Build Your Business:

Branching Out for Success with Decorated Apparel

Screen printers, embroiderers, heat-press decorators, you name it: they can all build their businesses by expanding into new markets and new technologies

By Terry Combs, Contributing Writer

Don’t let the constraints of, say, screen printing prevent your company from keeping up with the latest market trends in embroidery, heat-press decorations or DTG and DTF. Photo by primipil –

April 3, 2024

Gone are the days when a decorator was just a screen printer, or just an embroiderer, or any other single decoration method. Most of us by choice or necessity have at least two or more technologies on our production floors. What follows are some tips—and food for thought—for those considering taking on a new decoration method.

Why Branch Out With New Decorating Tech

The recent pandemic, which upended the business world and everything else in our lives, sent a powerful message about how volatile the world can be. Many businesses were set up for some level of success even in difficult times. Others floundered. Still some failed completely, ultimately shuttering their doors. The consensus among business owners since then has been, “I’ll never allow my business to be caught flat footed again.”

Multihead embroidery machine decorated apparel industry

Expanding into custom embroidery is not for the faint of heart, but it’s an area of apparel decoration that offering tremendous potential gains as well. Photo courtesy of Impressions Expo

One way to accomplish this is to spread out your customer base via new technologies. At the height of the pandemic, especially, it was difficult if not impossible to walk in the door of your local decorator. But you could certainly shop online! It was also difficult for customers to reach their own groups and customers, without the option of some kind of online store. Selling continued, but it quickly became a non-contact proposition. Those who were lucky enough (or prepared enough) to already be set up for this type of business, or those who moved quickly to pivot their mode of selling mostly survived. Many flourished.

Another reason to add new techniques and technologies to your shop is simply to keep your business relevant. If your decoration methods haven’t changed over time, you may be left behind as your customers drift away toward what they perceive to be your more innovative competitors. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a winning business strategy.

As an example, a screen printer still clinging to a two-dozen or even four-dozen minimum will be hurt by a competitor offering the option of much smaller orders. Of course, the advantage of screen printing is the low cost of production and the efficiencies that result from greater quantities. However, that doesn’t mean you should close your eyes to the realities of today’s marketplace and refuse shorter-run opportunities out of hand. Granted it’s not practical for a pure screen printer to offer the option of single-piece orders. That’s where other technologies come in.

custom decorated shoes at Impressions Expo

Don’t be afraid to take on new products and decorating methods to attract new customers. Photo courtesy of Impressions Expo

Here’s a truth for all decoration methods: The average consumer today wants shorter runs repeated more often. Amazon has changed the face of the consumer. “I want one, I want it custom, and I want it now.” And it’s not just the one-shirt customer. Many of our larger-quantity customers are asking for, say, 100 shirts ordered on 10 separate occasions as needed, as opposed to ordering 1,000 shirts all at once. Don’t be frightened by this. The dollar totals for decorated apparel continue to go up and up and up. Today’s consumer just wants those orders in smaller bites.

Offering a broader range of decoration options makes it much easier to keep your current customers close at hand. If you don’t offer a product a customer wants they will be tempted to shop other decorators to find it. And just as you would be more than happy to take another competitor’s business, the competition will be more than happy to take yours. By not offering multiple techniques and technologies, you risk losing customers to another decorator who will offer what you don’t.

Another reason for expanding your business can be as simple as creating new sources of revenue. Having more products and technologies as a part of what you do will translate into more orders coming through the door. Multiple income streams can also serve as a kind of safety net if and when the next business downturn occurs.

Expanding Apparel Offerings with Little Expense

Sometimes expanding your product line or changing the way you do business is not so much a matter adding new equipment as it is figuring out new ways of using the equipment you already have. Reimagine what you’re capable of. If you’re a direct-to-film (DTF) decorator, have you considered adding rhinestones to your images? DTF uses water-based inks, so no issues with adhesion. You’ll also use the same heat press you use to cure the print, so the only additional cost will be the rhinestones themselves, that and learning how to apply them. On a side note, the predicted demise of rhinestones every year for the past decade has been proven false over and over again. Go to any NFL game and you’ll see bling everywhere you look.

Company uniforms by custom apparel decorator

In providing company uniforms your decorated apparel company can become a kind of service provider. Photo by Geber86 –

For a screen printer, have you spiced up your samples with specialty inks, like puff, suede, shimmers and more? When you’re ready to box up that next order, add a little puff ink to the same ink and screen you just used and print an additional garment that you can then add to the box. Your phone will ring, and you’ll make more money, guaranteed.

The only additional expense for a screen printer looking to experiment with most specialty inks is the cost of the inks. Once you have them, though, you can start producing samples. Your customers will be thrilled, you’ll have some fun, and you will start to nudge out any competitors in your area that are failing to do the same.

Another way to expand your business is by adding new markets while using the equipment you’re already running. As an example, if 90 percent of your current business is schools, why not try pursuing lawn and pool services, as well? As you are doing so, try offering a “kit” consisting of, say, a hat and three T-shirts. That way when it comes time for reorders, a company like “Jim’s Lawn Service” can simply say, “I need to order two more kits, size large.”

Smaller businesses, especially, don’t want to have a bunch of boxes of T-shirts sitting around in some room out back. If you make your products easy to buy, price becomes less of an issue. Instead of buying boxes of T-shirts, your customers are now buying a service. Book one pool service business with your reorder program, then repeat—again and again. Think about the other businesses in your area—or wherever the internet reaches—that would also appreciate these kinds of services.

