Episode 32 – Choosing the Right Equipment

Apr 22, 2016

This Episode

Mark Stephenson & Marc Vila

You Will Learn

  • What equipment do you need to start your business?

Resources & Links

Episode 32 – Choosing the Right Equipment

Show Notes

What equipment will you invest in to start your business? Maybe you aren’t even sure where to go. In this episode, we will discuss picking equipment, pros, and cons and just do our best to have fun while discussing all types of machines including DTG, embroidery, vinyl cutting, bling and more. Listen, learn and choose what is best for you.


Welcome to the Custom Apparel Startups podcast, your best source for information, news, tips and tricks to get you off the ground running, and earn success with your custom apparel decorating business. So, get ready to soak up some knowledge!

Now, here are your hosts, Mark and Marc!

Mark S: Hey, everyone! Welcome to episode 32 of the Custom Apparel Startups podcast. My name is Mark Stephenson.

Marc V: And I am Marc Vila. Today we are talking about choosing the right equipment – first steps to starting your business.

Mark S: This is kind of – the podcast is 32 now, and this is one of those adult decisions that you have to start making, when you’re 32. We’re three years from our podcast being able to run for President! Think about that!

This decision that we’re going to make here, on what kind of equipment to get, is an important one in starting your business.

Marc V: Yeah. It’s something that – you’ve got this idea, first. Whether it’s, we talked about before, you have a hobby that you’re trying to expand into a business, or you just like the idea of making custom apparel. You think making t-shirts is cool or making caps is cool.

Mark S: Or maybe you’re inspired by an event that you went to. Marc Vila is sitting here drinking from kind of a ridiculous dog mug.

Marc V: It is a ridiculous dog mug.

Mark S: There are many dogs in sweaters, which I just noticed here. So, maybe Marc Vila is a closet dog sweater lover, and wants to get into the dog sweater business.

Marc V: It could be that, or it could be that I got this free at a trade show, and then it became my work coffee cup.

Mark S: But that’s not the story that I’m going to go with. That’s definitely not it.

Marc V: I’m not going to tell which one it is. But if I were going to make dog sweaters, then I would have to decide what type of embroidery machine I would use, to decorate them.

Mark S: Right. And let’s preface this real quick. This is not one of those very well organized podcasts, where we have a direction and bullet points and things we specifically want to cover.

Marc V: Are you talking about all of the Custom Apparel Startups podcasts?

Mark S: Yes, actually I am.

Marc V: Okay.

Mark S: No, just this episode.

Marc V: Oh. I wasn’t sure if it was a complete definition.

Mark S: Really, what we wanted to do is kind of talk about the process that people go through, in picking the right equipment to match both their personality and their goals and their dreams, and their business plan.

Marc V: Mark Stephenson and I kind of started together in this, when we were beginning the conversation on this podcast. We said “Let’s just make it conversational,” as if we were talking to somebody, or a customer, or in our own heads about how we would do this.

Mark S: Yeah. The first thing that we thought of, naturally, is if you went to business startup school. What you would do is, first, you would pick a niche market or a spot in the marketplace that you’ve noticed, that does not have a particular product selling in it, that you think you could make money at. You would write a business plan, to fill that market niche that you’ve developed.

Then, you would buy equipment, and start your business with that niche and that plan in mind.

First of all, we know that exactly zero percent of you have a business plan. What normally happens is you start with, just like Marc said, you start with “I’m a home embroiderer. I really like this. I want to see if I can do it for a living, so I’m going to go into the embroidery business.”

Marc V: Or “I just like t-shirts. I think they’re cool. I would like to be able to make them. I’ve got a bunch of awesome fun ideas. Plus maybe I know some people that would buy t-shirts from me. I’m really involved in sports, or in a local chapter of a gun club or a horse club or a golf club.” Golf club? That’s kind of funny.

Mark S: No.

Marc V: Yeah. That’s funny, right?

Mark S: Okay. Maybe you’re like – we’ve got some success in business stories on ColDesi.com, and one of them is for My Rhinestone Transfers, a friend of the company. They’re a huge – they’re probably one of the biggest bling t-shirt transfer companies in America.

The way they got started is they saw a niche that wasn’t – they lived in Texas, and they went to buy some bling t-shirts in a particular niche market that they were a part of. The t-shirts were terrible. So then, they figured that they could do this better.

They bought some rhinestone transfers from somebody else, and that worked for a little while. But they really weren’t great quality, so they bought the equipment. That’s how they kind of led into being this huge bling transfer business.

Maybe that’s how you’re going to get there, as well.

Marc V: I sold equipment for some years. The stories like that, and the stories for those who are listening to this right now, they’re often repeated stories. It’s either someone who has a great idea or concept, and they want to make that into their own business, to somebody who just noticed or was fed up.

The fed up one is very common. Either it’s fed up with it’s way, way too expensive. Like “These caps are $35 in my town, and there’s no way a cap should be $35, for the poor quality that it is.” It’s because there’s no competition.

Mark S: Or it takes too long to get. You end up ordering a bunch of shirts for a bridal party, and they show up after the wedding, or they showed up the day before the wedding, so you don’t get the chance to enjoy them.

Marc V: So now, we’ve got an idea for one way or the other. We’re filling a need, or we just have this really cool thing, and we’re passionate about it. We have to figure out what the next step is. How do you decide on what to get?

Mark S: I think a lot of that depends on the market that you find yourself in. Let’s use some examples of customers, the kinds of customers that we get.

Let’s say that you do embroidery at home, and you’ve got a home embroidery machine. You make pillowcases and you embroider on baby clothes, and you do all of this stuff. Everybody loves what you do. You give them away for gifts.

So, you realize that there’s a market for this, and you want to get into that business. First of all, your choices are limited, more limited than in other businesses, because you’re going to need an embroidery machine. You can’t use a copier or a t-shirt transfer system to produce embroidery designs.

So ,you’ve got an embroidery machine. Now, it’s what kind of machine should I get?

Marc V: Before we go too deep into that, we’ll mention that in this episode, we will talk about t-shirt printing and we’ll talk embroidery.

Mark S: Yes, and bling.

Marc V: And we’ll talk about bling. I think those are the three that we’re going to cover.

Mark S: Vinyl – there’s all kinds of stuff.

Marc V: On the vinyl side, I’m grouping that with the t-shirt stuff.

