Where It All Goes


Curiosity got the best of me the other day.  I wanted to know what happens to the material when our recycling partner, Pioneer Industries, picks up from Visual Impressions and hauls it away.  Pioneer has been an integral part of our sustainability program for over a year now.  It was difficult getting a recycler to help with our program, as even though we are a large apparel decorator, we are small potatoes in the manufacturing sense in Milwaukee.  It was all a volume deal.

That was before I met Marty Oxman with Pioneer Industries.  A second generation recycler, the guy is an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding secondary materials, and is extremely keen on helping companies achieve their sustainability goals through recycling.  My goal was to get a recycling program off the ground, and make it easy for our staff to do the work.  The idea was to move as much material we could through a recycling program, and have it not go to landfill via our dumpsters.  Pioneer helps us with that task, as they provide, for free, large bins called gaylords that we fill with different materials.  We have these all over the shop, segregated by the material and within a few easy steps for our staff.  They also give us the big 90 gallon totes with wheels that are commonly used for your trash pick-up at your home, which we put to good use as well.

The gaylords have a decent size to them, and there are two kinds.  One is a made from heavy duty plastic, and comes with a lid that can be placed on the box for closing.  Then these become stackable.  We’ve found that we like to use them for our polybag remnants and assorted mixed paper.  We polybag our folded shirts for our clients, so they can be handed out easily or presented nicely to their customers.  The remnants are from the automatic machine that closes and heat seals the bag, and produces a small 2” x 8” scrap of clear plastic.  As we have four of these machines churning out product all day, we generate a lot of these little plastic scraps.  The mixed paper is all the general paper that you would think a busy operation like Visual Impressions would generate.  Any type of paper can be segregated into this bin.  Some good examples that a lot of people just throw away is the waxy backing from shipping labels from your Zebra printer, or the tissue paper insert that comes layered inside button-down shirts that you have to remove before you can start the embroidery.

The other type of gaylord is a little larger and is made from thick cardboard.  In these cardboard bins, we disassemble and place all of our scrap cardboard.  We try to reuse boxes when we can, but a good number of these get bent, torn or arrive to us in pretty bad shape.  Some clients prefer to ship their orders out in their own boxes too.  Any cardboard such as collar stays from polos or dress shirts, dividers, or inserts gets chucked into this bin as well.  Despite reusing boxes constantly for shipments, it is still amazing how quickly these cardboard gaylords fill up.

The 90 gallon totes are used for recycling smaller items such as aluminum soda cans, plastic bottles and strapping, glass, metal shipping banding, wickets and small parts.  We have these judiciously placed all over the shop, near where the material is usually generated, but out of the way enough that people can still work.  These totes take longer to fill, but using them is an easier way to divide up the materials, and makes it more convenient for our staff to do the right thing when the big gaylord is too large to fit into a work area.

When any of these containers are full, we pull them out of the line and bring them all to one spot in the building and replace the full container with an empty and start over.  We’ve worked a convenient schedule out with Pioneer, and they pick-up every Wednesday and haul off usually 12-16 gaylords of material a week.  Visual Impressions started our partnership with Pioneer in March of 2013, and as of today (June 28, 2014) we’ve recycled 44.17 tons of material.  This is all stuff that isn’t going to our local landfill.  Are we 100% zero waste and landfill free?  Not yet, as we still have that dreaded embroidery stabilizer challenge to contend with; but you have to start somewhere.  (See “You Can’t Unbake a Biscuit” for more details on that challenge)

Knowing all this you can see why I might be curious as to what happens to all this stuff after the truck pulls away each Wednesday.  Marty graciously accepted my “invite myself over” tour, and provided an excellent overview of his operation.  So, when his friendly driver Jim backed the semi-truck into one of our shipping docks and our crew loaded up our materials, I pulled my car around and followed him back to Pioneer.

The first surprise was that it was only about five miles away.  Nestled between an aging old Milwaukee neighborhood and a spaghetti maze of train tracks, Pioneer Industries occupies several large, rambling buildings.  I pulled in and parked, and as I was doing that the truck was slowly gliding onto a large truck scale.  Marty told me later that this is one method on how they verify the weights for the material for each load.  All of the material that is unloaded is weighed individually on smaller scales in the building so they can send us a documented report after each pick-up, but weighing the truck when it comes in ensures that it all adds up correctly later.  This is how we know exactly how much of each material type we’ve sent in for processing.

After I parked, I walked around the building and found the front door.  I was buzzed in, and Marty greeted me and issued me my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) – hard hat, brightly colored ANSI safety vest, and eye protection.  Walking through the rabbit-warren like maze inside the Pioneer buildings, I was impressed on how many different types of material they actually handle.  If you didn’t know, Milwaukee is one of the largest printing industry communities in the country, and Pioneer handles a lot of their scrap paper, cardboard and other printed waste that is discarded after the manufacturing process.  Each of these different types of printed material scraps are baled, banded and segregated by type into huge stacks of material.  Once they reach a full trailer load, these are shipped out for processing to become new sheets of paper, cardboard, plastic or other material.

Pioneer has a staff of fourteen people, and they were all busy working while we toured.  Numerous forklifts and bobcat tractors were nimbly moving material around and into balers.  Other staff were checking in materials and grading them, or getting a shipment loaded so it reach its final destination and be recycled.  Lots of clipboards, finger and arm gestures and really heavy stuff being moved around with coordinated effort.  It’s a ballet really, just without music.

Based on my observation, paper and cardboard is the majority substrate that they handle, which is segregated by type as the material comes arrives.  In one large area they have cordoned off a bunch of different bays made with large, heavy concrete blocks.  Each bay is about the width of a small garage, and contains a large pile of a different type of paper or cardboard.  From flimsy loose newsprint that is obtained from our Milwaukee newspaper, to thicker printed cardboard scraps that comes from local printing houses, all of the material is piled up like leaves in your front yard in the fall.

Once the pile gets large enough, it is scooped up with the tractors and placed on an enormous conveyor belt that feeds a 20 foot high baler.  The belt is about six feet wide at least, and an amazing amount of material travels up the belt and into the hopper bin at one time.  The baler squeezes out the compressed material into bales about as big as your couch, but square in shape, and I couldn’t help but think that it resembled a gargantuan Play-doh pumper set that I had when I was a kid.  They stack the bales by type of material in another huge room, and just patiently wait for the collection to grow until it reaches the point it can fill a semi-truck trailer.  It is then shipped off.  Some material is easily processed, as it is very common and there is a known pipeline.  Other material, such as paper that has foil or adhesive on it, is harder to find an avenue for processing.  Eventually it all goes somewhere though.

It was surprising to me that some recycled materials actually go overseas, not processed domestically.  Marty showed me a gigantic wall of spice-bags.  These bales were made of former industrial sized bags of food spices.  Heavy thick brown paper on the outside, but lined with a plastic bag on the inside.  Separating the two materials isn’t something that is handled anywhere but China.  Once they get enough to fill the truck, these get shipped off to join many others and will go overseas for processing.  Evidently over there the labor is cheap enough that these are pulled apart by hand for recycling.  The paper goes in one direction, the plastic in another.

As I was driving back to my office at Visual Impressions, I reflected back on my time spent at Pioneer Industries.  Finding value in the materials that previously we were discarding is something that is pretty amazing.  In fact, Marty and I had a good discussion on the fact that there is a tremendous movement afoot in the world for actually “mining” previously manufactured or processed materials for the core elements that have value.  Not everything can be saved obviously, but unlocking the minerals, metals, and other substances is big business these days.  When our sustainability committee identified recycling and trying to get to just 50% savings to landfill as our targeted goal for work this year for SGP (Sustainable Green Printing Partnership), we had a difficult time finding a recycling partner that made the work easy on our end.  After all, we’re in the decorated apparel industry…not the move stuff around, and sift through trash industry.  Building a recycling program is hard work, but finding a company that gives you tools, makes it easy and values customer service makes that chore a little easier.  I’m very happy that we were able to start our sustainability journey and build a great relationship with a partner like Marty Oxman and Pioneer Industries.


