Dare to be Different

Moving Up and Adding On

 Keeping customers happy—and coming back...that’s the secret of success.

Challenges are all around us these days, so we need to dare to be different and keep our eyes open for the opening doors of opportunity.

I get excited about a lot of things in the personalization industry and am always trying to learn about what is new and different. I love to keep embroiderers up to date on the possibilities that exist to grow business.  We can offer those services to customers, both by doing the work ourselves or by contracting it out.

There is a lot of truth to the advice that it costs more money to court new customers than it does to offer more and better to existing customers.

Planting seeds and watching them grow into reality in this amazing personalization industry is what makes writing this column, speaking at the Printwear shows, providing a discussion forum on the Internet (www.EmbroideryLine.net) and now teaching “Dare to Be Different” classes (www.DareToBeDifferent.us)at my location with my able colleague, Pat Baldes of Personaliztion Solutions, the real highlights of my life.

Let’s take a look at some of the processes and investments that we can add to an existing embroidery business to make our offerings more interesting—and provide a more robust bottom line.

 Heat Presses

A lot of embroiderers consider their flat bed heat press a required component in their business (“couldn’t live without it” is a common comment). This heat press is a common denominator in many of the personalization processes.

We can use a heat press to set our embroidery stitches. Thread comes from the manufacturer with a twist; add that to the different tensions of the threads as we stitch, and the design can appear…well, not quite flat and even. Even a careful check of the tensions on each needle before hitting the start button might not be enough to even the tension. By adding heat and light pressure, the thread relaxes and the appearance is smooth and even, which creates a quality product that lasts even through laundering.

The heat press is also used to apply transfers, CAD cut product (including tackle twill and other appliqué fabrics), and vinyl lettering and designs.  Cost: $600 to 2400.00

cap press is a very versatile piece of equipment. Embroiderers can use it to prepare caps for stitching, The heat of the press softens the fabric, making the needle’s work easier, and also helps to flatten any center seam. Transfers and cad cut designs (items made from any material prepared with the cutter, which includes film, flock, twill, and paper transfers), pre-sewn embroidery appliqué, and rhinestones can be applied to caps on this press.  A cap press can also be used to apply designs and personalization to sleeves, pants, bags, Christmas stockings, fanny packs—any goods that will fit easily on the curved platen. Cost: from $300 to $600.

Some models of the heat press offer the ability to emboss, which is a method of decorating that fuses a backing to a shirt while carving a design into the face of the fabric. Dies to create the embossing are an extra fee over the cost of the machine and the price depends on the company and the design. (Debossing is reverse embossing.)

All the processes and procedures that a heat press makes possible can be combined with embroidery to create mixed media products that delight the customer and add excitement and variety to our products.

mug press can be used to decorate mugs with transfers, created with ink jet printer ink or with sublimation ink. Cost: $500-$700.


The Ink Jet Printer can create transfers which can be cut by hand or with a CAD Cutter for application on shirts, caps, bags and more. By using a special paper when printing with regular inks you can print and then heat apply a custom color transfer.  You can use a CAD cutter or just a pair of scissors to trim the image before applying for a cleaner print application.

You can also create transfers that can be applied to mugs. You can install sublimation ink in these printers and use special paper to create vivid sublimation transfers that will print on soft goods like polyester shirts and bags and any hard goods that have been coated withpolyester.  

If you want to print on cotton, you can also switch to ChromaBlast™  ink which is a unique patented ink and media combination driven by software that creates images for application to cotton. A chemical reaction between the heat, pressure and cotton fabric creates bright colors, a soft hand and a washable product.

Epson printers will accept specialty inks like ArTanium ™ (for sublimation to polyester) and ChromoBlast™ (for printing on cotton). Bulk rate systems are available. The initial investment is greater when you add the ability to use large size ink canisters, but the savings on ink can be substantial.

 Best-selling sublimation products are t-shirts, mugs, Christmas ornaments and plaques. Epson and other ink jet printers cost from $40.00 to $400. Wide format printers are also available.

Appliqués can be created with sublimation and then stitched on garments. Add embroidered accents to spice up the design. Add lettering in stitches above and below the design for more thread impact.

Some printers come with sublimation inks already installed. The cost ranges from $300 -$2500.

There is also a printer that will print either sublimation or ChromoBlast, allowing an easy choice between cotton and polyester goods. 

