Holy Amazing Apparel

Copyright © 2005 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in July 2005, Volume 31, No. 1 of The Engravers Journal
  From short sleeve to long sleeve, everyone loves their T-shirts! From top to bottom photos courtesy of Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN; Imprintables Warehouse, Masontown, PA; Hanes Printables, Winston-Salem, NC; The Denali Company, Red Bank, NJ; TR Distributors, Portland, ME and Hanes Printables.  

You’ve been hearing it for ages: sublimation is “BAM” “WHAM” sizzlin! Pretty much everyone wears clothes, so sublimated apparel has almost universal appeal. And, it can bring lots of dollars your way. Did you know the world of sublimated apparel extends well beyond the ever popular t-shirt? The options are nearly endless, and there’s something available to cater to your specific clientele and region. Perhaps you’ve wanted to get your feet wet in sublimation, but have lots of questions. Or perhaps you already do some sublimation but would like to expand into apparel. If you’re thinking of jumping in with both feet, this article is for you. From what’s hot to marketing tips, from finding your audience to pricing your stuff correctly and general tips from the pros, this is the article you need to get rolling. Sublimated apparel, here we come!

  Mini Tees from Paramount Services, Inc. Mirmar, FL, are a hot new item.  

“HOLY” Profits & More
    If you’ve been toying with the idea of sublimating apparel, but you’re not convinced you should really do it, let us convince you.
    One of the main reasons to start sublimating apparel is profit. Sublimation can generate huge profits—we’ve heard estimates of anywhere from 40% to 300% over cost, depending on the market. “As with any business, most people tend to get out of it what they are willing to put into it,” says Steve Thompson at Paramount Services. “This is an industry that works well for part-time home businesses.” But, he adds, the work won’t necessarily come rolling in—you have to look for it. “Going after the business instead of waiting for it to come to you makes a huge difference in the overall profitability,” he explains, adding that taking steps to minimize shipping and discounts for quantity purchasing can help maximize your bottom line.
    Carol Gibson of Laser Reproductions adds another hint: “Your costs are higher, and your profits may be a little lower if you try selling sublimatable apparel to your regular T-shirt market. The key is to find new niches that are less price-sensitive.”
    If you’re already set up to sublimate, you don’t need much (if any) special equipment to begin sublimating apparel. According to Jennifer Gibson, marketing communications specialist at Sawgrass, “The great thing about sublimation is that you can use the same system to decorate a variety of substrates.” So if you’re already sublimating, all you need is the proper apparel to sublimate on. “Sublimation inks transfer best to 100% polyester or micro-fiber light-colored material,” she says, though you might also achieve success with cotton-polyester blends.
    It can be helpful to have a special heat press if you wish to sublimate items like hats or gym bags. But basically, the only special consideration for printing flat items is to make sure you have a large enough heat press. If you do decide to forge ahead with sublimating apparel, you can always start small and work your way into the more complicated items that require special equipment.

Nite Shirts from Paramount Services, Inc. can be customized for a special family event.    

Another fun option comes to you from Condé Systems, Mobile, AL, in the form of a sublimatable necktie.

