Build Your Business:

The Long Road to Innovation

The decorated-apparel industry’s path has been paved with many challenges, but history shows innovation continues to push the entire collective to a new level.

By Nicole Rollender, Contributing Writer

May 30, 2019

In the past century, the apparel industry has witnessed a dizzying number of changes in the way companies source, manufacture and decorate garments. From hand cutting film for screen-printed letters to designs that are ready to use in less than 30 seconds, there’s no doubt that the digital age has launched commercial decoration into a realm that industry veterans could only have dreamed of just two decades ago.

Follow the timeline of industry innovation in the form of apparel design, software solutions and decoration techniques to grasp how far this industry has come — and where it’s heading next.

1930s — Hello, Synthetic Fabrics: In 1931, nylon, dubbed the “miracle fiber,” made its debut. Fast-forward to the 1950s and research into other fabricated fibers was expedited. For example, DuPont introduced a wool-like acrylic, while polyester — first invented in 1941 — gained momentum. In the polyester-crazed 1970s, a federal mandate for flammability was enacted. More recently, a big shift in how the decorated-apparel industry did business was the introduction of Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) in 2008.

“This [law] really affected how fabric manufacturers and ink companies produced their goods, and many printers had to make significant adjustments and use different inks,” says Marcus Davis, product development manager at HanesBrands. “You had to prove that there were no harmful chemicals in anything that could end up in a child’s hands. This was an industry-wide shift; everyone, including apparel manufacturers, ink suppliers and decorators, needed to work together.”

1960s — Variable Cuts and Silhouettes: While T-shirts have been kicking around since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the V-neck only made its debut during the 1960s. The T-shirt turned into a vehicle of self-expression and wearable art, as well as commercial branding of all types.

T-shirts evolved to include more variable cuts and silhouettes that are flattering to more body types and ages: crew necks, raglans, ringers, tanks, babydolls, spaghetti straps, V-necks, A-shirts, crop tops, camisoles and many more.

“We’ve seen such a growth in the last decade in apparel offerings, due in large part to customer demand,” says Chris Beard, a 30-year industry veteran and customer service rep at Golden State Activewear. “They don’t want boxy, scratchy and boring — so now decorators can offer more garments to a wider array of clients.”

1970s — Blended Fabrics Debut: In the 1970s, fabric blends started appearing on the market. “This allowed for a lightweight, more breathable alternative to 100% [polyester] and a smoother finish than 100% cotton,” Beard says. “More than 25 years ago, a basic 50/50 cotton/poly blend was the go-to [in terms of] price for large promo giveaway programs. Not so much these days, as most customers aren’t as concerned about price and [are] more focused on quality.”

1990s — All About Performance: In the 1990s, apparel brands started incorporating performance features such as wrinkle-free properties in men’s 100% cotton pants, as well as moisture-wicking and antimicrobial technologies. Apparel, socks and towels were enhanced with silver nanoparticles that reduced odor. In 2001, the United States established a standard for sun-protective clothing, mandating UPF testing and longevity on garments.

“Now, decorators can more easily market to the fitness lifestyle crowd; no more basic 100% cotton tanks, please,” Beard says.

A cotton/polyester blend results in a comfortable material that’s versatile, wrinkle-resistant, breathable, colorfast, unshrinkable and offers a great canvas for bright, colorful prints. Now, there are hundreds of fabric blends available, including elastane (spandex) and cotton; wool and polyester; linen and silk; and cotton, polyester and viscose.

Screen Printing
1990s — Computer-Generated Art: Marshall Atkinson, a Phoenix-based decorated-apparel success coach who also offers hands-on training via his Shirt Lab events, remembers hand cutting Rubylith film for screen-printed letters and numbers in the early 1990s.

In the mid- to late-1990s, Atkinson watched design work that previously took hours shrink to 30 minutes with PCs and software programs like Adobe Photoshop, Freehand and Streamline. “There’s a huge efficiency gain; before, you could do two to three designs a week, and now you’re doing them before lunch,” Atkinson says. “Your hands-on tech tasks are so greatly reduced that you can devote more time to your creativity. The revolution is really in the software.”

