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Moving into New Markets: Apparel to Soft Signage

Businesses from manufacturing to retail are constantly trying to broaden the spectrum of products and services they offer to their clients, a common sense business practice at its best.

By Matt Gusse

Offer what you and your clients are enthusiastic about, not everything in the book.

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  • "We make more than T-shirts" is bragged and boasted by the vast majority of what was once a "custom apparel" small business or manufacturer. Let us take a glimpse at how this came about, and what is needed to capture the profit waving blatantly in front of many of us.

    What's causing this growth of signage in apparel shops?
    Many believe it's the need, client request and internal desire of becoming that infamous "one-stop shop." Businesses from manufacturing to retail are constantly trying to broaden the spectrum of products and services they offer to their clients - a common sense business practice at its best, really. It should be easy to do business with your client and keep them from going elsewhere when it makes sense for both parties. The respect gained by your client will become priceless.

    The way to do this, of course, is to stay current with equipment and technology, even if you outsource. You must be aware of what's available in the market. It's your responsibility to educate the client, new or current, on all products and services as they relate to your company.

    What follows is a description about two of the most common equipment add-on purchases and the basics to make them work: Print/cut and sublimation. Each technology serves its time and place, allowing endless possibilities and often coming together as one product for a client.

    Printing/Cutting with Mild/Eco-Solvent
    Integrated printing and cutting, or separate printer and cutter machines have become a staple in many embroidery, screen print, team sports dealers and apparel printers of all types. Roland, Mimaki, Mutoh and Epson are among the most common manufacturers of these printing solutions. When speaking of these manufacturers, it is vital to mention inks for specific applications. Mild or eco-solvent is generally preferred for outdoor use. Many shops don't think about this in the beginning, as they like the ability to offer short-run solutions for heat transfers.

    With global powerhouses like Group Stahls' leading the way in marketing, materials and education, these print/cut solutions are more common than ever. When speaking about heat transfers we are generally concerned about three things:

    • The feel or "hand" of the the transfer on a garment.
    • How long will the transfer last?
    • What is the cost of the heat transfer?

    These materials have come a long way in the last several years. What was once an application for novelty wear is now acceptable in sports, fashion and even corporate apparel. Heat transfer materials have become softer to the hand, are stretchy with rebound and can last 25, 50 and even 100 washings. To be clear though, heat transfer is still an alternative or add-on to embroidery or screen printing. Print and cut heat transfer media is a great weapon in the decorator's arsenal, but it is still a "sticker." That's not to discredit the product. The description is meant to let the end user understand what they are getting. Let your customer touch it, feel it, scratch it, sniff it. Let your customer buy it and you won't have to sell it.

    Your print and cut system, whether integrated or separate, yields endless possibilities including:

    • Team pennants
    • Banners
    • Decals
    • Wall graphics
    • Posters
    • Canvas

    There is nothing more expensive than printing heat transfer with your print/cut system. Heat transfer media requires masking for dark garments, which can range from $1.25-$3.50 per square foot! Compare that to banner, sign and decal materials which average around $0.25 per square foot, and you can quickly see how non-heat transfer applications become increasingly more desired by the apparel printer.

    Dye Sublimation
    Sublimation printing is driving print technology in performance apparel, custom sports gear, swimwear and fashion. Sublimation has been mentioned in the media and throughout various segments of popular culture, appearing on Jersey Shore, Shark Tank, Tour de France, UFC fights and even the Fishing/Sports channel. What was once looked at with limitations (being too costly and/or difficult to operate) is now becoming a household name. Apparel buyers, manufacturers and the general public are requesting sublimation for their clothing lines, team uniforms and daily workout wear.

    Sublimation can be printed with the same printers mentioned previously: Roland, Mimaki, Mutoh and Epson. The difference is the ink. Sublimation ink is a water-based solution. Generally speaking, ink is printed on to a release paper, which is then transferred to the substrate with a heat press. With heat and pressure, the ink dyes the fabric or substrate it is transferred to, leaving behind a permanent application with no hand and no feel.

    When considering apparel or soft-signage sublimation, printing polyester is required. More polyester in the fabric content will yield brighter colors. One hundred percent polyester will produce the greatest gamut, perfect for performance apparel and signage. You may also use a 65 percent polyester blend for a washed out, vintage look. Since there is no white ink, the polyester must be white or light in color to start with.

    We've all heard it before, bigger is better, but as we speak about apparel, teardrop or small soft-signage, the same does not always hold true. Many of the wider printers are designed for sheer speed for outdoor signage and billboards. This often means larger droplet size from the printhead, which provides great speed but not the highest quality resolution or greatest control of color. Remember that most consumers are concerned with quality when it comes to apparel and direct display signage. Don't focus on a manufacturer's bragging speeds, but on real life production expectations. Have your dealer run a sample; if they can't, find a different dealer. You must see and know what to expect when your equipment arrives.

