Want More Profit? Understand How to Use Digital Decorating to Improve Perceived Value

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Understand How to Use Digital Decorating to Improve Perceived Value

I have been a proponent of digital decorating since being involved with some of the early commercially viable direct to garment printers in 2004. Then I fell in love with sublimation, vinyl, and bling as embellishment methods starting in 2010. That is not to say I’m a detractor of the traditional analog printing techniques like screen printing. I love the art of screen making – the passion those artists and creators have for the craft. I have long held the belief that people in our industry are not screen printers, sublimators, or heat printers, but instead are decorators. The successful companies understand that their job is not to just print. Instead, it is to provide their customers with an end product they are proud of, makes them feel unique, and is a walking billboard.

To help their customers achieve these goals I feel it is important for everyone to have a good understanding of all the different ways a piece of fabric can be decorated, even if it is not a technique they will ever use in their production facility. I’d like to first break down three of the major digital decorating techniques. Then discuss how to break into digital without overextending your business through outsourcing, and finally wrap it up with a little prognostication of my thoughts on the future of decorating.

Three Techniques

Direct to Garment

Direct to Garment t-shirt
Graphics printed with D2G

DTG, D2 or Direct to Garment printing most closely links technique to screen printing. The process at a basic level involves loading a shirt onto a platen that indexes underneath an inkjet print head with special ink in it that will bond to the fabric once cured with heat. On light fabric and garments, the process uses CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) 4 color process ink. For dark fabric or any time there is white in the design that then doesn’t get created by the white of the garment, the process adds a step of needing to pretreat the fabric or have already pretreated garments, which the market is starting to see. This pretreatment is a sodium-based solution that begins the curing of the white ink. The White ink has titanium dioxide in it that starts to cure when it comes in contact with the pretreatment which then allows the CMYK inks to print over the top of the white, instead of the white ink just falling into the shirt. It’s a bit like the process of flash curing an under base in the screen printing process.

graphic tee using D2G
Graphic Tee printed Direct to Garment

Direct to Garment is great for short-run full-color printing onto cotton. Yes, they are working on pretreatments for polyester and there are some out on the market, but it is still not fully ready for profitable production (as of the writing of this article) in my opinion. The benefit is a nice soft hand and the ability to print one to 16 million colors with no set-up, just put the art in the computer and push print. It is not economical for long-run production or low to mid-range production of 1 and 2 color work when compared to screen printing. I’m seeing decorators use DTG to add extra personalization to screen printed shirts or give a nice contrasting texture between the thicker plastisol inks of screen printing and the nice soft hand of DTG.


Sublimation printing
Towels and blankets printed using Sublimation

Dye-sublimation (or better known as the shorter term of dye-sub or sublimation) links with polyester fabrics. The process takes a special sublimation ink and transfers it to a polyester or a polyester-coated surface with the use of even heat and even pressure through a chemical transformation, hence the name sublimation.  Its base definition is “Sublimation is a chemical process where a solid turns into a gas without going through a liquid stage.” The pigments in the sublimation ink convert from a solid to a gas at different temperatures and when pressed up against polyester, whose pores open up under the heat, transfers the pigments into the polyester, permanently bonding together or dye the polyester. The pigments are translucent, so any color in the polyester already will change the color of the pigment and the is no white ink or under base possible in this process. So, most sublimation transfers are done on blanks that start white and the entire surface is decorated to change the background color to the customer’s desire.

The imprints are not only permanent and withstand as many washing as the garment can withstand, but the colors are also bright and vibrant and allow for some pretty attractive designs. The other advantage is the ink has become part of the polyester, so you can not feel the ink on the garments and they can breathe very well and be sold as an athletic advantage with the moisture-wicking property of the polyester. Polyester’s popularity as a garment choice continues to grow as polyester continues to get better and better and no longer is just the scratchy old leisure suits of the ’70s. Companies like Under Armor and other athletic brands popularized the polyester garment for sports teams and now they are more mainstream than ever. As with DTG, you are seeing lots of mixed media, plus more and more companies investing in the ability to cut and sew their own garments to eliminate the “smiles” (unavoidable blemishes under the arms and around the seams) when pressing on a pre-constructed garment.

Heat Printing

Heat printing on a collared shirt
Our company logo printed on a polo using Heat Printing

The technique encompasses multiple areas and for the sake of this article will be a bit of a catch-all. This includes print and cut vinyl, cut heat transfer vinyl, digital transfers like inkjet and laser and other embellishments, like rhinestones. The prepress is similar to DTG and Sublimation where you design the item as the customer desires in your graphics program and send it to a printer or cutter with no need for any set-up or other steps. Once printed you use a heat press, follow the transfer manufacturer’s specification for the time, temperature, and pressure to be used, and apply the transfer to the substrate like the garment. The heat process bonds, for lack of a better term, glue to the garment and you have a commercially viable garment you can proudly sell your customers. When paired with a commercial level heat-press, these embellishments can withstand a reasonable amount of washing and produce some brilliant results with the fun flash of rhinestone, sparkle of glitter, and stretch of vinyl. Some of the products do have a heavy “hand” to them, which is the thickness of the vinyl or transfer, that for large graphics don’t feel great on a garment. But for decal items where a lot of the shirt comes through or for smaller graphics like left chest logos, this can be the perfect way to decorate only a few garments. I recently got three new polo shirts made for my consulting company from a printer with a print and cut vinyl set-up and love them!

