Apparel Printing: A Profitable Business for Hartford Shop
If it weren’t for T-shirts and apparel, University of Hartford (UHart) Print and Mail Services would generate about $20,000 less in profit each year. That’s how much Manager Mario Maselli estimates his four-employee in-plant makes from its apparel-printing business in a typical year.
“In a good year, you can do $45,000,” he adds.
That is nothing to sneeze at in an industry where ink-on-paper revenues have plunged over the past year. The pandemic wreaked havoc on higher-ed in-plants in particular, canceling classes and events, along with the printing that supported them, and prompting many to seek new revenue streams. Apparel printing is one of those opportunities.
Though UHart Print and Mail has been handling garment production for more than a decade in its Hartford, Connecticut-based operation, other in-plants are starting to see the possibilities. In a 2020 IPI survey, 11% of in-plants said they handle garment printing.
Nationally, the demand for promotional apparel is immense. According to the 2020 Promotional Products Association International Sales Volume Report, apparel made up 26.3% of that industry’s $19.6 billion distributor sales volume, or $5.15 billion. And that was down from $6.15 billion in apparel sales in 2019, due to the pandemic. Prior to that, overall promo industry sales, including apparel, went up every year since 2009.
Recognizing an Opportunity
UHart’s in-plant was already dabbling in apparel when Maselli started there in 2011. The shop sent most orders to outside vendors, but Maselli sought to amp up this business and produce more of these garments in-house. His previous experience with garment production for a trade show exhibit company, along with the fact that UHart’s purchasing department was seeing lots of apparel orders going off campus, convinced him there was a good opportunity to be had.
“I was seeing a lot of student organizations that were coming in requesting [apparel],” he says. “They had nowhere to go. They didn’t know what to do.” So he thought, “Why not offer it here?”
The in-plant was printing and cutting heat transfer materials on its Roland eco-solvent printer/cutter then pressing them into garments using a Stahl’s Hotronix heat press. Three years later, Maselli upgraded this drawer-fed press to a Hotronix Auto Clam heat press to produce better-quality shirts. Eventually, the shop moved away from printing heat transfers and began ordering screen-printed transfers from Stahl’s Transfer Express. With these, only the ink is transferred to the garment, not the vinyl backing material. This, he feels, looks a lot nicer than when the vinyl backing is applied.
“We’re very picky on our quality,” he says.
30,000 Apparel Items Per Year
Today, Print and Mail Services is the place to go on campus for all personalized apparel orders — shirts, jackets, hoodies, shorts, jerseys, backpacks, and more. The in-plant handles about 30,000 apparel items per year — 56,000 in its best year, Maselli boasts. Of those, about a quarter are produced in-house, and the shop buys the rest from trusted vendors. In general, orders of more than 24 shirts are outsourced, though there are many factors to consider: the amount of artwork being transferred, whether a shirt needs front and back graphics, or whether the sleeves need to be personalized. Sometimes the in-plant presses a design onto the front of a polo shirt, then sends it out for sleeve embroidery.
“Embroidery has been growing for us,” Maselli notes. He has looked into getting an embroidery machine, but just doesn’t have the space right now.
Pressing garments in-house is not a complicated process, Maselli says. He has a full-time person to do the work, and he steps in to do it when needed. The shirt is placed on the bottom platen of the heat press and the heated top platen is pulled down to preheat it. Then the transfer is positioned on the shirt, and the platen gets pulled down again to fuse the ink into the shirt for about 12 seconds. A preset timer automatically lifts the platen when it’s done, and the operator removes the backing sheet. A job of 24 shirts, Maselli says, takes a couple of hours.
Though the in-plant generally outsources jobs larger than that, it once took on a 250-shirt job when its vendor closed during the pandemic. That took a day and a half to do in-house, he says.
Promoting the Business
There is no campus mandate to send garment orders to the in-plant, so Maselli has promoted the business through word of mouth. He met with sororities and other student organizations, as well as with the Office of Student Engagement and Inclusion to get its buy-in. The in-plant gets a steady stream of orders, not only from campus groups but from students, faculty, staff, and even local churches, schools, and nonprofits. At the beginning of the semester, the shop received an order for 1,500 shirts, one for each incoming freshman. For a recent 5K run, organizers ordered 350 shirts.
Putting the in-plant in charge of garments has many advantages for UHart, the chief being control of brand consistency. The in-plant is already monitoring this in the other printing it does, and understands the importance of color accuracy, particularly in UHart’s red logo.
“Whether we’re doing it here or sending it out, we know what ink our screen printer is using,” explains Maselli. “Brand consistency is huge. They rely on us a lot for that.”
The in-plant often has to clean up artwork submitted by customers, he says. Sometimes students grab images from the internet and “hodgepodge it together,” he says. And artwork is almost never submitted vectorized, so his shop handles that.
“The key thing is making sure it’s clean artwork,” he says.
Though apparel orders are currently placed through the in-plant’s MyOrderDesk Web-to-print system from Print Reach Software, Maselli hopes to move to the InkSoft e-commerce platform, which was designed for selling custom-branded merchandise and apparel. Using this, customers will be able to select pre-approved artwork and logos when building their designs.
“That will save a lot of headaches,” he says.
Other Upgrade Plans
He also has plans to upgrade the shop’s heat press to one with both top and bottom heating, and add another press just for producing hats. Also on his shopping list is a new 63˝ Roland printer, which can be used to produce some heat transfers.
Maselli has looked into direct-to-garment printers, but is not satisfied that the process will really save much time, since garment pre-treatment and pressing are still involved. He considered dye-sublimation equipment too, but did not like that only polyester garments can be used.
The shop does not keep a large volume of shirts in stock, Maselli says, but orders them as needed for next-day delivery. He pays between $1.45 and $1.60 per shirt, and once printed they sell for between $8 and $10.
“There’s a big profit margin in it,” he points out.
Getting into the business, he adds, will not break the bank for any in-plant. A heat press can be purchased for less than $2,000. Transfers can be ordered from Transfer Express, as his in-plant does, or printed on an existing inkjet printer.
Plus, shirt orders sometimes lead to other printing. For an upcoming club fair, the shop recently got an order for shirts, stickers, table runners, and posters.
“It does open up other printing [opportunities],” he says.
Any in-plant moving into apparel production will have to understand the variety of garment materials available, the process of vectorizing artwork, and get through the learning curve of using the heat press, Maselli says.
“You’re going to make mistakes,” he adds — but don’t let that deter you. Apparel can be a great new service for an in-plant to offer, and will enhance your value to the organization, not to mention your profit.
“We bring a lot of value and knowledge to the table,” Maselli says.
Related story: Ferris State Adds Embroidery Services
Bob has served as editor of In-plant Impressions since October of 1994. Prior to that he served for three years as managing editor of Printing Impressions, a commercial printing publication. Mr. Neubauer is very active in the U.S. in-plant industry. He attends all the major in-plant conferences and has visited more than 170 in-plant operations around the world. He has given presentations to numerous in-plant groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including the Association of College and University Printers and the In-plant Printing and Mailing Association. He also coordinates the annual In-Print contest, co-sponsored by IPMA and In-plant Impressions.