Build Your Business:

The Intersection of Innovation

Fresh wearable styles, fabrications, imprinting equipment and online tools will transform how shops serve multiple industries in the new decade.

By Nicole Rollender, Contributing Writer

September 25, 2020

In 2020, decorators have access to a wide variety of new apparel styles, fabrications and decorating techniques to better serve other industries, particularly those centering on fitness, fashion and athleisure. However, as competition continues to heat up in these markets, shops have to tap into technology solutions that let them move at the speed of business now.

As we kick off a new decade, industry experts weigh in on trends they think will be the biggest bottom-line boosters, illustrating that decorated-apparel innovation has wide-ranging influence.

Technology for fitness fabrics has come a long way and promises to keep evolving. “There’s no excuse for see-through pants anymore,” says Summer Barry, marketing and creative director at BELLA+CANVAS. “Women want fabrics that make them look good while they workout.”

For example, BELLA+CANVAS created a four-way stretch fabrication for its 5-inch-rise, high-waisted leggings that are engineered to lift, sculpt, contour and smooth. “You can wear these leggings far beyond the gym,” she says. “Plus, they’re side-seam free for an optimal print surface.”

Also, expect fun dye treatments to add whimsy and energy to performance apparel. For example, Champion is introducing a mono scrunch in its Reverse Weave hoodie.

Allover belt-style screen printing has made a return, along with lots more bling. Watch out for metallic, glitter, foil, puff, orthochromatic and thermochromatic, as well as reflective inks. “We’ve gotten a lot of inquiries for specialty inks, especially silver or gold glitter and shimmers; faux foil; and dimensional inks, such as puff,” says Kieth Stevens, Western regional sales manager for International Coatings. “Printers are also returning to the old-school plastisol feel.”

International Coatings recently launched a new-and-improved clear gel gloss ink designed to double as an in-line foil caviar bead and flock adhesive. The company also released its FlexCure ink line, with a flexible curing range from a low 275˚F to a standard 325˚F.

“Low-curing inks have found a home in the market due to today’s high-synthetic-fabric contents,” Stevens says. “Lower curingtemperatures can result in energy savings and also help control dye migration and fabric shrinkage.”

This year, big fitness brands are leaning toward using non-PVC transfers that comply with their environmental requirements. “These transfers help provide sustainability and breathability, and they stretch with the garments,” says Cris Saunders, director of sales and marketing for Insta Graphic Systems, which offers manual and automatic flatbed heat presses.

The company rolled out SiliconeX, a stretchy, non-PVC transfer that requires a low-temp application, resulting in a softer, smoother finish. “We see decorators using it for performance garments; athletic and athleisure wear; team-sports gear; and even for industrial workwear,” Saunders says.

Insta also launched a new heat press: Model 780 is a dual-platen automatic shuttle press with advanced touch-screen technology. “This press offers even heat and pressure distribution, along with flexible operation from manual to fully automatic mode,” she says.

Gone are the days of full-chest decoration in the fitness market. Today’s trend? Interesting locations.

“Look for unusual placements that at first appear to be mistakes or unplanned,” says Marcus Davis, product development manager at HanesBrands. Consider these new spots: on the elbow, along the side of the garment or across the collar.

“We’re seeing small, subtle branding on yokes and bottoms of garments,” Stevens says. “Dimensional transfers, holographic patches and embroidery are huge.” Plus, he notes, with just-in-time manufacturing ruling the industry, transfers and direct-to-garment (DTG) printing provide ideal decoration options.

Branded taping on garments has been popular for several seasons now, so look for prints or embroidery with this same appearance. “Some performance materials may not work well with printed grosgrain ribbons or twills applied to them due to their lack of stretch,” Davis says. “Consider applying a direct print to these materials to achieve the same or [a] similar look.”

Unique fabric texture and detailing are huge this year. For example, BELLA+CANVAS developed a sueded fleece, created by a finishing process that produces a cashmere-like feel for ultimate luxe appeal. The company also created a DTG-printable fleece with a 100% cotton face and a poly/cotton-blend fabric.

