How Did They Do That? Inspo-Worthy Decorated-Apparel Designs

How did they create that dazzling design? We asked eight decorators to show off some of their most creative embroidered, screen-printed and digitally decorated looks, along with insider tips to creating imprinted artwork that turns heads (and gets lots of brand impressions). Get ready to be inspired!

PROUDLY MADE IN THE USA

La Tonna Roberson, owner of T-Shirt Shop Dallas, created a USA-strong T-shirt design for Smartrise Engineering, a company that prides itself on making all of its products in the USA. The goal: produce a screen-printed shirt that Smartrise employees love to wear.

Roberson chose the BELLA+CANVAS Unisex Triblend T-shirt, since so many of her corporate clients love this style. “It’s perfect for companies that want a fashionable T-shirt they can wear in the office and still look professional,” she says. “We wanted to make the print match the softness of the T-shirt, so we decided to use 156 mesh screens for the job.”

To get this look, Roberson’s team designed the tools element to be printed without an underbase. “We wanted the red to be subdued and have a barely-there feeling,” she says. “We used an opaque red, with a soft-hand additive. When you print red without an underbase, the color of the shirt darkens the ink, and that was perfect for this design, since Smartrise wanted a vintage look. Then, we reversed our print colors and printed our white, to give the appearance of standing out from the shirt. This helped the circles in the logo really stand out.” 

BOSS ‘CHIC’ WITH A TWIST

Roberson created this wow-worthy style for herself using a Hanes sweatshirt. “We cut the sweatshirt to give the style a more urban look,” she says. “Then, we created the floral ‘Boss Chic’ design by power clipping the flowers into the words in CorelDRAW.”

Then the T-Shirt Shop Dallas team sublimated the Boss Chic design on 100% polyester fabric  squares. “To complete the design, we turned the shirts inside out and fused the polyester squares to the inside of the shirt,” Roberson says. “Then, we flipped the shirt over and stretched our cuts to create this cool peekaboo effect that gets lots of second glances.”

CHAIN-STITCHING PROWESS

Carolyn Cagle, owner of Strikke Knits Embroidery, has been revisiting old school chain-stitch lettering for her designs lately, with super-low density on shapes using variegated threads as the fill.

The chain-stitch lettering Cagle used on these designs is the Chain Alphabet font in The Design Shop program associated with AMAYA XT embroidery machines from Melco. “The key is that you need to use this font at least 4″ tall,” she says. “Don’t mess with the density, but you must hand-kern some of the letters to create a condensed feel that gets you a better look.”

Expert Tip: Using the Vikings design as an example, set the first letter 1″ taller and hand-kern into the rest of the text to get a better look in the larger format.

PRINT DESIGNS THAT SELL

“Screen printing offers the lowest cost of production when you print garments in bulk,” says Leanne Rose Clute, owner of Of Love and Shiplap. To give the best longevity on the garment, a design like “Difference Maker” needs to have plenty of open space and minimal halftones or transparent areas. 

“Text-only graphic tees like ‘Difference Maker’ are an evergreen trend,” Clute says, “but incorporating text to create negative space within an adjacent object to your text theme helps bring new, modern life to screen-print friendly artwork.”


And a quick and easy way to tailor a DTG print design for your local audience is to customize it with your city and state like Clute’s “Diamonds & Dirt” T-shirt. “We paired original artwork with text customization and it creates a hugely profitable upsell,” Clute says. “DTG gives you the flexibility to accommodate these items, without costing you time.”

KICK SOME DESIGN BUTT

Asskicker Activewear is a growing Canadian apparel brand that started when Julie Bateman, creative director and founder, dreamed up designs for graphic tees and gym tanks that feature empowering messages for women. “I buy most of my blank apparel from alphabroder.ca, design the graphics myself and then apply them via heat press,” Bateman says.

Create a formula for your graphics if you’d like to build a recognizable brand while keeping costs down.Julie Bateman, Asskicker Apparel

The designs and styles shown here are fresh for summer 2021. Most of Bateman’s shirts bear graphics that are stylized sayings. “Honestly, this summer was different for everyone,” she says. “When I designed the Asskicker Outdoors shirts, Ontario was still in lockdown. Many people, including myself, found themselves exploring local trails and forests, as hiking became a popular source of exercise and a sort of mental or emotional therapy.” 

