Understanding the Custom Decoration Processes

The type of equipment in a decoration shop will dictate exactly what type of products the shop has the capability to print.  

There are six main product decoration processes: Embroidery, Direct-to-Garment printing (DTG), Screen Printing, Sublimation Printing, Wide Format Printing, and Heat Transfers.  

Each of these processes prints on different materials in different ways. There is some overlap among the processes, but not much.

Most product decoration shops will offer multiple decoration processes to fulfill more of their customers’ needs.  

Direct-to-Garment Printing

Direct-to-Garment (DTG) printers operate much like inkjet printers, except that they print onto garments instead of paper.   DTG printers are capable of printing on any color and require no minimum amount of prints to order due to the speed with which you can change the design to be printed.  DTG printing is primarily used for printing onto 100% cotton garments, however certain blends do work as long as they are least 50% cotton.  One of the major advantages to DTG printing is the fact that the artwork does not require special formatting like screen printing and embroidery.  DTG printers are capable of full-color, photo quality printing.  All these qualities make DTG the go-to printing method for small-to-medium online print shops, and even smaller printing stores.  DTG printing, like every decoration process, is not without its drawbacks, though.  Obviously the available product line is limited to cotton products and certain blends.  In addition to a limited product line, the cost of DTG ink is quite high, especially when compared to screen printing. Also, while DTG printers are fully capable of printing on darker garments, there are possible complications with them, like bleeding or banding.


Embroidery is the oldest product decoration method that is still common today.  Embroidery involves a machine stitching designs into fabric with a needle and thread.  Current embroidery machines are capable of stitching designs with up to 15 colors.  Logos and monograms are the most common types of embroidery, as most embroidered designs are rather small.  To operate an embroidery machine, you will also need a computer with which to prepare artwork and send print-ready files to the machine.  Embroidery has a high perceived value when compared to alternative product decoration methods, but embroidery machines are expensive and require regular maintenance.  Embroidery machines can easily stitch most cotton garments, polos, bags, and jackets. Softer and more flexible fabrics, like polyester, will not stitch well because the sewing process will pull the fabric, creating a wavy look on the finished product.  This is referred to as puckering.

Screen Printing

Screen printing is the cheapest method of apparel decoration, while also providing one of the most vibrant and opaque prints of any printing process.  When screen printing, a printer drags ink across a screen, which has a design burned into it, over top of a shirt.  This forces ink onto the garment in the shape of whatever design was burned into the screen.  Most of the print costs are derived from the setup process rather than the printing itself.  Artwork requirements can be an impediment to completing a print job and a screen must be prepared for each color in the design, because each color must be printed separately.  It also can be more expensive to create full color prints or even prints with over four colors.  The biggest issue with screen printing, though, is that it requires a minimum of 12 pieces for an order.  It is simply not economical to go to all the effort of preparing artwork, creating screens, and printing in order to make a single garment.  For bulk orders, however, screen printing is the best option by far.  A practiced screen printer with an automatic screen print machine can print hundreds of garments in an hour.

Screenprint Heat Transfers

Screenprint transfer printing is similar to direct screen-printing, however, instead of printing directly onto a garment, special ink is printed onto a release paper, which can then be heat-applied onto a variety of products.  Screen print transfers are extremely versatile.  They can be printed onto cotton, polyester, and blended garments, as well as bags, towels, hats, and other accessory products.  Artwork for screenprint transfers can be “ganged” in order to reduce costs.  Ganging artwork means that several designs can be printed onto a single sheet of transfer paper, which lowers the cost of the transfers.  There is also a lower equipment cost than other product decoration methods, and the print time is much quicker.  With screenprint transfers, you don’t have to hold printed inventory.  Rather, you can print on-demand, which saves money and prevents you from being stuck with printed inventory that you may or may not sell.  However, there is a larger upfront cost in the form of the transfers, which you are dependent upon to be able to print.

Sublimation Printing

Sublimation printing is primarily used for gift products and awards, though white 100% polyester garments can be printed as well.  However, since that is such a unique printable garment, it is uncommon to print apparel using the sublimation method.  The sublimation process is very simple, and like the screen print transfer process.  A dye-sublimation printer will print a mirrored image of the final print onto special paper with dye-sublimation ink, which will sublimate when pressed onto the product at a high temperature.  Sublimation printers are capable of full-color, photo quality prints.  Each different product that can be sublimation-printed will require different time, temperature, and pressure settings to create the optimal print.  This is important to remember considering that there are a vast amount of products that can be printed, from coffee mugs and plaques to coasters and puzzles.

Wide Format Printing

Wide format printing is very similar to DTG and sublimation printing in that it is essentially an inkjet printer for large media, capable of full color prints without minimum orders.  Most wide format designs are printed on white media, however some wide format printers are capable of printing white onto clear media.  Many wide format printers can also cut the media into whatever shape is desired.  Wide format printers can print canvas, wallpaper, stickers, wall & window clings, and even vehicle wraps, a product that has grown in popularity recently.  Wide format prints can have large margins, because the material costs are quite low, but finished products have a high perceived value.

Which Processes Are Right for You?

Clearly there are a wide variety of decoration options available to anyone hoping to start a new product decoration business.  The processes offered to customers should be dictated by the market, and the needs that a new business could fulfill.  If a new decoration shop could become a one-stop shop for customers’ product decoration needs, it is possible to utilize most, if not all these processes either in house or by outsourcing.  So, if you are looking to start a product decoration business, investigate your market and do your best beforehand to figure out what equipment you will need to offer the best combination of products to your customers.