Scoring More Sales With Specialty Garment Decorating
Want to broaden the array of decorating options you can offer your customers? Then check out the collection of specialty decorating technologies discussed here and find out how you can use them to expand your bottom line.
There’s no better way to inspire customer loyalty and attract new business than setting your business apart from your competitors. This age-old challenge is what has driven garment screen printers since their first day of business.
Specialty apparel-decorating techniques are one proven way that you can offer something that your competitors do not. One of the nice things about some of the techniques we’ll consider in this article is that they offer screen printers a way to take designs they do every day, like a plain vanilla corporate logo, and give it a fashion flair as seen on apparel sold by the most popular retailers in any mall. As corporations strive to capture attention with their identity apparel, a new fashion look can ensure more people want and wear the shirts.
Some of the following techniques also may allow a shop to go after new markets, which is a great way to increase business and generate more profits. A big trend in the retail and resort markets, as well as with younger demographics, is glitz, glitter, and bling. Many specialty decorating techniques offer screen printers a chance to attract business from these groups and many others. Let’s take a look at several techniques that can bring new opportunities to your shop.
Laser bridge technology
With the emergence of laser bridge technology, decorators will find all kinds of ways to make a bold statement or add a little fashion to designs. Examples include the distressed appliqué look made popular by retailers such as Abercrombie and Fitch and Hollister. Other possibilities include intricate designs, detailed appliqués, and reverse appliqués that can be done in an unlimited number of fabric choices to excite the customer’s senses.
With the capability to do laser cutting and etching, a laser bridge system offers the ability to combine techniques and create unique pieces with dramatic appeal. A laser bridge allows a shop to broaden the variety of apparel embellishments it can provide and use them in tandem with current formats for an explosion of multimedia designs.
A laser bridge is a computer-driven machine that consists of a gantry built over a multihead embroidery machine (Figure 1). The laser unit travels along this precision gantry or beam using gears in a fluid motion with precise accuracy. Taking its instructions from the computer’s input, the laser stops at each embroidery head to perform one of two tasks: laser cutting or etching. It moves in 0.1-mm increments tracked through highly engineered galvanometric mirrors performing on an X/Y axis.
For each job, material settings, also referred to as recipes, are developed through a combination of power, velocity, repeats, height, and delay. A series of circles are burned at different settings until the proper combination is identified for that particular fabric or job parameter. Once determined, the setting can be saved for future applications minimizing future setup times.
With proper settings, appliqués can be cut in single or multiple layers. The process hugely reduces the time by eliminating most, if not all, of the pre-appliqué work. What once may have taken two hours to produce using traditional methods can now easily be achieved in less than 15 minutes.
Laser bridge applications
One of the greatest applications for a laser bridge machine is appliqué. Appliqués, as we know them, are mostly simple in shape and material choices. This is done to make placement and sewing easier. But, imagine if you were free to create designs as narrow as 3 mm? How about multiple layers for a true three-dimensional look and feel? These can easily be achieved with laser technology.
To simplify the concept of appliqué, one can take an existing print design and turn it into a very interesting and different product. For example, one research project our company conducted came from a customer who wanted to enhance one of his screen-printed designs so it could be sold at a higher price point. The customer sent us his vector art file, which was converted into a laser cutting file with an offset embroidery tack down. For a digitizer, converting files is a relatively simple process. For the embroidery portion, the first color layer is positioned, stitched, and then laser cut. The process is repeated for each color and layer until the design is complete. In this particular application, four material colors were used and, although there were multiple laser cuttings, each layer was done in a matter of seconds (Figure 2).
The application was completed in a short time frame compared to traditional embroidery. The time saved was about 400% or 8 minutes versus 42 minutes. Regardless of low-cost offshore labor, this time reduction can be achieved only with laser bridge technology, which gives domestic shops a competitive edge over foreign imports.
One of the biggest benefits of producing appliqué with laser bridge technology is that perceived value is increased while production time is reduced. In the garment decorating business, isn’t that what we strive for every day?
The real challenge in this example situation was to maintain the overall look while creating a laser appliqué.
To duplicate the thin letters with traditional cutting methods would be impossible. However, it is no obstacle for a laser. Highly detailed designs (Figure 3) truly demonstrate the laser’s ability to quickly and efficiently cut complex applications, separating it from all traditional forms of appliqué work and, at the same time, making it a cost-comparative option for screen printing.
Another technique for creative expression is distressed applications, which can’t be more in demand than today. Done properly, they can offer corporate designs with a fashion flare. The trick is to repeat the application with control on a consistent basis. The laser can do exactly that, but at production speed.
Distressed applications open the door to a new level of creativity. By creating the design with intentional voids and raw edges, the application becomes distressed. Open column stitches can add a dimension of handwork for an even more retro appearance. Just combining techniques and materials increases a program with hundreds of possibilities.
The other use for the laser bridge is to etch images into garment fabrics (Figure 4). In this application, the laser is used to alter the material surface to produce a design, basically by burning off a thin layer of loose fibers at the surface. Because the laser movement is computer controlled, very intricate, near-photographic designs can be created. The effect varies with different fabric types and colors. Etching also can be used in conjunction with screen printing or other specialty decorating techniques to create a vast number of specialty designs.
Rhinestones, also known as crystals, are one of the hottest trends in markets such as spirit wear, dance, cheerleading, ice skating, and gymnastics. They come in a wide range of colors and sizes, and there are numerous application options depending on the size of the order (Figure 5).
For small orders, a heating wand is used. The back of each crystal has a heat-activated adhesive that, when melted, will bond the crystal to the item being embellished. The wand can be used to pick up the crystal, which instantly heats up the adhesive. It is then applied to just about anything that is porous, such as fabric, paper, leather, or wood. You can experiment to see what other types of substrates may work.