Breaking Into Digital

All these techniques are growing in the marketplace daily because they are digital. That means you can make a unique item for your customer and your costs don’t really change much as you scale. Plus, people are willing to pay a premium for something that is made uniquely for them.

With heat printing, you have the wave of crafters who have bought the Cricut or silhouette cutting tools, found some heat transfer vinyl and are making shirts for all of their friends and neighbors. They wake up one morning with a business because of the demand for personalized items and they are now your competitor with little to no overhead and no idea how to price the products.

With sublimation, you can have pretty much everything you need to make stuff small format for around $500. With DTG, you have everything from massive $250,000 monsters that can crank out shirts, on down to people selling kits for you to convert an off the shelf printer into a DTG machine. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to understand what digital decorating is all about as the demand is there and you just might not know your customers are going elsewhere for personalized items. I’ll talk more in a bit about my thoughts on the future of this, but first, let’s explore how we swallow all of this without putting our business in debt for a market you are still learning about.


I have been on several sides of the aisle in my career in this industry. As I mentioned is was involved in DTG back in 2004 and I was the VP of Sales and Marketing for a Direct to Garment manufacturing company who was one of the first. Back then there was no one you could point people to who just were not ready for the equipment, but we did our best to talk to potential customers about their business as opposed to about the tool. It was the shiny new object and people wanted the toy, but I saw so many people fail because they spent the money and had no market for it. They let the tool sit un-maintained because they had no more money to put into maintenance and then boom, out of nowhere they had a big job for it and could not get it done. You have to come to these digital decorating tools with a market already built, as it is a completely different animal from the traditional printing methods. We tried to talk people out of the tool and it drove the owner nuts, though he also knew it was the right thing to do, so we kept our jobs. Today, it is a whole new world and so many fewer minefields to navigate. The tools have improved immensely and there are several places you can work with to build your market before diving into digital decorating.

So, how do you work with a wholesale outsource provider? The first thing you want to do is just make sure you can trust them. Does your gut tell you good things about them? You will be using these companies as an extension of your business, so you have to trust they have your best interest in mind. Most do have your best interest, as they know the more success you have the more success they have, but some are starving for business so they will make any promise they can to get you in the door. My rule of thumb is if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Look for a company that is going to tell you the worst-case scenario and can guarantee they will come through as opposed to selling you the best-case scenario and falling on their face more often than not. Also, try to understand what they do when mistakes do occur or something is lost in transit or otherwise. Basically, do they look at you as a partner or as a dollar sign?

Then from your side, you have to change your thinking a bit. Will you make as much money as if you had the equipment yourself? Probably not from a straight cost to cost analysis. But, what costs are you not factoring in, from time to learning curve, the pain your customers have to deal with in your learning curve, the spoiled products in production and inventory carrying cost. When you outsource to build your market for personalized products, you don’t have to worry about any of those things and you can let the wholesaler teach you the nuances of the decorating techniques. The other thing to think about is what is the opportunity cost of spending your time in production when you could be outselling, marketing and growing your income. I have seen this before when people went all-in on the equipment, trying to make the production work and end up seeing their business go flat because they were not focused on filling the sales pipeline, but instead work just trying to figure out how to get orders out the door. There are “costs” to those things, even though they might not show up on a profit and loss statement right away.

The Future of Garment Decorating

I do think the demand for customization is only going to grow and I think it could even drastically change how we buy our clothing and other daily use items like phones, mugs, headwear and more. This will continue to impact our industry because it is going to change the humble t-shirt. In a recent talk I heard by Charles Ohiaeri, Chief Fulfillment Officer of Zazzle, he noted that 67% of all of their orders are personalized. Their network makes 250,000 products a day so that really stood out to me. He also said that not only are there many items personalized, but they are also focused on allowing their customers to entirely envision a product they want, create it through their platform and receive it in 48 hours. How does this change your business? When your customer comes to you and says, “Zazzle will make me a shirt from scratch in 48 hours, why can’t you make just one today since I’m standing in your shop?” 

The fashion world is already seeing major disruption by “fast fashion” where consumers are taking part in the look and design of the garments they want and they are getting them made for them. For example, a local company to me here in St. Louis, Whimsy Rose, is pushing the envelope with their sublimation equipment by allowing their customers to walk into a store, try on white blanks to pick the proper fit and feel, then head to a kiosk and design their own look and style. The customer places the order and then can have it shipped directly to them or can come back and pick it up in a few days. They are launching this program with several of the major distributors around the country and world so those distributors don’t have to inventory a bunch of stuff they hope will sell. Instead, they only need to have a set or two of the blank products, some finished products to show the print quality and they have instant success and no inventory risk.

I also think we will also see clothing sizing change. There will no longer be a Medium but instead an “Aaron Sized” garment based on a digital scan that might even come from our smartphones. Digital one pass printing technology is evolving very quickly, so the ability and cost to customize will continue to change for the positive for the consumers. Printwear companies need to start thinking about how they can help their customers set themselves apart through customization and personalization of products. Recently, Youtube announced a partnership with Teesprings to allow its content creators an avenue to sell shirts to their viewers. Those are thousands of “brands” that need a tangible product that their viewers can connect with because we are human. We have a tactile need to connect so until we all become cyborgs, there is a lot of business to be had out there.

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