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Material Witnesses: For Garment Printers, Customization Has Yet to Wear Thin

Ever since garments were invented, designers, fabricators, and even wearers were driven to decorate them in some fashion. The techniques and technologies for doing so has changed over the years, but by the end of the 20th century, two in particular came to dominate: screen printing and dye sublimation, with digital garment printing starting to take a fair chunk of work away from screen.

In the past several years, variations on these themes have emerged, with direct-to-garment printing systems emerging and evolving, and the capabilities of dye-sublimation have expanded. All of these trends have broadened the types of garments that can be printed, and the increasing application of digital technologies in textile printing means that print providers can personalize garments in ways that would have been prohibitively expensive and time-consuming in the past. In fact, that customization has been, at least for one company, one of the biggest drivers of new business.

Sock it to Me

“Frankly, Facebook and Photoshop are my two biggest sales tools,” said Chris Bernat, co-founder of North Charleston, SC’s Vapor Apparel, manufacturer and printer of performance apparel, bulk fabrics, and accessories, as well as cut-and-sew custom garments. “Photoshop enables a lot of people to create artwork that is their own. Sublimation allows you to turn that into a  tactile object.” And posting pictures of those tactile objects on Facebook and Instagram provides the “word of mouse” to drive even more business. 

Vapor Apparel does direct-to-garment printing using a Brother GT-541 platform, the vast majority of which is for the outdoor retailer market, with customers wanting full-color, often photographic art printed on a light-color T-shirt. “The outdoor retailer market is looking for a tight tan, typically not looking for dark shirts,” said Bernat. “We’re doing a lot of ski resorts, Jackson Hole, WY, the Gondola. Full-color, photographic pieces of art. They don’t want that on a black shirt. Their market is looking for a tan shirt, a gray shirt, a light blue shirt, more of an outdoor color.” But, he added, “each market is different. If you’re trying to sell to the rock or motorcycle market, then the platform I have is probably not going to work for you.”

Despite the movement into direct-to-garment, the company’s stock-in-trade—as its name suggests—is sublimation which, Bernat said, is growing at a faster rate than just about any other garment and fabric printing technology. Vapor has piezo printhead-based systems made by the likes of Mimaki, Epson, and Roland, as well as a number of heat press platforms, roll-to-roll for bulk fabric, and spot-hit sublimation. Vapor also has an Insta Graphic Systems Insta 204 swing away press.

Sublimation is ideal for the types of materials that Vapor prints on, which are increasingly “performance” apparel—clothing to be worn while playing sports, working out at the gym, or engaging in outdoor activities. Demand for fabrics engineered for improved sweat wicking and sun protection is also on the rise.

Direct-to-garment-based inkjet systems work better on more or less pure cotton, while sublimation typically needs to print on some variety of polyester. “Sublimation”—if you remember the term from high school chemistry—refers to a solid turning directly into a gas without first passing through a liquid phase. In the case of dye-sublimation printing, solid pigment is suspended in a liquid solvent vehicle. Under heat and, depending on the specific type of sublimation being used, pressure, the colorant turns into a gas and penetrates into the fabric, solidifying on the fibers. This makes sublimation-printed apparel durable and waterproof. In some cases, pressure should be avoided, particularly with polyester fabrics, as the material’s “memory” can lead to production lines and other printing errors. Since performance wear is usually some variety of polyester, sublimation is Vapor’s core go-to technology.

And the biggest growing part of the company’s business today? Customized socks. In fact, if you go to Instagram and enter “#customsocks,” you’ll get more than 6,000 hits. “As long as Nike, Under Armor, Reebok, and Adidas keep making interesting color shoes, there will be kids and adults who want socks to match the shoes,” said Bernat. “That’s one market.”

The other is nautical-themed socks for the business professional “so everybody knows that he’s sailing his J/30 on the weekend,” said Bernat. “Office professionals have two ways to highlight their monkey suit: they can pick a dynamic tie and they’ve got socks.” Vapor doesn’t print ties.