Mark S: Okay. Fair enough.

Marc V: We’ll talk about t-shirts, and we’re going to talk about embroidery, and we’re going to talk about bling. Some of those are going to intertwine.

If we’re talking about embroidery for five minutes or so…

Mark S: You can fast forward, if you hate embroidery for some reason!

Marc V: We’re going to get to all of them, but I think we should start with one, because we must. That one will be embroidery.

Mark S: So, back to our story.

Marc V: Back to our story, now we want to start an embroidery business. There’s a lot of places we can go, in regards to the size of equipment that we can get.

Mark S: You  know, it’s funny, because the money isn’t necessarily attached to the size and the quality of the machine, and the features. It’s very strange.

For example, on the Custom Apparel Startups Facebook group, which I hope you are all members of, we get a lot of home embroiderers that are thinking about this. But what they’re thinking about is, they go to their local sewing shop, and what they see displayed there are more and more expensive home embroidery machines.

You can spend, and maybe you have already, $6,000, $10,000, $12,000 for a very cool Star Trek style embroidery machine that is still not good for most commercial embroidery businesses.

Marc V: Yes. One might define it as like “pro-sumer” types of products. They’re not a truly commercial product. They’re very cool. They’re awesome. They have all these cool features. But as far as doing production, is that right for you?

Mark S: Right. If it looks like there’s an iPad welded to the side of an embroidery machine, it’s probably not commercial.

Marc V: Yeah. That’s a great way to put it. I would define embroidery machines maybe in three categories, is usually what I do.

There is something that you can get at like Walmart or a craft store.

Mark S: Joann’s Fabrics or whatever.

Marc V: Yeah, that’s very little, very starter.

Mark S: $300.

Marc V: A few hundred bucks. It’s slow.

Mark S: Single needle.

Marc V: Yeah. It is literally just for fun.

Then, there’s the “pro-sumer” ones I would describe, and those usually have – they’re either one color, or maybe six colors.

Mark S: I think that would be, you would be a serious crafts person.

Marc V: Yeah, a serious crafts person, somebody who really, really loves it, and they’re willing to invest a good amount of money.

Mark S: In their hobby.

Marc V: Yeah, in this hobby, in this toy, in this thing that is just so cool. And they can be really cool. They are cool.

Mark S: Absolutely.

Marc V: The next level above that is the commercial. Then, maybe I would even divide that into two; commercial single-head and commercial multi-head.

Mark S: Right.

Marc V: As you get larger and bigger, sometimes it feels like you maybe lose features.

Mark S: You do. Think about it like a car. I was thinking about this while you were talking, because I wasn’t listening to you. I was thinking about what I was going to say next.

Think about it like when to go to buy a car. If you’re a consumer and you like cars, maybe you want to spend a certain amount on a car, you can get something nice, with GPS and Bluetooth, and power seats. Then, if you are really a car enthusiast, maybe you get a Tesla or a nice BMW. Now it’s got satellite radio and it’s got heated seats, and dual air conditioning, and all that stuff.

Marc V: Self-driving, now.

Mark S: Self-driving! But then, you want to start a business where you drive people around all day in your car. Or maybe you’re carrying something bigger. All of a sudden, all of those features go away. The car is the same amount of money, but what you get is a better engine, a more reliable transmission, maybe more space on the inside, more cargo area.

What you get is something that has fewer features maybe, but the features that it does have are geared toward doing business every day, not looking good and driving to your friend’s house.

Marc V: It’s a minivan versus a commercial cargo van.

Mark S: Right. They hold the same amount of stuff.

Marc V: Yeah. But the cargo van is designed to move things, and be working all day. It’s designed to work, compared to designed to be fun and comfortable.

Mark S: Yeah, and that’s a big difference that you can think of right off the bat.

Let’s pick a brand like Janome. They make some great home embroidery machines. They’ve got the iPad version. It will do all kinds of stuff; onboard fonts, a huge amount of features, single needle. It’s designed for you to work on for a couple of hours, a few days a week. It’s not designed for you to work eight hours, five or six or seven days a week.

Marc V: Or 24 hours, honestly.

Mark S: Yeah. When you stop embroidering, and then somebody sits down in your chair, and keeps going. They’re not built for that.

Marc V: The commercial machines are designed, when they make these things – when you buy a true commercial machine, somewhere in the world, there’s a factory running with the machine that you just bought, that almost never stops running. It stops running for the time it takes to take a shirt off, and put another one back on.

That’s the difference. If you ran one of these really nice fun machines like that, the motors inside and such are not designed to handle that. They’re designed for fun, not for working all day.

Mark S: Let’s take a look at what are the features that you might look for on a commercial machine, that wouldn’t necessarily be on a consumer machine, so you can pick which one you’re looking for.

Marc V: Okay.

Mark S: The first one I think of is the number of needles. A single needle is obviously consumer. Then, there’s a monogram machine that might have four or six needles, which normally aren’t designed for running all day, either. Then, there’s kind of the 15- and 16-needle machines, which is where you get into commercial.

Marc V: Okay.

Mark S: The other features that you might look for are the field size for the embroidery. Consumer machines in general are designed to do smaller spaces. You’re not going to sew a two-foot design on a tablecloth or a horse blanket, or an entire jacket back easily, with a consumer machine.

Marc V: They’re not designed for that. They’re also not designed to hold large items.

Mark S: They won’t hold the weight.

Marc V: Yeah, the weight of large items. That is a big portion of it. When you get a commercial machine, then you can really start dissecting and getting into the accessories that you can add onto it, like the hoops.

Mark S: A consumer machine might come with one hoop or two hoops, or no hoops, and you have to buy it. A commercial machine has what? They’ve always got two of every hoop, that come with the machine. The reason that it’s got two is because while one is sewing, you’re going to be hooping the next item, so that machine never stops running.

Marc V: And you can get additional hoops that are designed for commercial grade use, whether they’re really thick and heavy and made or wood, or they’ve got magnets in them, or they hold different types of backing, or there’s clamping systems. I think we have a new hooping thing coming out soon, ourselves, even.

There’s a lot of these other things you can add on, that are just never going to be available in that same range, in that same robust quality. Because mainly, the big reason – I talk to people on the phone about this – is because the machine just doesn’t have the space to hold that. It can only hold something that is so thick and so large.