In addition, says Ryan Moor, founder and CEO of Ryonet and Allmade, the ability to generate artwork via a computer vs. drawing by hand has enhanced the decoration marketplace. “The biggest advent was vector-based art,” he says. “Before programs like Adobe [Photoshop], CorelDRAW and Illustrator made this easy and possible, the best shirts were hand-drawn-and-separated, full-color shirts. Now, the process makes it easy, consistent and lowers overhead.”

The Seed of CTS Technology: In 1987, screen-printing veteran Geoff McCue wondered if his inkjet printer could print on a screen. About a year after pitching his wild idea to Gerber, the company purchased his right to file a patent and hired him as a consultant to develop the ScreenJet, which came to market in 1993 with the capability of producing an exposure-ready screen for an average T-shirt job in four to eight minutes.

“Your ROI was just 14 months based on film use alone,” Atkinson says. “This process was faster, you had better halftone dots and resolution, and you eliminated pinholes.”

A computer-to-screen (CTS) imaging system offers fine lines and halftones, better registration, and eliminates the need for clear film. Plus, all files are stored on your computer and pre-press steps, such as cleaning films, or repairing bent or damaged films, are eliminated.

Simulated-Process Separations: Photorealistic simulated-process designs aren’t printed with CMYK colors. Instead, the separations are comprised of solid and halftone images of spot colors.

“One of the most important innovations in this area are programs like Adobe Photoshop that let you do separations, cutting the amount of time it takes to separate a job,” says Charlie Taublieb, a screen-printing veteran and industry consultant. Such programs have made it easier for someone without an art background to do complex separations, he says.

In the early 1990s, Atkinson took a career-changing training course with Mark Coudray, owner of Netseps and a renowned industry veteran who’s taught tens of thousands of printers across the world for the past 40 years. “I learned how to do halftones better,” Atkinson says. “With simulated-process color separations, we could replicate photos with crisp details and high-impact colors. We could nail it every single time.”

LED Imaging: Today’s LED systems come in lots of styles and configurations, and generally offer exposure speeds that match those of high-wattage, metal-halide systems. They also offer low power usage, longer bulb life and higher efficiency, emitting less heat. That means exposure rooms and vacuum-frame glass remain cooler, helping maintain film positives’ dimensional stability. In addition, unlike broad-spectrum, UV-light-emitting metal-halide bulbs, LEDs emit a narrow band near a single wavelength.

“This was a pretty recent evolution,” Atkinson says, “when before, you had crazy-expensive metal-halide bulbs that would emit less light as time went on, so you’d have to extend your exposure times. Now, the new bulbs use less energy and last almost forever. Exposure times completely drop. For a super-busy shop, you can expose more screens in a day, from 90 seconds down to 20.”

1980s — Computerized Digitizing and Software: In the 1980s, the earliest versions of today’s computerized embroidery machines and digitizing software appeared on the scene. Digitizers rejoiced when scanners replaced digitizing tablets and floppy drives replaced paper tapes.

“When computerized digitizing replaced manual punching, it became possible to create an embroidered circle using just four clicks of a puck on a digitizing tablet, rather than laboriously pressing a trigger for every stitch in the circle,” says Deborah Jones, director of education for Dallas-based Designs in Machine Embroidery.

1990s — Multineedle Capability: In the 1990s, when single-needle machines got outpaced by multineedle machines, decorators could handle more complex embroidery designs and intricate patterns. With four to 10 needles, each with a different thread color, embroiderers didn’t need to stop in mid-design or between jobs to change the thread. Jones says her first multihead embroidery machines were single-needle units.

“Early multineedle models didn’t yet have trimmers, so you still had to stay nearby to trim or disconnect the thread from the previous color,” she says. “The true revolution occurred with the combination of multineedle models with automatic trimmers that took over the task of trimming the previous color, allowing the machine to run an entire design uninterrupted and without operator intervention.”

Affordable Singleheads Arrive: Since the 1980s, commercial, computerized embroidery machines have continued to advance, with higher speeds and more needles, attachments and precise laser cutting. When singlehead machines came on the market, she notes, they were expensive and bulky.

