By Melissa Donovan
The strengths of digital dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printing for fabric are apparent in various markets from traditional print service providers (PSPs) relying on the technology for creating soft signage to world-renown home décor brands designing capsule collections in business-to-consumer situations. In between, there is a sweet spot for small- and medium-sized businesses looking to make a name for themselves during a time when customization and mass personalization is booming.
Apparel in particular leverages the advantages of dye-sub, namely the ability to cost effectively offer short runs. This reduces inventory and prevents unnecessary overstock. Tough Apparel, based in Mesa, AZ, identified early on just how practical a print on demand business operation could be. The company functions out of a 2,000 square foot space with a staff of two in addition to independent contractors. It offers sublimated ties, ratchet belts, socks, and button up shirts.
Above: Tough Apparel’s Mutoh ValueJet 1638WX dye-sub device prints custom fabric that is then cut and sewn in house to create pieces like ties, ratchet belts, socks, and button up shirts.
Knot Your Average Tie
Founded in 2017, Tough Apparel came to market with the launch of its now-staple product, the Tough Tie. Co-founders Skylar Bennett and Kevin Shoemaker realized as young, new dads in the professional world that durable, stain-resistant clothing was difficult to find, especially in ties. What came from this discovery, was Tough Tie, which can be machine washed instead of dry cleaned. Made of liquid repellent fabric, a Tough Tie features microfiber tipping to clean glasses or a phone screen.
Looking to further differentiate the product, Bennett and Shoemaker decided fairly early in the process to use dye-sub printing. The goal was to provide a large quantity of pattern options without having to create huge depth in inventory.
“We learned early on that inventory would be one of our biggest challenges in starting a product-based company. Minimum order quantities out of China were extremely high for each fabric pattern and one of the biggest value-adds as a necktie company is having a large selection of patterns to choose from,” explains Bennett.
Tough Ties are made out of woven polyester-based fabric—an ideal candidate for dye-sub printing—to handle repeated machine washing. After learning about dye-sub at a fabric show, the co-owners decided to test a round of ties using polyester for the pattern versus pre-dyed and woven patterns.
Bennett says the outcome was “incredible” and sealed the deal on dye-sub as the decoration method for Tough Ties going forward. Dye-sub allowed the company to launch dozens of new patterns every month instead of the ten to 20 a year it was completing prior.
Initially, Tough Apparel outsourced its dye-sub work to a local print company, unfortunately that print shop closed at the end of 2018. Instead of finding another company to outsource to, it decided that it made sense to bring dye-sub in house. “After realizing how volatile our business was, we made the decision to purchase our own wide format dye-sub printer and calendar press,” notes Bennett.
Bennett and Shoemaker went with a Mutoh America, Inc. ValueJet 1638WX. The printer was chosen due to its wide format capabilities, staggered dual printheads, and take-up reel. Offering prints at 64-inch widths with water-based dye-sub ink, the device’s printhead setup enables high-quality graphics at high speeds. Tough Apparel uses ink from J-Teck, part of JK Group.
The take-up reel is an optional feature, however Tough Apparel required it. “We’ve printed up to 70 or 80 yards at a time in a single print, which is almost an entire roll of paper. Having a take-up reel is the only thing that allows us to print these massive files,” admits Bennett.
Working as a transfer dye-sub process, Tough Apparel prints to Beaver Paper & Graphic Media, Inc. sublimation paper. It then runs the paper through a wide format heat press to marry the graphic to the polyester.
“Our core strength is printing small- to medium-batch custom printed fabrics with quick turnaround times. Anywhere from one to 100 yards of material at a time,” shares Bennett.
Tough Apparel finishes all of its ties via manual cutting and sewing. “Our neckties require detailed and skilled sewing to achieve the consistency and quality we promise our customers with this product,” continues Bennett.
Every tie is print, cut, and sewn on demand thanks to the dye-sub print model now in place at Tough Apparel. “We essentially eliminated inventory altogether and this allows us to launch any number of patterns at any time without any inventory,” he adds.
The Tough Tie is the company’s claim to fame—Bennett and Shoemaker appeared on Shark Tank in 2020—however, it soon began offering other sublimation products after its launch in 2017. This includes socks, ratchet belts, and button down shirts.
While the majority of the work conducted on Tough Apparel’s Mutoh ValueJet 1638WX dye-sub device is for its product lines, it also completes work for a handful of other businesses in the area. For example, it recently had a client reach out looking for digitally printed textiles in small batch orders, roughly five to 15 yards at a time. The customer had been using a large online company to process these jobs, however Tough Apparel’s cost was roughly 40 percent less.
Tough Apparel completed the job very quickly, the day after the order was placed, printing and pressing ten yards of custom print fabric. “Small orders like this fit in line with our normal daily production and are extremely easy to complete for customers,” explains Bennett.
Smart thinking allowed Tough Apparel to weather the COVID-19 storm, supplementing its traditional work with side orders. The onslaught of the pandemic forced the company to bring cut and sewing capabilities in house as it lost its necktie manufacturers. Coincidentally, this occurred a month before the Shark Tank episode aired.
“Over the course of 60 days—30 days leading up to Shark Tank and 30 days after—we purchased the equipment necessary to cut and sew our own ties and taught a small group of seamstresses how to make them. This is the only thing that kept our company alive and allowed us to fulfill the demand after our Shark Tank episode aired,” says Bennett.
Bringing finishing in house also allowed the company to help out early on in the pandemic when face masks and neck gaiters were in short supply. “Through constant pivoting and adaptation, we’ve been able to not only stay alive during COVID-19 but also bring much of our supply chain in house allowing us to scale quicker than we ever could have before.”
Tough Apparel positioned itself as a lean and mean business. It operates with no inventory, supplying products like its Tough Ties on demand. The model works and it is thanks to savvy business owners, the advantages of dye-sub printing, and in-house finishing capabilities.
Jul2021, Digital Output