Embroidery, Screen Printing, Heat Pressing All Require Training

Not sure if you have the business to keep a new machine busy? My recommendation to those decorators feeling timid about their potential sales is that they start by contracting out the work. That way you can build a customer base at the same time you are learning about the processes and possibilities. Yes, it will cost more to buy a DTF transfer, for example, than to print one yourself. However, doing so will afford you an opportunity of getting a much better feel for the market as a whole before making the leap financially.

Purchasing apparel decorating equipment at Impressions Expo

Though it may cost more in the short term, buying your apparel decorating equipment new, as opposed to used, means being able to harness the customer support and expertise offered by the manufacturer or distributor. Photo courtesy of Impressions Expo

Once you’re ready to buy, make your purchase from someone you trust. It’s OK to ask for references. A reputable equipment seller will not be offended. Ask questions, look at samples, look the reseller up online and read the reviews.

As you are doing so, be sure to keep in mind the fact that any venture with a completely new technology is going to require training and ongoing support. Contrary to what some sales pitches might have you believe, there are no plug-and-play garment or product-decorating machines. When you’re shopping for new equipment, ask what kind of training comes with it or if there is any qualified training the dealer can recommend. Be sure to also ask the kinds of ongoing support you’re eligible for.

Especially if you are branching out with a kind of machinery you have no background in, I always recommend buying new. Sure, you can save money on a used setup, but there are all kinds of unknowns you will likely find yourself having to deal with. Are you struggling with the equipment because you are making errors or is the equipment itself defective? Again, new equipment acquired from a reputable dealer comes with ready-made knowledge base you can tap into. When you are learning to use new equipment, it’s hugely beneficial having someone you know is going to answer when call with any kinds of questions or concerns.

Heat press for DTF heat press decoration

When implementing any new piece of equipment, even something as easy to use as a heat press for DTF decorating, there’s going to be some training involved. Photo courtesy of Impressions Expo

Also bear in mind the fact you’re already engaged in some level of production before branching out in an all-new direction. Take a serious look to see if you or your staff have the time to add to your current production load, not to mention the time to learn how the new equipment or processes you’re thinking of implementing actually work. You may find that executing your plans means hiring new workers who more likely than not will be learning how to operate your new equipment at the same time you are. Hiring new employees means additional expense beyond the cost of the machine itself.

Even if you won’t be physically operating the new equipment, it’s always good to have a complete understanding of all the machines and processes at work in your shop. In my screen-printing classes, I regularly have students who are existing business owners and simply want to understand the processes they’re managing even if they won’t be involved in actually doing it day-to-day. It’s a form of “keeping the employees honest” in terms what they and the equipment can and can’t be expected of to get done.

For most technologies there are hands-on or online training options. As with anything else you invest your money in, check to see if the person or the company offering the training is planning on teaching you or trying to sell you something. Read any reviews you find online to differentiate between a sales pitch and an actual education.

Specific Apparel Decorating Technologies

For screen printing you’ll need enough space for the equipment along with running water for processing the requisite screens. While you can print one- and two-color jobs right away, becoming an expert at screen printing will take some time. I warn my students that while they may be able to print shirts come Monday, becoming an expert may take three years. There are dozens of variables involved in the screen-printing process, including everything from screen mesh counts to specialty inks and how actually to use them. What may look simple at first is anything but!

Embroidery also requires space, depending on the number of heads employed by your embroidery machine of choice. Allow time to learn this process. As with screen printing, many variables need to be tackled, including the “digitizing” of the designs (i.e., specifying the exact thread pattern making up an image or design) and the pluses and minuses of the various different threads and needles currently available with respect to the many different fabrics out there. As is the case with screen printing, embroidery has a long history in the industry, and there are a wealth of resources you can access for training and help.

Sublimation is an easy process to learn as well as a fairly inexpensive one to add to your business. Sublimation transfers can be applied to a wide variety of products, from coffee mugs to T-shirts. The one confusion that comes up over and over again when talking with someone interested in sublimation is the kinds of garments that can be decorated. Sublimation does not work on fabrics that are not white or pastel. The process also only works on polyester. These days there are literally thousands of products you can decorate. Many of these products are made of solid polyester, like a 100-percent polyester T-shirt. Other products, like many coffee mugs, are available with a polyester coating. Note, any product you decorate with a sublimation transfer must be specifically prepared as a sublimation product.

Direct-to-Garment (DTG) has a shorter learning curve, 30-90 days, because the process is basically the same on any garment you decorate. DTG is best suited for 100-percent cotton or high-cotton blends. Printing white ink when decorating, say, a red color T-shirt, requires the application of a pretreat solution. This is most commonly done using an automatic pretreat machine. You’ll need a heat press for curing the finished shirt as well. There are also shirts that can be purchased with the fabric already pretreated.

DTG is a great option for volume decorators, like screen printers or embroiderers, looking to produce full color images on a single garment. Direct-to-film transfers can also be produced on a DTG printer, further broadening your decorating options.

DTF transfer printing is the newest technology available to decorators and has in many ways taken the industry by storm. As stated above, you can print transfers on a DTG printer or, for higher-volume production, on a dedicated DTF printer. The latter will include a printer, a powder adhesive applicator and shaker (to shake off the excess powder), and a dryer to both cure the finished print and melt the adhesive. The advantage of DTF printing is the ability to apply a full color transfer to almost any fabric. The disadvantage is the hand (feel) of the transfer on the garment. There is a bit of a plastic feel, though there are also plenty of tricks to lessen that effect.

Terry Combs is a 40-plus-year veteran of the garment printing industry and has managed production shops large and small across the United States. He has written hundreds of management and technical articles for garment decorating publications and spoken at industry events worldwide, including Impressions Expo. He is also co-host of the weekly “2 Regular Guys” decorated-apparel podcast. For more on Terry, his writings and career, click here