It's the Outside That Counts
Apparel decoration. It ranges in complexity from marker-on-white-T-shirt designs made by senior-tripping high-schoolers to one-of-a-kind works of wearable art hand-stitched by Marc Jacobs himself. In the promotional industry, it's usually somewhere in between—a nice screen print, some embroidery, maybe a heat-seal patch if the mood is right.
But lately, apparel decorators have been stepping up their game. They're adding new and improved decorating methods to the repertoire of tried-and-true industry staples, giving distributors (and their clients) more options than ever before. Want to make your apparel promotion less "San Dimas HS Seniors '13!!!" and more Paris-Fashion-Week chic? Then put down the permanent marker and check out the four decorating techniques profiled below.
The print industry has been using digital printing for years, and apparel decorators have recently co-opted the technology—with good reason. As the name implies, full-color digital printing can produce a broader spectrum of colors, allowing for complex, high-definition logo designs.
According to Carleen Gray, chief marketing officer for Stahls' ID Direct, St. Clair Shores, Mich., full-color digital logos also offer fast turnaround times and no per-color fees, and can be applied to almost any fabric, including cotton, polyester, Lycra, spandex, nylon and leather. "Full-color digital logos make it possible to decorate various promotional items all with the same technique, to keep a consistent logo for brand recognition," she said. "It's a great decorating solution for short runs and difficult-to-decorate items."
It is this versatility that has full-color digital printing growing in popularity, especially among distributors whose clients have complicated logo designs or want nonstandard logo placement. Gray outlined one such situation, where a beverage brand needed zippered hoodies decorated with its full-color, gradient- and halftone-laden logo. The designs were applied in multiple locations—on the left chest, on the back, and down the sleeve—creating an eye-catching finished product. "The client was extremely pleased with the decorating results and an order was placed for not only full-zipper hoodies, but also for matching caps," Gray noted.
Nothing says "classy" like embroidered apparel, but standard embroidery has some disadvantages. It can be difficult to apply, limiting the number of placement options on a piece of apparel, and the interior stitching can be uncomfortable for the wearer. Heat-seal patches can be used to avoid these problems, but patches don't necessarily replicate the look of embroidery and may not hold up as well over time.
That's where indirect embroidery comes in. "Indirect embroidery is actually created a completely different way, front-to-back, top-to-bottom, than a typical heat-seal patch," explained Brian Fuchs, president of Windswept Marketing, Asheville, N.C. "What that allows us to do is deboss the actual embroidery into the apparel so it resembles direct embroidery, as well as allows it to withstand […] normal wash-and-wear usage." Fuchs said that applying the embroidery through a debossing process removes the need for stitching, resulting in a more comfortable feel. "The other thing is it's also a much better look from the outside, because on thin apparel, especially light-colored apparel or Dri-fit shirts, you oftentimes see that outline of the background stitching or buckram on the inside of the shirt," he added.
There are two other major benefits to indirect embroidery: One, the embroidered logos are created independently of the apparel and applied as needed, reducing the risk of dead inventory and saving up-front costs; and two, the logos can be applied in places standard embroidery cannot. "Because with our process and not penetrating through the apparel, […] we can do one-off pieces on the bill of a cap, the collar of a shirt, the cuff of a shirt, pockets of apparel, portfolios, bags, neoprene—things you typically could not embroider or you could not hoop, you could now decorate with an embroidered piece," Fuchs explained. "So the flexibility and the doors it opens for opportunity to brand something with an embroidered logo are like never before."
Screen printing may be the standard decorating process for promotional apparel, but it's not without its downsides. Namely, it can result in feel problems similar to those found in embroidered apparel—especially when dealing with larger or more intricate logos that require lots of ink.
With direct-to-garment printing, that's no longer an issue. "What I'm seeing from most of the decoration techniques is a lot of people are moving to direct-to-garment printing, where you're not screen printing but you're using an ink that you really can't feel on the shirt," said Paul Kory, vice president of sales for Dyenomite Apparel, Hilliard, Ohio. "So it's almost like there's no hand, as opposed to the scratch and itch or the weight you'd feel with a plastisol ink."
"You can do front and back, you can do it on the sleeve—pretty much anywhere," he added. "And it doesn't have any weight to it, so it's very soft. It never wears out. It'll last the life of the shirt."
Mitchell Lombard, president of Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Atlas Embroidery & Screen Printing, pointed to shorter runs as direct-to-garment's biggest advantage. "You could do one piece of something that's got 200 colors, where traditional screen printing wouldn't be able to do it and the smaller customers for distributors have been told 'no,'" Lombard said.
There is no golden rule of apparel decoration—anything goes, as long as it looks good—but the closest thing to one may be this: the shinier, the better. "Another technique that's becoming more and more popular is that bedazzled look where they're putting sequins or other types of jewels on a shirt to give it that flashy appearance," noted Kory.
"We're seeing a lot of that, especially on some of our shirts that are called an ombré or a dip dye, where it starts off darker at the bottom and then the color graduates lighter at the top," he continued. "People are doing sequins or little rubies or things like that [which] give it a high-dollar-value look where the price doesn't really come out to all that much, because that process is relatively inexpensive."
In addition to sequins, Gray described several other special-effect decorating options gaining in popularity, including glitter, holograms, rhinestones and reflective designs. "These materials are a great opportunity to create the trends people want to wear, now and in the future," she said.