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Connect the Dots

Josh Ellsworth

Josh is the VP of sales, dealer channel for Stahls'. He deals in the sales and implementation of heat-applied, apparel-decorating systems with a focus on customization. He holds skills in the production, sale, and marketing of customized apparel. He presents seminars at trade shows and contributes articles to trade publications, like Printwear magazine.

If the graphics on your apparel are flat, your sales probably are too. Either that or you find yourself in a constant tug-of-war with the shop down the street or online—throwing away margin for lack of creativity, constantly trading bids back and forth, slashing deals, driving down prices, throwing away profit for no reason.

There is a better way. The intent of owning a apparel-decorating business is to make money. In order to make money, achieving maximum profit per sale is crucial. There are several ways to drive up profits. Reduction is the most common way; reducing the cost of material, overhead or labor. The other way to increase profit is to raise prices, which can be a risky proposition. To raise standard pricing across the board without delivering any additional value may have a negative impact on sales volume. However, price increases that are directly tied to giving something more to the customer are happily considered.

Delivering more value

Spanning the past decade, decorators have found that, in order to exist and accommodate customers’ diverse needs for decorated apparel, they need a diverse range of technology. Unless highly regarded in a single decorating discipline or focusing on contract decoration, simply being a screen printer or an embroiderer and selling to the general public won’t do. Knowing this, the modern shop has already placed multiple decorating disciplines under a single roof. Most who chart their technology on a sheet of paper will list multiple heads of embroidery, screen-printing presses, heat presses, direct-to-garment printers, and vinyl cutters and printers. Likewise, most create samples similar to the way they’ve fashioned their list—each technology listed or sampled on its own, never combining or blurring the lines. 

For such strategy, Pee Wee Herman has some prophetic advice; “Connect the dots, la, la, la, la!”

The principle of connecting the dots in our shop can be the difference in not only increasing profitability but also in forging into uncontested market space. So the “now” of decorated apparel is connecting the dots, blurring the lines, and mixing, mixing, mixing more at the shop. Let’s look at ways to connect common decorating disciplines.

Screen printing and heat transfer film

Screen printing or screen-printed transfers allow for very detailed images. The process of burning a screen for the complex part of this design makes perfect sense. To add a simple design element and some pop to a screen-printed design, use a specialty heat-transfer film on top. The butterfly was applied atop of the plastisol ink in pink glitter. In order to achieve this effect, all that’s required is a heat press, a vinyl cutter and screen-printing equipment or a screen-printed transfer supplier.

Transfer paper, heat-applied film and nail heads

New transfer-paper technology for laser-print devices is revolutionizing the way garments are embellished. The technology is simple: Design a graphic and output to a laser-print device; print on a specialty formulated paper. In the past, much trimming was necessary in order to rid the design of the “ugly transfer box.” With new technology, only the printed area transfers. This allows for much greater detail and can offer solutions for the most complicated designs. Once the base layer is transferred from a paper, overlay heat-applied film in effects such as foil and metallic for pops of color. Then apply nail heads, grommets or rhinestones for final dimension. (See Figure 2)

Figure 2: Traditional transfers combine with nail heads for dimension.

Embroidered appliqué and heat-applied film

If embroidery and cutting technology is in the arsenal, very different looks are within reach. Appliqué refers to a piece of fabric sewn to a garment. This fabric can be traditional tackle twill, felt, cotton or a number of other fabrics for unique looks. After sewing the appliqué, a heat-applied film can be applied on top of the sewn piece for an added design element. Likewise a printed transfer paper or media can be applied over top of certain appliqué fabrics to achieve color gradations or printed looks. (See Figure 3)

Figure 3: Heat-applied film is applied on top of a traditional applique.

Digital transfers, solvent print/cut materials and reflective transfers

Solvent-based print/cut devices present numerous options for sign making. Now they are presenting even more options for apparel. Print/cut technology enables decorators to work with a range of printable media types for great results. It also segments out certain elements of a design for reflective, foil, flock or glow-in-the-dark accents. Spicing up a digital print is a way to increase the value of a garment and increase the selling price of a rather simple graphic.

Direct embroidery and heat applied film

Most heat-applied films can be sewn through. While not necessary for permanent adhesion, the look is quite different and quite interesting. Combine a run stitch, a satin stitch or a zigzag stitch for out-of-the-box designs that are different.

Heat transfer film and discharge water-based screen printing

Water-based screen printing is a very sought-after process for decorating super soft apparel. By using this technology in combination with heat applied flock or foil, the garment delivers something more. Consider using water-based screen printing or new heat-applied film technology for super soft results on trending garment constructions such as burnout or acid wash shirts, and then apply a personalization element with a heat transfer product. The dimension of design is elevated and the garment commands a higher price.

Your imagination

The mixing and matching of technology is limitless and subject to your creative flair and imagination. Try taking basic graphics and adding new twists with other techniques at your disposal. By experimenting and sampling, you’re sure to come up with new works of art that cannot be duplicated easily or competitively bid on by other shops. Selling, promoting and marketing such effects can position your company in a blue ocean, where competitors are far less frequent. Learn, develop and hone your skills to create uncontested market space and drive more profit into each and every piece you decorate.