Digital Decorating:

Picking the Best Decorating Method

A number of factors need to be considered when considering the pros and cons of, say, screen printing versus heat transfer

By Thomas Trimingham, Contributing Writer

Complexity of the design must be considered when deciding on the best decorating method.

August 2, 2023

Many apparel decorators have decided to diversify their businesses, and with newer technologies being simpler to adopt, there are now more shops with more decorating choices available than ever. Instead of just offering screen printing and embroidery, a modern decorator can also offer options such as heat pressing, hybrid prints, direct-to-garment (DTG) and direct-to-film (DTF).

The tricky part of having some, or all of these options is deciding when to use them and on what types of orders and products each of these methods is most appropriate. This decision becomes critical because the differences in each decorating method will affect profit margin, throughput and labor. The right or wrong choice of printing style for an order can determine whether money is made or lost, so getting it right early on in the order-taking process is key.

Screen printing a T-shirt

When it comes to larger orders, screen-printing is still the way to go, especially if the design is a simpler one.

To tackle the issue of matching orders to the right decoration method, the first step is to define the important variables at play and in a particular order. These variables can then be cross referenced against the benefits and limitations of your available decorating options. The next part of the process is to know the methods that are available from the inside out and be able to understand the major advantages to each one of them so they can be quickly analyzed against order type.

Finally, once the decoration possibilities are sorted out for an order, the artwork to be applied can be factored in to determine the best overall solution. After a number of orders have been processed this way, it will quickly become faster getting to the appropriate method as the personnel taking orders for your company get a handle on how to evaluate the variables.

Note: even with everything properly analyzed, there is an additional factor that should be considered in the early stages, and that is customer preference. If a loyal customer has a particular feeling about the types of decoration methods on offer, it is important to find out. This is a subject that needs to be approached carefully, as a printer doesn’t want to encourage production micromanaging on the part of its customers. However, if the issue isn’t addressed up front, it can cause serious problems if a customer ends up not liking the feel or look of the final product.

On the plus side, if an order is on the line between being produced using one method or another, a quick discussion with the customer can help clear things up in terms of preferences.

Evaluating Order Variables

Depending on how customer orders come into your shop, you will need to have a process, or system, for evaluating each order type and style to help you determine the appropriate decoration method. The common ways orders come in to a printing shop include walk-in, e-mail, phone and via some sort of online portal.

Although the process might be different in approach for each of these types of order requests, the variables that need to be determined from each typically remain the same. With this in mind for each new customer order it is essential that you find out the following:

  1. Style of garments to be decorated
  2. Color of garments to be decorated
  3. Number of garments to be decorated
  4. Sizes of garments to be decorated
  5. Type of fabric in the garments to be decorated
  6. Location(s) of all prints/decoration on each garment
  7. Artwork source and complexity

Typically, customers will already have in mind their own ideas regarding these questions. However, they may also have only a vague idea what they are looking for and will want your opinion on what is the best solution for the rest. In that case, whenever they are asking for your input you can guide them toward the best overall solution for both them and you. What follows are a few considerations for each order variable. (There are more of course, but these are the primary things to consider):

Garment style: Do they want all one style or a variety of styles? For example, if the customer wants hoodies and T-shirts or a custom garment, like a football jersey, there may be seams in some of the garments that will affect which decoration method is most appropriate.

Color of garments: Are the shirts all the same color? If the customer wants a dark color there may be a need for an underbase print. It is therefore important to know this first.

Number of garments/order size: The size of an order is another major determinant as to the decorating method that will work best. With screen printing and hybrid printing, for example, there is a substantial setup cost that will have to be included. This in turn can make small order quantities overly expensive.

Garment sizes: Does the customer need youth shirts in addition to adult ones? Different sizes in an order can cause extra complexity in terms of both setups and production due to the fact you will likely be switching pallets.

Type of fabric: Is the customer asking for all poly garments or 50/50 in the order? Poly content can limit or eliminate decoration methods depending on what is required. It is therefore vital to find this out right from the start of the order.

Location of prints: Does the customer need multiple print locations on the order? Such requests can magnify the complexity of almost every method of printing as it will often double or triple the handling and labor required.

Artwork complexity: The cost of decoration method will vary depending on the type of art being used and its complexity. Determining art complexity is a separate issue unto itself that will be addressed in Section 2. For now, just knowing the basics often enough to narrow down the choices of printing method.

Narrowing Down Your Choices

As stated earlier, one of the things it is essential you cover prior to determining what decorating method makes the most sense is customer preference. Depending on what your customer expects and what they are used to, they may have a very strong opinion on how you should decorate the garments they want.

That being said, it is imperative you know what is possible or profitable in order to better understand their preference while also attempting to guide them to a solution that makes sense for their order and for the decorating process in general. Again, in some cases, it may make sense to bow to a customer’s wishes, especially if it is a close call in terms of the best decoration method. In other cases, however, such as a very low order volume on a deeply complex design, you will have to let the customer know their wants do not fit the decorating method that they want.