Crystals come in all colors and sizes, but the two most popular sizes are 3 mm and 4 mm. They come packaged by color and size in individual packages or can be purchased from some suppliers in handy kits (in 3 mm, 4 mm, or a combination) that include divided trays with each section holding one color. The kits make it easy to keep colors separated and to choose the colors you want as you work.
The applicators can apply more than just crystals. Many wands have additional heads that can be used to apply nail heads, studs, pearls, or other embellishments. Some of the better wands also include a triangular-shaped tip also referred to as a ribbon tip. This tip can be used to apply fusible webbing or anything about the width of a ribbon that is fusible. Once the glue has cooled and set, you can wash the garment or item it is on. It is recommended that you turn the item inside out, use cold water, and set the machine on the gentle cycle. Crystal-decorated garments can survive the dryer, but to be on the safe side, it is better to let the apparel hang dry.
For larger volume orders, applying rhinestones one at a time is too labor intensive to be affordable for most shops, although you can find offshore sources that still do this. Another option is to use rhinestone transfers. If you are doing enough volume, you may want to purchase your own machine to automatically produce such transfers. Computer-driven units are available that can create these transfers in any pattern or design at the touch of a button. Systems area available that can create designs in up to six colors and affix the stones at speeds of more than 150 per minute. Automatic systems also are offered to affix rhinestones and studs directly onto garments using ultrasonic welding to melt the adhesive.
Finally, a number of suppliers offer stock and custom rhinestone transfer designs. These designs come on clear Mylar carrier sheets that make them easy to position and heat seal to garments.
Similar to rhinestones are nail heads, which, in addition to spirit wear and dance markets, are extremely popular with hip-hop and urban markets. Nail heads come in the shape of hearts, stars, and more and in a range of sizes. They are mostly metallic shades such as silver, gold, brass, and copper. Studs and nail heads are really the same thing, except that studs are round and not shiny like nail heads. Another option is rhinestuds, which are studs that look like rhinstones, giving customers the rhinestone look at a nail-head price.
With the ongoing popularity of glitz in the fashion market, as well as hip-hop, cheerleading, dance, and spirit wear markets, sequins have been increasing in popularity as a way to add some sparkle to screen-printed or embroidered designs (Figure 6). Offshore, sequins are sometimes applied by hand, but in the United States, a number of embroidery machine makers offer a sequin attachment that automates the process. Up to two sequin attachments can be placed per embroidery head.
Some manufacturers prefer to install sequin attachments in the factory, but they can be added to the machine on-site. Attachments will not go on all machines so make sure your model is set up to have one added before you buy. There is some training involved in how to use the attachment, which also requires special digitizing software. This software is generally packaged with the attachment. How the sequin is tacked down is dependent on the effect desired. Most machines support many different tack-down methods.
Sequins themselves come in a wide range of colors and sizes ranging from 3 mm up to 9mm. Available varieties also include flat, iridescent, and Mylar sequins. The sequins are provided on reels that look similar to movie reels.
Chenille is not new, it’s been around for a long time; however the way chenille is produced is changing. Originally, chenille was done on a specialty machine that was not automated. The operator guided the needle to create the shape or pattern that was desired. Today, manufacturers offer machines that automatically sew chenille or machines that do both chenille and embroidery. These are called tandem machines.
Chenille is done using a special thick yarn and a chenille machine can create two effects. One is the traditional loops that create the fuzzy, towel-like effect that is used for patches and award letters for Varsity jackets. A chenille machine also does a chain stitch that is often used to create names or words or to create decorative accents (Figures 7 and 8).
Chenille can be sewn directly onto a jacket or it can be sewn on a scrim felt backing, like a patch, which is then sewn down on the jacket. Most companies do chenille patches because it is difficult to hoop bulky jackets and get them on the machine. Some jacket manufacturers will sew cut parts directly and then finish assembling the jacket.
While the biggest market for chenille is school and team varsity style jackets, it also has applications in the corporate world. Any company looking for something different could easily have a logo or design done in chenille or chain stitching. It’s also used for leather motorcycle vests and is showing up in retail fashion. Companies like Adidas are adding chenille logos to sweat shirts and jackets for a unique look.
Another special effect that is out there is called taping. This involves tacking down ribbons in patterns to form designs such as floral motifs or abstract decorations. It is not used much in the decorated apparel industry but more so in Europe and Asia for ready-to-wear fashion. However, for any decorator looking for something different, taping could have applications in many of the same markets that are currently interested in sequins and rhinestones.
Taping requires a specialty machine. It is not an attachment that can be added to an embroidery machine. The ribbons can be purchased on reels, similar to sequins, or you can wind your own.
Cording is another special effect similar to taping, but one that uses cord instead of ribbons. There is a specialty machine designed specifically for applying cording, or you can purchase an attachment similar to a sequin attachment for your embroidery machine. Again, this is not wildly popular in the decorated apparel industry; it is used primarily in fashion and home decorative markets. Most often it is used to create abstract, scroll-type designs.
Cash in with specialty decorating
Laser appliqué and etching, rhinestones, sequins, chenille, and the other specialty decorating options discussed here offer screen printers a way to make their products stand out in a crowded market. While some of these options require additional equipment and some training, the added capabilities they allow and their ability to be combined with your existing decorating methods can make them valuable additions to your production floor.
Henry Bernstein is the North American director of Seit Laser Systems for Hirsch Int’l, Hauppage, NY, which is the exclusive distributor of Seit in North America. Bernstein also is the newly appointed director of the Hirsch Solution Studio in Solon, Ohio, a full-service center demonstrating a complete range of apparel decorating technologies. Bernstein can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about Hirsch Int’l, visit www.hirschinternational.com.