Tie-dye has re-emerged on the fashion front, with companies like Alternative and Champion introducing new styles this year. “Look for cool dye processes that create unique looks,” Davis says.

Over-the-top and allover decoration on fashion pieces are key for 2020. “Lots of mixed media is all the rage,” Barry says. “Try a small text print along the collar, or a big and bold print down the sleeves. Everything’s fair game, including sweat shirts’ outer hoods.”

At retail, attractive, yet durable hybrid printing — which combines screen- and digital-printing processes — is an in-demand process that appeals widely to consumers. It marries a screen-printed white underbase with digitally printed top colors. After applying the white underbase, the pallet rotates under the hybrid digital print head. CMYK colors then get printed, often wet-on-wet, on top of the underbase.

“With hybrid [printing], completely new embellishments are possible,” says Michelle Moxley, innovation director at M&R Cos. “We’re seeing full-color graphics printed on foil, photo-realistic lenticular and liquid graphics. The possibilities are endless, especially since you can instantly color-match across brands.”

Even more exciting? Decorators can tap into “smart” graphics with QR- and AR-driven capabilities and variable data on each impression.

DTG printing also is hot for retail apparel. “DTG allows for interactive on-site printing experiences, as well as online fulfillment,” Moxley says. “This technology has really brought forth the trend of customized ‘unit-of-one.’ Modern workflow systems have made the process near frictionless, creating highly productive and profitable output.”

M&R introduced a hybrid CMYK printer, the DS-4000, which prints 400 pieces per hour, with graphics up to 15″ x 19″ in a 600 x 1,200 dpi resolution. It is compatible with M&R’s Stryker, Challenger III and Gauntlet III automatic screen-printing presses. On the DTG side, the company offers the Maverick, an industrial unit that prints 120 pieces an hour, with graphics up to 15″ x 19″ in a 600 x 1,200 dpi resolution.

“The biggest influence in athleisure this year is the dual rise of social media and the celebrity lifestyle,” says Jeanene Edwards, vice president of marketing and merchandising for Fruit of the Loom and JERZEES Activewear. “Athleisure is now a mainstream fashion statement, as consumers want innovative design, variety and comfort with a touch of tech. Retro styling is huge in 2020.”

JERZEES’ Snow Heather collection taps into the retro trend. It includes T-shirts and French terry sweats, and features a unique slub-textured fabrication, so it acts as an ideal base for vintage prints.

Designer and retail apparel skew more unisex this year. Tapping into that, Fruit of the Loom’s new ICONIC tees’ base heather fabrication is over-dyed with three tinted neutrals. The result: muted shades of genderless pastels in hues of mint, aqua and pink/violet.

Davis also sees sustainability practices and eco-friendly fabrics trending heavily in the athleisure space. Some of the biggest innovations center on sustainability and eco-friendly apparel. This year, for example, Alternative will convert to recycled polyester, forgoing all virgin polyester. Additionally, Hanes plans to use reclaimed cotton in several of its fabrications in the coming year, as well as convert all virgin polyester in its tri-blend tee to recycled polyester.

On the decoration side, Edwards predicts bold text statements and retro typography with a 1990s influence will continue to trend. “What’s new is a kinder, gentler graphic design with positive inspirational sayings, delicate abstract drawings and botanical/nature themes,” she says.

For the best possible print surface, Hanes introduced Clean Canvas, a process the company uses on its nano-T and Beefy-T T-shirts that cleans impurities and allows for controlled pretreatment absorption.

While e-commerce and technology have been boons to the decorated-apparel industry, they also have been market disruptors. Cases in point: Companies like 4Imprint or CustomInk base their businesses almost entirely on e-commerce transactions, creating competition for decorators.

“We see e-commerce in terms of displacement,” says JP Hunt, co-founder of InkSoft. “E-sales are here to stay, and the share of wallet and volume will continue to grow steadily over traditional retail.”

