Eleven Of The Most Frequently Asked Questions About Decorating Apparel

Decorated apparel continues to hold a strong categorical lead among all promotional marketing products. (In PPAI’s most recent industry study, apparel comprised 32 percent of all promotional products sold through distributors.) With its phenomenal value per exposure, longevity among end users and strong profit margins, promotional apparel is the go-to product for many programs, events, corporate outings and incentive programs. Why, then, are so many distributors quick to shy away from such a successful product category? The short answer is that selling decorated apparel can be confusing, intimidating, time-consuming and, without the proper background knowledge, a real headache.

Developing a blanket list of answers on the hows, whys and what ifs of decorated apparel sales to suit the comprehensive needs of all distributors is impossible, because there are so many variables from sale to sale. However, knowing a few basic answers to some of the most commonly asked questions and challenges will take you a long way in your quest for successful apparel sales and growth within this huge market segment. While distributor sales professionals will run into unique situations and challenges, the following questions and answers should provide a guideline that will make the sales process go more smoothly.

1 What types of garment decoration should I be offering my clients?

While embroidery and screen printing remain the most popular decorating options for apparel by far, sublimation, direct-to-garment printing, heat transfers and mixed media (using a combination of any of these methods) are becoming extremely popular.

2 What is the difference between screen printing, sublimation and transfers?

Screen printing uses Plastisol or water-based inks that are pressed through various mesh gauge screens to create a single color or multi-color decoration. Sublimation, on the other hand, is a chemical reaction that turns an image, printed on special sublimation paper called a transfer sheet, into a gas that is transferred into the fibers of a garment using heat and pressure. It only works on white or light-colored polyester garments. Heat transfers, also called digital transfers, are achieved by transferring digital or ink-based images to garments using heat and pressure.

3 How are embroidery and screen printing most commonly priced?

Typically, both processes are quantity sensitive, meaning the more garments you are decorating, the lower the cost per piece. In addition, embroidery is typically priced by the number of stitches needed to create the logo or message, while screen printing is generally priced by the number of colors used. The cost per piece increases as the number of stitches or colors in a logo increase. For small quantities of three- or four-color designs, screen printing is not as cost effective as some of the other processes.

4 What type of art should a distributor provide for each decorating process?

As a rule, high-quality art will result in a higher-quality finished product. This is especially true in screen printing. A distributor will want to provide a vector file for embroidery and cut-vinyl decorating. For screen printing, either a vector file or a raster file will work. Vector artwork is created using a series of points or nodes and outlines or paths, to create shapes that can then be filled or outlined with color. It can be enlarged without affecting the sharpness of the image. Raster artwork is tonal artwork created by a series of small dots or pixels. Because it loses sharpness when enlarged, it’s important to know the largest size needed to produce a product before creating the file.

5 Will a distributor find more success by using a contract decorator or a garment wholesaler who offers decoration?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question as it is more a matter of personal preference. Purchasing finished/decorated garments from an apparel wholesaler can provide ease of process, lower shipping costs and eliminate the risk of damaged products that result in short shipments. However, many distributors believe strongly in the partnerships forged with contract decorators who can provide consistent quality, price and turn time across all product brands.

6 Why is screen printing more expensive on dark garments?

Printing on dark garments requires a base coat. For example, if you want to paint a light color on a dark wall in your home, you will most likely need to apply a primer coat so that your new color is more vibrant. The screen printing process follows the same general idea.

7 What is the most cost‑effective way to print a full-color imprint on dark garments at low quantities?

The request for low-quantity orders with complex art is unquestionably on the rise. Fortunately, there are several decorating processes that make fulfilling these requests possible. The two most common “go-to” options are direct-to-garment digital printing and digital transfers. Direct-to-garment printing is a process where an image or logo is printed directly on the garment, similar to how a piece of paper is fed through an inkjet printer. Digital transfers, also called heat transfers, are printed on special paper that is then pressed onto the garment using heat and pressure. Both can be done in low minimums with little to no set-up charge.

8 What is the best form of decoration for lightweight polyester performance polos given their increased popularity and market presence?

Lightweight performance fabrics are increasingly changing the face of decorating. A few years ago, it would have been very uncommon to use screen printing or heat transfers on a high-end polo. Embroidery was the most common form of decoration with the greatest perceived value. Brands such as Under Armour have changed this mentality. Performance fabrics, including outerwear, are now quite commonly decorated using screen printing and heat transfers. While embroidery is still more common on these types of garments, a print or transfer can create a clean, vibrant look that will not result in puckering issues that are, to a degree, unavoidable when using embroidery.

9 What decoration methods work best for different types of fabrics?

When evaluating the appropriate use of different garment decorations for various fabrics, distributors should take several things into consideration to determine the best method. First and foremost, consider the logo itself. Does it have a great amount of small detail? How many colors does it contain? The next evaluation should be of the garment itself. What type of garment is it? What is the fabric? Is the fabric textured? What is the weight of the fabric?

Finally, consider the order quantity. Once these answers have been determined, the best decoration method can be matched to the garment. For example, if the garment is a lightweight golf shirt, and the logo is quite detailed and includes small text, consider a digital transfer in lieu of embroidery. If the logo includes several colors and the quantity of the order is relatively small on t-shirts or sweatshirts, for example, direct-to-garment printing is a good choice over traditional screen printing.

If a distributor is selling a polyester performance garment, and the client is looking for a large, colorful design with unique or “all-over” print locations, sublimation is a great option. Distributors should lean on their relationships with their suppliers and decorators for guidance on the best decoration method for the garment and fabric selected. These production partners have likely worked on many similar projects and can provide reference points and examples that will result in the best possible options for the project at hand.

10 What are the challenges in printing or embroidering on garment collars and sleeves?

Imprint locations have become much less “traditional” over the past several years. Nape of neck, sleeves, cuffs, collars, and the lower front of the garment above the finished hem have all become far more common as the promotional market mirrors apparel looks seen in the retail sector. When attempting to decorate in these locations, it is important to evaluate the minimum size at which the decoration can be executed without compromising quality (some of these non-traditional decoration locations are small spaces). Additionally, distributors should consult with their decorator or garment supplier as to the accessibility of these locations. For example, garments with narrow, or form-fitted sleeves may not allow for enough access space to adequately embroider a lower sleeve location.

11 What should a distributor look for when sourcing a good, direct-to-garment supplier/decorator?

The fundamental technology for direct-to-garment, or DTG, printing has come a long way over the past few years, and continues to improve at a rapid pace. When sourcing a decorator, distributors should begin by familiarizing themselves with the equipment used and the output capacity of the decorator they are considering.

The best way to further the relationship is to work carefully and closely with the decorator on several samples first. This will set a realistic level of standards as to what the distributor can expect from a quality and output standpoint. In the grand scheme of apparel sales, the key is to stay abreast of new trends and decoration methods as they become available. Forging a solid working relationship with your garment supplier and/or decorator that’s grounded in trust and education will prove invaluable in helping distributors more knowledgeably advise their clients.

End buyers assume distributors are experts on the tens of thousands of promotional products they sell and the applicable decoration methods for each. Partnering with suppliers in each product segment, especially in the apparel category, will cover an immeasurable amount of ground in ensuring sales success. And who knows—it may be less intimidating than expected.

Andy Shuman is general manager at supplier Rockland Embroidery, Inc. in Reading, Pennsylvania.