Tailoring your business for on-trend clothing work

Digital technologies disrupt supply chains – including print – and establish new structures and new paradigms. However, there are some markets where the barriers to entry will not be demolished just by trumpeting the D-word.

Unfortunately – despite what some faddish print pundits predict – fashion is not a market where a print firm with a graphic arts background can sashay in and steal a rail full of top-end clients with nothing more than a wide-format printer and some supermodel swagger.

For a start, the very high-end brands have made the switch with their incumbent European fabric printing suppliers. High-street fashion, on the other hand, is manufactured in Asia or North Africa and is so price sensitive that it’s unlikely to be on-shored.

However, some garment markets are worth printers hanging their coats on. In particular in B2B promotional wear, uniforms, and sports and social club kit. Then there’s a whole other world of consumer printing, from the arty amateur designers, through to stag and hen parties. For quick printers and copyshops on the high street, existing relationships and passing trade may elicit enough work to make investing in direct-to-garment (DTG) printing, which is the technology of choice for these markets worthwhile. For other printers too it may represent an as yet untapped need as part of the small business branding and marketing services that they offer. 

What technology is there now available for DTG printing?

The term DTG covers any image printed onto a pre-made item of clothing; it’s mostly t-shirts but also hoodies, polo shirts and shorts. The key thing is that the substrate is a garment rather than a piece of cloth that is subsequently cut to shape and sewn together. If you were being totally prescriptive then DTG printing would refer solely to direct printing, but it may also be applied to dye-sub prints where the image is transferred 

“I’ve learned not to think in terms of too rigid segments,” says Epson Europe head of Pro Graphics Duncan Ferguson, whose client YrStore is running DTG production in-store at a number of branches of Top Shop around the UK. Although Epson offers a dedicated DTG printer, the SC-F2000, YrStore has opted to use the manufacturer’s SC-F6000 dye-sublimation printer. 

How does it improve on previous technology? 

Prior to the latest crop of DTG devices there were other digital production methods for short runs and one-offs, such as using laser printers to produce transfers. The problem with using those materials is the need to manually ‘weed’ out non-image areas prior to making the transfer.

“Prior to buying our direct-to-garment printers, everything was a compromise,” says Steve Winn, director of T-Shirt Foundry, which trades as Streetshirts. “Using a transfer process, we couldn’t predict the time it would take to do a job.”

In the worst case artwork would take so long to weed that labour costs would exceed the job’s value. There were other problems too. 

“If we got a bulk order for a complicated design it would tie up the factory for a whole day,” says Winn.  “Sometimes we’d have to turn away other work.”

With DTG the company can comfortably print 500-1,000 t-shirts per day, whereas previously it could, at a push, get 250 out. 

“That sort of volume day in and day out was unsustainable,” says Winn. “Realistically, if we did 150-200 per day, it was a lot. Now that is two hours work.”

Who offers DTG machinery?

DTG is manufactured by Anajet, Brother, Epson & Kornit. Other equipment is available based around modified Epson printers and third-party inks, often from DuPont or Resolute DTG. 

Epson is well known across inkjet printing. Anajet is a US business, its rugged mPower machines use Ricoh heads.

Kornit is an Israeli specialist in DTG printing. Brother, while little known in graphic arts, produces sewing and embroidery equipment for the garment industry and has been in the DTG market for several years. 

Sales tend to be via specialist resellers such as RA Smart and DTG Solutions, which sells Epson equipment, and J&B Sewing Machine equipment for Anajet and Brother. 

What are the costs?

Epson’s SC-F2000 machine costs £12,500 while Kornit’s entry-level machine is about £32,000. In addition to the printer itself there is the need for ancillary equipment including pre-treatment and dryers. Pre-treatment at its most basic can be applied by brush. For higher volumes and to ensure greater consistency pre-treatment machines automate the process. Or, as in Kornit’s case, the pre-treatment is integrated with the printer. Drying varies from using a heat press, which start at a few hundred pounds, through to automated tunnel dryers, which start from around £3,000.