Universal Truths for Apparel Decorators


Ok, so this article is going to be a tad sarcastic.  Which may, or may not be a good thing considering my core audience of decorated apparel industry professionals…we don’t ever take things literally do we?  In the world of academia, a logical proposition is said to have universality if it can be considered as being true in all possible contexts without creating a contradiction.  Truth is considered to be universal if it is valid in all times and places.  For printers and embroiderers, our group is so creative and inventive what may be true for 99 people may not be for that one mad creative genius that decides to do something different or wacky just to see what might happen.  That’s you, right?

These are in no particular order.  Add yours in the comment section…

The Law of You Figure It Out.  Despite your superhuman ability to explain the Raster vs Vector Theory of Quality Artwork, your customer still sends in a 12k .jpg he downloaded from the internet as his art file.  “This is all I could get”  Now you have to make it 13” wide and print it over a hoodie zipper.   Where’s that vector conversion guy’s e-mail address…?

The Law of Ninja Ink.  There is something in your shop that makes ink magically launch from the ink bucket to either the back of your forearm, the bottom of your shirt front, or the top of your left shoe.  Like a tick that burrows into your skin when hiking out in the woods, nobody knows how it got there.  For me, it’s always green ink for some reason.

The Law of Say What?  Your biggest complainer of a customer is directly proportional to their inability to do their end of the work correctly.  Rush job that has to ship on time?  The art won’t get approved until the very last millisecond, and only if you hound them incessantly for the approval.  Complain about pricing on the invoice?  Their Purchase Order is barely filled out, and in fact, has missing line items and cloned notes from the last order that don’t pertain to the current one.  Smile!!

The Philanthropic Law of Volunteers.  Once a week at a minimum (usually Wednesday), some charitable group will call wanting a huge discount or possibly free shirts for their upcoming event.  This Saturday.  They will even let you put your shop logo on the sleeve.  We’re still lining up sponsors for the back logos.  Could you help with the artwork for the front and e-mail it out everyone on the committee for approval?  Why are you laughing?

The Race to the Bottom Law of Don’t Do It.  The other shop I use can do it faster and for less…

La Ley de la no la Palabra Correcta Para Ese.  You find yourself learning another language just so you can speak to your employees.  Thank you Google Translate.

The Red Faced Law of Do It Over.  You ask yourself at least once a year why anyone would choose PMS 185 or PMS 485 and then complain later that it looks too orange?  Why not just use PMS 186?

The Law of Slight Embarrassment.  You have a shop mannequin so you can discretely see where that logo will go on a woman’s boobs.  Yes, it needs to go a little higher.

The Law of Inventory Volume.  The customer that yells the loudest about inventory counts is always the one that is short pieces when their goods arrive.  It’s on tomorrow’s truck.

The Law That Money is Green.  At least once in your professional life you have caught yourself pulling for your sport’s teams arch rival because you might land that big order if they win.  When they do win, you produce the big order, but wear your team’s colors out of loyalty and spite.  Take that!!

The Law of Holy Crap That’s Hideous.  You have been at least slightly disappointed that the voters for the Academy Awards weren’t around when you kept a straight face when that customer pulled out the ugliest design you’ve ever seen and wants it on 300 shirts.  Props to you if you started talking obliquely about how creative your art department can be.  What is the apparel decorator maxim?  “We don’t have to wear it”.

The Law of Self Control.  Somewhere or some time on an industry forum, Facebook group, or social media, some other industry newbie posts some ridiculous comment.  Instead of pointing out how utterly stupid they are, you smirk to yourself and move on.  If you have ever posted the correct answer for them and gently nudged them in the right direction…thank you from all of us that read that comment.  Seriously.

The Law of Up All Night (Also known as the Law of Don’t Make Plans for the Weekend).  Business is good.  Sales are up.  Stuff has to ship.  Get the coffee pot going and order in a pizza!

The Universal Law of Whew!  You just finished that huge order (finally!!)  Whew!!  That joy is short lived as tomorrow brings you two more.  Note: please see the Law of Up All Night.

Apparel Decorators: Using Pinterest as Part of Your Marketing Plan


Pinterest is an amazing social platform that can help your business by providing an easily searchable and highly public place to show the world what your shop can do.  For those that think it is only wedding cakes, cute shoes and ways to tone your butt muscles, you are sadly mistaken.  If you haven’t already, check out my Pinterest board that I use for Visual Impressions called “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop”.

I started using Pinterest when it first came out, and over time it has proven to be a valuable part of my social media plan, and a great source of inspiration for personal designs.  Maybe you’ve seen Pinterest, or even started your own set of boards but haven’t really ever used it.  Below are my reasons why I think it’s such a great tool, and why you should make it part of your routine today.  By the way, it’s 100% free – which is the price I always like.

Shop Tours.  This is the number one reason by far.  It is incredibly easy to snap a few pics on your smart phone while you are working or walking around the shop.  Once you start, you’ll start noticing shots that would make great images for your board.  I usually just take the shots and once a week or so load them to my Flickr account so I can pin them.  What makes a good shot?  Really anything, but try to compose it in an interesting way.  I want to show people different aspects of our shop that they might not get to see, and possibly some different production techniques in progress from the shop floor.  How do you hoop a shirt for embroidery?  How do you burn a screen?  Mix some ink?  Show your staff smiling and having fun at work.  Show what makes your shop unique, or what you are really proud of completing.

A lot of shops have the ubiquitous portfolio page on their website, but not a lot show actual production scenes.  To me, “how we do it” is more powerful.  Customers want to know that you can print over the seam on a hoodie, embroider using metallic thread, or print a logo on a bucket.  Plus, people like to see this stuff on a Saturday morning drinking coffee in their underwear on the couch.  Pretty scary thought, but it’s true.

Once you build your board, you will find yourself sending it to new customers with your price list, or talking to a customer on the phone and sending them the link to a picture if they are asking about some particular production technique.  Photos are powerful, and harnessing that power can unlock a lot of doors for your shop.  Pinterest gives you tools to link your website to Pinterest, or Pin images from your site with this handy widget builder.  Here’s where we put ours – check it out,

The Pictures

Your cell phone is in your pocket usually and if you are like me, you can’t live without it. (How did that happen?)  Start today and pull it out of your pocket and shoot photos of the action in your shop.  Take a bunch of them; you can always delete the ones you don’t like.  I always take multiple shots of the same thing; as you never know if the shot is too blurry or dark, or if someone isn’t smiling. To pin images, I upload them first to my Flickr account.  This helps get them set up for the web.  Once loaded to Flickr, I use the Pin tool to place the photos to the Pinterest board.  It’s very easy.  Here’s a shot of my number one photo on Pinterest, which is the jig we made to quickly set up heat press numbers for sports teams.

If you don’t have a photographer’s eye, just do your best.  To compose your shot, what you are trying to achieve is to capture the action, but do so in an interesting manner.  I try to work in different camera angles than you would normally expect.  Everything on our Pinterest board has been captured with my camera phone, but some shots were the best out of maybe six or seven.  Shooting the object from different angles, or framing the subject in unique ways can lead to a more creative shot that simply squaring it up and taking the picture.  If you click on this link and go to the board, look at a few of the shots I’ve loaded.  Try to imagine how I held the phone or framed the shot to get the look I posted.  Now, try the same thing in your shop.  It’s pretty easy and really fun…mess around and don’t be afraid to fail.  The delete button is right there.