Awesome “KAPOW” Apparel Options
    Although sublimation has been around for years, there hasn’t always been a lot of options as to what you can put the bold, bright colors of sublimation onto. All that is changing for the better. While traditionally there was one style of shirt in limited colors available, “Now there is a wide variety of styles and colors of sublimatable apparel available, and the selection will only continue to grow,” says Sawgrass’ Jennifer Gibson. “With the advancement of technology and the wider choice of apparel, there is no better time to get into sublimation.”
    Clothing that “wicks”—that is, draws perspiration away from the skin and transfers it to the outside of the garment, leaving the wearer comfortable and dry—is all the rage these days. “Thankfully,” says Denali’s Ken Lindemann, “the consumer is in love with wicking garments and one need only to visit a local sporting goods store to see the prices the big name brands are commanding.” TR Distributors and Johnson Plastics both offer Vapor Apparel, a high-performance line of shirts that uses “wicking technology” designed to keep a person cool in the summer and warm in winter. Condé’s DyeTrans moisture management performance fabric, also a type of wicking apparel, is touted as offering superior comfort and excellent transfer characteristics.
    Yet another option in wicking apparel is from the Denali Company, their Performance Apparel features WIKZ Evaporative Cooling Technology. These garments are made of 100% micro-fiber polyester. The special yarn used in the fabric contains a permanent wicking ability that can’t be laundered out. Says Denali’s Lindemann, “WIKZ is a permanent and durable system that will last the lifetime of the garment,”—a good selling point and a way to increase the sales price in the end.
    But perhaps your customers don’t sweat? If you’re looking for something other than high-tech apparel, it’s time to think pink! Pink clothing has swept the runways and fashion markets recently, even for men, and it has made its way into the world of sublimated apparel too. Denali offers a ladies’ V-neck short sleeve shirt in candy pink that Lindemann says is “hot, hot, hot!” He goes on to explain that the shirts are selling great, and the pink color takes the sublimated images unbelievably. Stahls’ website contains an entire article about the recent success of pink: “No matter the shade, some recent sales figures strongly support the feeling that there is much more to pink than Cadillacs and flamingos. Massachusetts-based apparel retailer J. Jill reported that pink accounted for 40% of its first-quarter sales in 2004.” And the article continues, “although we may never see a men’s professional sports franchise don pink jerseys, pink is starting to creep its way into athletic uniforms. ‘There are a lot more people playing ball, so more colors are needed,’ says David Stacks, marketing director for Augusta Sportswear. Some of the newer popular colors include orange, purple, teal—and even pink for women’s sports.”
    When you’re not thinking pink, think seasonal. Paramount Services’ Steve Thompson explains that their apparel sales often mirror the season or holiday. “Our jackets did well over winter,” he says, “and of course boxers were big for Valentine’s Day.” The possibilities are truly endless when you start to consider the various holidays, and celebrations (official or not) that you can direct your apparel sales to (see the sidebar for more ideas).
    Other options you may want to consider offering run the gamut from pet clothing to neckties, and everything in between. Paramount Services is offering a “Mini Tee,” which comes with a hanger and suction cup for easy display: “At only six inches long, it won’t fit many people but it will work on a variety of dolls and stuffed animals!” says Thompson. The company also offers a sublimatable women’s Nite Shirt for sleeping, in addition to “BratDawg pet shirts” and lab coats.
    Hanes T-shirts, the original sublimatable apparel, are still one of the most popular items around. “It’s a soft, heavyweight fabric designed for dye-sublimation transfer printing,” explains Condé’s Todd Till. The shirts are available for men, women and children, and are available in sizes XS to 3XL. The newest version of the Soft L’ink tee comes with long sleeves, a great choice for colder climates or winter months.
    So you say that none of those choices float your boat? Condé also offers caps and visors, towels, aprons and tote bags. A visit to Paramount Services reveals jackets, wind shirts (designed to block the wind), boxers, and pet shirts. Laser Reproductions can get you neckties. Whatever apparel you need, you can probably find it somewhere. And if you can’t, suggest it! The world of sublimated apparel is only growing, and chances are if you’d like to offer it, someone else out there would too.

These mini aprons from Paramount Services, Inc. are always a hit at the annual Bar-B-Q.  