Where a commercial machine, you could make a hoop that is massive, because there is so much room to work in, because of the design of the machine. The machine is designed for commercial use. Therefore, it’s got all of those things in mind.

Mark S: That’s right. Here’s my criteria. If the machine looks too sexy, if it looks like it has too many bells and whistles, it’s probably not a commercial machine.

Marc V: That’s a good criteria, because the commercial machines, because they’re designed to run all day every day, they go into that old adage of “All these new features? That’s just another thing to break.” People say that all the time, about everything in the world. “Oh, that’s just another thing to break.”

Well, commercial machines have some of that in mind.

Mark S: Yeah, because if something breaks on your commercial machine, that means the business is not running, and making money. It’s not like you can’t embroider the pillow for your nephew, because you’re machine is broken. It’s “Oh, my God! I’m not making any money this week, because my machine is down.”

That’s why on the big commercial machines, you’re right. They don’t have a big touchpad, a 10-inch touchpad on it, because it’s a notorious point of failure.

Marc V: It’s a limited life on something like that. If you’ve owned a smart phone or a tablet, or anything like that, for more than a couple of years, you realize that. You go to answer your phone, and it doesn’t respond the way it used to. It just doesn’t have that – it has a limited life on that. It’s more electronics.

Mark S: That’s another thing to point out, is this is not a fast-moving technology. There’s not a lot of electronics built in, because they keep it simple on purpose. You can look at a current Avance 1501C embroidery machine, and you can look at a Tajima or an SWF or a Barudan or a ZSK commercial embroidery machine from ten years ago or 15 years ago, or 20 years ago, and you can recognize them as the same thing.

As opposed to a rotary phone from 20 years ago, and your iPhone today.

Marc V: That is so true, but there are improvements that you might not see.

Mark S: You won’t see them.

Marc V: Yeah. Correct me if I’m wrong, if you know more about this, but we had some folks here from the manufacturer of the Avance machine, and they were talking about improvements in the algorithms, to make fill stitches.

Mark S: Right.

Marc V: It’s this core fundamental thing of how the machine runs, in order to create these fill stitches, that they said that they had had to work for many years, to get it better and right. But you can never see that.

Mark S: That’s a great example. So, now that we’ve established commercial versus consumer and things, how do you go about deciding among brands, and deciding what’s a good price, and things like that, when you’re picking a machine like that?

Marc V: If you’re asking me as a salesperson, when I was, I was very confident where I worked, and I gave the same answer. I said “Get something that you know that the company you’re going to purchase from, you feel comfortable that they’re going to take care of you.” I think that’s probably the number one.

If you are a commercial embroiderer, and you know all about repairing your own machine, and you know all about digitizing, those folks, they don’t care what they get. They’ll scoop up used machines. They will go all over. They’ll stick with one brand, even if they don’t have support, whatever it might be.

That’s different than somebody who is just getting into the business. They might not know a lot, and they’re going to need that help, because you are going to embroider ten caps in a row, and they’re all going to look terrible. You’re going to want somebody that you can talk to about why that’s happening.

Mark S: You know what? That’s actually probably one of the most common posts on the Custom Apparel Startups group, is “Hey! My cap looks like crap. I can’t figure out why.”

But you’re right. What you’re looking for first is maybe you look at the basics of the machines. We’ve already talked about 15-needle, what you get with it, a large embroidery field, a great warranty. But the first thing that you’re going to look for is, are you comfortable dealing with the company? And what kind of training comes with it? How much training is there?

Because once again, you’re probably listening to this podcast because you’re a startup. Maybe you don’t know everything about embroidery, or whatever the technology is. You can apply these things for anything we’re going to talk about. Right?

Marc V: Yeah. This is a good transition into the next one, because it goes exactly with everything. Make sure that – you mentioned warranty is big.

Mark S: Training.

Marc V: Training is big.

Mark S: Free support.

Marc V: Yeah. Support, that’s huge. And the ability to grow your business within that realm is part of it, too.

Mark S: I’m going to throw in a couple of other things. First of all, there has been a lot of consolidation in buying and selling, in the commercial embroidery business. So, you want to make sure that the business that you’re doing business with is going to be around.

Marc V: Sure.

Mark S: I’m going to do commercials for us, in a couple of different spots.

Marc V: Okay.

Mark S: ColDesi has been around for 15-plus years. That’s a big deal. They’re not for sale, and they never will be.

Marc V: That’s not in the game. And we were a name, previous to this, because this is something that I’ve seen before, and I think it’s important to talk about. Because years ago, SWF was the name.

Mark S: Yeah, SWF East was the name of the company.

Marc V: SWF East was the name of the company, and as the company grew and brought on direct-to-garment printers and CAMS machines, and all these other things…

Mark S: Just like your company might grow.

Marc V: Yes. It no longer made sense to have it named as just an embroidery machine company, when that was a quarter of the business. Therefore, it came into this new name that has to do with designing shirts and apparel and everything, all encompassing. But it is the same company and the same folks, and all of that.

Mark S: Agreed. We looked at this when we came out with the Avance, is the important things aren’t just the warranty. It’s the ability to grow, and trade in your machines. When you buy a consumer machine, like a Janome or a Brother, or something like that, there really is no trade-up path. There’s no way to grow your business like that.

Where with Avance, what we did was we put in a two-year 100% trade-in. For example, if your business is going to get bigger, and you want a multi-head machine – a four-head or a six-head commercial machine – within two years, we’ll give you 100% of the price that you paid for the machine, back in trade.

Marc V: That’s a good commercial.

Mark S: Thanks! That’s all over.

Marc V: The reason why I think it is, is because it makes complete sense to me. When I was selling equipment before, to be able to say “I don’t know where my business is going to go. I don’t know where it’s going to be a year from now. Maybe I’ll have multi-heads. Maybe I’ll have a bunch of single-heads. I don’t know.”

But as your embroidery business grows, “I’m thinking about getting into t-shirts, too. I’m doing embroidery now. I want to start with that. But I might do t-shirts, or I might to bling next.”

So, when you kind of go into that commercial, it is good to be able to say “I know that I’m going to know these people. They’re going to know me. We’re going to build a trusted business relationship together. Then, when I’m ready to go into the next one, I’ve already got friends.”