Now, think about your customer base and your sales approach.  What questions are you answering, or what do people not understand about the industry?  How can you show off your expertise?  Here’s your chance to document your approach and answer their questions.  I know that when we give people shop tours, they are always fascinated with the process and to the person say “Wow, I never knew this much work went into this!”  Clients have a deeper appreciation for the great work that you do for them when they understand the process.  It’s all about educating your customers.

Waves of Inspiration

Another great reason to use Pinterest is that it is a truly incredible place to find creative and graphic inspiration.  Top designers and artists are constantly posting their work, and if you follow them you’ll see their stream of images in your queue.  Re-Pin the ones that you like, or maybe that have something interesting that you can refer to later.  I love to see how different creative minds are using color, texture, spatial relationships and composition.  Want to know my creative tastes?  Check out my board Design and see for yourself.  I also keep one just for T-shirts, as it’s great to see different shirts out there.

Pinterest also allows you to create “Secret” boards that limits the access to just you.  What’s great about that is you can pin images, tutorials, videos or other great things and keep them quiet.  Maybe you don’t know anything about the difference between a font and a typestyle or how to create a mask in Photoshop.  You could pin the article link to this board and use it as a reference source later when you need it.  I have a few secret boards and pin to them on a regular basis.  One is focused on images for future use.  The other is food recipes that I want to cook, but I don’t want to load my overall Pinterest board with these, as I want to keep it professionally focused.


One of the coolest trends with Pinterest is the ability to collaborate on a board with other people.  This means that you can allow your graphic design staff to share a board for inspiration, or maybe have your customers pin photos of them wearing your shirts.  It’s not called “Social Media” for nothing!  Get others involved with your board and have some fun.

Sharing a board is also a great way to manage the work load if you are pressed for time.  Set some clear expectations and direction about what can be pinned, timing of the work, or other instructions.  This is a great tool to use for shops with staff that have a lot on their plate, but want to keep their social media presence moving forward.   Our site Ink to the People has a collaborative board just for fun visual references with a few of our designers, here’s the link.     It’s all about engagement.

Following Other People

As you use Pinterest you’ll see images that you like, or you can use the search window to find them.  As you pin, start following people that are posting to view their latest pins in your stream.  You can follow them globally, so you see everything that they pin, or you can just follow one particular board.  If someone becomes overwhelming in your stream you can always unfollow them or that board later.  Like turning a faucet on or off, you are in control of the images that appear in your queue.

What I find interesting is to click on the source of the pin, and then snoop around that person’s pins and boards.  You can find a lot of very intriguing and creative people to follow this way.  As you pin and follow other people, you will be tailoring the images that appear in your stream to your own personal tastes and interests.

Another thing to mention is that your customers and your competition are also using Pinterest.  Seek them out and follow their boards.  What insights can you glean from reviewing their habits and interests?  Some also post links to their other social media streams like Facebook or Twitter in their header at the top of the page.  Click on those links to start following them on other social media channels too.  You can learn a lot about them if you are paying attention.

Part of Your Social Media Game Plan

Pinterest is a great tool to use to broaden your appeal and focus on the visual aspects of your company.  If you are planning on starting or ramping up your Pinterest usage, think about what you want to accomplish and drive your work towards using the tool in that manner.  For example, if you just want brand awareness about your shop then regularly posting pics and sending out links to view is a great way to build that communication stream.  About once a month or so, I send out the link to the Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop board, and get a lot of hits with it.  Our use of Pinterest on social media is about driving education to current and potential customers.  We want people to see our shop and capabilities.  That’s the goal.  How do I know it is working?  I use Buffer to schedule all of my social media posts, and for anything you push out that has a hyperlink, Buffer can give you how many people are clicking, sharing or liking your post.  It is a great way to measure engagement and see what works.  When I post the Pinterest page, it’s not uncommon to get 20-60 people clicking the link and taking a virtual shop tour.  Not bad for something that’s free.

However, there are other uses on Pinterest too.  If the user clicks through the image it takes them to the original source.  So if you have an apparel line or brand, the user could click through to your order page to be able to order the shirt online.  Also, underneath the image you have the ability to write up to 500 words (not limiting to 140 like Twitter) to describe your image.  This makes your image more searchable, so be sure to add a description that might get you some extra hits if you word this section correctly.

Pinterest has a new business account too.  I haven’t switched mine over yet, but I’ve been considering it.  It’s been set up to be more professional and social media friendly than just a normal “personal” account.  To be fair, I haven’t tried this yet but you should look into it.

There are also third party software apps for Pinterest that can help you, including Shopintoit, which is a Pinterest store builder.    Woobox helps you create Pinterest contests, coupons and other things you might find creatively useful.   Visual.ly can help you create info graphics about your shop or brand.

So who is doing a good job on Pinterest so far?  Here are some boards that I follow and like (all for different reasons):

Adrian Walsh

A Lot of T-shirts

Bella + Canvas

Black Duck Embroidery

Bodek & Rhodes


Brandon Jennings

Delta Apparel 

Embroidery Gals 




Ink to the People 

Jay Busselle 

Jeremy Pruitt 

Johnny Cupcakes 

Lee Romano Sequeira 



Native Sons


Richard Reilly


Ryan Gilmartin

Rush Order Tees 


Seamless Creative 


Shirt Space


Stitches Magazine 


Tailgate Clothing 

Tee Craze 

Tessa Sainz 

The Shirt List 


Tim Sullentrup 

Todd Walbridge 

Tully Ink 

Vincent Labolito 

Wilcom International 


Bridging the Labor Gap – Seasonal or Temp Workers


For a lot of shops in the decorated apparel industry, the volume of work that comes into the shop has its ebb and flows based on the markets they serve.  The struggle is always to find the balance between having enough people to do the work, and keeping your labor dollars under control during the slower periods of the year.  A good way to bridge that gap is to build your staff up using either seasonal workers, meaning ones that are only hired for the three or four months that your shop is busy, or temporary workers, who are people that work for a staffing agency that are called in to help on a very limited basis such as to just work on a particular big order.  There are pros and cons on using both, but they can be a valuable tool for your shop when things start to get a little crazy and you need some help.

Seasonal Workers – what you need to know

Based on previous year’s order history you can sometimes predict when your shop is going to spike in order volume.  You know that the big wave of orders is coming, and you can start staffing and training early for it.  Students are great for seasonal workers as they usually aren’t expecting a permanent job anyway.  However, regardless of new employee’s background be sure to set crystal clear instructions that the position will end at some point.  If you are placing job postings, be sure to add that it is a seasonal position along with the pay rate.

As with any new employee, seasonal workers will need to have the basic on-boarding to your company.  This includes your company handbook training, safety and hazard communication, as well as general rules about what you allow on the production floor. Be sure to set the tone immediately on the expectations that you have for their work performance.  Have your supervisors treat them like any other employee, and maybe set them up with a mentor that can show them the ropes.

Sometimes, a seasonal worker may be a relative of a current employee.  This can be a blessing or a curse.  The new worker has probably heard a lot about your company, your customers, even your management staff.  They come “pre-loaded” with their own minds-eye picture of how your company runs based on the stories they’ve already heard.  Make sure your leaders treat them with respect and as individuals.  If something goes wrong, tread gently and take any challenge discussion off the floor and into an office.  There is nothing worse than getting into a family drama when you have to discipline someone’s relative because they caused a problem and now the whole family is in an uproar.