The key? Tying an e-commerce platform into a solid marketing plan. “Decorators who haven’t adopted a digital marketing and advertising focus aren’t effectively reaching buyers,” Hunt says. “If you’re leveraging digital-marketing efforts, but can’t close the loop with e-commerce, you aren’t converting marketing efforts to revenue. The reality? The greatest economic lever available to decorators is digital marketing connected to e-commerce to attract and convert buyers.”

This year, it’s also critically important for decorators to have extreme visibility into their production and shipping processes to send out orders efficiently and on time. “Print and decoration shops need to leverage their business-management systems to provide visibility to warehouse staff into the daily production schedule,” says Adam Brister, director of Impress and FlexPack. “You also need to implement automation and alerting tools to streamline order completion and packaging steps to meet customer delivery dates.”

As the share of orders progressively moves online, your production scheduling should align with customer expectations at the point of purchase. “Customers want to know when they’ll receive their goods,” Hunt says. “Creating this awareness when the transaction occurs creates the right expectations all around.”

In part, Brister says, many decorators are evolving their print-on-demand operations. “With DTG capabilities, you can print and fulfill online orders the same day,” he says. “Many businesses are adding custom online designers to their own websites to participate in this growth opportunity and market trend.”

For 2020, remember these two tech keywords: automation and integration. “There are so many systems that come into play for a typical apparel-decoration company — from blanks suppliers, to art design, to equipment, to e-commerce, to shipping and more,” Brister says. “Efficiently tying all these business systems together translates to substantial profit — if you do it correctly.”

Impress’s global enterprise resource planning (ERP) software has several integrations to industry-specific solutions that meet decorators’ needs. “We’ve integrated our software to major suppliers, e-commerce platforms and shipping solutions,” Brister says.

InkSoft’s sales platform allows decorators to sell in cyberspace via easy-to-use online stores. In addition, the company offers online-design, production and organizational tools that let printers manage the entire life cycle of a decorated-apparel order. “We also integrated with promo-products supplier Polyconcept, so our customers can access and sell a wider range of products via our online stores,” Hunt says.

In 2020, trends and technology have merged to provide a bright lead-in to a new decade of product and imprinting options.

Nicole Rollender is CEO and co-founder at New Jersey-based Strand Writing Services. For more information or to comment on this article, connect with Nicole at

On the Horizon: ‘Smart’ Embroidery Thread

We used to consider apparel “smart” because it was capable of wicking perspiration away from an active person’s body. Today, such apparel is capable of so much more. To fulfill a new purpose, where functionality is directly integrated into a garment’s structure, Madeira conceptualized its HC #40 thread.

Highly conductive and versatile, the thread may be used in the fields of medicine, fashion, telecommunication, automotive, aerospace, workwear and more. Applications include lighting, heating, textile-based sensors and actuators, and flexible circuit paths, says Nancy Mini, senior marketing coordinator and backing specialist, Madeira USA.

According to an article compiled by the Journal of Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management (JTATM), “Interactive Electronic Textiles (IETs) may find niches in many traditional textile applications … IETs are being developed for communication, entertainment, health and safety.” In the healthcare industry, in particular, the JTATM asserts, “IETs have the potential to improve current healthcare practices for monitoring breathing, heart rates, stress levels and body temperature.”

“Ease of use” and “easy care” are two attributes smart textiles need to succeed and be accepted in the consumer market. The HC embroidery thread is made of 100% polyamide, silver plated with 99% pure silver Shieldex thread from Statex. It was developed for applications of up to 9 volts. OEKO-TEX tested, it’s certified to be free from harmful substances, Mini says, as well as being skin friendly, antibacterial, antistatic and biocompatible.

Still in development, HC thread will one day provide decorated-apparel sellers, through their garment manufacturers, a significant upsell advantage, Mini says. Among the possibilities, “high-performance electronic sportswear can track and enhance performance for a workout at the gym or for extreme sporting activities,” according to the JTATM. “Sensors will be able to record arm action for improving golf or tennis swings.”

As performancewear has led the apparel industry in growth and popularity, it’ll exceed even more when it’s capable of developing and monitoring workout schedules.