Bateman designed these T-shirts to appeal to women who wouldn’t necessarily have considered themselves “outdoorsy” in the past, but have evolved into someone who’s “outdoorsy AF” now. “The Asskicker brand always has that cheeky, badass edge that appeals to a lot of people now,” she quips.

 

Bateman is a graphic designer who works from her home office in Barrie, Ontario. A few years ago, she decided to design a couple of gym tanks for herself when she couldn’t find any styles that were comfortable and well-designed, fit properly, and were also affordable. She posted mockups on Facebook and watched the orders start coming in, and Asskicker Activewear was born. (Oh, and that catchy brand name was inspired by Bateman’s roller derby name: Annie Asskicker.)

When she first launched her brand, Bateman used Flowy Racerback Tank and Flowy Scoop Muscle Tank from BELLA+CANVAS, screen printed by another derby-owned company in Toronto. “As costs kept rising and my profit margins reduced, I bought a commercial-grade heat press and started applying the graphics in-house,” she says.

Expert Tip: Create a formula for your graphics if you’d like to build a recognizable brand while keeping costs down. “I design most Asskicker shirts using the same combination of two fonts and two colors,” Bateman says.

RED-HOT BLUE SUEDE

Blue Suede Que is a competitive cooking team that travels around the United States. “It’s really cool, since they fire up the grill and compete in the steak and barbecue circuit,” says Marshall Atkinson, business consultant at Atkinson Consulting and Shirt Lab Tribe. “I created this eye-catching back print for their shirts, and we printed it on an M&R Digital Squeegee.”

Having a few different shirt colors and styles was important to the Blue Suede Que team, so they wanted to include performance tees, regular cotton tees to give away, and triblends.  Using the hybrid M&R Digital Squeegee for a print allows a design to be printed easily on multiple shirt colors and fabrics.  

Atkinson created this design in Adobe Photoshop in 45 minutes, from his hand-drawn thumbnail sketch to the finished artwork. “Since this is a digital print, there were zero limits on the number of colors I could use for the design, so that made the process a lot of fun,” he says.

DTF FULL-COLOR DESIGNS

Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at The Visual Identity Vault in Fairmont, MN, loves using direct-to-film printing. If you’re new to DTF printing, it’s a newer decorating technology that allows you to print designs onto films that you transfer onto a garment using an adhesive. Decorators who love DTF say the transfers have the longevity of screen-printed designs. “DTF has proven to be a game-changer for our shop,” Doyscher says. “DTF lets us do multicolor designs quickly, and it’s less expensive than embroidery.” 

TEES THAT GET SECOND (AND THIRD) GLANCES

Night Owls is a custom merchandising shop in Houston. Initially focused on screen printing, the Night Owls team took their passion for creating high-end merchandise and expanded their reach, now offering thousands of products. “Screen printing with water-based inks is our main focus, but we also specialize in items like enamel pins, embroidered goods, promotional products, and many other items,” says co-owner Eric Solomon.

The Night Owls team sublimated a piece of fabric, cut it to a pocket shape and sewed it onto a wholesale tee. “With a little ingenuity, we created a full pocket print for @Nickeldoodler,” Solomon says.

Lots of styles are coming back into fashion,” Solomon says. “Using high-solids water-based screen-printing ink, paired with a ringer tee, is a perfect way to keep the soft feeling and vibrant colors of the art, really making it pop.” The Night Owls team created this print for @Superyakishop.

Pigment-dyed tees are some of the softest tees out there. “We paired high-solids water-based ink for a print that stands out against this washed-out tee, and feels just as soft as the T-shirt it’s printed on,” Solomon says. The Night Owls team created this print for @Emmatterbury.

TURNING HEADS WITH TACKLE TWILL

On this design for a local radio station, Mix 102.5, the Utica, NY-based A&P Master Images team needed to match a twill color that wasn’t available. “We Pantone-matched the logo colors and sublimated them to a white sheet of twill,” says PJ Loomis, embroidery and screen-printing supervisor.

Once Loomis and his team achieved the correct color, they used their Ioline die-cut machine to cut the shapes and apply them to the material. “Because the letters are too small to properly cut and put an outline on, we used straight embroidery over the color to reach the look our client wanted,” he says. “On the back, for the name, we went with full tackle twill. The end result left the customer loving the piece, since it turned out exactly how they wanted.” 