When the busy season starts winding down you might consider retaining some of the seasonal workers.  A few may have demonstrated a work ethic that you like, or added skills to your company that maybe you didn’t have previously.  Be sure to thank the ones that you aren’t permanently hiring, and keep everything on a positive note.  Jot down all of their contact information, and find out if they would be available for any upcoming work in the months ahead or even for work next year for the same time.  If you do keep a few workers, have a short performance review meeting and discuss both the positive and negative aspects of their role so far with your company.  Explain to them why you have decided to keep them, and define their role and discuss a career path that they may have with your company.  The goal is to make the transition from seasonal employee to permanent employee as seamless as possible.

Temporary Workers – what you need to know

Using temporary workers from an agency is a great way to add some labor to your staff quickly.  Maybe you just have one big order to fill, or someone to do some work like adding hologram stickers to every shirt for a big order.  Like any vendor, you need to proactively establish this relationship before you need to call them and place an order.  Depending on your location there may or may not be many choices for temporary staffing agencies.  These companies are not all built, staffed or run the same way.  They have a sometimes shadier reputation, so you need to do your homework with them before you allow one of their workers into your building to help.

The good companies to use are very professional in all aspects.  If you call around and talk to a few in your area, you will be able to tell easily and the quality of the staff that they send is a reflection on how the company handles their business.  They will listen to your needs and discuss with you their thoughts on workers they may place.  More often than not, they will not have staff that knows how to print or embroider using your equipment but I have had temps that were trained before.  You will need to have a greater degree of hand-holding using temps than using seasonal workers, as these folks will not be your employees.  If you use temps for multiple days, you may find that you get a different set of workers the next day and you will have to train them on the work from the very beginning.  This can get frustrating for your management and senior staff as they will be asked to repeatedly show people how to do the job.

The business relationship is with the staffing agency more than it is with the workers they send to your company.  Good agencies will work out a service plan with you, and discuss your basic needs.  Rates are generally 1.3 to 1.5 times what you pay an hour for the worker.  This means if you pay someone $8 an hour, they are charging 1.3 times that for the worker ($10.40) for the time that they work for you.  They will have their own method of keeping track of their time, but it is usually a timesheet or spreadsheet that you turn in at the end of the shift.

Temp workers can be frustrating to have on the floor, and over the years I’ve seen a lot of really bad workers get sent in for the day.  The best thing you can do is to call the agency and send them home.  Be sure to give reasons why, and get their name so they don’t come back in the future.  Percentage wise, I’d say that 10%-15% of the temps we’ve used were excellent and we would hire them in a heartbeat.  15%-75% were good workers and did the job adequately without a problem.  Another 10% are workers that are low performers, and if you keep an eye on them they can do ok.  The last 5% are the folks that have been big problems.  These are the people we’ve had to send home, couldn’t perform, or had issues with their work habits.  As temp agencies have to fill their orders with their pool of workers available at the moment you call, there’s no way of telling what you may get when you place the order.  That’s why it is very important to discuss what happens if you are not satisfied with the worker performance.  Is there a guarantee?  Will they replace the worker?  Do they credit you for the time lost due to problem with their person?  Get this understanding out of the way, and in writing, before there is an issue.

Your supervisors and team leaders have to keep an eye on temp workers during the day.  The temps may not know how to do something, your quality control expectations, your shop culture, and general rules about working at your company.  Temps will look to your employees for guidance and training.  If you put these folks with more seasoned veterans, you will usually get better performance than if you put them with less skilled employees.  Your veterans probably train your own staff, so they are used to showing people how to do things and give verbal instructions.  Before bringing on any temps, be sure as to who is going to supervise or train them in their tasks.

Temps are sometimes available for overtime or to only work a four hour half day.  Work that out in advance as well, and don’t forget that if you are paying for overtime for a temp it isn’t on the base rate…but on the higher temp rate.  It gets costly quick.

Setting Expectations and Training

Whether you use seasonal staff or temporary workers from an agency, one thing is certain and that is that you need a plan of action for supervision and training.  I have found it best to have one person in charge of organizing these new people and getting them set up in their tasks.  It is much easier if they know who to report to when they check in at the beginning of the shift.  Audit their work occasionally to ensure top quality performance, and make a point to show them the “tricks of the trade” on how to do the tasks easier and with more confidence.  There are many things about our industry that we take for granted every day as we’ve been doing them for so long.  The ergonomics of simply working with a repetitive motion such as pulling shirts off a machine, how to count shirts and fold them into a dozen, and what quality control measures or items that should be checked are all examples of some things you could teach someone.  Usually, the work performed is a direct reflection of the quality of the training given to the person.


Educating Your Customers


Let’s face it, as members of the apparel decoration community we produce items that a lot of people don’t have a clue about how they were made.  What does it take to screen-print, digitally print or embroider a shirt?  What about heat press names and numbers or even adding that rhinestone bling to a garment?  I’m sure you have probably given a shop tour and the phrase afterward was “Wow, I never knew how complicated this was!” or similar.  I just gave a shop tour to a potential client who told me he knew all about how shirts were printed.  During the walk through it was apparent that he didn’t know what a flash unit was, or why it was used on press.  He had been buying t-shirt printing for years with another printer, and somehow never asked or was never shown!   It was an epiphany for him…now he understood that price list phrase.  “Three colors on darks with a flash”.

Your customer base is the lifeblood of your business.  They trust you for professional guidance and knowledge as you are the expert.  As experts, we can position ourselves to teach our customers about the industry, and strengthen our relationship with them.  This is a tool you can use to sell beyond the price list.  Below are a few ways that you can use that to grow your influence and increase your sales:

Demonstrate your knowledge – website, video, blogs, Pinterest, presentations, prepared information kits

It’s not enough these days to just hang a sign above your door and wait for customers to just stroll in.  You have to reach out and engage them to attract new business.  A key part of that is demonstrating your expertise.  This can be achieved any number of ways, but the main purpose of that effort is to forward the thought that your company are the experts to turn to when it comes to decorated apparel.  So what’s the best method to do that?  Simple – any method that works.

The most basic form of communication for your shop needs to be some informative “one-pagers” that have the information required regarding orders.  For example, you could write and design a sheet regarding art that include facts about how to submit art files, acceptable file formats, the difference between vector and raster files, general placement and sizing guidelines for locations, or any number of items.  Others could be how you are handling the CPSIA requirements, sustainability program, or other compliance issues.  The idea here is to get the processes and procedures that your shop uses down on paper, professionally designed and branded for your shop, and ready to deliver to your customer.  String a bunch of these together as a multiple page .pdf and call it your “New Customer Information Packet”.  Customers ask you for this information all the time already.  Do you have all of their answers prepared?  How many times could you avoid getting art files sent to you in Word if your customers had this information before they placed their order?  Having the basic information regarding doing business with your shop prepared and ready to disseminate is the bare minimum that is expected to set you up as an expert.  Have all of your documents designed using some branding guidelines for your shop too.

Another way you can demonstrate your knowledge is with pictures.  Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words; so what do you think a collection of pictures might be worth?  This can easily be handled just with your camera phone as you work.  Take interesting shots of different aspects around your shop.  Try to capture people doing the work, different types of jobs, inks used, equipment and the steps it takes to produce anything.  I like to upload my shots about once a week or so to a Pinterest board called “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop”.   Once a month I push out the link on social media, and I get a good number of hits.  It’s like giving a couple dozen shop tours.  When I talk to new customers (or even old ones) about something on the phone or e-mail, I’ll forward the link and call out attention to a particular shot that is applicable to the conversation.  We also have this board linked to the Visual Impressions website on the About Us page.

