First Steps to Starting Your Business

Direct to Garment Printing, Embroidery

Choosing the Right Equipment

The decision of what type of equipment you’re going to get is an important one when you’re starting your business. You’ve got this idea – you’ve got a hobby that you’re trying to expand into a business, you think that making custom apparel is cool, or you’re inspired by an event you went to. But now you have to decide what type of machine you’re going to get – whether it’s DTG, embroidery, rhinestones, etc.

What is the process people go through when they go about picking equipment to match their personality, their goals, and their business plan?

One way or another you’ve got an idea to start a business. How do you decide what to get? A lot of it depends on the market you find yourself in.

Embroidery

You do home embroidery. You do pillow cases, baby clothes, etc. and you give them away as gifts. Eventually you realize there’s a market for this. First of all your choices are limited, because you’re going to need an embroidery machine. Now the question is what kind of machine should you get? There is a lot of different sized equipment you can get and one of the things to keep in mind is that the cost of the machine isn’t always proportioned to the size of the machine, it’s features, and quality.  An example of this would be that you can go to a local sewing/embroidery shop and find home embroidery machines with a lot of features for several thousand dollars, but they’re not really suitable for commercial embroidery. Home embroidery machines are only meant to run a couple hours a couple days a week, whereas a commercial embroidery machine is designed and built to run all day, every day. So when you move up to a commercial embroidery machine you will lose some of the features that a home embroidery machine has, but you get the quality that you need to produce on a large scale.

What are the features you want to look for in a commercial machine?

  • Number of needles. Home embroidery machines only have 1 or 2 needles; commercial machines have usually 15-16 needles.
  • Field size. Home embroidery machines are designed to have a smaller field size; commercial machines are designed for larger (and heavier) items.
  • Hoops. Commercial machines have 2 hoops. While one is sewing the other one is getting ready, so that the machine never stops running. And you can get additional hoops.

The reason behind the “less is more” of commercial embroidery machines is that more features means more things that could potentially break. And if something breaks on a commercial machine, the machine isn’t running, and the business isn’t making money. The stakes are higher. The machines are kept simple on purpose. If you take a look at a machine from 20 years ago it still looks very much like a machine from today, and where the upgrading is, is on those core functions that you can’t see.

How do you decide between brands?

Probably the number one thing is to buy from a company that makes you feel comfortable. Because you’re just starting out, you’re going to want the support from the company. You’re going to embroider 10 caps in a row and they’re going to look terrible and you’re going to want someone to talk to about why that’s happening.

Also take a look at what the company offers in terms of training. How much training is there?

What type of warranty do they offer? Can you trade in/up your machines? It can be hard to see where your business is going to go in a few years, and if your business grows beyond your first machine, it benefits you and your supplier to be able to trade up for a larger machine.

Can your company grow and still use that supplier for all your needs? You may move beyond just embroidery into bling or DTG, can your supplier also provide you with those machines? It’s less stressful if you only have to work with one supplier for everything you need for your business.

What are the chances that the company is going to be around long-term? There are a lot of acquisitions in the business world, and you want to make sure that the company you’re dealing with is stable, so that you continue to get that support.

Custom T-Shirt Printing

When it comes to t-shirt printing there are multiple options, and that gets challenging.

When you talk to someone who already does one type of t-shirt printing, the have a vested interest in that one method. So they’re going to try to sell you on that method, but that method may not work for the type of work you want to do.

Screen Printing

This is one of the oldest methods for t-shirt printing. Screen-printing has the biggest variance when it comes to cost, from a couple thousand dollars to $100,000. When you’re creating a screen-printed shirt what you’re doing is creating a screen/transparency that you’re going to layout, put your screen-printing ink on it, put your t-shirt underneath, and then you press the screen on top and use a squeegee to drag the ink across the transparency, leaving the ink on the shirt.

The versatility of screen-printing is high. You can print on lots of different types of garments and there are plenty of different types of ink for the different fabrics.

Another benefit to screen-printing is that once you create those screens the ink is fairly cheap, so it’s inexpensive to produce large quantities (this is why screen-printing is used for most retailers).

However, because the screens are what take the most work and cost, it’s not economical to only make less than a dozen of anything. This is why most screen-printers charge a set-up fee.

You also need to store the screens somewhere, so screen-printing requires a little more space. Because of this, and the chemicals needed to clean the screens if you want to reuse them, screen-printing is not a home-office type business.