Laser Printer can be used to create transfers using a special transfer paper.  The designs are applied directly to the goods—no cutting required. Color laser printers can be found for around $200-$400.

The direct to garment printer allows easy printing of small jobs directly on the garment. Cost: $15,000-$20,000.

When you fuse ink onto polymer or film coated paper and print that image onto a garment it is very simple to add embroidery, You can cover a large area with the print and then just add details and/or lettering in thread, creating a mixed media product. Transfers can also be purchased ready to apply and can stand alone on a garment or be mixed with embroidery.

Add rhinestones, sequins—anything your imagination can conceive—and create a real MULTI-mixed media product.


 Canning gifts is a unique add-on to any business that personalizes. Gift canners seal three different size cans. Pre-printed labels are available but you can also print your own, which can be fun if you match the label to the gift. You can buy equipment to can both small and large gifts for $200-$1200. Cans and labels are extra. Gift canning will be most lucrative in a gift store setting where there is a real opportunity to market this add-on service.

A fun idea: Take a picture of your embroidered design or import a 3-D image from your software and use it to make your label!


 Many embroiderers consider the cutter a “must-have” for their business.

The equipment is used to cut vinyl lettering for signage. You can choose to sell just the vinyl graphics or complete the job and create banners, magnetic signs for vehicles, or larger signs.

Some use the cutter to specialize in tackle twill. The combination of the heat press and the cutter creates a lucrative market in cutting letters and numbers used to decorate sports uniforms.

The cutter can be used for small orders of t-shirts (where screen printing is not cost effective) and to create pre-cut school designs. The embroidery shop can display the designs and the customer can select a design and a shirt and have a custom t-shirt in just a few minutes. Many embroiderers charge from $15.00 to $20.00 for a t-shirt with a two-color design…and for a little more you can add an embroidered element. Decals for sports Moms are also a lucrative cutting niche. One word of advice from cutter owners—be sure to get a cutter that is wide enough.  The preferred size is at least 24 inches.

Twill, vinyl, paper, backed fabric and more can be cut precisely with a CAD cutter.

A flat bed cutter costs around $7000 and comes with a software program ton prepare the graphics for stitching. Flat beds can cut multiple layers laminated together. These are more stable to use than their roll cutter cousins, but do require the use of pre-cut sheets. They do an exceptional job on twill.

Roll cutters range from $500-$3500 or more and are used to cut CAD material, usually some type of vinyl for window signs or for heat application for clothing. They will precisely cut the paper transfers made by ink jet printers which can then be applied to garments and other soft goods.

There are two small cutters (8 and 14 inches) that cut sticker and decal vinyl, film, vinyl lettering, paper, card stock, magnetic sheets and heat transfers. They also cut flex, flock and metallics for application to garments. Contour cutting or die cutting from your laser or inkjet printed transfers can be done on both cutters. Cost: $399 and $999.

A Print and Cut CAD cutter is available that prints on a film material. With this printer you can produce process color (graphics produced with separate colors, most commonly three primary colors and black). The images have a light hand and will apply to almost any fabric. Cost: $10,000-$20,000.

Combine embroidery with any of the CAD cut products for a mixed media extravaganza. Sports transfers can be personalized with the player’s name, position and number. Add CAD cut flock material to embroidered designs for a suede-like hand and look to the finished product. If you have a machine with a sequin attachment and the digitizing (or digitizer) to create the design, cut a frame with metallic CAD cut material and add the design as a “picture” inside the frame. Pull some elements of the embroidered design outside the frame for a dimensional effect.

 Screen Printing

 The process of screen printing requires the preparation of artwork and color separations for each different hue. Positives are created and are used to make screens, mesh coated with emulsion that is exposed to light, creating the design everywhere the light does not reach.

Equipment is varied—you will need screens, a flatbed, cylinder or rotary press, a dryer—and the list goes on. A four-station press costs about $10,000.

You can get a semi-pro table top screen printing set-up for about $1000 if you want to try it out. A larger set-up costs $4000.

Screen Printing is definitely considered a money maker. But perceived value is added when screen printing is combined with embroidery. The combination of screen printing and embroidery is as natural as bacon and eggs. Details can be applied to the goods that would either be impossible or too time-consuming and the embroidery added. Registration issues can be skirted by making the embroidery placement wide and variable, although it is possible to create detailed registration if that is what your customer wants. Be sure to charge more as the difficulty level increases!

