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Apparel Decorating Trends & Techniques for Digital and Sublimation Transfers

Recent trends of a flat decorated garment market have created a small group of nimble companies that have strategically positioned themselves to introduce the world to the short and micro runs of customized apparel.

By Christopher Bernat, Partner, Source Substrates, LLC
This article appeared in the SGIA Journal 2005, Volume Nine, Forth Quarter issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2005 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

Direct print technologies for micro-run cotton and cotton-blends have come a long way in the last year.

Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

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  • The Changing Landscape of Apparel
    Total revenues from apparel are flat. Per capita spending on clothing is down over the last three years as well. A recent Wall Street Journal article offered multiple reasons for the non-growth of revenue in apparel. All the reasons had one thing in common: they really scare most major players in the apparel business.

    There are a number of trends in society and in fashion that have combined to reduce the market’s appetite for consuming clothing and fashion accessories in the traditional sense. For starters, in most American households, there is more and more competition for discretionary dollars. Technology gadgets in particular have lured many of those dollars away. An iPod, a new digital camera and a feature rich PDA have replaced clothes on many Christmas and birthday wish lists. Technology has become in many ways its own form of fashion. For example, iPods are available in a number of colors, styles and sizes. This “digital wearable” delivers music and brand equity. Even the finest custom tailored pinpoint Oxford can’t say that.

    But technology alone can’t be blamed. What started out as Casual Friday in many US and Canadian companies has turned into Casual Everyday. This has put a damper on the amount of business apparel sold. Brooks Brothers survived for over a century focused on the business person, but in recent years the brand has been rapidly growing its casual and lifestyle apparel options. In many segments of today’s economy, a suit and tie are simply out of place. Other trends have affected sales as well. Starting in the 1980s some school districts reintroduced the concept of school uniforms for elementary and high schools. Many districts still have this policy. No one trend is 100 percent to blame but combined, they have had a significant impact.

    Oasis in the Desert
    So is the apparel market growing at all or is the entire market in a downward spiral? Even in the worst of markets there are always winners. The year 2005’s apparel marketplace is no exception. Most of today’s apparel winners are maximizing specific trends and are on a constant search for the next one.

    Performance Apparel Growth
    Casual Fridays may have taken over in most offices but not at the gym or on the field. People spend more each year on personal athletic apparel. Performance apparel is most likely the fastest growing segment in the clothing industry. Performance apparel is expected to grow from $200 million in 2004 to over $450 million in 2005. Brands like UnderArmour, Nike, Puma and Adidas have invested heavily to ensure they get their share of this dynamic market. These growth figures do not include embellished performance garments. So what is performance apparel? Why is it so popular? It is clothing designed to keep athletes and active people cooler and more comfortable, and to wick moisture to keep you dry.

    The performance market has embraced polyester as its new fabric of choice. Polyester can be engineered to wick moisture away from the body. This keeps athletes cooler in the heat and warmer in the cold. This new love affair with polyester bodes well for apparel minded specialty graphics professionals.

    Short and Micro Run Growth
    Globalization has forever changed the apparel business. Faster delivery options, outsourcing, the Internet and price pressure have led to a wholesale migration of long-run apparel production to Asia and other low-cost production environments. Quality is good, prices are great and lead times are tolerable. This has many in the decorated apparel industry frantically searching for a way to hone their business model.

    At the same time, the general trend of mass customization has continued to grow. People have always appreciated something that is one of a kind. Today, in part due to digital technologies replacing analog technologies, people can get a one of a kind item. Cars, computers, cruises and Christmas cards are all customized.

    What is scary to some is embraced by others. A small group of nimble companies have strategically positioned themselves to introduce the world to the short run and, more importantly, the micro run.


      The Short Run ­ A production run of eight to 244 decorated garments.
      The Micro Run ­ A production run of one to seven decorated garments.

    The micro run is perhaps the fastest growing part of the digital decorating apparel industry. Micro run specialists have a tendency to be technology driven, always looking for the cleanest, quickest, most profitable way to give one person exactly what they want.

    Digital solutions that offer unlimited colors and are nimble enough to efficiently deliver mass customized products with variable art files and data create opportunity for large profit margins. The key is not only to find the right equipment and software for production. You also need to focus on your work flow and make it very easy to eliminate errors while at the same time engaging customers in the design process.

    Overview of New Technologies
    New technology trends are helping build the momentum in these growth areas. Direct print technologies for micro-run cotton and cotton-blends have come a long way in the last year. Brother, Kornit, Sawgrass Technologies and the US Screen Print and Inkjet Technology have all launched direct print solutions for T-shirts. All of the products in this category require no separations, screens or manual screen print set-up. They all print directly from your computer and offer proprietary work flow applications. Most of these platforms have yet to be fully tested by the market but feedback has been positive from most people currently using these platforms. While some boast 600+ dpi, 360 dpi has proven to be more than acceptable for most cotton decorating.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Direct Textile Printers
    Brother’s new GT-541 Garment Printer is capable of 600 x 600 dpi resolution and claims to offer 16.2 million colors. It has a 14" x 16" printable area. This platform made its public debut at the ISS show in Atlantic City. Brother has had the platform in a long-term beta program since early 2004.