Screen-printing is ideal for large quantities at a low margin (low cost).

The wash-ability of screen-printed shirts can vary. It can last as long as the shirt, but it can also start to crack after a few washes.

Vinyl

For vinyl you buy sheets of material (different grades & colors) and you run them through a cutting machine that cuts out your designs. So your designsare usually going to be in one color. Then you take that design and put it on a shirt with a heat press.

Getting into vinyl is very inexpensive. A vinyl printer is usually $2-3,000. And it’s quite easy to learn how to do it, and get up and running. You can also do quite a bit with vinyl, from t-shirts to caps, to signs. The fabrics can be cotton or polyester, etc.

The space required for your vinyl machine is simply a desk, and a little storage for the vinyl.

You are limited to one color at a time with vinyl, though it is possible to do some clever things with layering. And you are limited to simple designs/shapes.

Vinyl is a little bit harder to do in large quantities. We’d say a comfortable limit is about 100 t-shirts. You can do more of course, but vinyl is a very manual process – there isn’t any automation.

The wash-ability of vinyl will depend on the quality of vinyl that you buy.

Direct to Garment Printing

A DTG printer is basically an inkjet printer that prints directly onto fabric. Just like you would print something onto a piece of paper a DTG printer works on fabrics. It could be words or images.

DTG printing allows you to print anything onto a cotton shirt. It doesn’t matter how complicated the picture is, with a good DTG printer it’s going to look fantastic. You can get the same resolution that you would with a photo printer.

It also allows you to print just one t-shirt or 50 in a row. There’s no set up for printing the shirt. You simply input the graphic into the software, line up the image for the t-shirt, and press print. If you’re doing multiple shirts, you tell the machine you’re doing 50, and load the shirts one after another. This also allows you to just do one t-shirt to show someone.

The manual work is a little bit less with DTG, because the machine is doing the printing for you and you can be doing other things while it’s happening.

DTG printing can be done from your house. It requires a little more space than a vinyl printer, but can be done in a home office.

With DTG printing it’s not as fast, so if you’re looking for large quantities in a short time frame, screen-printing is a better option. If you’re only doing about 50 shirts DTG tends to be faster.

It doesn’t do a good job printing on polyester – you don’t get consistent results. All of the inks for DTG are made from water, and polyester is plastic, so it doesn’t absorb the ink very well. Cotton will absorb the ink easily. If your business is based on performance-wear most of those are polyester blends, and that would be a good reason not to choose a DTG printer and instead go with one of the other options.

On the maintenance scale, DTG falls in between screen-printing and vinyl. There’s a little bit you need to do every day – 10-15 minutes.

A DTG printer ranges about $15-20,000.

DTG tends to have a really good wash-ability because you’re combining the ink with the garment.

T-Shirt Transfer Printing

There is color laser technology that will allow you to print a full color image on a transfer. Then you can heat press it onto the shirt.

There are a couple ways to do t-shirt transfer printing and one is to do it with the screen-printing set up but you can also make it with a special laser printer and that set-up is around $10,000.

You can do full color, like with DTG. And it’s about as fast to do as DTG.

The biggest disadvantage is that it feels plastic and this can vary a little depending on the transfer. You are literally taking a solid material and applying it to your garment.

The transfer will also deteriorate a little with every wash. You may still get 40 washes with it looking good, just know that over time it won’t look as new.

Sublimation

Similar to your transfer, you print on something, then you put that on the shirt and then apply heat. Then it ‘sublimates’, meaning that it goes from a solid to a gas. That gas goes onto the shirt, and when you lift the transfer up the design is no longer on the transfer, but in the shirt – similar to how DTG would feel.

Sublimation is only possible on polyester.

The learning curve is fairly low. The cost of a sublimation machine is similar to a T-shirt transfer printing machine, so still a reasonable investment.

You need to make sure the type of garment you are buying is going to work with this type of printing. And you need to take into consideration that the ink you are working with is not water based – it’s chemicals, so you need to think about ventilation and disposal.

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Whatever type of t-shirt business you decide to start there are a variety of ways. All have advantages and disadvantages. You have to pick what’s going to be good for you, with your budget, your studio/workspace, how long it’ll take you to learn, what materials are you going to work with, who are you going to sell to, what the market is. What works best for you?