Getting Started “WHAMM”
    The nice thing about adding apparel to your line of sublimated items is, if you have already invested in sublimation equipment, you don’t actually have to buy anything special to get started. There are tools that will help ease the process, but if you want to sublimate T-shirts with the heat press you already own, you’re basically good to go.
    Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking a little advice from those who’ve been there, either. Denali’s Ken Lindemann recommends using a Teflon pillow for the bottom of the press and a Teflon top sheet to place over the shirt or garment. These act as cushions during pressing, and if done properly, can help you avoid leaving an outline on the shirt where the outside edge of the heat platen touches the shirt. The insert can also help prevent blow-through, which occurs when the dye molecules transfer through to the other side of the shirt. Condé’s Todd Till also has a few suggestions for tools that can make sublimating apparel easier:
    • Spray or heat tape: Holds the garment in place to eliminate movement, which can cause shadows.
    • Adhesive lint roller: Removes the infamous “blue lint” (any lint that, once heated, turns permanently blue).
    • Unscented dryer sheets: Rubbed over the garment, they help remove static electricity that keeps lint stuck to the shirt, so the lint roller works better.
    • Scorch remover: A mixture of peroxide and water that you can spray on a scorch mark (and then reheat the area) to remove the mark.
    • Uncoated butcher paper: Can be used instead of Teflon to cushion the shirts, as Teflon sometimes traps moisture and can lead to blurry transfers.
    The pros had a few other technical tips for newbies who are just getting into apparel sublimation. “Be sure to press your substrate long enough,” says Till. “Ask your distributor for instructions. In addition, I recommend measuring your press temperature with a metal candy thermometer and recalibrating as necessary.” The Hanes website has a handy list of suggestions, including keeping your heat press clean, as residual ink on the press can result in “stray” transfers and possibly ruin the garment—which is money out the door for you. Geo Knight’s Aaron Knight recommends using digital controls. “Because of the longer dwell times and precise temperature requirements, results are much more consistent and there is less loss with digital heat presses,” he says.
Going Graphic “ZOWIE”
    “From talking with numerous small businesses, we know that artwork is the biggest hurdle for entering the T-shirt market,” explains Hanes’ Victoria Hatcher. “The graphic sells the shirt—it all starts with the design.” To make your search easier, Hanes has put together a CD of SublimationMaker software, which contains thousands of ready-made designs for all occasions. You can purchase the CD from sublimation-blanks distributors, or try a free trial for 15 days by E-mailing Todd Till at Condé (ttill@condé.com).
    Unisub’s “Designs for U” is a CD collection for Corel users. It contains more than 250 graphics, organized by market segment. Yet another option you may want to consider is the image library available from www.smartdesigns.com. If none of those options are the solution for you, Aaron Knight from Geo. Knight & Company recommends trying an Internet search for CD catalogs of common T-shirt designs. And although Paramount Services doesn’t offer any graphics, Steve Thompson explains that they’ll be happy to offer suggestions on the type of graphics or images to use. Also, he adds, sublimators “should make sure they have a good graphics program and some basic skills in order to properly prepare someone’s photo for imprinting, whether it is simply cropping the image, adding text, or any other special effects. Needless to say, these are also factors to be taken into consideration when it comes to pricing.”

Boxers from Paramount Services are still a trendy item.  

