Designers’ Guide to the Apparel Printing Industry

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printed t-shirt

Over the last couple of years the GoMediaZine has been a cookie jar full of tips, tutorials & practical advice about designing for apparel. There have been in depth tutorials, lots of inspiration, a fantastic three-part series full of experience & advice – we even showed you how to ‘Make it look like Affliction‘. And just in these last couple of months, we showed you how to make photorealistic mockups of your apparel designs.

So by now you should have a few solid t-shirt designs under your belt (not yet? maybe some jealousy will motivate?). Maybe you’ve done work for a hot band and the shirts are already printed for the tour. More likely, you created a pretty gnarly design for your personal portfolio & need to get it printed.

Now you’ve got some decisions to make, and probably a whole bunch of questions.

  • What are some qualities of a t-shirt that actually sells?
  • What kind of file prep should I do before sending the file to print?
  • What are the newest printing techniques?
  • How do other designers get those huge pieces printed?

First of all, this post is not going to give encyclopedic answers to all of these questions. It WILL provide priceless insight from the front lines of the apparel industry that will get you heading down the right path.

Our Starting Line-up

I talked to five major players in the apparel printing industry to shed some light on that critical component – printing. Lucky for us, everyone was game and took time to share anecdotes & advice they’ve accumulated while working in the industry. A big thanks to everybody!

Corey Bramlett RTI Brands
Scott Millikin Sunburst Apparel
Nirav Dhruv NND Designs
Jeff Weisenberg JakPrints
Rodney Blackwell T-ShirtForums.com

T-shirt Trends to Watch in 2009

Knowing what’s coming around the corner is a sure way to stay ahead of the pack (stock drop ’08 anyone?). I asked what the view was from the front lines of the printing industry and got some surprising responses.

For example, we receive tons of emails from designers wanting to know where to find a good “All Over” printer to produce their huge design. The over-sized t-shirt has been extremely popular for awhile now in communities like emptees.

That’s why it surprised me when Corey from Raw Talent said that the over-sized t-shirts might be on their way out. He sees

“…designs pulling back from the large, over-sized, gaudy prints (a la Affliction/Ed Hardy) to a more subtle piece that still makes as big of a statement.” - Corey Bramlett

Nirav Dhruv from NND echoes Corey with the decidedly simple answer “Simple sells”. Styles go through cycles too, and it’s quite possible that these guys will eventually be proved correct. Most of the time an influential group will spin an old style in a new way. Every so often something truly original comes along. And Scott Millikin from Sunburst Apparel wants to see more of it.

I think the t-shirt lines with the most original ideas will come out on top. Affliction uses a lot of belt, post printing with glitter inks, foils – things like that. The people that can take an idea and just run with it like Affliction and Ed Hardy will always help inspire a million other designers to see what they can do. – Scott Millikin

wings

Now I don’t think Scott wants any more Affliction clones. He wants designers to follow their lead & momentarily take over the industry with something new.

Luckily new (and cheaper) technology should make the cool techniques available to a much wider audience, increasing the chance for some new style to emerge. Like purevolume & myspace gave garage bands an international audience – new & cheaper print processes will let young, broke designers get into the t-shirt industry. Jeff Weisenberg of Jakprints puts it best:

Many of the specialty processes that were once reserved for the larger companies will available to the everyday customer. Foils, 3-dimensional prints, custom tag printing, all of these options have been made available to the 15 year kid who wants to start an apparel company with little start up money. What was once reserved for companies like Alphanumeric and Echo, younger designers are able to come to a company like Jakprints and produce a product that rivals these mammoth companies. The street level customers are giving larger companies a run for their money.
-Jeff Weisenberg

Phew! So much optimism, and more to come! Rodney from T-ShirtForums.com went all Karen Carpenter when he said the T-shirt craze has only just begun. Freshmen clothing lines start your engines!

There are many t-shirt brands, printers and suppliers who have yet to take full advantage of what the internet has to offer. The more that “get it”, the more choices us t-shirt junkies will have when shopping for cool t-shirts online or finding a great t-shirt printer.
-Rodney Blackwell

Optimism & excitement about the future of the online apparel industry seems to be a persistent theme among the interviewees.

Do you have an unusual artistic vision or a knack for hard-hitting cultural sarcasm? Your future apparel line could be part of the continued growth predicted by industry veterans.

They’ve Seen it All

Social design portals like Emptees & Threadless are a great place to see a lot of shirts & get ideas. But think about the guys running the print shops. They’re browsing inspiration all day, every day. Plus, they see it from a different angle – they see the good, the bad, and they know which designs actually move off the shelves. They work with fantastic veteran designers and complete newcomers. When I asked them what advice they would give to a young designer, they didn’t hold back.

Understanding the limitations of apparel print techniques while still maximizing the potential of the medium was an overriding theme echoed by the experts. T-shirts are not posters, brochures, or websites. You’ve got to account for the medium.

A formal (or industry) education is the best thing a designer can have in their arsenal. It is very unfortunate when an artist’s vision does not line up with technical capabilities. The more knowledge of these capabilities by the designer and how to apply that knowledge to their designs will result in a better product as well as a more efficient and effective production experience.
-Corey Bramlett

Jeff Weisenberg shares some specific things to avoid when designing for apparel. These are the kinds of things that might take a designer a few strikeouts to learn – so take notes!

