Build Your Business:

Heading in a Digital Direction

In a drastically changed consumer environment, here’s how digital processes are helping decorators stay up to speed.

By Michael J. Pallerino, Contributing Writer

Burlap is a sublimation-friendly substrate that is catching on in popularity. Photo provided by JDS Industries.

October 8, 2021

While there may never be a sufficient way to clearly describe the indelible mark the past 18-plus months have had on the decorated-apparel industry, here’s a start: The appetite for online shopping has never been greater.

That’s the general summary of a recent Capgemini Research Institute survey conducted earlier this year. Consider this, too: Even if and when the COVID crisis recedes, the online craving is only expected to grow.

So, if you want a sense of where digital decorating is headed — and that includes current and future trends, and everything in between — start with today’s “I-want-it-now” consumer attitude. While this started in the early 2010s with the phenomenon known as the “retail apocalypse,” the pandemic only accelerated its pace.

The Capgemini report, The Consumer and COVID-19 — Global Consumer Sentiment Research in the Consumer Products and Retail Industry, shows that consumers won’t only expect safer in-store and last-mile practices moving forward, but the majority (more than 53%) will want companies that embody a sense of purpose and have strong sustainability credentials.

“During the COVID-19 lockdown, the focus was on the main essentials, but reports indicate all major e-commerce categories will return to even higher levels [ in the] long term,” says Sharon Donovich, senior customer marketing manager at Kornit. “This change in consumer behavior poses a challenge to the fashion industry.”

Today, the lag time between discovery and online purchasing continues to be a consumer pain point. That’s why apparel decorators are dedicated to reducing this source of friction and launching new technologies to help speed up the transition from inspiration to acquisition.

“Speed, reliability, quality of control and more garment selection, these are the things that will drive business today,” says John LeDrew, digital imaging director, Melco.

In the COVID landscape, where time, convenience and selection are all driving factors in consumer decisions, finding the right way to deliver a product is critical. For an update on where the industry stands at this juncture, the following comprehensive digital-decorating report provides a snapshot of the technologies leading the way. Let’s take a peek into the state of the applications driving this sector: direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, heat printing and sublimation.

DTG Printing
Even before COVID became a life-altering reality, decorators were establishing webstores and stocking them with products like hats, bags, shirts, backpacks, pet accessories and more. Still a relatively new technology, DTG continues to be attractive to decorators supplying on-demand products at reasonable prices.

“The [DTG] process itself is pretty straightforward and the learning curve is not that long,” LeDrew says. “What it has enabled [companies] to do is offer up to 500 items in a webstore, but not have to carry that type of inventory. When you get the order, you produce the product. It’s creating more entrepreneur opportunities for people who have an aptitude for design.”

The DTG process lets decorators react to trends and launch new products faster; print only what is needed and reduce waste; test new products without risk; access new sales channels and markets; enable personalization and customization; and run self-fulfilment and micro factories. As a singular process, DTG printing also requires less labor. Workflow is mor automated, and all the printing instructions and parameters already are included. Traditional apparel-decoration methods such as screen printing involve more processes and necessitate more expertise.

In order to improve time to market and increase profitability, more efficient production is needed. As the customer-facing front end becomes more digitized due to e-commerce and digital shopping, new methods will be required.

“The fashion industry has changed tremendously in the last decade, becoming more demanding and expecting creative and unique opportunities,” Donovich says. “A decade ago, fashion brands and designers could showcase two collections per year. That is no longer the case.”

The most effective business models today reverse the order from “supply and demand” to “demand and supply,” whereby the customer buys the product before it’s produced and the manufacturer can provide it as quickly as possible. DTG printing wipes out the need for more lead time, a long supply chain or large amounts of inventory.

DTG’s Future: As the industry presses forward, fashion on demand will drive consumer expectations as it is transformed to a new digital-based benchmark: 24-hour delivery of personalized orders. Fashion brands expand their online offerings to let consumers tailor items to their own tastes. Production is being returned to domestic facilities — close to consumers — and geared toward quick printing cycles and in small quantities. Makers will look to attain zero water waste and avoid excess manufacturing of unpurchased garments. Also on the horizon is the capability to do DTG printing on film, or direct-to-film (DTF) decoration.

Heat Printing
Heat printing has come a long way since the iron-on decal days. With this technology, a custom logo or design is printed onto transfer paper, then transferred from the paper to the fabric using heat and pressure.

With the various technologies available, apparel decorators can customize one to 10,000 units — and beyond — with transfers.

“Customers today expect extremely quick turnarounds,” says Cris Saunders, director of sales and marketing, Insta Graphic Systems. “When they want something, they want it now. A shop that uses transfers or digital printing can meet these customers’ needs and time constraints.”

Saunders says innovations such as DTG, DTF and color copy paper have made it possible to provide on-the-spot branding and customization. Not only are transfers photorealistic, but they can be flock, rhinestones, puff and opaque for printing onto dark substrates or sublimated sports uniforms.

Transfers continue to offer an efficient, versatile way to embellish products of all dimensions. Unlike traditional screen printing, there is no need for mixing ink or burning screens.

Josh Ellsworth, executive vice president of sales and marketing, Stahls’, says hybrid printing technology, from both a material and equipment perspective, have allowed transfer manufacturers to really begin to meet market needs. One product that has grown and evolved to be better in the past two years is the digital screen-printed transfer. The concept allows access at every customer level.

“Many are in awe of hybrid printing in-line with screen printing, but there is a fraction of the market that can really afford what’s required [for that process],” Ellsworth says. “As the business has grown, we’ve seen continual investment into development where finishes are getting more pliable and print quality [is getting] better. There are a lot of technical differences that an experienced user would notice, not the least of which is the availability of these transfers in water-based versions. This advancement really pushes the quality to another level and brings with it advancements in adhesives that allow a decorator to [heat-apply transfers on] stretch fabrics, nylon, etc., and grow their sales opportunities.”

Heat Printing’s Future: Digital printing innovations definitely are here to stay, with more innovations on the way — including DTF, which enables DTG printing on film and heat-application onto a garment.

Sublimation printing is a process that enables transferring designs onto a variety of materials, including T-shirts, ceramic mugs, coasters, mouse pads, signage — anything with a polymer coating. For this process, special sublimation printers and inks are required.

Many decorators find sublimation to be a quicker process compared to screen printing or embroidery. “This is a major advantage over traditional screen printing, as you won’t have to go through extra steps of preparing a new screen for each color in your design,” says Stacy Benning, sublimation specialist, JDS Industries.

In a time defined by an increased entrepreneurial spirit, motivated decorators are finding their fill via sublimation. “Thousands of individuals and small companies are making money with sublimation to create personalized items,” Benning says. “With sublimation design, it’s easy to change names or wording to make [a product] personal for each client.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial phase, several items leapt to the forefront of consumer demand, including face masks and Polar Camel double-wall vacuum-insulated drinkware. Face masks, in particular, were a new entry into the sublimation-friendly product mix and continues to generate demand and sales.

“With the many different opportunities that face masks continue to offer, they will remain a popular value item [moving forward],” Benning says. “They will still serve a purpose like any type of apparel. And the drinkware, which has become available in several sizes, is popular because it is great for many different occasions.”

Sublimation’s Future: Sublimation-friendly substrates, which now include cotton alongside polyester, continue to be a boon for decorators thanks to innovations like Sub TAG technology. The production-friendly sublimation solution is ideal for cotton and cotton/poly-blended fabrics of any color, including black. In addition, burlap products and wooden cutting boards are growing as on-demand personalized products.

Michael J. Pallerino is an award-winning writer who has written for several national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Michael at