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Live Decorating: On the Road with Tees Part 1

In the first half of our live-decorating road trip, we discovered the keys needed to turn immobile shops into thriving mobile businesses via embroidery and screen printing

By Dustin Shrader, Managing Editor


Clients love seeing their creations come to life in person. Photo courtesy of Barrel Maker

January 16, 2024

Buckle up ‘cause we are on a mission! In the ever-evolving world of technology, there are so many ways to tap into your creative outlet and turn it into a lucrative business in the decorated-apparel industry. You no longer need to sell your original T-shirts and merchandise in one place hoping and waiting for customers to come to you. Now more than ever, it is so easy to pack up your art, equipment and team and take your business directly to consumers. Impressions has embarked on an adventure around the country, making pitstops at various brands to get the behind the scenes scoop of their live-decorating businesses. Join us at our first two destinations to discover everything you need for embroidery and screen-printing onsite decorating.

Embroidery: Sew Sweet Academy

At our first stop on our nationwide tour, we spoke with Alexis Galloway, founder of Sew Sweet Academy (sewsweetacademy.com), a machine embroidery membership community where Galloway diligently guides her members through their projects stitch by stitch from start to finish. While chatting, we learned more about what it takes for an embroiderer to seamlessly transport and setup their mobile shop.

Galloway is all in for embroiderers starting a live decorating embroidery service, highlighting how it can be a rewarding venture for those with a passion for design. “With a clear plan and the right skills/resources, you can build a successful business,” she says. “Beginners should choose a machine that fits your budget and hoop size needs according to the type of projects you will be making. The software should be easy to navigate, as well.”

According to Galloway, building relationships with suppliers and vendors is crucial. This can include blanks suppliers both local and overseas for pricing variety. These relationships will then be able to help you source items for clients at a much lower cost.

“As a live decorating service, you will be dealing directly with clients on a regular basis,” she says. “It’s crucial to develop good customer service skills, including clear communication, patience, and empathy. You’ll also need to be able to handle criticism and work collaboratively with clients to bring their vision to life.”

Onsite embroidery can be educational and inspiring. Photo courtesy of Impressions Expo

The benefits of live embroidery not only include the aforementioned customer engagement but the opportunity to showcase the intricate craftsmanship and the decorator’s embroidery skills to a wide audience in real time. “This not only serves as an effective marketing tool but also helps to set [you] apart from competitors who may only offer pre-made designs,” Galloway says. “Live events are great opportunities to promote your brand. They are highly shareable and can easily create buzz, especially on social media, which could increase brand visibility and attract new customers.”

Live decorating has its fair share of benefits for consumers as well. Galloway explains that onsite embroidery allows for high levels of customization. “Consumers can select the exact design, color, size and placement of their embroidery, resulting in a product that matches their personal preferences,” she says.

Being able to watch an item being personalized in real-time can add an element of excitement and entertainment, making the shopping experience unique and memorable, especially considering customers will be able to take their personalized item home with them that day. “This immediate gratification can enhance the overall shopping experience,” says Galloway. “An onsite embroidered item can be a thoughtful and unique gift. It adds a personal touch which is often appreciated for gifts.”

Despite the thrills of watching those needles fly, live decorating embroidery can be somewhat tricky. When you’re working live at an event, Galloway says you might be under pressure to complete designs quickly, which could make it harder to do your best work and possibly make mistakes. The machinery can also work against you by getting jammed or breaking down completely. To troubleshoot these problems, Galloway advises you double-check everything from designs to colors to placement, provide regular maintenance to your machines and always have a backup plan ready to go at the first sign of trouble.

Transporting a mobile machine embroidery shop incurs several costs, some of which include vehicle expenses such as gas, insurance and maintenance; equipment costs; travel-
related expenses such as food and lodging; business insurance; and any marketing costs.

Once you have your basics covered, your plan in place and the event booked, consider the portability of your mobile shop. “Embroidery machines come in various sizes, from small, compact models to larger, industrial-sized machines. The portability of your machine will largely depend on its size, weight, and design. Small to mid-sized machines can be relatively portable. Industrial machines, on the other hand, can be very large and heavy, making them much less portable and not suitable for mobile operations without significant logistical planning.”

Galloway adds that timing must always be considered when it comes to the complexity of your setup. “For a small to mid-sized machine, you could likely get everything set up in about 15 to 30 minutes. For larger, industrial machines, the setup process could take significantly longer. It might also require professional assistance or specialized equipment, particularly if the machine needs to be leveled or secured in place. Remember, portability is not just about the machine itself. You’ll also need to consider the space and equipment required for your embroidery supplies (like threads, hoops, and stabilizers), your products (like shirts, caps, and bags), and any display or point-of-sale materials you might have.”

Screen Printing: Barrel Maker Printing

After our educational visit at Sew Sweet Academy, we zipped on over to Illinois-based Barrel Maker Printing (barrelmakerprinting.com). When it comes to screen printing onsite, founder Justin Moore and team pride themselves on delivering the ultimate, top-notch, VIP printing experience for their clients. Having reached expansive growth since opening their doors in 2009, Barrel Maker now has hubs all over the United States ready to bring their fun-filled mobile printing to any event.

“We have activations consistently each week all over the country,” says Moore. “There are a ton of unique events and ways to decorate apparel, making it a great fit for a wide variety of events.”

For anyone looking to expand their brick and mortar with mobile decorating, Moore says there are great benefits to be had. He suggests setting up outside your shop before venturing out into the public to work out any kinks. Once you are fully prepared with the proper supplies and equipment, the next step is to hit the road.

Live printing is a great way to connect with clients. Photo courtesy of Barrel Maker

“For the decorator the main benefit is exposure,” Moore says. “If you are a company that offers live printing as a core business, then getting out there increases the amount of people who know about you. Or if you are a screen-printing company, then printing at a local street fair might be a good way to put yourself out there. Just keep in mind that if you are printing for another brand you don’t want to steal their thunder with too much shameless self-promotion. For the consumer it’s a good way to get to pick from various designs, ensure you get the size or color you want, view an interesting process, and support small businesses.”

Of course, as convenient as mobile printing is, it doesn’t come without its possible snafus. Limitations arise in what you can offer onsite compared to the bigger machinery living in your shop. Crowd sizes and want and demand are important factors especially when it comes to staying organized and prepared for the particulars of each individual event. Barrel Maker burns its screens prior with very little tolerance since the presses have very little wiggle room. Moore says it is highly important to have a thorough list of everything needed, as well as what each team member’s specific role is during the event.

“Since we are doing events all over the country on a weekly basis, we’ve customized equipment to be more portable and easier to ship,” says Moore. “Shipping equipment is extremely expensive and often impacts the life of the equipment greatly. It’s hard to ship out presses and have them come back unscathed. Also, flights and hotels add up fast. If you aren’t a company that sells live printing as a core service, it makes the most sense to stick to your local area within a 50-mile radius. You can load equipment and supplies into a van and really put in that extra care in padding and protection. Don’t forget to bring a dolly!”

After figuring out what works best for Barrel Maker’s business model, the company now works with customized equipment that has been modified for seamlessly setting up onsite without tools. “For a screen-printing press we can setup in about 10 minutes. That said, our presses aren’t great at multi-color printing because we sacrificed some of the heavy-duty qualities in exchange for ease of travel. Because of that, it definitely helps to use high meshes and one layer of ink, so that you can effectively cure garments faster in less time.”