    Digital equipment costs are lower than ever. Quality printers available for both print/cut and sublimation start around $10,000, allowing businesses to afford what was once unattainable. The same is true with consumables such as ink and media - costs are lower, quality is better and a larger variety exists today. The average large-format printer is 44 inches wide, and costs about $10,000 including good RIP/Color Control Software. As all-over printing continues to soar, 44 inches is a great starting point for many apparel applications, especially when you consider that an extra large T-shirt averages under 36 by 36 inches in perimeter. If you need a wider printer, 54-inch and 64-inch printers are available with a starting price near $20,000.

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    The printer is only the first equipment investment necessary. A heat press is still required for sublimation. There are two styles of large-format heat presses: Flat presses and rotary or roll-to-roll presses. Flat heat presses are more common though rotary presses are becoming more popular. Large-format, flat heat presses are available in sizes from 30 by 40 inches, to as large as your budget allows, and are typically available in manual or air/automatic versions. What products you offer will determine your immediate need but generally, air models have the least operator fatigue. A cut/sew manufacturer can utilize a 30- by 40-inch heat press for most anything since they are creating panels or pieces. Though it may be nice to have a larger work area, there is nothing wrong with pressing the pieces individually. Someone doing all-over printing will need something bigger to cover the complete garment. Large-format flat presses start at approximately $8,500.

    Rotary presses are a great fit for optimal production in cut/sew shops as well as for teardrop and display signage. Since most teardrop banners run eight feet to 14 feet in height and are 42 inches in width or less, a 44-inch printer and rotary heat press is a perfect pair for this added market. Rotary presses, however, are more expensive. A 44-inch rotary press starts around $14,000, and can rise to budget limitations.

    Just remember, your press touches everything that goes out your door. Don't skimp on a large-format budget press, because you will regret it. If you're unsure what to invest in, do plenty of testing on products you need to and think you'll need to. Speak with your dealer and other shop owners to help determine what's best for you.

    Other Things You Must Consider with Sublimation Printing
    Making sure you have the tools to succeed provided to you quickly and efficiently is the role of your vendor and manufacturers. Making equipment, inks, consumables, support and service readily available to you along with helping you stay current on emerging trends in the marketplace is the role of your dealer.

    For apparel printers, especially those looking to do all-over printing, manufacturers continue to release new products. Companies like Vapor Apparel are constantly adding new styles, and continue to drive the market with what has become a "Sublimation Certified™" blank for decorators to use. The range of performance and fashion blanks has never been so accessible to printers.

    Though maybe not as recognizable, the same stands true with soft-signage fabrics, teardrop displays, hardware and accessories. You may have to contact a local or regional sign-supplier to find out what is readily available. Like the first time you opened a catalog of blank apparel, you maybe a little overwhelmed. Pick a few products or styles you think are eye catching and run with them. Add or remove styles as desired or requested. Keep in mind; it is your business, offer what you and your clients are enthusiastic about, not everything in the book.

    For many apparel printers and nearly all cut/sew manufacturers, the education and training to produce small soft signage is minimal. Let's face it, if you can cut and sew a garment, sewing a small rectangle or oval is no more difficult. If it's short term or single use, sewing may not be necessary. If you have never sewn before, small soft signage will have much less of a learning curve and require fewer sewing machines.

    Why should you consider producing soft signage and teardrop banners? The primary reason is because you can. Assuming you have or are going to purchase equipment for your apparel needs, the initial investment has been made. It doesn't matter if you're saving money by printing your own marketing tools or if you create an additional profit center, you have the tools. Teardrop banners are among the fastest growing printed advertising and display items for teams and small businesses. Soft signage and teardrop banners are also eco-friendly since sublimation uses water-based inks, as well as recyclable paper and fabrics, all of which have less environmental impact compared to traditional mild/eco- or solvent inks and substrates. They are lightweight, more durable and are easy to ship, store and install. Soft signage is also less expensive to produce, costing less than $0.35 per square foot.

    So you've decided to embark on sublimation printing. Now you have to sell it. How, you may ask? Samples. Samples make our world go 'round. Show your customers samples of screen printing, embroidery, heat transfer and sublimation. Outline the order minimums, cost, turnaround times and garment availability. With a few simple explanations of what can and cannot be done, you will empower your clients to make the decision. The trick is having or being able to produce the right sample. Sports, fashion, religious, corporate identity, family reunion, sexy, funny, babies, kids, military, farm/rural and urban are just a few potential markets. Apparel, signs and displays, awards and personalization are a few of the potential products and services you can offer.

    Becoming a "one-stop shop" is not a mythical marketing idea, but words to a mantra for your business if you want or need to diversify and expand. The key is to implement those statements into strategies for success as they relate to your business and clients.

    Matt Gusse has over 15 years of continued knowledge & experience in Imprinted/Embellished Apparel, Cut/Sew Sports Uniforms and other Apparel, Sporting Goods, Ad Specialty, Awards/Engraving, Home Décor/Art, Sign Business markets. He has had proven success in sales and service from small 'Mom & Pop' business's to some of the largest companies in the world.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, September / October 2013 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2013 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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