING

What Is It?

A stencil of the desired image is created on a screen. Ink is applied through the screen onto the substrate.

Decorating a T-Shirt

Prepare the screen: Apply liquid emulsion or film emulsion to a clean screen, and let it dry on a rack.

Create a stencil image on the screen: Print a film positive. Expose or burn it onto the screen using an ultraviolet light machine. Wash off the emulsion where the screen has been exposed. Let it dry.

Screenprint the shirt: Attach stenciled screen to the press, and position shirt on press. Bring down the screen over the shirt. Run ink over the screen with a squeegee. Lift the screen away to reveal the printed shirt. Dry the shirts in a conveyor textile dryer to cure the ink.

Production Capacity

The most time consuming part of screen printing is creating the screen image. Once a screen is made, the substrates can be printed in seconds, especially when using an automatic press. The process is best for at least 20 shirts per screen with capability for high volumes, such as 500 shirts an hour depending on equipment capacity.

Software

CorelDRAW and/or Adobe Photoshop can be used for graphic design. Many software products are available that are specific to screenprinting apparel.

Equipment

Computer with graphics software, exposure unit, manual or automatic screen printing press, textile dryer, power washer/space

Supplies

Screens; ink; photo emulsion; scoop coater; film positive material (ink jet film or vellum paper); scrub brush; squeegee; emulsion remover; screen degreaser; racks; wide tape; garments in a wide variety of material; tub, large sink, or other sizable wash area connected to a spray hose for cleaning screens

Advantages

  • Ideal for large quantities of the same garment image.
  • Ability to print on wide variety of substrate materials.
  • Start-up costs are manageable.
  • Cost-effective process per piece when producing large quantities.

Disadvantages

  • Not easy or profitable to customize a small number of shirts because a new stencils would need to be made for each.
  • Inks can be messy.
  • Equipment and products require a significant amount of production and storage space.
  • Printing multiple colors requires additional set-up.

Investment

Manual presses cost a fraction of automatic press prices, but total costs rise when the required screens, inks, conveyor dryer, exposure unit, and other essentials are purchased. Still, this is less costly than some newer technology.

DIRECT-TO-GARMENT PRINTING

What Is It?

Direct-to-garment printing, also known as DTG or DTG printing, is a process of printing directly onto apparel using specialized inkjet textile inks. DTG printers apply the inks directly to the textile where they are absorbed by the fibers. DTG printing provides a solution to printing smaller orders with an almost unlimited number of colors in the design.

Decorating a T-Shirt

Pretreat garments: Spray the garments with pretreat solution. Spray bottles can be used, but pretreatment machines are recommended to maximize efficiency and ensure even coverage. This step is critical for dark-colored garments, so images aren’t lost in the fibers of the shirt. On light and white garments, pretreatment will make image colors pop more.

Secure the pretreatment: Heat press the pretreatment into the garment. This also flattens fibers to eliminate any fibrillation that might occur when the inks go down. Pretreating the garments takes about 15 to 20 seconds. To streamline production, shirts can be pretreated weeks before they need to be printed though they ought to be pressed again quickly before printing to eliminate any wrinkles created during storage.

Print shirts: It takes between 3 and 7 minute to print a 12-in.-by-10-in. image on a shirt. The time depends on settings, such as high resolution for detailed image quality or production mode to speed up the process.

Cure the inks: Heat press the shirt again to cure the inks.

Production Capacity

DTG printing takes about 3 to 7 minutes per shirt. The process is recommended for printing one to 150 items a day.

Software

For graphic design, CorelDRAW and/or Adobe Photoshop are recommended. The printer usually comes with necessary software for printing.

Equipment

Computer with graphics software , pretreatment machine, DTG printer, heat press

Supplies

Pretreatment solution, digital inks, 100% ring-spun cotton blank

Advantages

  • DTG printing is ideal for custom graphics with multiple colors.
  • Great for smaller runs.
  • Convenient to produce last-minute single shirts and extra orders.
  • Cotton shirts can be used; 100% ring-spun cotton performs best.

Disadvantages

  • Polyester is not optimal, so performance fabrics are not recommended.
  • White ink, which needs to be agitated, can get clogged if not maintained properly.
  • Not cost effective for mass production.

Investment

Printer costs vary drastically depending on your priorities. Some offer low maintenance and speedy production, while others boast high print quality. Joe Irmiter of Epson DGP recommends retailers bring artwork on a flash drive to trade shows to test out the printers before they invest.