Mark S: Yeah. “They do more than just embroidery, and they know what to do.” And your customers are going to be the same way. You start with an embroidery business, and then you add bling or you add t-shirt printing. Where are they going to go? They’re going to go to you.

Okay. I think we’ve beaten embroidery into the ground here. I think we’re ready.

Marc V: Let’s move onto t-shirts. Is that good?

Mark S: Custom t-shirt printing, because pretty much, this is what happens at ColDesi, because we talk to a lot of people. About half, or a little bit more than half of the people call us about embroidery machines. That’s where they start. The other part talk to us about printing machines.

ColDesi deals in direct-to-garment printers. But when you’re picking a technology, there are tons of ways. Embroidery is – you’re captive. If you want to do embroidery, you have to use an embroidery machine.

For printing t-shirts, if that’s what you want to do, there are tons of different ways to do that.

Marc V: That gets challenging, because I’ll tell you, for one, one of the hardest things to do is to talk to somebody who already does it. Because they’re going to defend the one that they do.

Mark S: They picked it. They’ve got a vested interest.

Marc V: They’ve already chosen a team. They already like the New York Giants.

Mark S: They want you to like them, too.

Marc V: They want you to like them, too. And they’ve learned it and mastered it, so there’s a reason behind it. They’ve come to love it for what it is. But that does not mean it’s the best.

Mark S: Or the best for you.

Marc V: That’s actually what I meant to say, is “for you.” So, let’s just really quickly bat through the different types of t-shirt making, how you can make t-shirts, the different types of procedures and such, and equipment you can buy. And maybe just a few advantages and disadvantages of them.

Within those, we should talk about just the straight-up ability of what it can do, the cost, and the versatility. I think those are the three things to discuss in this.

When people talk about t-shirts, usually the first thing that comes up is screen printing, because it’s one of the oldest.

Mark S: Yeah, and it’s everywhere.

Marc V: It’s everywhere. Walk outside now, and you might trip over a screen print shop.

Mark S: And when most people think about printing t-shirts, that aren’t familiar with more current technology, they’re thinking about screen printing.

Marc V: Yes.

Mark S: Tell me, do you know about how much a screen printing setup can cost?

Marc V: It can vary the biggest. I think that has the biggest variance on price. You can start off for a few thousand dollars, all the way up to $100,000.

Mark S: Right. And screen printing, or silk screening, works kind of like this. If you get an order, let’s say for a one-color design shirt – let’s start off by saying, also, that most of the decorated t-shirts that you see in retail environments, are screen printed. What you’re going to do is you are going to create a screen, which is kind of like a transparency that has the image that you want to put on a shirt.

Then, you are going to lay this screen out, and you are going to put a glop of screen printing ink on it, and a t-shirt underneath. You press the screen on top, and you use a big squeegee to drag the ink across the transparency, and that leaves the ink on the shirt below.

Marc V: The ink will go through the holes that are in that screen. How do you make the screen? You design it, and you print a negative, and then you run it through equipment. There’s a series of steps.

Mark S: It’s a process.

Marc V: It’s a process, to get there.

Mark S: It’s somewhere between making a t-shirt and developing film.

Marc V: Actually, it very much is. The benefit is that you can get started, as far as price goes, you can get started in all different types of ranges, which is cool. The versatility is high, because you can print on lots of different types of garments, because you can buy lots of different types of ink.

So, there’s a million different directions you can go. Those are two good reasons to start.

Mark S: I’ll tell you the biggest advantage that it has is that once you produce those screens, the ink is cheap. It’s very inexpensive to produce. The reason that it’s what most retailers use for large runs is because it’s pennies apiece, once you get started.

Marc V: Yeah, once you get started. And it works as fast as your arms can work.

Mark S: Right.

Marc V: If you’ve got big strong arms and good stamina, then you can just rock out shirts.

Mark S: Or enough money to buy an automated press.

Marc V: Which that goes on the high end of the scale. Those are some good advantages of it, but with that come disadvantages, just like anything else. As you mentioned, it is a bit of a process to get going. If you say “I’ve got a great idea for a t-shirt,” it’s not like I’m going to be done in five minutes.

Mark S: Honestly, it’s completely uneconomical to make one or two, or less than a dozen of anything. So, it’s not going to be idea, print, “what do you think?” It’s going to be idea, then hours’ worth of process before you get to print and “what do you think?”

Marc V: Yes, so it’s a step, and it does take up space. Because if you keep screens, you have to store them somewhere. If you want to clean the screen and reuse it, there’s a bit of a chemical process to that.

Mark S: It’s very messy, and it’s not a home office business. It can be a garage business or a barn business, but definitely not something that you’re going to have in your house.

Marc V: I wouldn’t recommend that. There’s gallons and jugs of many different colors you have to store, and they’re liquid. You’ve got lots of liquids to store, which means that’s more temperature control and things you need to handle, because you generally don’t want liquids to get too hot or too cold, for the most part.

Mark S: And it’s going to cost you money every time you want to set up a screen, for sure. Most people that are screen printers charge a setup charge of a couple of hundred bucks, because it takes that time and that money and effort to do that.

Marc V: So, just to recap on that one, the benefit is you can do it on any shirt, and once you get set up, you can print a lot of shirts really fast, because it’s as fast as you can move.

Mark S: Right.

Marc V: So, that’s a benefit. The downside is the space is a lot, the mess is a lot, and if you want to be able to do small runs, it’s labor intensive for the small runs that you have to do.

Mark S: Yes. So, if you had that fictitious business plan, and you were going to go after Universities or large companies, or you were going to go to a retailer and print a huge number of shirts, this is your solution. If you need to print 200, 400, 500, 1,000 shirts a day, you’re going to screen print. I mean, that’s really going to be it.

Marc V: Also, you have to know that the market you more than likely are going after, which is a bulk of the screen print market. There are people who will screen print and sell $35 t-shirts. They exist, for sure. And you can do all types of interesting inks.

Mark S: Special organics.

Marc V: Organic inks, and there’s all types of stuff. That’s a very small portion of it. Most of it is t-shirts that you’re going to make, that are going to be between one and four colors. They’re going to sell for about $5. They’re going to be very, very low margin garments that are designed for mass quantities at a very low margin.

If that’s the business you’re going after, a large number of t-shirts at a very low margin, then maybe it’s the right one for you, if you’ve got the space for it.