When deciding on which equipment to buy it’s important to consider the associated running costs such as ink and staffing and projected production volumes to ensure you get the right set-up. Winn argues that you don’t need to invest in the equipment, at least not initially. 

“There are companies that have a market but not the demand or desire to install their own machines,” he says. “Our customer base includes clients who plug into our system and whose products go out under blank packaging.” 

Who in the UK is branching out here? What are their core skills?

There are three groups of firms entering DTG: existing garment decorators, printers looking to offer a wider product range and entrepreneurial firms using DTG to develop a disruptive business models. 

Epson’s Ferguson estimates that 50% of the market are screen printers and embroiderers looking to fill gaps in their current offering, 30% printers with no previous garment or textile expertise, and 20% are those ‘leftfield’ start-ups, such as YrStore.

“Some 80% are adding a new service to their operations but there is also some cannibalism of other firms’ client bases,” he says. 

Kornit European marketing manager Oliver Luedtke sees a similar pattern and for him the digital printers have a head start.

“They have a lot of knowledge in crucial areas such as file formats, RIPs, colour management and digital economics,” he says. 

What are the technical challenges of DTG?

While digital printers may have more knowledge, the stumbling block they face is getting to grips with the properties of the garments. 

“The quality of the shirt is key for successful printing – it’s not an area to scrimp on,” says Luedtke. 

Some dealers may offer products that vary from batch to batch – being sourced from completely different suppliers, making ensuring consistent quality impossible. 

Producing images on darker coloured clothes requires white ink, which is expensive and it can be a challenge to ensure it doesn’t clog heads or separate out. An added complication in garment printing is the possibility of colour migration from the base colour to the white. Again, it comes down to testing garments, printers and inks.

Picking the right equipment for your operation is also vital. The right choice will depend on your circumstances and preferences, so it pays to benchmark in-house skills and staffing needs when looking at the kit and the consumables costs. As with most digital kit, a lower up-front cost may well mean higher ink prices, which, if your business takes off, may limit your profits. 

Kornit integrates pre-treatment with printing, so there is no need for a pre-treatment stage, while the other vendors require pre-treatment to be applied by the PSP. This makes Kornit’s kit more expensive up front but it argues, ensures consistency and lower staff costs.

What are the challenges of creating a route to market?

Route to market is an important factor. If you want to go beyond a business-to-business audience then the best shop window is not necessarily on the high street but online. 

“B2C needs to be online, and having a good webshop is a pre-requisite,” says Luedtke. “The printer is an enabler, there is so much more to consider around the business model and your supply chain.”

While printers may not be able to make a fortune out of fashion – either at the high end or the high street, if they have the right clients it’s possible to make a profit out of the more workaday and work wear. 

Case study T-Shirt Foundry

Founded in 2002 when director Steve Winn saw the potential market for people to print their own designs on t-shirts, online business T-Shirt Foundry (now trading as Streetshirts) began while he was still at university. 

Initially production was outsourced but in 2006 the firm invested in its own transfer press and started production, initially on white and later onto dark garments. 

At the start of this year it went to Printwear & Promotion to look at DTG kit to solve its production problems. It opted for the Kornit Breeze, and now runs four machines. Winn appreciates the integrated pre-treatment and print process used in the Kornit.

“It’s a one-step process,” says Winn. “The Kornits may be more expensive than other DTG printers but they are two machines in one.”

The integration of pre-treatment and print means consistent production times, so it’s easy to predict and plan capacity. Ease of use means one operator can run multiple machines. Although the capex for a Kornit is higher than rivals, Winn believes the ink cost per garment is lower, which means more margin for the firm, especially as volumes increase.

Print technology is only part of the secret to the success of the T-Shirt Foundry. Having a good web interface was key to becoming established.

“Software used to be a differentiator,” he says. “Now e-commerce and online design tools can be bought off-the-shelf for relatively low cost, it’s all about providing the best service.”

The right printers help; fast and predictable throughput means the firm can offer a 24-hour, and when needed, same-day service, guaranteeing that orders received by 2pm can be on the courier at 7pm for next-day delivery.

“Our standard service is others’ rush service,” says Winn. “And 60% of our production is same-day.”


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