HEAT TRANSFERS

What Is It?

Heat printing is the process of transferring heat-applied materials to substrates using a heat press. There is a wide variety of material that can be applied through heat printing, including heat transfer vinyls (commonly used on athletic uniforms), heat transfer materials featuring special effects (such as glow-in-the-dark or reflective properties), and screen-printed transfers. Vinyl letters and numbers can be cut in-house using a vinyl cutter or ordered from suppliers in a wide variety of pre-cut fonts and colors.

Decorating a T-Shirt

Set up vinyl cutter: Load roll of vinyl into cutter that is connected to your computer like a printer. Begin job by outputting vector artwork from the computer to the cutter. The cutter carves the design onto the vinyl but not through its Mylar® plastic sheet backing.

Weed the vinyl: Trim off the vinyl sheet from the cutter machine. Use a weeding tool to peel away the vinyl background remnants from the Mylar® plastic sheet backing. The vinyl image design stays on the Mylar® to be heat transferred to the garment.

Prepare heat press: Set temperature, time, and pressure on heat press. Load garment, and preheat to remove moisture and wrinkles. Position design so vinyl faces the garment and Mylar® faces up toward press.

Press the image: Press for desired time (typically about 10 seconds). Release the press, and peel the Mylar® backing from the shirt.

Production Capacity

Production takes about 1.5 minutes per shirt, so heat transfers are best for small to medium quantities.

Software

Create the vector artwork in any graphics software, such as CorelDRAW and Adobe Illustrator. Free design software such as CadworxLive.com or Flexisign can be used.

Equipment

Computer with graphics software program, vinyl cutter (if cutting own designs), heat press

Supplies

Weeding tool or X-Acto knife; heat-applied film if cutting own designs or pre-cut transfers; garment, which can be a wide variety of materials

Advantages

  • Inexpensive start-up costs since the primary piece of equipment is a heat press.
  • Most fabrics can be used, including cotton, performance fabric, neoprene, nylon, and even leather.
  • Transfer quality has improved greatly to withstand wash and wear without cracking or peeling from garments.
  • Ideal for customizations on single units, such as adding names and numbers to uniforms.
  • The process is clean because it doesn’t require inks.

Disadvantages

  • Color is limited to single colors or the effects available on the heat-applied film, unless you order full-color digital transfers.
  • Slower process isn’t ideal for large quantities.
  • Although durability has improved, there is potential for some cracking or peeling after heavy, long-time use.

Investment

A high-quality professional heat press is affordable, and a desktop vinyl cutter costs about the same amount. If you choose to order heat transfers from a supplier, those costs have to be factored in on an ongoing basis.

EMBROIDERY

What Is It?

Embroidery is decorating fabric or other materials with needle and thread or yarn, typically using an embroidery machine for commercial purposes. Artwork can be embroidered on heat transfer material, like a patch, and heat pressed on the garment.

Decorating a T-Shirt

Load design: Import design to embroidery machine. Choose design from embroidery control panel.

Set needle colors: Operators need to choose which thread colors they want to use on the design.

Position garment: Place garment in stitching area hoop. Set the machine so it traces the design outline to check that it is within the hoop parameters.

Begin sewing: At the push of a button, the machine sews, selects colors, and trims the threads automatically.

Production Capacity

Embroidery time varies by the number of colors and size of the logo. A single-head embroidery machine takes about 6 minutes per shirt for a typical 3-in-by-3-in. left chest logo. Operators can finish about 10 shirts in an hour with a single-head machine.

Software

To create a vector graphic, CorelDRAW and/or Adobe Illustrator are recommended. Embroidery machines also typically come with their own digitizing embroidery software.

Equipment

Computer with graphics software program, commercial embroidery machine with large sewing field

Supplies

Polyester thread, hoops, patch kit (optional), garment of any material (leather or thick materials may require a different needle set-up)

Advantages

  • Embroidery has a classic appeal that is well established.
  • Embroidery machines are easy to operate.
  • Entry-level machines are compact and portable.
  • Supply costs are low.
  • Provides a value-added complementary product if a business is already using other processes for designing apparel.
  • Some embroidery machine suppliers offer trade-in options, so retailers can start with a smaller machine and upgrade business grows.
  • Operators can embroider most materials, even thick garments, such as leather.