But then, the next one to move over to might be – what one would you want to go into next?

Mark S: I would go back down to, let’s say you were on a budget, and you were only going to make a few shirts at a time – 10 or 12 shirts at a time – and you might look at vinyl.

Marc V: Yeah. The way that vinyl works – if you don’t know a lot about it, we’ll just give a really short explanation of it, just like we did for screen printing. The way that vinyl works is you buy sheets of material. They come in all different grades and colors and styles.

Mark S: Normally rolls.

Marc V: Yeah. Rolls or sheets, exactly. And you run them through a cutting machine. You design something, and you roll it through a cutting machine, and it cuts out your design.

Mark S: It’s got a very crafty kind of feel to it, when you first get into it. Because you’re dealing with a cutter, like the one Colman and Company sells. Part of their Cut n Press system is the Graphtec. It’s a 15-inch cutter, which is plenty big enough for a shirt. You’re going to do a design, and it’s going to cut it out.

Keep in mind that the design that it cuts out is only going to be the color of the vinyl.

Marc V: Correct. It’s similar to screen printing, where if you want a four-color design, you’re using four different pieces of vinyl, just like you would use four different inks in screen printing. So, it’s a similar idea, where it’s like you’re thinking in it one color at a time.

You run this roll of this material through this machine that cuts out the design, and then you take that cutout and you put it on a shirt, with a heat press. The benefits of it; one is that to get into it is very economical.

Mark S: It’s so inexpensive!

Marc V: It’s very economical. To learn how to do it is almost nothing. There’s very little to learn. I mean, with anything, you can get harder and harder. But to make your initial shirts and get going, not hard.

Mark S: Yeah. I mean, look. If you wanted to do, for example – and you can buy this stuff in a lot of different places. Just like screen printing equipment, there are a lot of people that sell it. But Colman and Company has got this thing, “55 minutes to your first shirt,” that comes with the cutter. And really, that’s how long it takes you to become proficient.

Let’s say that your market that you’re going after are baseball jerseys. You could do numbers for the back and a name in the front, and you could be up and running, and doing that on your first day, easily.

Marc V: Easily, because the learning curve on how to operate it is low. And the 55-minute is including installing the software.

Mark S: Right. That’s right.

Marc V: Half of it is just installing your software, and waiting for Windows to do its thing. So, it’s not hard to learn, which is great. It’s economical, which is great.

Mark S: You can put it on a bunch of stuff, too. You can put it on caps. You can make signs with that thing, with the same plotter.

Marc V: As far as just the t-shirt side of it, it’s basically just as versatile as screen printing can be. With screen printing, you can mix colors and stuff, so you can get into a little bit of a thing there. But besides that, just as far as what you can put it on, you can put it on tote bags. It doesn’t matter the material, essentially.

Mark S: Polyester, cotton. It doesn’t matter.

Marc V: Yeah. Polys, cottons, blends, hoodies, jackets, sweaters. You can do it on a ton of different materials. So, the versatility is really high.

The cost is really low, and the learning curve is very low. A lot of people like starting there, because they say “I get some of the benefits of screen printing, where I can put it on anything. I’m still doing one color at a time, like screen printing. But there is no mess, and I can start it anywhere.” You don’t even need a whole room.

Mark S: Yeah. You can bring it out.

Marc V: You need a desk. That’s what’s cool about that.

Mark S: There are some disadvantages.

Marc V: Of course.

Mark S: The disadvantages would be, again, you’re limited to that kind of one color at a time. You can do some clever stuff with layering, but you’re still dealing with kind of spot colors. The other disadvantage is you’re never really going to do a huge quantity at a time.

If someone wants 100 shirts, you could do it.

Marc V: I’d say 100 is my comfortable limit on it.

Mark S: Okay.

Marc V: That’s a number I would say is comfortable, because it depends on what it is. But you could do more than that, always, with anything. It just depends.

Mark S: I guess what I’m trying to day is it’s a very manual process.

Marc V: That’s a perfect way to put it.

Mark S: You are doing something the entire time. There’s nothing automatic. It’s you and your kids and your family and your cousins, or whatever it is, that’s going to be picking that out and heat pressing it, and making sure everything is right.

Marc V: Absolutely. That’s exactly where I was going with that, too. You could do as many as you want, but it’s a labor process. It’s work. Screen printing is also a labor process. It’s work. No shirts are being created, unless your body is moving.

Mark S: Right. And a couple of disadvantages, as well, would be someone can’t bring you a photograph or a psychedelic logo, or a very graphic image, with gradients and things like that. You’re not going to do that on vinyl.

Marc V: So then, how can you do that?

Mark S: That’s kind of the next thing. You can do it in a couple of ways. The first one that comes to mind for me, naturally, because I work for ColDesi, is direct-to-garment printing, DTG printing. What that is, if you haven’t seen direct-to-garment, it’s basically an inkjet printer that prints directly onto fabric instead of onto a piece of paper.

Marc V: It works just like that, essentially. Imagine how you would print something on a piece of paper. The same exact thing. It could be a picture, it could be words, it could be text, it could be anything. You put a t-shirt into the machine, instead of the piece of paper. Then you click Print, and the printer prints it out, and you take it out and you heat it.

By the way, everything that we’re talking about today…

Mark S: You heat press everything.

Marc V: Everything requires heat, for garments.

Mark S: It’s what helps whatever material it is bond to the fabric.

Marc V: This way, it doesn’t wash off or fall off.

Mark S: Right. Here are the big advantages to direct-to-garment printing. You can print anything onto a cotton shirt. In other words, it does not matter how complicated the picture is. It could be the Mona Lisa. It could be your kid’s picture. It could be any graphic design anyone has ever created. It’s going to print out on a good direct-to-garment printer, and it’s going to look fantastic.

Marc V: Yeah, because it’s high resolution. It’s the equivalent resolution that you would get in a photo printer, really. Now, since it’s on a t-shirt, obviously, there’s differences. But you get a nice high resolution image that you can have in millions and millions of colors, which is very cool.

Mark S: Yes. The other advantage to it is that you can print just one, or you can print 50 in a row. Because unlike screen printing, for example, there’s no setup. You don’t have to print a screen first, and then print a shirt.