Another thing to consider prior to a final decision is understanding the long-term precedent that you will be setting by decorating a garment in a specific way. In the first order with a new customer, they will come to see your company as the one that provides the decoration method you’ve chosen for them. If they are a customer that will continue to order from you on a regular basis moving forward, it is important to take this into account and provide them with the ideal decoration method that fits any future orders you will be doing.

An example of this is if you decide the best method for a customer is to use DTG or DTF, but the client’s plan is to bring you an additional much larger order in a month or two employing the same graphic. It may be worth a discussion to see if you can somehow increase the volume of the initial order. That way the look and feel won’t change when find yourself having to switch to screen printing later. You don’t want to risk losing money on a promise from a customer that they will “someday” order a lot more product. You will therefore want to clarify what is real and what is just a possibility as you decide on decoration methods.

Once you have the customer choice and long-term potential in focus, you can start looking at some of the other factors that will determine your choice of decorating method. The three primary factors main factors at work here include: artwork complexity (specifically, the number of colors and amount of detail); the type of garment/fabric being decorated; and the number of garments needed.

The reason these three factors weigh more heavily than the others is because the will in turn influence many of the other factors at work, depending on their specifics. These three factors also interact with each other to determine the best method.

Brother DL2000 DTG machine

Systems like this Brother DL2000 make DTG an option for ever-larger production runs. Photo courtesy of Brother

For instance, if you have a complex piece of artwork and a high number of garments to be printed, it will likely be more cost effective to screen print it. At a much lower quantity, on the other hand, that same artwork will likely be better produced using DTG or DTF, due to the fact the “make ready” process (in the form of films, screens and inks) is considerable for screen printing and negligible for DTG or DTF. Of course, the downside to DTG and DTF is the fact they take longer to output each garment, which becomes problematic with larger orders. The cost of the machines and consumables with higher volume orders also results in a higher cost per piece than screen printing.

When evaluating artwork complexity, it is important to not only review the number of colors needed, but the level of detail, blending and any other aspects of the design that may be difficult to reproduce using the limited numbers of colors available via screen printing. The existence of these elements may indicate the need for a DTG or DTF approach, especially if the number of colors involved is enormous—as in a brightly colored photograph—and the order volume is small.

If, on the other hand, the artwork is simple with just a few colors and not much in the way of detail, screen printing is likely the best option for orders of more than a dozen garments. Note: a good way to approach design evaluation is to categorize artwork into the following three different groups:

Basic art – simple type or graphics with little detail or colors

Moderate art – a more complex design with type, multiple colors and/or some spot color graphics

Complex art – fully rendered illustrations with a full spectrum of color, highly detailed images with many blends, or photographic images with details.

Once you have the terms to apply to the submitted graphics you receive, you can assign standards for the various decoration methods you offer depending on how your shop likes to group orders for maximum customer value and profitability.

Decorated jerseys sports apparel

Image size and placement are important to keep in mind as well.

Moving on to fabric type and the type of garment, as is the case with art and order size, knowing the decoration methods that work best in a given situation will help you avoid taking on orders and then having to pivot later. Poly fabrics, for example, are more difficult to decorate with DTG, and while DTF works well in many cases, the output and breathability may be compromised.

Similarly, if a garment is very thin, it may not feel good with a heavier print on it and could become stained on the inside as well. In some cases, the decoration method can also alter the garment surface if it is heat sensitive and the decoration process needs to be cured through a dryer tunnel. With this in mind, if there is any question about fabric/print compatibility make sure to consult your ink or consumable supplier for the method in question to see what the limitations and risks are for that fabric. (Note: as with most decoration method questions, there are exceptions to the above, and some equipment models can provide a solution to some fabrics where other machines may not).

Finally, order volume is the other critical variable to keep in mind when evaluating the potential of screen printing as a method, in particular. If an order is less than a dozen items, the artwork should be extremely simple for screen printing to even be considered, since for every color there are screen charges and setup costs involved. At the other end of the volume spectrum, larger orders of thousands of pieces tend to be done with screen printing because this method is both efficient and cost effective after the setup has been absorbed by the first part of the order.

That said, there are some exceptions to this rule in the form of industrial quality DTG machines that may be able to print higher quantities faster. So depending on the artwork needs, and the fabric type it is key to review what type of digital printing a printer is able to execute.

Ultimately, deciding what method to use to fulfill a decorated apparel order can be a complex issue when multiple factors that need to be simultaneously considered. However, with careful reviewing each of the decoration methods available, and each of the key variables in the order, a decision process map can be created to simplify the choices and create the best products for the customer while still providing a profitable order for the printer.

Thomas Trimingham has been helping screen printers for more than 25 years as an industry consultant, artist and high-end separator, and author of over 180 articles. If you have feedback or wish to comment on this article you can reach Thomas at