    The Kornit 930 and 931 is capable of 630 x 630 dpi resolution. It offers a “standard” printable area of 16" x 20" and a “variable” printable area of 20" x 28". In addition to cotton, the Kornit boasts that it is also ideal for general textile, cotton-polyester blends, Lycra, viscose and rigid materials as well. The 930 claims output between 109 and 178 shirts per hour. The 931 offers a range between 178 and 295 shirts per hour.

    Sawgrass Technologies’ NaturaLink ink platform was launched and will be at most major trade shows in the fourth quarter 2006. The NaturaLink inks are available for use on the MS-One printing platform via a partnership with MS Italy, a leading printer technology firm. Sawgrass offers a 16.5" X 22" printable area and offers print resolution up to 1440 DPI.

    The US Screen Print and Inkjet Technology’s Fast-T Jet comes in models offering printable areas of 12" x 17" up to 17" x 19". The system uses FastINK™ TEXTILE inks. It offers printing at up to 2880 dpi. The entry level system can generate 24-50 prints per hour at 360 dpi. The platform has introduced a white ink that could deliver significant value to digital apparel businesses.

    Sublimation Inks
    The textile world has historically been six color: C, M, Y, K, Red, and Blue. Concurrently sublimation in North America has historically been CMYK or CMYK Light Cyan, Light Magenta. While these inks have preformed well, they were not designed for textiles specifically.

    Sawgrass Technologies has introduced a C, M, Y, K, Red, Blue color set as well as a new Jet Black for sublimation. This will help the majority of the market looking to improve the vibrancy of textile output and represents a logical upgrade path for their installed base of customers.

    Manoukian has long been a supplier to the textile industry on a number of different platforms. They now boast over 15 different sublimation ink colors from which to choose. This gives a sophisticated production team the ability to develop extremely precise color pallets for production. Organizations with in-house color profiling capabilities can leverage that skill with this suite of ink products to deliver truly unique digital output.

    Bill Gate’s in his book Business @ The Speed Of Thought, talks about using a digital nervous system to run your business. A digital nervous system is comprised of all the digital processes that closely link every aspect of a company’s thoughts and actions. Basic operations such as finance and production, plus customer data all live in one electronically accessible system. Digital printers who invest in a digital nervous system to drive their design, production and other aspects of their business will be well prepared for the wave of mass-customized demand that is looming.

    Customization Engines
    Customization Engines are front-end customer applications that allow the customer (or customer service representative) to drive the design and ordering process. These applications can act as the front-end of a digital nervous system as they tend to be Web based. With proper planning and design, a customization engine can empower customers, reduce errors and build incredible customer loyalty.

    A great example of a customization engine is The primary Web interface for Zazzle is an online marketplace where you can browse, buy and sell made-to-order custom products. In minutes, you can design a product (a shirt, poster, print, card and more coming soon) online in the “Create a Product” section. If you order it, they will manufacture and ship it to you in 24 hours. You can also contribute it to the public galleries, in which case you will make money every time it sells.

    Zazzle handles all of its own production and uses a number of digital decorating technologies to accomplish it.

    Variable Data Applications
    Variable data is critical to certain apparel markets. Team sports, where names and numbers are often required, historically present workflow challenges in a digital printing environment. In 2005, companies have options to eliminate these workflow issues. This will be an area that dramatically increases the power of short-run digital apparel.

    Wasatch, a leading manufacturer of RIP software, is offering a variable data solution that integrates with their SoftRIP application. The application gives short run apparel decorators the ability to preview and check your output on screen prior to committing processing time and consumables. This is a powerful application and adds tremendous value to current and ongoing Wasatch users.

    ErgoSoft, who received three awards at SGIA in 2004 for output on the Mimaki platform, is taking a slightly different approach. ErgoSoft is delivering a RIP-independent software application to manage variable data needs for almost any installed RIP application. The software will work with any font resident on the system. It will also work on virtually any platform. The application will be available in 2005 and holds great promise.

    The advent of digital technology is breaking many barriers of entry to the apparel decorating market. As the market is rapidly becoming aware of the micro-run possibilities, the move from analog to digital is rapidly becoming a necessity rather than an accessory.

    Personalization and customization are very powerful. Licensors are recognizing the ability to further enhance brand loyalty. Companies that effectively build markets and implement a competitive solution for licensors and a vast array of other target customers will be built to last.

    People want customized goods today simply because it is possible. This is not a new need, rather the renaissance of the ability to satisfy a longstanding demand. Yet 2005 is a critical year for companies who want to win in this short-run and the micro-run world. People are establishing themselves as reliable brands for customized products. Delaying entry into this growth area will lessen the ability to acquire enough of it to be profitable in the years ahead. There are multiple vertical markets in need of the same solutions. So pick your targets, make your investments, find outside assistance (if needed) and run!

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