“However, when manufacturers trimmed down singlehead machines’ size and weight, it became practical to base a customizing business around a piece of equipment with a cost under $20,000,” Jones says. “This class of machine has exploded in recent years when home-machine manufacturers began to introduce so-called crossover multineedle models in the marketplace. It’s now practical for hobbyist embroiderers to enter the professional ranks, often opting for true commercial machines as their customizing business outgrows their entry-level equipment.”

Holding Technology: There have been many advancements in holding or hooping techniques for embroiderers, especially for those who want to stitch anything from baby clothes and 3XL jackets to sleeves and blankets, all with perfect placement. From wooden and molded-plastic hoops, cap frames, and magnetic hoops and clamps, to innovative tubular systems that allow garments to hang freely around the machine’s cylinder arm, holding technology has come a long way.

Jones cites Ron Inteso Sr., owner of Woodland Hills, California-based Mirror Image Fixtures, as one of the earliest innovators in holding technology. “Ron actually bought half-interest in a numerically controlled metal working plant in order to get machine time to develop the very first magnetic holding devices for embroidery. Today, several companies have followed the lead of this forward-thinking pioneer of our industry.”

Digital Decorating
1960s — Sublimation Inks and Paper Go Mainstream: Sublimation printing dates back to France in 1957 when Noël de Plasse developed the printing method for Sublistatis SA as he observed that dyes sublimate. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, there was mass production of transfer paper used with ribbons. U.S.-based Jet Propulsion Lab invented the first computerized printing machine that used the dye-sub method.

Chris Bernat, co-founder and chief revenue officer of Vapor Apparel, saw significant innovation between 2002 and 2007, when Sawgrass Technologies offered a Mimaki printer with piezo heads. “This was a watershed moment because prior to that, it was like watching paint dry,” Bernat says.

More apparel companies also decided to support sublimation through products and education. “In the 1990s, apparel manufacturers saw that sublimation was continuing to grow, the process was starting to get better and there was a market for one-off decorations — so they began investing in developing [polyester] tees,” Davis says.

The Heat Press: Heat presses have been important to the decorating industry since the early 1960s — and they’re still a key part of most shops. In the early 1980s, as heat printing experienced a resurgence with the introduction of hot-split transfers and lighter heat-transfer materials, it became obvious that improvements also were needed in the equipment used to apply them. For example, industry veteran Ted Stahl and a team of experts designed an affordable heat press for daily use, resulting in the Stahls’ Hotronix Swinger, a digitally controlled press.

Heat presses also have become more technologically advanced, says Ben Robinson, general manager, Hotronix. “Heat printing as an apparel-decoration method is more widespread than ever, especially for made-to-order companies that require one-offs or customization of small quantities,” he says. “Some garment types, like underwear and high-tech athletic wear, are impossible to decorate with any technology other than heat printing.”

2000s — The DTG Printer and Inks: “[Direct-to-garment] (DTG) printing was positioned in the perfect time and place to meet a huge change in the marketplace,” says Terry Combs, who handles sales and training for Equipment Zone. “Today’s customer wants it custom, wants it now and wants one piece. DTG has grown incredibly over the past few years because of this change in the way customers choose to buy.”

In 2000, Matthew Rhome was awarded a U.S. patent for the first commercial DTG printer. This portion of the industry surged as companies like Mimaki and U.S. Screen Print & Inkjet Technology debuted printers in 2004. In 2005, Brother introduced the GT-541, a light-shirt-only solution that morphed into its Graffitee line. That same year, Kornit Digital introduced its Storm and Thunder DTG platforms.

“While early technology was nowhere near what it is today, it still created new opportunities for decorators who would have turned this work away,” says Ed Levy, director of software technologies for Hirsch Solutions. “The ability to print low quantities of high-color designs without setup was a game-changer for decorators.”

A major change in the market came in late-2005 when U.S. Screen Print & Inkjet Technology released white ink for its Fast T-Jet printers, an innovation that enabled decorators to print on dark garments. White ink took DTG decoration out of a CMYK-only novelty printing world and made it a viable option for decorators, Combs says.

“It was a painful process developing pretreat solutions and dealing with white-ink clogging issues, but today, many very successful businesses operate using only DTG-decoration technologies,” he says.

Nicole Rollender is chief storyteller at New Jersey-based Strand Writing Services. For more information or to comment on this article, connect with her at