Pump your profit margin with . . . Printing Sweatshirts

If T-shirts are the cornerstone of a screen printer’s business, sweatshirts, then, must be the keystone. Douglas Grigar covers this topic in the introductory screen-printing seminar at his school—The Grendel—because this garment serves such a basic need for all customers of screen-printed apparel. But for their staple status, there is a lot more that goes into getting even the most basic design done right.

While certainly not the only option, screen printing still tends to be the lead horse when it comes down to the production wire. “Screen printing is the foundation of the apparel market. It’s the standard,” opines Andy Anderson of Nashville, Tenn.’s Anderson Studio. “The other methods are extras, but screen printing is always an option for clients.”

Multimedia designs involving tackle twill and embroidery or even heat-applied or direct-printed graphics can serve to enhance screen printed designs, but our sources agree that taking orders for sweats really comes down to how well you put ink to the screen. Here, we’ve gathered some tips and tricks from some of the industry’s all stars of the squeegee to make the casual sweatshirts that come out of your shop less shabby and more chic.

Construction considerations

What may seem like an obvious statement; the biggest factor in screen printing on sweatshirts successfully is the actual garment. It’s not as simple as it sounds, say our sources. They say that even within one manufacturer, the different grades of sweatshirts vary widely. It is imperative, then, to take into account the composition, surface weave, pile or thickness and style concessions of any given sweatshirt.

Ray Smith, D-Lab Screen Printing in Ball Ground, Ga., offers that sweatshirts are usually a 50/50 blend, and all blends require low bleed ink and open meshes. The production wheels are already turning with this one hint toward equipment adjustments, but more on that to come.

As for the surface of the garment, Grigar says to pay attention to how tight or loose the weave of the fabric. This factor will determine where the ink will sit on the sweatshirt. If a sweatshirt has a looser weave, there are more open spaces into which the ink can settle, which calls for a larger deposit of ink… which also could lead to the need for a flash station or at least the adjustment of cure temperatures.

Grigar goes on to explain that the thickness of the garment also has a role in what it is you can print on a sweatshirt. “The thicker, springier the fabric, the more problematic it will be,” he says. It’s harder to print in fine detail on thick fabrics because the off contact has to be adjusted accordingly.

Grigar points out that this is one of the biggest factors for what he calls the orange peel effect (think of what the surface of an orange looks like).

Finally, all of the details that contribute to the marketability of any given sweatshirt—zip fronts, hoods, strings, and so on—must equally be taken into account in terms of the design. A popular look at retail is hooded sweatshirts that are printed right across the zipper—a pre-manufacture screen print that your customers may well expect can be done.

Grigar offers the tip to show your clients the stitching for the zipper that goes over the screen print to give them clues on how that was done and to get them back to post-production reality.  He says that while the customer may always be right, they aren’t always educated.

The biggest message that our sources stressed: printing samples can make a world of difference. Sample from a variety of manufacturers and wholesalers and note what design and adjustments work best for any given product. And there are a lot out there. When choosing a vendor, Anderson says, “It’s important to understand your clients and your vendors; what products your vendors can supply for your different types of clients and where they fall short. It’s how your vendors speak to your clients’ needs that matters.”

Plan for success

The logistics of printing sweatshirts are very different from any other typical (or atypical, for that matter) job. Anderson and Grigar both stress how much pre-print planning goes into a smooth order. “Sweatshirts take up way more floor space, the volume is higher, and they are more labor intensive. There are also issues with lint and more materials,” says Anderson.

Grigar agrees, describing an actual printing nightmare that could well have ended up on America’s Funniest Home Videos to illustrate how important it is to adjust your set up to avoid a huge mess. He paints a scene where this particular shop stored its open ink buckets being used for a particular job beneath the screen-printing press. Printing mostly T-shirts, it seems harmless enough, but add in some long sleeves and it’s a very different story. You can imagine what the walls, the equipment, the other garments, boxes, drying racks, coffee mugs, people—basically everything in your screen printing production circle—would look like thanks to a couple of sleeves picking up the ink from those buckets and swinging around to catch the next station on the press. Yikes. The moral of the story: think of everything before putting a job in action.

Grigar also says that tighter coordination between sales and art department will make a huge difference in how these projects flow in order to make sure you have all of the right materials for the job they’re selling.

For example, you’re always going to lower your mesh count in order to get a better hand, so you need to be sure to have those 160 and 140 mesh counts in the shop. And, according to Anderson, you’ll need to adjust your screen tensions, another labor and time factor. Other adjustments may include special ink additives, such as puff agents or stretch additives, and it may help to use a softer squeegee for better coverage.

In every conversation about sweatshirts, off-contact is brought up at least a half-dozen times. “The thicker the sweat,” says Smith, “the higher the off-contact needs to be.” Registration is also a huge issue with fleece. Both the off-contact and garment shifting are the culprits. No matter how much adhesive is used, Anderson tells us, there will come a point where the sweatshirts slip due to the lint build up on the platens.

What all of this points to is a more labor-intensive process. And that’s not a bad thing. The slower the production, Grigar reminds us, the higher the price of the item. If you don’t adjust your pricing model to reflect the time in planning, space and slower print speeds for sweatshirts—or any item for that matter—the margins simply won’t add up.

“As in any specialty printing,” says Henry Badani of Excel Screen Printing & Embroidery, Inc. in Schiller Park, Ill., “there are a lot of techniques that can be used on fleece garments.” The key is in finding the right customers that will order a lot of them due to the cost of the blank garment and the cost of the specialty printing, he says… and selling in the right season. “Seasonal printing is the most common denominator on sweatshirt printing. During the months of August and September, there will be an increase in the sweatshirt market due to back- to- school programs.”

There’s no question that the customers are out there and the margins can be big for your bottom line. For as much as there is to think about in the production process, there are dollars attached.