Starting a Direct-to-Substrate Business

Alex Oster is sales manager for Equipment Zone, a manufacturer of direct-to-garment printers and pretreat systems, and has been involved with direct-to-garment printers for the past six years. Contact him at; 800-408-0040.

For up-and-coming entrepreneurs or those who own a screen-printing or embroidery business, direct-to-substrate printing is a technology worth considering. The tools available to the industry today far exceed those humble beginnings of our T-shirt technologies. But not only have the disciplines for getting designs on textiles gotten more effective, they’ve also become more efficient. And, digital direct-to-substrate printing is emerging as a major player in modern apparel decorating. Here is an overview of a direct-to-substrate business model and some tips for those considering streamlining business with D2 printing. 

Starting out

First things first: invest in a direct-to-garment printer. Do research before making the purchase by visiting industry forums online, attending trade shows and reading Printwear and other magazines that cover the technology. A computer and heat press are the other hardware components necessary for any direct-to-garment business.

Adobe Photoshop is more or less an essential tool in the graphic design world today. Not only does it allow users to create original art, it can also be used to manipulate artwork provided by customers. It may not be completely necessary to spend big bucks on Photoshop CS 5, the latest and greatest version. Version CS 2 offers a great balance of value and features. Plus, it’s much cheaper than CS 5 and is compatible with Windows Vista. (Windows 7 requires version CS 3 or newer.) Those really on a budget can download GIMP, a free alternative design program, at

Now may also be the time to invest in a how-to book about running a business, or to take a course at a community college. For those already with this foundation, education on computer graphics is necessary.

Remember that old term, “photo-ready art”? That denotes artwork optimized to the proper size and quality that is ready to print. It’s the rare customer that will provide photo-ready art, hence, a working knowledge of a graphic-design program will come in handy when preparing customers’ artwork for printing. 

For those who aren’t proficient with Photoshop or another graphics program already nor have the desire to be, the easiest route might be hiring an experienced graphic designer, a local college student or finding a freelance designer at a website like to help setup artwork. Either way, once a piece of artwork is finished and optimized, printing out a design on a direct-to-garment printer is fairly easy. 

Now what? 

It’s time to purchase hardware. As important as which machine to purchase, also consider (and research) from whom the machine will be purchased. Remember, this is the company you’re going to be calling for support on the machine you’ll be using day in and day out. Good questions to ask here include:

• How long is the machine under warranty? 

• How easy is it to get support? 

• How easy is it to use the RIP software that comes with the machine? 

(RIP software is the essential piece of software that translates between the computer and printer. The easier the software and printer are to use, the easier it will be to have employees print in the future. For more on RIP software, turn to page 28.)

Getting a machine with one or two timesaving features or a fast print speed can make a big difference over time. Thousands of shirts will be printed with this machine, so make sure it’s robust and reliable. 

Different direct-to-garment printers also have different resolutions. Some can only print 600 X 600 dpi (dots per inch), providing less detail than other printers that can print up to 1,440 X 1,440 dpi. Also, some direct-to-garment printers can only print on white or light shirts. In some markets, dark shirts are preferred much more than light shirts, in which case a printer that can print white ink is essential.

After all these considerations lead to a final purchase decision, it’s important to learn how to use and maintain the printer. Installation and training may be very valuable add-ons to include with the purchase. It’s essential to get up and running quickly.


The king of the imprinted apparel market extends it reign in direct-to-substrate technology; T-shirts are a popular item for this business model. With today’s advanced ink formulations, it’s possible to print on more than just 100 percent cotton shirts. Some polyester and polyester blended garments are now suitable for D2 printing. 

For a quality product, blank shirt prices start at about $2 per piece. More expensive shirts geared for upscale markets generally print well too. There is a major difference in print quality on a cheap shirt versus that on a quality shirt. 

Though T-shirts may be popular, don’t neglect all of the other goods that can be decorated with D2 printers… hence the term direct-to-substrate. Sweatshirts, towels and even painter’s canvas, for a few examples, print well, with the technology, as do mouse pads. Also, multimedia designs are the new rage—take a direct print and embroider on top of it, or add rhinestones to accent a printed graphic.  

It’s recommended to get blank goods from reputable industry distributors. Those that serve this market in particular offer good pricing and availability, plus these shirts will be free of the chemicals found on some blank department store shirts. However, utilizing distribution channels in the wholesale market also means larger-quantity orders. Shirts are often sold per case, which contains 72 pieces. 

Basic pricing strategies

Putting a selling price on printed products can be difficult, even for those with existing apparel-decorating businesses. Because D2 printing offers personalized designs with sharp detail in thousands of colors—something other processes can’t match—the pricing model may be higher than with transfers or screen printing. In order to make real margins, here are a few general tips: 

• Look at what shirts sell for at other local retailers, including department stores. 

• Charge more for dark shirts than light shirts since dark shirts take longer to print and cost more in ink. 

• Consider your geographic area or target demographic when setting pricing.

• Charge more for personalized designs/original artwork and less for stock art. 

• Charge more for larger designs because they take more time and use more ink. 

• Giving quantity discounts is okay, but only if there is little or no personalization involved. (See page 22 of this issue for a detailed pricing strategy.)

While there are certainly many nuances to running a successful business utilizing D2 technology, the business model and technology are relatively simple. Whether making the investment to modernize your apparel-decorating business or building a new business based on direct-to-substrate printing, it’s hard to deny the potential for profit D2 printing creates.