How does your website look?  Is it clean and easy to navigate?  Educating potential customers with your webpage is a good place to start.  Typically, this might be the first place where someone looks after they’ve started an online search for apparel decoration companies.  They are looking for someone to hand their business to.  Many shops just have a placeholder type webpage that offers little information.  Why?  Put yourself in your customer’s shoes.  Pretend you have a 500 piece order for a company outing coming up at the end of the month.  Two locations, 1 color front, 8 color back and they want to use four different neon colored shirts.  If they went to your website could they tell if you are capable of doing that work?  Can they see past examples with pictures or a portfolio?  Is there a capabilities list to see if you could run the 8 color job?  Could they get a quote online, or is there information on who to contact?  Your customers judge you by your website every single day.  The reason your phone isn’t ringing or your inbox isn’t full could be from this reason alone.  I’m a curious guy, and I like to look up other apparel company’s websites.  Some are outstanding; some are extremely dated; some leave you with the wonder if they are still in business.  Your website could be one of the main points of contact with your customers, and full of information they can obtain about your company.

Nothing beats giving real shop tours too.  If you have customers in the building, I would highly advise walking them around and showing them how you create and produce all of your amazing designs every day.  Talk about their job or order, but show them how it will be produced and even who might be doing it.  Think of it as small ten minute presentations.  If you can, weave in something about their upcoming order or personal interest into your discussion.  I like to have visitors touch a hot and freshly printed shirt coming off the dryer belt, or hand them a neatly folded and polybagged t-shirt.  In embroidery, it is fun to watch them be amazed at how fast the needles on a row of embroidery heads can blur into a row of logos on a polo shirt or baseball hat.  These are the experiences that move people beyond thinking of you as a commodity, and moving you into the realm of trusted partner.  You have to take the time to do this!!

Teaching sells – people don’t want pushy, they want to be educated.  How can you solve the customer’s problem?

Everyone has their pain points.  These are the challenges that people are facing, and if you show and teach them how to solve the problem by working with your company, then you have just gained another long-term client.  The shops that sell only on price and just scream discount, discount, discount don’t have any value to offer so this is the only song they can sing.  The value that you bring is your experience and creative knowledge base on how to solve your customer’s challenges.  You become a trusted partner the instant you solve that problem.

Sometimes it is about the garment.  “I need ANSI certified safety shirts for my landscaping company.”  Sometimes it’s about timing.  “I need 24 t-shirts for an important client presentation on Thursday – Help!”  Sometimes it is about the art.  “I’ve started a new company and need employee uniforms.”  Sometimes it will make you smile “My last printer botched the job on these performance tees for our gym – everything turned pink”.

You get the idea.  Each one of those examples above is an opportunity for you to educate your customer on something about your company, and how/why you can handle the job for them.  Start with educating your customer by offering not only the solution to their present challenge, but maybe even an array of possibilities that they haven’t thought of yet.  Will working with you open their eyes to a new realm of possibilities?  Show them the difference between you and that other shop down the street, or better yet being an anonymous customer from an online t-shirt platform.

Keep it simple.  Don’t overwhelm.  One item at a time.  Educate for learning – No sales pitch

Make it easy for your customer to gain the knowledge that they are seeking.  It’s important to share things, but keep it simple and brief.  People will ask follow up questions, ask to stop by for a visit, or maybe indicate that they would like to see more if they are interested.  If you are e-mailing them a quote, be sure to include your new customer information packet, and one or two of the one pagers regarding your company.  We also like to include a .pdf of an article or two about our shop, and the link to the Pinterest board.  This gives them the information that they are requesting, with a little more, but doesn’t overwhelm anyone like a crazy used car salesman pitch.

If a customer is placing an order for a decoration method that they aren’t used to, for example placing a direct to garment order, you can use this as an opportunity to discuss that type of decoration method.  How is it different from standard screen-printing?  What are the advantages or disadvantages?  Why is the pricing different?  If they are in your shop, you might show them how a print is made using both DTG and traditional screen-printing, so they can see the difference.  By simply focusing on educating your customer, you are setting not only this order up for success but for all the other future orders from this same customer as they will develop a relationship with you based on the trust earned from your short educational tour.  These are the interactions that build a large stable of repeat customers that are value based.

Social Media – Broadcast what you are up to.

If you haven’t already written a social media marketing plan for your shop, I would suggest finding the time soon.  One of the things that can be a key part of your social media outreach is just simply showing what’s happening in your shop.  You can’t just constantly yell “Sale!!” and expect anybody to listen.  Those get deleted almost instantly if they haven’t unsubscribed from you already.  Instead offer them some interesting tidbits about your shop.  Cooking out on a Friday?  Show the grill and post an invite to drop by for some lunch.  Printing on an unusual location or for some big event in town?  Show the shirts coming down the belt.  You have to make your social media posts interesting and relevant.  Avoid screaming how cheap you are, and instead focus on your quality, technical ability, craftsmanship and capabilities.  Nobody knows that you can print with metallic ink or offer embroidery unless you show them.

The key is to share not only the business end of things, but make it fun and interesting.  Your customers are people too, and they will react positively if you show them how your shop dresses up for Halloween or participates in the charity walk event.  While you are doing that, you can show them that you know how to print purple gel ink on a cuff, sew puff logos on hats, foil on some fleece, heat press numbers for a soccer team, or print a logo on a stack of iPads.  It’s up to you to push out the content.  So what are you waiting for?  Start teaching!


Top Tips to Improve T-shirt Print Quality


One of the reasons I like working in this industry is that it has a great mixture of art and science.  There is a craftsmanship feel to it that is palatable on the production floor.  Over the years of managing production, and even back when I was an art director, there are a few things that would commonly show up in print process that would need to be corrected on press.  Some of these are really simple and easy, some are a little more complex.  I’m sure I’m going to leave off something, so please add yours to the comment section below!

Registration – There are a lot of steps to check if you are having registration issues.  The problems could be as simple as the screens just aren’t lined up correctly, or it could be something more elusive such as low tension screens, one of the platen’s that isn’t leveled, an artwork problem, or any number of things.  A good operator should be able to set up a job on press in about five minutes per screen on average.

The best trick is to start with the simplest and that is to make sure you are registering the screens together using registration marks.  I know some shops don’t use them as they don’t want to tape them off, but that savings is quickly diminished if you are having difficulty getting the job set up as the screens won’t line up.  At a minimum, these should be above and below the art and large enough to be seen through the screen.  Make sure your screen room blows these out completely, and doesn’t block them out during the quality control/pinhole hunt step.  These marks should line up exactly center with the platen.  Dial these in one at a time.

Also there is plenty of long standing on-press registration tricks you can use.  Some printers will print the black or underbase screen on a junk shirt, platen or on a clear tape coated platen and quickly flash cure the print.  They then will use this to register the other colors.

Using more advanced screen prep tools such as a computer-to-screen imaging system, Tri-Lock, pin-registration systems or other devices will help reduce your registration time, as the screens will be imaged perfectly registered to one another as a set.  You just need to use your micros to dial them in usually.  If your platens are not perfectly centered on your press arms, you could have registration and off-center issues, so watch how you lock in your platens.

If you are having problems registering your image on screen, the best method to determining what could be the issue is to review each screen individually to see where the problem could be.  Only change one thing at a time.  I’ve seen too many operators get frustrated as the image won’t register, as they adjust two or three screens at a time and then review the result.  It’s a moving target if you do it that way as there are too many variables.  It’s actually faster to slow down and use your brain.  Try it!