Disadvantages

  • When using a single-head machine, embroidery is best for smaller runs.
  • Research is required to set up an appropriate free structure.
  • Competition is stiff. From home-based businesses to mass manufacturers, many people have their hands in the embroidery business.

Investment

Embroidery machine prices vary depending the number of needles and heads. Machine prices rise with the number of heads.

BLING

What Is It?

Bling is any process that applies rhinestones, sequins, spangles, or other sparkling pieces to a garment image. The process creates a raised textural quality on garments and a colorful, light-reflecting design, or “bling.” Bling has shown an uptick in popularity in recent years because new equipment and products have made it easier for manufacturers to decorate with bling. Consumer demand has grown, especially with the popularity of spirit wear for women and denim apparel.

Decorating a T-Shirt

Load vector design: All bling processes begin with vector artwork. A number of other software applications can transform the vector artwork into bling applications. Bling transfers can be created by hand or automatically using a rhinestone or spangle machine.

Manual Rhinestone Templates
Cut or select template: You can use a vinyl cutter to design a template with holes for the rhinestones. Rhinestone templates, which include lettering and stock designs, can also be used. Rhinestone World’s Sticky Flock is an example of ready-to-use templates.

Brush in rhinestones: Secure the template to a workspace. Using a rhinestone brush, brush the rhinestones over the template holes, which are cut to fit the specific rhinestone size. Brush away extras when the holes are filled.

Create transfer: Place HotFix tape atop the design. Apply pressure to the tape to secure the design to it. Place the transfer on a protective backing until it is ready to press on the shirt as described in the heat transfer section.

Rhinestone Machine
Prepare rhinestone machine: Rhinestone machines connect to a computer like a printer. Fill the sorter wheels or hoppers with rhinestones and load the machine with transfer paper.

Set the rhinestones: The machine picks up the rhinestones and sets them on the transfer paper in the desired design.

Press the shirt: Remove the rhinestone transfer from the machine. Position the shirt on the heat press, place the transfer on the garment, and heat seal it.

Prospangle Machine
Prepare ProSpangle machine: Spangles are threadless sequins on reels of spangle material. The machine can be set up with reels of spangles in six colors and sizes. Load the machine with transfer paper, often called HotFix tape or paper.

Punch the spangles: Send design to machine from the computer and choose it on machine’s control panel. Set the order of color reels on the control panel. Set off tracing step to make sure press unit lines up on transfer sheet. Hit start; machine will punch the spangles from the reels onto the transfer sheet.

Press the shirt: Remove spangle transfer sheet from the machine. Position the shirt on the heat press, place the transfer on the garment, and heat seal it.

Production Capacity

A rhinestone transfer that takes 30 minutes to create manually takes about 6 minutes with an entry-level rhinestone machine or about a minute with the ProSpangle machine.

Software

To create a vector graphic, CorelDRAW and/or Adobe Illustrator are recommended. HotFix, OObling, WinPCSign, and Roland R-Wear are among the many software design programs that can used to convert vector artwork to bling designs.

Equipment

Vinyl cutter (manual process), rhinestone or ProSpangle machine (automatic process), heat press

Supplies

Bags of rhinestones or reels of spangle tape, transfer paper (Hotfix tape or Hotfix paper), tweezers, ready-made templates (if not cutting own)

Advantages

  • Bling designs are fun, vibrant and eye-catching.
  • Complementary, value-added service if you offer other heat-transfer printing options. Bling can enhance other transfer designs.
  • Use virtually any material that can hold heated glue and withstand a heat press.

Disadvantages

  • The manual process is time consuming.
  • Some training is necessary to operate both automatic machines. The Prospangler, in particular, has quite a few parts that need to be understood to set up and change the spangle reels properly.
  • Storage and organization methods need to be diligently observed, particularly with rhinestones, so the process runs smoothly and to avoid waste.

Investment

A high-quality professional heat press costs is affordable, and a desktop vinyl cutter costs about the same. If you choose to order heat transfers from a supplier, those costs have to be factored in on an ongoing basis.

Awards and Personalization Association

The Awards and Personalization Association is the organization for retailers and suppliers of personalized and customized items. By providing education, meetings, and access to a vibrant network of professionals, the Awards and Personalization Association is the one place to ensure the growth of your talent, your business, and your professional community.

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