Vapor Apparel also prints customized shirts for the Boy Scouts of America’s High Adventure camps. “If somebody wants to commemorate their trip to Philmont or Sea Base, or some of these the future Eagle Scout Camps, we put troop number and hometown information on as few as a dozen shirts.”

For Vapor Apparel, being able to meet the demand for such high degrees of customization and short runs has been enabled not so much by the printing equipment, but by the workflow software that controls it all. “The print platforms alone will not create success in that environment,” Bernat said. “You have to have a system that lends itself to managing a lot of small runs. If you’re not automated, if you’re not using things like variable-data applications to hot-swap the variable data into the artwork, then you’re going to lose your mind or you’re going to suffer from sleep deprivation.” At present, the state of the workflow software market is such that, since every shop is different and has different lineups of equipment and capabilities, a “roll your own” solution is more effective than an out-of-the-box solution. “The mix of things you have inside your shop will dictate your options for automating it,” said Bernat. “There is definitely a market for someone who wants to make this easier for printers.”

Pillow Talk

Other companies are taking their garment printing expertise and moving into other types of related items. “We have seen customers going into more soft goods, like pillowcases and other non-garment things,” said Joe Longtin, Midwest regional manager for Anajet, a manufacturer of inkjet direct-to-garment printers. “They’re making a killing because they’re charging a very high margin. The blank cost is something like a T-shirt, but they’re able to charge $18 or $20 for a pillowcase, which just blows their minds.”

Longtin also sees more and more of what is called “multimedia decoration,” or using multiple techniques such as printing screen, digital, or dye-sublimation ink and laying something on top of it like vinyl lettering, embroidery, or even rhinestones or sequins. “It makes for a really high-margin product,” he said.

Anajet customers—predominantly mid-size shops producing things like T-shirts—are also seeing an emphasis on personalization. “It’s a trend we have observed for the last six or seven years, and it’s going to keep moving in this direction,” said Longtin. “Not just mass personalization, but who can fulfill it the fastest. People’s expectations for fulfillment have gone through the roof.” Gone are the days when customers will wait up to a week for a screen-printed order, or be content with meeting 50- (or more) piece minimums.

Junior Samples

Before digital imaging technology became suitable for customized commercial-scale press runs, it was looked at as ideal for samples and prototypes, one- (or few-) offs that would serve as a prelude to a longer production run.

Los Angeles-based MY Prints is a small, five-person shop that specializes in such prototyping, “creating sample yardage for a wide range of apparel manufacturers and converters, in addition to printing handbags and makeup bags,” said co-owner Stephen Moreno. Being in LA also means the company can tap into another market for very short apparel runs: “A good quarter of our business is printing for costume houses and the entertainment industry—movies, music videos, commercials, and theater.”

Actual production runs are done overseas, but MY Prints’ samples aim to provide yardage that closely mirrors what they will achieve from the actual overseas printing.

MY Prints is largely a dye-sublimation shop, and the company’s recently acquired Epson SureColor F7170 has become a workhorse. For the customers of companies like MY Prints, the mantra has become “color gamut, color gamut, color gamut.”

“The market for digital printing is on the rise, with customers wanting more and more colorful prints and looking to not be limited with screen [printing] colors and repeat sizes,” said Moreno. “We currently work with a large make-up bag company that actually produces several designs overseas digitally. This allows them to produce full color, watercolor gradated images without having to compromise the image by cutting colors to accommodate the 12-color screen process that is the norm overseas.”

Know Your Niche

When it comes to garment or any other kind of textile printing, potential entrants need to take the time to understand the market they are trying to pursue rather than either acquire the equipment and adopt an “if you build it, they will come” strategy, or adopt something simply because it’s “cool.” “Make sure you know who the heck you’re going to sell to before you buy a platform,” advised Bernat. “And make sure they want the target application.”