Color Matching – These days most jobs have ink colors specified with a vast array of Pantone colors called out.  Smaller shops may just offer a stock set of colors, but even they will be asked occasionally to match a particular PMS color.  There is an ongoing debate for charging for a PMS match, as larger shops see it as a simply a task that has to be accomplished and have built the infrastructure to handle it; while the smaller manual shops aren’t set up and usually charge a fee.  The smaller shops are the ones that usually have “a guy” that has a certain eye for mixing color, and don’t see the need to change.  To me, that’s foolish as you want to make the task as easy as possible and remove the step away from a particular person and toward being a standardized function of your shop that can be trainable.

To build your ink room set up for quick and easy color matching you only need a few tools.  The primary tool that is needed is a really good scale that measures to .01 and can be zeroed out.  Get one that is stainless steel for easy cleaning.

Most ink companies have an ink system that allows you to build your Pantone color by using a base plus an assortment of pigments.  To mix a color, you simply type in a PMS number into a computer workstation in your ink room and the list of ingredients will appear.  You enter the quantity of ink you want in the bucket and the system will tell you exactly how much of each ingredient to add by weight.  Place an empty bucket on the scale and zero it out.  Then add the base per the requested weight and zero it out.  Then, each required pigment is added, zeroing out each time.  Mix up the ink when finished and it will exactly match the required PMS color in the volume of ink you need for the job.  Average time to mix is usually about four minutes for a batch of one gallon or less.

Ink Coverage – Believe it or not your ink coverage is mostly dependent on a combination of the mesh selected for the job and the thickness of the emulsion on the screen, rather than how much squeegee pressure you are using.  Using so much pressure that your squeegee bends over like the letter “L” doesn’t contribute much more ink to the situation…and actually could start contributing to other problems.

Tons of articles (even books) have been written about the subject of “Emulsion Over Mesh” or EOM, which I’m not going to dive too deep on this blog.  Frankly, they are much better than what I could write.  The short version is that the emulsion you add to the screen creates a channel.  During the printing process when you flood your screen, you are filling that channel with ink.  If you have everything on press set up correctly, you need just enough squeegee pressure to sheer the ink through the channel and onto the t-shirt.  You shouldn’t be driving the ink through the screen like a hammer and nail.

Want more ink down on the shirt for an underbase screen?  Try adding one more coat of emulsion to the screen (print side) during the prep stage.  Some shops even use capillary film for a thicker stencil for a “one hit white”.

While the screen certainly plays an important role in your ink coverage, so does your squeegee choice.  A softer squeegee will likely send more ink onto the shirt, while a harder squeegee won’t.  When there are ink issues on press, one of the first questions I might ask is what type of squeegee is the operator using currently?  Too much dot gain could be the result of using a softer squeegee.

Print Hand – “Hand” is the industry term for how the ink feels on the shirt after printing and curing.  A lot of shops have moved to using waterbased ink because it gives the final print that soft, retail hand that is very popular currently.  Essentially with each screen and color you are printing on the shirt, the thicker the deposit of ink will be.  Sometimes this is an issue, sometimes not.  If want to achieve a softer hand on the print here are some tips:

Use a higher mesh count for the screen.  The higher the mesh, the less ink will be deposited onto the shirt.  For underbase screens, try using a 156 instead of a 110.  Screen selection isn’t automatic, and is image dependent as some mesh choices you might want to make won’t be completely successful.  The only way to learn is to experiment and see what works for you.

Try using a different ink base to increase the ink viscosity.  Finesse base, Chino base…even adding some curable reducer to the ink you are using will work.  The idea here is to “thin” the ink down to improve how it flows onto the shirt substrate.  Be careful though…inks are formulated to work a certain way on purpose.  When you start introducing additives to the ink, you may change the property of the ink and have some unintended consequences if you aren’t careful.  Opacity and curing issues being the top two issues in most cases.

Roller squeegees.  This after-market device works great and we have them on all of our automatics.  After you print your underbase and flash the shirt, use a roller squeegee in the cool down station.  This flattens the ink that has just been gelled by the flash unit and sets up the printed ink nicely for taking on more colors.  You can also achieve this yourself by using an unexposed screen, a squeegee, and some base.  Set up the screen like normal with the squeegee.  The base gives the squeegee something to move around and reduces friction.  Underneath the screen tape a big sheet of Teflon (like the kind you use for your heat press cover.)  A roller works better, but this technique will work in a pinch.

Keeping Things Straight – Your shirt print quality is sometimes only as good as your loader.  Getting the shirt straight in in the right position on the platen is a basic step in printing, and often overlooked until the client complains about crooked or off-center imprints.  Let’s face it, loading a t-shirt press is a monotonous and robotic like process, and it’s easy to lose focus and get distracted on what you are doing.  Look at these in your shop:

Speed.  If your press operator can’t handle the speed of the press, misses boards and has questionable image location results, it may be that they have the speed set too fast.  Printing a bunch of misprints quickly is never better than running the press at a speed where quality counts.  All too often in production the emphasis is on how many impressions are printed during the shift.  Start keeping a discrepancy log with misprints, quality control and other issues and you’ll quickly see that these errors can add up fast.  Slow down for better quality!

Ergonomics.  Skilled press operators know exactly what they like in a work station area.  A good, thick spongy mat under their feet.  Some music to print with.  A most of all a properly positioned cart or table full of shirts.  As every printer is a different size, let them adjust this to what they like.  Shorter printers sometimes can’t handle the same mountain of shirts that a taller printer will churn through.  Some printers like the shirt openings facing them, some like it the opposite way.  There isn’t a hard and fast rule except one – comfort counts.  Good print quality for loading comes for being comfortable and relaxed in the process.  Make sure there is room for them to operate and adjust along the way.

Mark Your Boards.  Good press operators instinctively know where and how to load the shirts for the best print.  However, they don’t stop there.  For great results, mark your boards where the collar is to drop, where the center of the shirt will be, or any other landmark that is a concern.  Have a T-square, ruler, tape measure, and some markers ready.  If you are trying to line up a landmark on the shirt such as a seam, top of the pocket or other item a great trick is to use lasers.  You can get lasers that will project dots or lines from any hardware store.  These can be magnetically positioned onto the metal part of your press and the line will project down onto the board.  Use two and form a cross for positioning pockets.

Pinholes & Screen Problems – Why is it that most shops will staff their worst employees in the screen room when it is such a keystone part of the entire printing process?  Granted it is by far the grubbiest job in the building, but if you staff your screen room with great, process minded people you can eliminate a lot of on-press challenges with screens.

A good number of issues stem from improperly cleaned screens, emulsion coating, exposure issues, and failure to wash out the emulsion correctly.  There are many variables that go into making a great screen, but one thing is certain and that is you can judge the craftsmanship of a screen-print shop by how they run their screen room.   What emphasis are they placing on standards and controlling variables?  Top shops are very particular about their screens, and go to great lengths to perfect the outcome by introducing more precision in this area.

If you are having challenges with your screens on-press, take the initiative and double back to the screen room and look for the cause of the issue.  For example, pinholes can be the result of dust and smudges on the glass of the vacuum table.  How often is that cleaned?  By the way, one of the most overlooked benefits of going to a computer to screen system for imaging is the fact that you no longer need the vacuum step in exposing the screens, so the dust on the glass problem is eliminated…therefore so are the pinholes.

Artwork – Your art staff can help you control your print quality in many ways too.  It helps if they understand and comprehend the mechanical process of printing.  Their knowledge and understanding of what happens on press will greatly influence the decisions that they may be making in creating the art that will be printed later.  They absolutely need to understand why you flash cure the ink on press…and more importantly when.  Their knowledge of underbasing inks is crucial to your success.  If you have a crack staff, they should be the ones determining mesh counts and record their choices in your system so that your work order can be built with repeatable results.  Start with standard choices, such as what mesh to use for an underbase screen, and build the knowledge from there.