Basically, you bring the graphic into the software that comes with it. You arrange it on a shirt however you want to. You put the t-shirt in the printer, and you hit Print. If you want to do 50 of those, you do Print 50, and you just load up the t-shirts one right after the other. If you only want one, to show someone, then you can do that, as well.

Marc V: It also comes into this variable data type of printing, which if we’re going backwards to the beginning, is if we’re doing shirts that have names on them and numbers on them, for example, or even just a t-shirt with a left check logo as the company name, and then the employee’s name underneath it.

If you were going to screen print that, you would either need a different screen for every name, or you’d have to have some sort of a lettering system, which you can buy, which is a whole other system for doing like C-O-L.

Mark S: Name drops, yeah.

Marc V: Then, for the vinyl, the way you would do that is in your software, you would type it in and cut out each name and number individually. In direct-to-garment printing, while the printer is printing, you’re going in the software and you’re changing the number and the name before you put the next t-shirt in.

Mark S: Or for example, with the DTG brand that ColDesi sells, you can do up to four t-shirts at once. So, you could set up here’s Bob, here’s Mary, here’s Steve, here’s John, and you could print those four shirts. And while those are printing, you could type in the next names and print the next four shirts.

Marc V: It’s very cool. The technology is cool, and it’s fun. Another benefit is that you are not doing the work. You’re doing some of the work. You’re always doing some of the work in apparel, which is something I always tell folks. Everyone wants everything to be automated 100% along the way.

Mark S: It’s not.

Marc V: “Can’t I just click things, and it makes a shirt? Can’t I just take a picture, and put it in my embroidery machine?” That just doesn’t exist.

Mark S: I had that question yesterday. The answer is no.

Marc V: When you’re a salesperson, you hear that every day. “Can I just take a picture and put it in the machine?” No. It’s not a magic machine.

Saying that, with the direct-to-garment printing, you can easily – I’m going into a lot of different directions here. I’ll try to cut it down a little bit.

When you’re in direct-to-garment printing, you can easily change what you’re doing, consistently. You can easily create the small runs. You can easily have the variable data, and you can easily do one. All of this is happening while the machine is doing the work for you.

You are adjusting things, making things happen, clicking Print, and you’re waiting a couple of minutes for the shirt to print.

Mark S: While it prints. You can be making phone calls, while that prints. You’re not, like with vinyl, sitting there and weeding, for example.

Marc V: With screen printing, you’re squeegeeing. With vinyl, you’re weeding. With direct-to-garment printing, you’re clicking Print. That’s a cool advantage, that while it’s printing, you’re doing something else.

Mark S: We haven’t talked about the hand of the shirt, the way it feels. Direct-to-garment, particularly if you’re printing on white t-shirts, feels like it’s not even there. Screen printing often has that advantage, too. If you’ve got a good screen print, it can also feel like it’s not even there.

Marc V: Because screen printing, you’ve got a massive length or width variability of the type of ink you can use. There are water-based inks and there are plastic-based inks, and they all have different levels of feels. They all come in different colors, and they are all easier or harder to work with.

So, screen printing can be any of those. It can feel great, or it can not. It all depends on what material you’re working with. There’s a lot to learn there.

Mark S: Let’s talk about the disadvantages of DTG, or why you might not choose it.

Marc V: For me, the biggest one is the reason why you chose screen printing, because you’re looking to do a really long run of the same exact shirt, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds at a time. You’re trying to be able to produce these things at a cost so low, because you operate at a really low margin.

That’s probably the number one, there. With direct-to-garment printing, it’s not as fast.

Mark S: Yes.

Marc V: To do one is faster. Maybe to do – I don’t know what number.

Mark S: I think it’s up to 50, is faster.

Marc V: So, once you get to this 25 to 50 mark, you’re going to beat it, because you’re already 15 shirts in. In your screen printing process, you’re still creating everything you need, to get going.

Mark S: Right. There’s no “print while you wait” in screen printing.

Marc V: I think that’s definitely a disadvantage.

Mark S: Large, large runs are not great for DTG.

Marc V: Yeah. The other one is…

Mark S: Polyester, I think that’s the biggest one. It doesn’t do a great job printing on polyester. You can print on darks.

Marc V: Yeah. No matter what printer is out there, or what anyone has ever said anywhere, to get consistent results on polyester, why? Let’s just – a really simple reason why; because all of the inks are made from water. Water is a big ingredient in there.

Polyester is plastic. So, I don’t have to teach you what water and plastic do to each other.

Mark S: Nothing!

Marc V: Nothing. How is the garment made? How can it be absorbed? This one works well. What type of dying did they use to get here?

With cotton, you know what cotton and water do. They suck together, and they become one. That just doesn’t happen with plastic. You take a cotton ball and you put it water, and it soaks it up. You take a piece of plastic and put it in, and it doesn’t.

That’s kind of just a really super simple way of putting it.

Mark S: Agreed. So, one reason you might not pick a direct-to-garment printer is because your business is going to be based only on performance wear, which is all polyester or some kind of advanced material.

Marc V: You’re only going to do like mesh basketball jerseys. In that case, you need to go vinyl or screen printing, because you need something that is going to stick to any material, even if it’s a really wide mesh, where you can see through the holes.

Mark S: I’ll also say that on the maintenance scale, direct-to-garment falls somewhere between vinyl and screen printing. Screen printing is a pain in the butt for maintenance. You’ve to clean, and maintenance, and hoses, and all of that stuff. Vinyl, there’s nothing. Literally, a cutter will work. You change the blade. Occasionally, you use an air gun, if you’re in a dusty environment, maybe.

With direct-to-garment printing, you’ve got to do a little bit every day. If you’re going to use the printer, you’ve got to do like 10-15 minutes of maintenance routine every day.

Marc V: If you have painted a house or laid tile, those are probably the two I would think of that are going to be similar to your screen printing. You have a lot of things you have to do before. Then, “I’ve finished painting this room. It looks awesome! Now, I’ve got another hour of work to do.”

Mark S: An hour of cleanup, yeah.

Marc V: “These tiles look awesome! Well, I’d better clean my drill.” That’s kind of how that is. There is basically zero cleanup and maintenance on vinyl. There is none, just none.

Mark S: In DTG, there’s a little bit.

Marc V: In DTG, there’s a little bit, exactly. That’s kind of your range on there.