Expert Tip: Print out a test sheet with a few color variations of the color you want, in 1.5” x 1.5” squares. “Then sublimate the sheet as a whole, and after the print has cooled down you can match what swatch matches the color best,” Loomis says. “Just because you have a Pantone match doesn’t mean it’ll sublimate the same as what you see on screen.” 

Using the hybrid M&R Digital Squeegee for a print allows your design to print easily on multiple shirt colors and fabrics.” Marshall Atkinson, Atkinson Consulting & Shirt Lab

Kia Kaha Farm had a slightly tougher request for their imprint, which was a combination of embroidery and tackle twill. This design required two methods of embroidery to reach the desired look. The portion with the tree and animals has far too much detail and small pieces to do solely in tackle twill. 

“What I decided would look best is the top portion full embroidery and the text in tackle twill,” Loomis says. “‘Sauquoit, NY’ is too thick to make in full twill, so for that portion we went back to embroidery. You don’t want to tackle twill very thin fonts because they end up either looking a little messy or shifting on you during the actual embroidery process. Our customer loved the clean look of this design.”

Expert Tip: Letters thinner than 0.25” wide should be rendered in full embroidery, rather than twill. “In the end, the letters and print will look cleaner and give you a sharper design,” Loomis says.

“By dye sublimating a piece of fabric, cutting it to a pocket shape and sewing it on a T-shirt, we created a customized full pocket print for our customer.” Eric Solomon, Night Owls

The second design for Kia Kaha Farm was slightly more difficult to do than the first for the A&P Master Images team. For this design, the customer wanted to have a “wooden look” to the logo text. 

“Because there’s no wood-printed twill, we knew sublimated twill was the way to go,” Loomis says. “We used the same process of full embroidery for the top portion and the bottom text. Once we found a high-quality imprint we knew would work for sublimated twill, we pressed it and applied it to the design. The end result came out clean and looked just like the customer envisioned. The end result got rave reviews, which is what we love to hear.”

Expert Tip: When you’re fully sublimating a piece of twill with an actual photo, use Adobe Photoshop to bring up the saturation and levels. “The brighter the color and higher contrast you have will give you the best result to work with,” Loomis says. “Low saturation and low contrast could give you a muddier look.”

A FRINGE FRENZY

The Nordic horse is a file from digitizer Erich Campbell’s Theonlystitch.com machine embroidery design collection that Cagle fringed the outer edge on.

Video: https://www.facebook.com/strikkeembroidery/posts/2789165311152791

Cagle has also been using fringe work to add dimension to her embroidery. To make the fringe density, she creates a no-fill shape with a pull comp of 1″ at the base in a variegated thread. Then, over this same shape, she repeats at 3/4″ with a thread color that complements her design.

After this, you can layer all you want. The final shape is a regular column width (you could also use a regular walk stitch) that’s set inside all of these 1/8″ from the inside design to lock them down. “Once the embroidery sews out, you flip the design over and cut the bobbin thread to release the outer fringe by pulling it up at the top,” Cagle says.

Besides incorporating fringe as applique-like accent designs into caps and other garments, she also uses fringed geometric shapes on her red wool art coats. “These elements offer another layer of texture to them,” she says. “I like to use a complementary variegated thread at the base, and then the solids, to give the fringe a thicker, fuller look.”

#ABDECORATIONTIP

When you’re growing an apparel brand, like Canada-based Asskicker Activewear, you need to consider your audience as you develop your artwork designs. “I originally started with gym tanks, but when I started talking to customers directly at local markets and events, I realized some women interpreted the messages in different ways,” says Julie Bateman, creative director and founder. 

When you’re fully sublimating a piece of twill with an actual photo, use Adobe Photoshop to bring up the saturation and levels.” PJ Loomis, A&P Master Images

For example, the saying: “It Never Gets Easier, You Just Get Stronger.” Bateman originally thought of it as a motivational saying for activities like strength training or long-distance running. “However, other people interpreted it differently if they were dealing with an illness, recovery from addiction or grieving the loss of a loved one,” she says. ”From there, I started thinking about messages in different ways and then started designing different styles of graphics each summer that had a different look than our signature style.”

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