As t-shirt printing is such a specialized industry, hiring an art staff that has this knowledge can be difficult.  Finding creative and talented people is easier; which is why so many shops have to “grow their own” and educate their art staff with on the job training.  Get the art staff away from their computer screens and out into the shop.   Have them hang around, take notes on their jobs, approve all their work…maybe even help a print crew set up and run a job or two.  Creative people will make decisions on their work on an unconscious and gut level based on what they think will add to the work.  If you combine that will the practical knowledge of what will be able to be achieved on press, your print quality will be greatly increased and will lead to some stand-out work later.

Ink – Everybody has their favorite ink manufacturer.  I’m not going to get into that debate on this blog, but let’s discuss how ink is used instead.  Regardless of who makes the ink in your shop, it is manufactured to be handled and cured in a certain manner.  Are you using yours correctly?  How often are you checking to see if your dryer temperatures are correct so that you know you are curing your ink correctly?  The most common ink failure is undercuring.

Different types of ink have different dryer temperature needs.  Are you adjusting accordingly?  For example, one of the biggest problems these days is trying to control dye migration on performance fabrics.  Shops will change over to use a performance ink, but fail to adjust their dryer temperature…and maybe even flash the shirt one or two times during the print run too.  The dye migration still happens and they blame the ink for their white ink still turning pink on red shirts.  It isn’t the ink folks.  Make sure you read and understand the specific instructions for the ink you are using in your shop.

Controlling variables is the key.  At the end of the day, the standards you set in your shop will go a long way to determine your printing production outcome.  Minor details, such as the choices the art staff makes, the cleanliness of the screen room, or the mesh selection…can go a long way to affect your print outcome.  These may not be outwardly noticeable connections on your shop floor when you have a problem on press with a big deadline due.  All of the “big picture” challenges need to be addressed and corrected in a proactive manner.  Here’s where the leadership of your production staff should come into play.  If they don’t address the situations, why should your print staff?  Want to improve your print quality?  Connect all the dots in the shop and see if you get better results.



For this blog article I want you to mentally picture yourself standing in the middle of your production floor.  It’s busy, with orders being produced and a lot of activity.  With a discerning eye, watch how your orders are moving through the shop.  Each job has to go through each department for them to complete their tasks, with the end result being the order ships and gets invoiced.  Depending on the size of your shop, you could have a dozen or more people touch the order…or maybe it’s just you, as you are the only employee.

As that order travels around the building, each department contributes a certain portion of the work associated with getting it completed.  Your job, as the leader of your company, is to make that process smoother and more efficient.  Eliminating roadblocks, downtime and delays will enhance your daily throughput which means more orders can be produced in a day.  Simplifying the process is the key to making that happen.  But where should you start?  Listed below are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Customers.  You have to simply the process for them.  How they receive information from you.  How they place an order.  How they experience your shop.  Think about standing in their shoes trying to do something with your company.  What is the experience like for them?  Are you a disorganized mess or smoothly professional at every turn?
    1. Simplify the ordering experience by having branded forms, a website, or an information packet ready.  This should be professionally designed, and outline all the information they need.  Depending on the market you serve, have the most popular questions that you are asked answered first in the verbiage of your piece.
    2. Think about what their next question might be during the process and try to answer it before they ask it.  For example, many shop operating systems will automatically send order confirmations or shipping tracking numbers when the action has been completed.  This proactive approach prevents the customer from calling or e-mailing asking “did you get my order?” or “when will I get my shirts?”
    3. Be consistent.  People like stability, and nothing is better for business than doing what you say you are going to do.  From a “simplify the experience towards a customer” standpoint, this means you need to work towards completing the order accurately, on-time, with zero mistakes.  If there is a challenge along the way, be sure to contact the customer early and let them know what’s going on, and have some options prepared.  This is harder to do, as it takes a good bit of internal communication and company discipline.   For more information on shop scheduling, click here.
    4. Your Webpage.  Is it the right tool for the job for your market?  Is it just a stagnant branding stop, or does it continually send you orders?  How are you competing against shops across town or across the country?  Is it easy to navigate and place an order?  Does it look like your fourteen year old cousin designed it?  I’ve clicked on dozens of t-shirt shop websites in the past year or so, and the only thought in my brain was “how are these guys still in business?”  Think what a potential customer might think if they found your site.
  2. Receiving.  You have to decorate something, and this is where it enters the building. They absolutely have to be 100% perfect in their jobs.  Things can get tricky sometimes though, so think about your company and your processes.  Are they working smoothly enough?
    1. Every job has to be counted, marked against the order and properly labeled with the order number, due date, job name, client name, size split, and number of boxes for the order.  It is crucial that there is an accurate count on the day of delivery.  You can’t do it tomorrow.  Any discrepancies need to be reported to the customer service representative for action.  If you purchased the goods, you need to call your distributor.  If your customer sent in the inventory, notify them and get the ball rolling.
    2. If you label all boxes with an order number, it’s easy to segregate the inventory on the floor and arrange it so others can locate jobs quickly.  Use the last digit of the order number and create numerical rows on the floor or shelf.  Everything ending in “0” is in one row; everything ending in “1” is in another, and so on.  Make sure that your labels have box 1 of 4, 2 of 4, 3 of 4, & 4 of 4 on them, for example, so anyone pulling the job can be assured that they are grabbing the entire inventory.  Not all boxes may be the same size, color or shape, so use the label as the identifying piece, and put the label on in the same location every time.
    3. Set up your “purgatory area” for jobs that are partially received away from your staged goods area so there isn’t any mix up.  Arrange using the same last digit method for easy locating later.  When more goods arrive to complete the order, be sure to recount the total order to double check the count is accurate.
  3. Art & Digitizing.  Shops have to decorate something, and it all starts with this group.  If you ask any artist about what would make their life easier, having art instructions that go beyond the phrase “Do something cool” is a good place to start.
    1. Standardize constant dimensions such as full front, left chest, etc. for size, placement and when to use these for jobs.  This makes creating the art file much faster as it takes the guesswork and personal preference of the artist out of the picture.  Draft a branded guideline that you can send to your clients and their art departments, so artwork and expectations come “pre-loaded” the way your shop handles things.
    2. For ease of use, have your art department try to use the same core set of colors on jobs where the client hasn’t specified what Pantone color or thread color to use for the order.  For example, PMS 286 could be the go-to royal blue in your shop.  This makes setting up jobs faster in production, reduces the amount of ink or thread on the floor and just simply makes life easier.
    3. Have a pre-designed company branded artwork guide that also has a list of acceptable file formats, common print location dimensions, why fonts should be converted to outlines, the entire “Raster vs Vector” story, and other useful tips on how to send files to your company.  Send this out to new customers, local design agencies, and have it downloadable from your website.  Make sure your sales reps and customer service folks have copies and can distribute them early on in the process with new clients.
    4. Always send out an approval form for any work that is being printed or sewn.  This form should show the colors (ink or thread), dimensions, file name, order number, customer’s PO number, artist’s initials, and have both an enlargement of the file and show it on the garment in the correct proportions.  Include some dimensional references such as “3” down from collar”, or “even with top of shirt pocket” to give your production staff and the customer some guidelines as to how the image will be produced.  Make sure this prints in color and travels with your production documents so that your crew can use it to set up the job.
  4. Production Staging.  Simplifying how to layout your shop floor can go a long way to increasing your efficiency and daily throughput.
    1. Your production floor is the most prime real estate in your shop.  Anything that isn’t necessary to today’s production shouldn’t be anywhere close to your equipment.  Store that stuff somewhere else.  Shelves or racking is a great place for non-essential items.  Think about how often you touch something.  Daily?  Hourly?  These are the items that get the prime real estate.  Everything else should be put away.
    2. You need to build the workflow to make the production operator’s job easier.  Everything flows to them, and is set up and ready to rock and roll, the moment that the previous job comes down.  Shirts, ink, & screens are all “kit packed” and lined up in rows near the machine.  You should never, ever, see an operator looking for a bucket of ink or a screen.  Build the support so all they have to do is run.
    3. Problems on press?  Job needs approval?  We place cheap fire engine type lights on large poles that have a switch that the operators can turn on when they have a need for a floor manager to come over.  This is an immediate signal, and is reacted to very quickly.
    4. Do you print the same image repeatedly every week?  Build a screen cabinet or have shelving to keep the screens by the press that you usually run the job.  Also, have a different rack for saving screens after a sample is printed, there was a question on the order, or for any reason that the screens shouldn’t be reclaimed right away.  Keep this near production.
    5. Supplies.  Are your staff members constantly fighting over the calculator, box taper, hand-truck, tape measure or other item on the shop floor?  Get off your wallet and buy enough for everyone to use.  You have to make it easy for your crews to do their job.  Figure out what the basic items are and then make sure everyone has them.
  5. Shipping.  This area can get congested and confusing quickly if you aren’t proactive on how you build your procedures.
    1. Have designated areas or skids for items to be shipped.  UPS, FedEx are obvious…but what about “Orders to be Shipped Together” or “Orders Without Shipping Instructions”?  The trick to moving fast in shipping is to segregate the work by ship method or challenge.
    2. Barcodes.  Some shop software platforms are using barcodes to bring up orders and pre-enter information.  These print on work order documents and when scan quickly launch into the correct order.  This makes shipping a breeze, as your staff member isn’t typing in the information.
    3. Shrink-wrap.  We moved last year to a thicker, stretchier shrink-wrap.  This allows pallets of boxes to be wrapped with less material and trips around the pallet than the cheaper, thinner kind we were using before.  There is a different technique involved, as you have to pull back while you are wrapping to snug up the material tighter…but at the end of the day you use less shrink-wrap, make fewer trips around the pallet, and have a very snugly wrapped parcel to ship.
  6. Sustainability.  You knew I was going to throw this one in somewhere!  If your crew thinks about how or what they can simplify in your shop, you are taking steps towards building a sustainability program.  How about that!!  The great thing about a sustainability program is that if you do it right, it will save you money in the long run.  This makes you a stronger, more profitable business.
    1. Think about material usage.  What item in your shop could you find to reduce or eliminate in your process?  For us, one of the items was masking tape.  This was one of the very first sustainability projects that we finished, and we no longer use masking tape for taping off the inside of our screens for printing.  (Still use it for registration marks)  This has saved us $7,000 a year in tape, plus all the labor putting the tape on, and taking the tape off.
    2. Energy.  Think about how you use energy in your shop.  How can you simplify the way you use energy?  Motion detectors in the breakrooms or bathrooms?  Turning off items when they aren’t in use (like flash units on press).  Walk around your shop and take note on all the things that are powered on, but aren’t in use.  Ask why?  You are paying for that.
    3. Recycling.  For some shops it’s harder to build a recycling program, as there isn’t a way to get the material picked-up as it’s not offered.  (It should be! Call someone…)  To build your program internally it takes a lot of work and training to get everyone used to making good choices, and segregate the material for you.  Make it easy for them by placing smaller containers by their work, and have those emptied into larger bins that are away from the floor.  We’ve just ended our one year anniversary with our recycling program, and we’ve saved 38+ tons of cardboard, plastic, paper and metal from going to the landfill since then.