The biggest mistake young designers make is not taking into consideration that a t-shirt is not flat. A t-shirt is 3-dimensional and you must think about what graphics and placements would look like when the apparel is being worn. Be aware that extremely detailed areas in an image may be lost when applied to the t-shirts. Also – use the color of the apparel in your graphic! You may be able to save a couple bucks by using the apparel color instead of adding another ink color. - Jeff Weisenberg

A couple of the guys really underscored the importance of knowing your audience & designing for a niche. Here’s what Rodney Blackwell had to say:

Know your niche. Whether you’re into robots or funny slogans, the more you can master your “thing”, I think the better off you’ll be in the long run. -Rodney Blackwell

File Prep Tips from the Pros

Yes, this is a complex topic that could fill several other posts. Still, I was curious what kind of major problems screen printers would like to rant about if asked. Following these basic tips will save you time & money – and make sure that your vision actually makes it to the presses.

Vector-created art is by far the best. Any Photoshop file must be at least 300 dpi. All text should be converted to outlines. Submission on a template is always best. Make sure all designs are the correct size, or if vector, the correct size is noted. Make sure all ink colors/PMS are noted in the art file. It is also great to see special notes noted in the art file. -Corey Bramlett

Jeff Weiseberg wisely suggested that you invest in a Pantone guide. I checked around, you can grab one on eBay or Amazon for between $30 and $70 – a worthwhile investment.

ebay pantone book

Make it Look Like That: A Guide to Apparel Printing Methods

So you see a shirt on our portfolio and think “That’s impossible to print!” Well, actually, it can be done – you just need the right process (and budget!).

There are enough techniques, processes & options out there to make your head spin like the girl in the Exorcist. Personally, I am pretty clueless about the all the different processes, compatible materials, average costs – everything. There is a lot to learn, but if there was one point that resonated among the printing experts, it was take the time to understand this stuff.

For a very detailed knowledge base of apparel printing techniques, check out this section of T-ShirtForums.com (resume head spinning & swearing in other languages). If you’re starting from scratch all of this info probably seems a little daunting. So I asked our panel to narrow it down for us – what are the main techniques that are gaining popularity?

Here are the trendy techniques according to Corey Bramlett:

Soft-hand (Discharge, Water-based, and fashion base) is by far the most requested and produced by us. Over-sized printing is obviously very popular.
The best way to choose is to get as educated as possible about the techniques and processes.
We even offer a really cool service call we call “Print Architecture” where we help designers “build” their piece maximizing the effectiveness of our specialty methods.
-Corey Bramlett

I asked Corey for some more details about “Print Architecture”, but didn’t hear back in time. I’ll update the post when new details emerge. I actually stumbled upon a great resource on one of Raw Talent’s subsites, FashionLab. This Methods Page categorizes print techniques with designer-friendly lingo, making it pretty easy to understand.


Scott Millikin from Sunburst added:

Right now I think the big trend is foils, glitters, metallics, studs, bling-bling. You can do pretty much anything; it just comes down to price. -Scott Millikin

Back in January, Rodney Blackwell participated in the The Imprinted Sportswear Show at Long Beach. He suggests that one of the best ways to learn about printing techniques is to attend a trade show & see the stuff demonstrated in person (not to mention cracking jokes & shaking hands).

At these shows you get to see all the different t-shirt printing techniques up close and personal. You can see all the specialty screen printing inks and how they are used to make cool effects on t-shirts. You’ll see the advances that digital printing has made. You’ll see how plastisol heat transfers and vinyl heat transfers can be used to create some of the same effects you see on high end brands. On top of that, you’ll get a first hand look at the latest fashion blank t-shirt brands and styles, with a chance to feel the quality first hand. This can be a HUGE help when trying to find that perfect blank t-shirt to compliment your designs.
-Rodney Blackwell

Ready to take the next step in learning about printing techniques & methods? Try reading through Pros & Cons of Each T-Shirt Printing Method.

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Ok. So who wants to print my 14 color design?

Not all print shops are created equal. You’ve probably discovered this while shopping around and wondering how everyone else does it. Well, the printers that are part of this interview are here for a reason – they’re at the top of their industry. If you need some crazy complex print professionally produced, look no further than:

This is not a complete list. For that you’ll want to head over to T-ShirtForums for their running list of printers able to handle complex designs..

The (second to) Last Word

I couldn’t pigeonhole this tip into a category, but it seemed pretty darn valuable nonetheless.

Okay, here’s who actually get’s the last word — YOU! I’ve asked our great panel to keep an eye on the comments & swoop in to answer your questions or ideas. We’re up & running with the new Disqus Commenting Service, so let it rip! Questions! Resources! Experiences! Recommendations! I can’t wait to hear what you have to say.

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About the Author, Adam Wagner

I'm a marketer, designer, armchair singer/songwriter, wannabe theoretical physicist/philosopher and recent college grad trying to pack as much living as possible into each day. Working at Go Media makes this pretty easy. Catch me on Twitter!!

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