Mark S: Let me do another advantage to DTG, before I forget. You can run a DTG printer inside your house, no problem, unlike screen printing and just like vinyl. You need a little bit more space, naturally, but you can still run it.

Marc V: Yeah. You can run it in your house. The space required is basically as big as the machine. In all apparel, you need some work space. You need a bench or a table, a work station. But really, just the machine and the heat press, and a work station.

It’s not that much more space than you need for vinyl. It’s a little more, because the machines are bigger.

Mark S: We actually did a webinar on fitting a DTG setup in a 10 by 10 room.

So, let’s move on from DTG.

Marc V: Okay.

Mark S: I think the next one that we need to touch on is t-shirt transfer printing. There is some color laser printer technology out there that will allow you to print a full color image on a transfer.

Marc V: On a piece of paper, basically.

Mark S: Yeah. A special $10 piece of paper, but yeah, onto a piece of paper. Then, you can heat press it onto a shirt.

Marc V: It leaves from the paper, to the t-shirt, and it sticks to it. That’s how it works.

Mark S: It will do that through heat, again, with a heat press. I’d say its advantages are – we didn’t talk about DTG price range, but they’re like $15,000 and up – $15,000 to $25,000 or $30,000. The vinyl systems are going to be anywhere from about $2,000 – maybe even less – to a little bit more.

Marc V: Yeah. A few thousand dollars is the range. They can go higher, but you’re just talking about bigger and bigger and bigger. Machines that you don’t really need for making t-shirts. The range is small.

Mark S: For screen printing, you’re talking about in the hundreds of dollars, all the way up into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on what you want to do.

For t-shirt transfers, generally, there are a couple of ways to do it. You can make it with the screen printing setup, but you can also make it with a special laser printer, and that setup is around $10,000. So, you’re splitting the difference.

And it’s got some advantages and disadvantages, too.

Marc V: Yeah. You can do full color, like you can with direct-to-garment, which is cool.

Mark S: You don’t have to weed it, like you do with vinyl systems. It’s probably almost as fast to do printing-wise, as screen printing. You can print a lot. Actually, I take that back, because there’s an extra step in there. So, it probably takes three or four minutes, about the same as DTG.

The biggest disadvantage to that is the hand, the feel of the garment itself. It feels plastic-y.

Marc V: Yeah, because similar to the vinyl, both the vinyl and the transfer are going to have a specific feel to them. You’re literally taking a solid material and applying it to your garment.

Mark S: Right.

Marc V: So, you’ve got a solid going to a solid together, that are almost glued on, in a weird way.

Mark S: It’s not like you’re applying ink to a shirt, like you apply ink to a page of paper.

Marc V: Because ink gets absorbed into a garment.

Mark S: You’re putting a sticker on the shirt.

Marc V: Yeah. You’re putting a sticker on the shirt. That would be similar in screen printing, to like a plastic-based ink. A thick plastic-based ink is going to have that feel of vinyl, which is plastic-based. And not too far off on the transfer. Sometimes, it could have a split difference of a feel. It’s in there, but it’s not the pure soft hand. DTG is a really, really soft hand.

That’s your softest hand, compared to like water-based screen printing is your really soft hand.

The transfers are cool. It’s a little bit of a split the difference way to go in price, as you mentioned.

Mark S: The biggest drawback for me, of course, is always the way it feels, because I’m a DTG guy. That’s what I spend my days around. I would wear a direct-to-garment printed shirt any time. It feels great, looks great, full color and things like that.

I’d say with the t-shirt transfer, it depends on the transfer.

Marc V: Absolutely, it does. But it’s another cool way to do it. There’s tons of cool ways to do this stuff.

Are there any other real advantages or disadvantages you’d want to bring into it?

Mark S: I can’t think of any. It’s not that common, so there’s not a lot of points of comparison.

Marc V: And the washability is a thing with them. You have a degradation across all of these things, how they wash.

Mark S: That’s a good point.

Marc V: Screen printing generally, if you do it right – you can easily do it very wrong and very right -you can have a massive level of washability. You can have stuff that can last as long as the shirt, and you can have stuff that starts to crack in a couple of days. Vinyl is going to depend on the quality of vinyl you buy. You can have stuff that washes and wears awesome, and you can have stuff that feels just gross.

Mark S: And most people buy cheap vinyl.

Marc V: Most people buy cheap vinyl, and that’s why I hear bad things about vinyl all the time. That’s why I said we’re not going to carry cheap vinyl at Colman and Company.

The transfer stuff is going to have that degradation. Every time you wash it, that material is going to break up a little bit. It’s not going to be as good as it was the time before. Now, you might get 40 washes.

Mark S: You can get a lot.

Marc V: Yeah. You can get a good amount of it, but there’s going to be a certain life. DTG has a really strong washability, because you’re combining the fabric and the ink together.

Mark S: That’s correct.

Marc V: So, you get really, really good washability in the DTG.

The next one to mention is sublimation.

Mark S: Right. Which I don’t know a lot about. I’ll be up front. I don’t know a lot about sublimation, only that it requires a couple of things. If you’re going to put it on a surface other than t-shirts, it has to be a pretreated surface.

Marc V: It has to be a special type of surface. But if we’re just talking t-shirts, the way that that works is going to be similar to your transfer. You print on something. We’re just going to keep it very basic for this. You print on a piece of paper, basically, and then you put that onto a shirt, and you put it under heat.

It sublimates, meaning that it goes from a solid to a gas. That gas goes onto the shirt, and then it binds to the shirt. Then, when you lift it up, the paper is blank, and the ink is now in the shirt, similar to how DTG would feel.

Mark S: That’s like magic! It really sounds like magic.

Marc V: It has like no hand. You don’t feel it. It disappears, just like DTG ink disappears on a white shirt. You don’t feel it at all. You would not know, if your eyes were closed, like you would with a CMYK print on DTG. It’s impossible to tell it’s there.

The downside is it’s only a polyester.

Mark S: Right. You cannot sublimate anything onto a cotton shirt.

Marc V: Correct. It’s the chemical process. It doesn’t work. And we can go into other disadvantages and advantages on all of these things. But that process is going to be, I’d say similar to your transfers and even your vinyl can live within the same world. The learning curve on the three of those things; on transfers, on sublimation, on the vinyl, aren’t that high.

