The Who, What and Wear of Garment Printing

Printer advancements make apparel a great option to add to your branding portfolio

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As direct-to-garment printers continue to drop in price, they increasingly become a great way for print shops to expand their offerings and pull in some extra income.

“People are always looking for new revenue generators. And for the sign guys, some are already doing decoration in a variety of different ways, so this is a good fit for them to expand their offerings from dye sublimation and transfer printing to direct to garment,” says Randy Anderson, product manager for textiles at Mutoh America Inc. in Phoenix.

Mutoh is new to the direct to garment printing arena. The company is conducting some final tests on its direct-to-garment printer and hopes to release its ValueJet 405GT this month.

“It is a fairly easy machine to use and learn. The software interface and Windows driver comes with the machine,” he says.

Many sign shops already do screen printing, which is a great medium for bulk shirt orders, but screen printing gets very costly when the order is for fewer than 60 pieces.

“Smaller quantities are less expensive to do direct to garment,” Anderson says. The added benefit of direct-to-garment printing is that it can print on cotton.

“There is a better price point with cotton shirts,” he adds.

Mark Bagley, director of marketing, industrial product division at Brother International Corp., says that sign companies are already selling to small businesses, schools, sports teams, church groups, weddings or bachelorette parties, trade shows, conventions and events, which are the same types of markets that garment decorators target with their advertising.

“So it is a natural fit for sign companies to get in the business of selling their existing customers printed apparel,” he says.

There are many opportunities to sell signage to people that traditionally purchase printed apparel as well, he says. “For example, family reunions tend to frequently purchase printed apparel for everyone to wear during the family picture, and a sign would help highlight the name of the family (or the year) in the picture,” Bagley adds.

The direct to garment market isn’t just for shirts. Towels, hats, caps, visors, jackets and hoodies are also great options. One of the newest direct to garment trends is tennis shoes. Companies are taking high end shoes and customizing them for people, Anderson says.

“The personalization market is being driven by the ease of printing and the low cost of printers,” he says.

Direct to garment printers use a special jig to help them print on things like shoes and hats.

“If you are doing garment decoration, this is a nice addition to that. It gives them the capability and keeps customers in house. That is the key when adding technology is keeping your customer in house rather than sending them down the street to a screen printer,” Anderson adds.

The easiest way to grow printed apparel is to take the exact artwork someone has created for signage and use it to print on fabric, Bagley says.

“Just letting their current customers know about the option to get printed apparel from the sign company will kick start this new area of revenues,” he says.

Direct to garment printing “can be a great sales/marketing tool. Sign shops that want to generate new business can create custom, one-off printed apparel and use that to open the door, but any of the services can be promoted, including signage. Many DTG owners will use their DTG printers to help increase their sales in other services their business offers,” Bagley adds.

It is fairly easy to learn how to print with direct to garment. The biggest learning curves come from the artwork and the equipment.

“The great thing about most sign shops is they are already pretty good when it comes to using or creating artwork. The background in digital printing helps too,” he says. “The learning curve on the equipment really depends on what equipment is purchased and what ink setup is used.”

If a printer uses CMYK only, the learning curve is much shorter. The biggest challenge comes with learning to print white ink, “which is very similar to printing white ink with solvent or UV printer[s],” Bagley says.

He recommends that companies, wanting to print white ink, should invest in an automatic pretreater to ensure that the proper amount of pretreatment is applied to each garment before it is printed. Pretreatment can be done by hand but using a pretreater gives a uniform appearance to bulk orders.

Pretreatment is needed on any garment so that the white pigments stay on the surface of the fabric instead of soaking in.

“We created an industrial print head and went with a higher viscosity. That allows our ink to sit longer and have less of a clog issue or separation,” he says.

Brother has three direct-to-garment printers, the GT-341, which prints CMYK only; the GT-361, which prints CMYK plus two white printheads; and the GT-381, which prints CMYK plus four white printheads.

Brother has been in the direct to garment print market since 2005. What sets Brother apart from the competition is that everything inside the printer is built to be a DTG printer, Bagley says. Brother started out in the garment sewing industry, so its vast knowledge of how garments are put together helped in the design of its DTG printer.

Paper printers print very close to their substrate. Garment printers need to leave a gap between the print head and the substrate to accommodate shirt pockets, buttons and zippers.

Other printers need to raise or lower the print head to accommodate these differences. Brother’s machine leaves a gap between the bottom of the print head and the substrate that is being printed that is twice that of the competition, he says.

Brother also gives two days of training to anyone who buys its equipment.

“It doesn’t make sense to us to sell an industrial piece of equipment and not get people set up in the right manner. We want them to use ink, that is why we go through all the steps to make sure they have the right equipment,” he says.

Once a piece of fabric has been printed, the ink needs to go through a heat press or a conveyor dryer.

Some shops have more than one heat press to make the finishing process go faster.

The direct to garment market is exploding. Social media and the internet have opened up new avenues to market limited edition print designs. Everything from sports teams to designs based on local events. And it isn’t just screen printers and sign and digital graphics companies that are interested in buying the equipment.

Amusement parks, tourist attractions and small gift shops are very interested in producing their own customized shirts, Bagley says.

“Every political year is a boon to printing materials,” he says. Politicians purchase a lot of yard signs for their campaigns. It makes sense to sell them T-shirts, hats and other printed items at the same time.

Paula Aven Gladych

Paula Aven Gladych is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at [email protected]

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