HOLY” Marketing Madness
How to market?
    Once you’ve decided to sublimate and sell apparel, how do you get the word out? “Focus on sampling,” says Denali’s Lindemann. “The key is to make the sample and present it to the prospective target account.” TR Distributors recommends focusing on the vibrant, full-color aspect of sublimation, as well as the possibilities with customization.
    Jennifer Gibson, at Sawgrass, explains that a sublimated piece of clothing should be sold as a premium product. “It has tremendous wash-fastness, no hand or “feel” to the image, and the color looks brilliant. It is the decorating choice for customers who are looking for short-run, full-color photographic images on their apparel. For example, it’s perfect for a customer planning a family reunion who wants to order 20 T-shirts with a full-color family photograph. It might not be cost effective for a screen printer to create screens for only 20 shirts. Sublimation is the solution!”
    Till advises placing the customer’s artwork on as many substrates as possible. For example, a customer who wants a sublimated shirt might also be interested in a tote bag, mousepad, puzzle, mug, etc. “You should pitch package deals whenever possible. Make sure that the customer is surrounded by samples of other products when they visit you.”
    Despite all of your preparations, you may run into objections when you try out sublimated apparel on your customers. Carol Gibson at Laser Reproductions mentions a few: “While buyers love the idea of custom-printing apparel using sublimation, in reality A) most people prefer the cotton apparel to polyester, and B) the high price of the sublimatable clothing can be a real barrier. Even buyers who love the quality of the Hanes Soft L’ink product tell us not all customers are willing to pay that much for a T-shirt.”
    To combat the first objection, Gibson suggests offering cotton or 50-50 blends. (You must use special sublimation paper—available from Laser Reproductions and many other suppliers—to sublimate onto anything other than 100% polyester fabric.) “These papers enable customers to sublimate onto 100% cotton and 50-50 blend fabrics, in both dark and light colors,” she says, cautioning that there is some “hand” to products printed with this paper that you won’t get with polyester. “However, the materials are less expensive and color output and washability are both excellent.”
    You might be able to avoid objections to price by not targeting sublimated apparel to your normal apparel customers. Says Gibson, “Restaurants, particularly any with an identifying theme, or businesses serving the tourist industry, frequently sell apparel items to customers who may be less price-sensitive.” You might also try looking for car clubs and smaller organizations where customized and personalized items in smaller quantities are a great fit, suggests Paramount Services’ Thompson. “Being able to image apparel with, say, a car or boat that is someone’s pride and joy is a huge draw.”
Many people are familiar with Unisub’s Marketing Modules; a package with specific modules (school, sports, etc.) designed to help you market sublimated items. And you may also want to check out The Sublimation Network, which is a two-day seminar to help you learn to be successful with your sublimation business, offered through sublimation distributors across the country.
Who to target?
    When it comes to looking for an audience for your sublimated apparel, niche markets are the name of the game. Veterinarians, groomers, pet shops, restaurants (for aprons and uniforms), schools, churches, local causes and campaigns, businesses…everyone is a potential target. Laser Reproductions suggests checking with your local Chamber of Commerce for new members who might be looking to promote their business, image, name or brand. Denali’s Ken Lindemann provides an example: “We have many customers who sublimate our shirts and market them to local gyms where they’re resold to the gym’s members as workout shirts. Other customers focus on running clubs and marathon events. This area is absolutely huge, with some events claiming more than 15,000 participants!”
    The possibilities are truly endless, so take a look around at your own community and what needs you might be able to fill.
Determining mark-up
    Now that you know how to market and to whom you should market your newly sublimated apparel, how do you know how much to charge for it? Many things affect profit, including your equipment, the amount of coverage and design you’re using, and the area you live in. Jennifer Gibson of Sawgrass recommends a few more things to consider, including your design time, the cost of goods involved, and the personalized value to the customer.
    “Time is money,” she says, “and you want to be compensated appropriately for your time. If the customer is requesting an image that’s going to require you to tweak, edit, clean up, etc., you may want to consider charging a design fee.
    “To determine your cost of goods, you should factor in your imaging cost and the cost of the apparel. That will give you a rough idea of how much it costs you to produce that product. Your imaging cost, or the cost of ink and paper used, depends on the size and saturation of the image, the printer used and the paper used. Your ink/paper supplier should be able to provide you with some guidelines to ascertain this cost.
    “The most important pricing element,” she concludes, “is the value you’re providing to the customer. Because the product is unique to the individual, you should expect to receive a premium price.”
    Aaron Knight of Geo Knight & Company provides this specific example. “Individual customers who are ordering very customized, full-color photographic imprinting on a small quantity of shirts (less than a few dozen) should be charged the most. A $5 high quality sublimated shirt with $1.50 worth of ink and paper can easily be sold for $17 to $35 per piece. For higher quantities and easier, smaller coverage designs (less ink); the price will typically drop down to $10 to $20 per unit, again depending on coverage and quantity. Obviously polo shirts, sweatshirts and more elaborate garments will demand a higher price as well.”
    One more consideration is for those who work out of home, according to Paramount’s Steve Thompson. One trap that many home-based business owners fall into is thinking that overhead is lower and they can therefore sell their products for less. “While that may be true to some extent, many factors are overlooked in a home-based environment that should be taken into consideration, just as any store front or commercial location would. One should never be afraid to ask the going rate just because they work from home. Besides, should they move to a commercial location, it’s always harder to go up in price than to stay the same or go down in volume, and many aspire to do just that.”
Tips from the Pros “BAM-ZOK”
    If you’ve gotten this far, you’re seriously considering adding sublimated apparel to your line, and these final words of counsel may be gold in helping you get started.
    Determine your market and profitability, suggests Laser Reproductions’ Gibson. Is there enough of either to warrant adding it to your line? Assess your capabilities, too, she adds. Do you have the resources needed to add this product to your line and market it successfully? Finally, make sure you can get and keep enough product in stock to meet your projected demand. “We get calls every week from buyers frantically looking for a popular item that always seems to be out of stock. In this case, the bottleneck seems to be with the garment manufacturer. Does your supplier keep enough product on hand to serve you, or can he or she get it quickly?”
    Do your homework! And practice! says Paramount’s Steve Thompson. “Sublimation is a process fraught with variables and often has a steep learning curve. Keep a notebook handy and jot down the particulars when you achieve the results you’re happy with. It makes for a quick and easy reference when doing the same item again down the road.”
    Also, he continues, be prepared to experiment. While most sublimatable fabrics require the same time, temperature and pressure, you may have variables when dealing with things like zippers and seams that require special handling. To get the most vibrant image, with the correct colors, he suggests practicing on 100% polyester available at any fabric store or shops like Wal-Mart. “Several yards should be all that’s needed to make sure your images are correct, and it’s certainly cheaper than actually pressing substrates that might not come out right at first.” Along these lines, you can purchase special sublimatable fabric squares from Hanes for testing, which can be handy to use as an enclosure in mailings.
    Now that you’ve got the tools you need to get started with sublimatable apparel, what are you waiting for? The world of color awaits you: it’s time to get “ZAP, WHAMMY, KABAMING!