But the sublimation is going to have a cost that can be similar to getting a t-shirt transfer printing machine. So, you can spend a good amount of money. Also, you’re refilling ink and you’re buying new paper, and you have to make sure that the type of garment you’re buying is going to work with it.

Mark S: And sublimation inks are not water-based inks.

Marc V: Correct, as far as I understand.

Mark S: There’s some chemical properties that cause it to sublimate, so you’ve got to think about that. You’ve got to think about ventilation, when you’re doing the sublimation process. You’ve got to think about ink disposal, and things like that.

Marc V: There’s all of that involved. Whatever type of t-shirt business you’re going to start, there’s a ton of different ways. I think you have to pick what’s going to be good for you, with your budget. Think about the money. You have to think about “Where am I going to do it? How long is it going to take me to learn? What materials am I going to work with? Who am I going to sell to?”

Mark S: Yeah, what your market is.

Marc V: Those are all things to think about, and all of them have their advantages and disadvantages. So, don’t let anybody tell you that one is the best.

Mark S: Because they will.

Marc V: Yeah, they will, and it’s the best for who? The best for what?

Mark S: And you’re back to all of the things that we talked about with embroidery. You want a company that’s going to train you. You’ve got to be comfortable with them. You want somebody that’s going to support you. You want somebody that you can talk to about more than one thing, in my opinion, because we do that.

Marc V: We’re in a long podcast here.

Mark S: Which is weird, because we’ve just been rambling about different kinds of equipment and technologies.

Marc V: Should we go into bling?

Mark S: No. I think we should stop at embroidery and t-shirt printing, and then we will do a separate podcast talking about choosing different ways to bling.

Marc V: Because that can get into a lot, too. I also would like to talk about rhinestones, and what that means.

Mark S: And vinyl glitter.

Marc V: And the different grades that you get into on all of those things, as well. So, it could be a deep conversation.

But what I hope that folks get from this is that when you want to start a t-shirt or embroidery business, you want to think about who you want to sell to. What type of space do you have to work with? What’s your budget?

Mark S: Also, what’s your proclivity? For example, even if you have a lot of space and a decent budget, you may not like the mess for screen printing. Do you know what I mean?

Marc V: Yeah. You want to think about “What is my life going to be like, doing this? Who is going to help me do it? What am I going to do if I decide to hire people? What am I going to do if my business expands?”

The plug that I always give for the vinyl is that if you start there, if your budget is smaller, and you say “I don’t have $20,000. I don’t have the credit to finance $20,000. But I can muster up three grand. I can muster up $2,000. I think I can do that, to get my business started,” then you’ve got a piece of equipment that will stay with you.

Mark S: Yeah. Everyone in custom apparel should have a cutter, anyway.

Marc V: Yes, and most of them eventually get one, if they don’t start that way. So, it’s something that sticks with you, which is cool. I find that to be similar to a commercial embroidery machine. If you get a good single-head commercial embroidery machine, no matter how big your business gets, there’s no reason to get rid of that, ever. There’s no reason to get rid of your cutter.

Mark S: They’ll last forever.

Marc V: There’s no reason to get rid of your vinyl. I even still feel that way about DTG. It’s a bigger investment, but what I mean by it is that I have friends and associates that are in the t-shirt printing business, and they started with DTG, because they wanted to be able to do the full color prints and all of that.

But they started to dive into the market, where they’re like “I just got a big client, where I need to make 2,000 shirts, so I invested the growth in my business in screen printing then, for when I have these 2,000 shirt orders.”

So, they’ve got the direct-to-garment printing, and they grew into that.

All of that is cool, compared to – we’ve talked about like the big home machines for embroidery. That’s not one where you’re going to grow your business, and then also use that home machine for the business.

Mark S: No, no. You’re going to break the home machine, or that single needle just isn’t going to do anything that you need done, for commercial work.

Marc V: The expandability, the long-term growth of your business doesn’t stick. So, just think about that, as well. And pick up the phone and talk to people that sell this stuff. Then, make sure you’re comfortable with them. That goes back to the beginning.

Mark S: And the last thing I’ll say is, especially when you’re talking to the public at large, and you ask them, or you’re talking to people in the business, they’ve already chosen a technology, so they will do everything that they can, to tell you what’s great about it, and what’s bad about other technologies.

Marc V: Cognitive dissonance would be the word I would use for it.

Mark S: Would you really? I wouldn’t use that word.

Marc V: I would use that word because people have made a decision, and naturally, when you make a decision, you want to defend it to yourself, that it was the right decision to make. So, that is why people generally buy something, and they will defend what they own.

Mark S: And they want you to buy it, too.

Marc V: They want you to buy it, too, because they made a good decision. Now, they might have made a good decision. That’s doesn’t mean that they didn’t. However, don’t let that necessarily drive your decision.

Mark S: Agreed. Alright, I think we’ve confused folks enough for today. I think that maybe we’ve helped them. I hope we’ve helped you figure out what technologies to look at, the process that might be involved in choosing the right one, and whatever will help you make the best business for you.

Marc V: Yes, because that’s the goal of this podcast. You finish it with your famous tagline that we’ll say in a minute, but that’s really what this whole thing is, that you find the right thing that’s for you. Think about it. Talk to people who you’re going to buy it from. Make sure that you want to buy it from them.

Make sure that you are not only looking at the price tag, when it comes to making your decision, as well. We didn’t even talk about that at all. But in making the decision, everything that you can buy in this industry that we’ve discussed, you can buy one that is 40% cheaper than the mid-level price.

There is a generic and really cheap, on everything single thing we’ve talked about, and there are going to be disadvantages to that. So, I would say, if you’re saying “I see these two, and there’s a price difference,” find out why.

Mark S: Right. Agreed.

Marc V: Do that, because it’s the same thing with buying an automobile. You’re going to get what you pay for, sometimes. So, be sure of what you get. Feel comfortable with who you’re buying from. Also, think of all of it as an investment for your business. “Do I want to invest this money in my business, so I can grow and be successful, and meet all the dreams and goals that are the reason why I’m starting it?”

Mark S: I like everything that you just said! So, let’s say this. This has been episode 32 of the Custom Apparel Startups podcast. My name is Mark Stephenson, from ColDesi.

Marc V: And I am Marc Vila, from Colman and Company. Thanks for listening!

Mark S: Have a good business!


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