Promotional distributors can gain a competitive advantage educating themselves on the world of apparel decoration. As I have delved deeper into the promotional products world, I have realized that many distributors are not very savvy when it comes to apparel decoration. Whether we are speaking of screen printing, embroidery, appliqué, or cut-and-sew techniques, it’s crucial as a distributor to learn and understand the apparel decoration industry terminology.

As a self-proclaimed garmento, my whole world has been apparel decoration. I originally avoided the world of “tchotchkes” and wanted to provide a more specialized offering. I wanted to offer everything possible when it comes to wearables as opposed to offering a little of everything. Generally, I wanted depth in a smaller niche, rather than a broad, shallow selection. After a while, however, I realized I was letting my customers down and leaving money on the table when they wanted to entrust us with the other parts of their promotional goals. So, I set forth gaining a similar depth of knowledge with journals, drinkware, and bags — one product at a time.

Know the Possibilities

While I live and breathe all things ink and thread for apparel, I also understand most people are not going to be as obsessed with the specifics of the craft. However, even if you don’t know the specifics of ink mixing and mesh densities, I believe it is only beneficial to be aware of all the possibilities you can offer your clientele.

Anyone can throw plastisol on a T-shirt, but if you know what you’re doing, you can create something that nobody else can, and that will gain you a customer for life. Knowing the specifics will also help you answer client questions and make choices that support the overall values of your business. Even if you aren’t doing the work in-house, knowing whether your decorators reclaim water or use safe decorating methods for their workers is vital to ensuring you’re not doing more harm than good.

Furthermore, this technical know-how might save you from making a mistake and offering something to the client that cannot be accomplished with existing manufacturing limitations. There’s nothing worse than getting a client hyped about a discharge print on a light pink synthetic garment to find out that well, that’s not gonna’ happen with current manufacturing limitations, and you need a different plan.

If you can offer something that the big players cannot, you can charge appropriately and avoid racing to the bottom of the barrel to hold on to a client who always wants the cheapest price. Knowing the specifics helps avoid embarrassment, saves time, establishes credibility, and increases lifetime values of a customer base.

3 Tips to Get You Started


Promotional distributors can gain a competitive advantage educating themselves on the world of apparel decoration. Credit: Jeremy Picker

Here are a handful of tips on how to educate yourself:

  1. Start with your current decorators. While most are busy and do not have time to educate every client, I guarantee if you tell them you want to learn more to make communication with them and the client more efficient, they will gladly help you. Ask them what decoration techniques they offer or are willing to try out. Show interest to mutually elevate the product and streamline the process, which will make all parties more profitable.
  2. Online courses and YouTube. This seems straightforward, but if you’ve never googled “T-shirt decoration techniques,” give it a go. Ten minutes of investment now could pay massive dividends in the future. Ryan Moor of Ryonet built his empire making how-to videos for screen printing. Those are a great place to get your screen printing 101 Also watch Erich Campbell on his live Friday shows that educate on stitches, techniques, and all things embroidery.
  3. Go to the mall and thrift stores to touch and feel. You can read and watch all you want, but in order to close the loop, you really need to see and touch these processes in person. The mall is one of the best places for this. Stores like Urban Outfitters, Guess, True Religion, American Eagle, PacSun, Forever21, H&M, Nordstrom, etc., allow you to see a myriad of techniques available for apparel decoration applied to work with seasonal trends.

There is a chance your current vendors will be unable to facilitate some of the decoration techniques you witness. But in true distributor fashion, I urge you to find someone who can do something that might be more specialized. I facilitate the printing of specialty techniques for some large distributors because their local company is unable to pull it off.

Outside of specialty printing, just knowing about screens, ink, how fabrics react to inks and thread, and how to properly understand how your artwork might come out in print or embroidery will eliminate some of the issues you might face along the way. Plus, knowing more than the customer is a great place to start your decoration knowledge journey.

At the end of the day, most customers will not add an appliqué to a sweater with a clip label and hood print, but showcasing these options and sharing examples helps establish you as an expert, and place you higher in the customer’s mind than the “logo-slappers” out there when searching for a long-term production partner.