Think about screen printing on fabric (this trick works with transfers, too) and then create appliqué letters using the printed fabric…now you have embroidery, appliqué and printing! Add rhinestones or studs and you have a real combo-media product!

Plastisol heat transfers (screen printed designs ready to apply to garments) are available for purchase (custom work or ready-made) and can be applied and embroidery added, saving you the investment in the equipment and the learning curve!

 Ornament/Ball Printer

 This is a piece of equipment that prints directly on baseballs and Christmas ornaments using ink jet ink. Cost: under $4000

 Pad Printer

 This equipment prints on small curved or flat areas such as found on golf balls, baseballs and caps., making it possible to personalize unique items for gifts and promotional product offerings.  It another specializes piece of equipment that uses a die with of the image and pad ink. Cost: $5000-$30,000.


 This process requires the customer to provide a photo (have them make a copy as the photo is used in the process) that can be applied to any ceramic item. Plates are the most popular. The finished product is beautiful but be aware that you must have or create a market for these items. It takes time to create a market, even if you are in a gift shop environment, so when you commit to the process, make a commitment to turning a profit on it. Cost: Start at $5000.


 A laser engraver allows a business to offer awards, gifts, signs, cut twill and more.

A small machine by Roland (around $5000.00) will engrave name tags as well as carve templates for the consistent placement of rhinestone designs.

Larger laser engraver cuts fabric, leather, and wood. Fabrics cut with a laser cutter have a seared edge and do not require sewing when applying the designs to the fabric. A laser cutter also can be used to do some types of engraving on fabric and on wood. The large engravers range in price from $2000-$12,000.


 A sandblaster is a piece of equipment that many say does a much better job on glass and crystal than the laser. 

One business shared a combination process with sandblaster and cutter. The cutter is useful in preparing the heavy mask used in the cutting stones or bricks with a sandblaster. Commemorative paver bricks are a great idea for fundraisers. Cost: around $15,000

 Ribbon Printing

 Ribbon printers take up very little real estate and print ribbons of varied widths. Use the ribbon on packs of shirts ready for pick-up or delivery printed with your customer’s name (to market printed ribbon) or yours (to market yourself). Market to florists, funeral parlors, wedding planners, and more. If you offer gift canning or gift wrapping, use personalized printed ribbons to market yourself or an event. Cost: $800 up. 

Buttons and Pin Makers

There are a variety of machines that make buttons, badges, shoe charms, fabric buttons and rosettes for awards. How do these ideas fit into your business? How about shoe charms for impulse purchasing or giveaways with orders? Switch out the buttons on caps for personalized fabric buttons. Make monogrammed pins for summer shoes or bags. Combine the rosette buttons with the printed ribbon from the Ribbon Printer and you’ve got a lucrative market on your hands. Cost: From $19.95 to $2000.


If you are thinking about adding an embroidery machine, consider attachments that provide boring, sequins, and chenille. These are specialty looks that can really set your business apart and allow you to customize your products in ways that shout different and unique. If you already have embroidery machines, find out if any of these capabilities can be added, by you or a technician, to your existing equipment. Any of these applications combined with some of the processes discussed here, can add just one more dimension to your designs.

When you are choosing ways to be different and unique, think about what your customers are looking for and ask yourself if it will be compatible with the rest of your products.  Will the new service require you to make extra or special marketing or advertising decisions?

Think about how many requests you have for that product or process now. Once in a while? Once a week? It is not enough to simply love the process or the product. Good business sense requires that you have a market for it.

Can you contract out the work and still satisfy the customer until you have the customer base and income to support the new equipment? Can you buy the equipment used?

Don’t forget about any learning curve—and any costs for that. You will need to use your contractor until you are ready to supply a product good or better than what you have been providing from your contractor.

Once the equipment is in place and you are well prepared to produce with it, make sure that you push your new service. Equipment is often under-utilized because the product it creates is not marketed vigorously. If you make the commitment to expand, commit to the marketing that it demands.

Don’t forget the time factor. Overextend yourself and you will have time to do nothing well.

I hope you have found inspiration and food for thought this month and will consider ways to add on and move up with your business.

Dare to be different…