At the end of the day, your shop will operate exactly how you let it happen.  It’s up to you as a leader to build and control the culture.  You have to talk to your staff constantly and find out where there the pain is with their work and help to find a good solution.  If you make it easier for everyone to do a good job; that action will naturally follow.  Simplifying processes and outcomes is hard work, as the decisions you need to make are not always obvious.  There is a lot of trial and error.  Ask people’s opinions.  Get input.  Try something and if it doesn’t work try something else.  You can do it!

You Can’t Unbake a Biscuit – Embroidery Stabilizer Landfill Diversion Update


A few months ago I was able to get some much needed help on a sustainability challenge that I have been struggling with for over a year.  Our shop has a recycling program, and our goal is to move as much material waste as we can into recycling and not push it towards the landfill.  We recycle many items in the shop (38+ tons this past year), but I wanted to turn the big four (cardboard, paper, plastic & metal) into the big five, by adding embroidery stabilizer (sometimes called pellon) to the mix.  Embroidery stabilizer is the material used on the inside of the shirt or jacket to give the commercially sewn image the ability to be produced without puckering, stretching or distorting the fabric.  The problem is that the stabilizer, although great for its intended purpose, has virtually no value after it’s been used.  For all embroidery orders, after each order has been sewn, we have a group of trimmers that go through every garment and trim off the excess pellon material.  Currently all this waste goes to landfill.

The pellon material is composed of cellulose and polyester fibers that are fused together with a chemical bonding agent that is similar to glue.  Both the cellulose and polyester fibers are from recycled content already.  However, because how the material is constructed the pellon can’t be commercially recycled by breaking it back down to its original components.  You can’t take a biscuit and then later break it back down into flour, butter, salt, baking powder, and milk.  A biscuit stays a biscuit.  Pellon will stay a pellon.  A biscuit is better with melted butter though.  Maybe some honey too.

At the beginning of the year, I was able to get a University of Wisconsin business school class to adopt this challenge as part of a class project.  A team of four students spent some time interviewing me, touring our facility, calling suppliers, vendors, and recycling experts to try to solve this recycling conundrum.   Could the manufacturers construct the pellon differently so it could be recycled?  Could there be a post-production process that could use the material somehow?  How could the material be recycled – are there any options?  Just what could we do with this stuff?  I explained that this problem wasn’t just isolated to our shop, but really every commercial embroiderer as everyone just throws this material away.  It’s all going to landfill.  Everywhere.  Could they find the magic bullet I was after?  Here is their report (used with their permission):

Click here to watch their video presentation.

Final Report – Visual Impressions – Embroidery Stabilizer Diversion

Report by: Jon Goeres, Sue Montgomery, Colton Schara, Joe Van Rossum – University of Wisconsin Business School

Visual Impressions is a screen-printing, embroidery and specialty printer that has been doing business in Milwaukee, Wisconsin since 1990.  Visual Impressions has implemented changes to reduce their environmental impact and increase their social responsibility in order to become a certified sustainable printer by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership.  Efforts today have focused upon energy use and reducing the volume of waste being sent to the landfill.  Energy costs have been reduced by nearly 18% while over 35 tons of waste has been recycled as of March 2014.

Project Objective: To reduce the volume of embroidery stabilizer (pellon) being sent to the landfill.

Project Details:

Visual Impressions utilizes pellon that comes pre-cut in approximately nine-inch square pieces which are sized to fit the embroidery equipment utilized at their production facility.  After the image has been embroidered onto the garment, production workers manually cut and discard excess pellon from each garment.  Pellon is a material that is used in the embroidery process to keep the embroidered image tight and even when it is being applied to a garment.  The pellon utilized by Visual Impressions is a nonwoven fabric consisting of a blend of polyester and cellulose fibers with a chemical bonding agent.  The specific blend of the materials is dependent upon the thickness of the stabilizer product.

Currently Visual Impressions utilizes a private hauler for waste services that empties their 8 cubic yard waste bin two times per week.  Staff believes that if the pellon material can be diverted from the waste, the number of pickups could be reduced to one pickup every week or a 50% reduction in service.  This would reduce the waste management costs annually by $1,735.  Based upon the generation of 8 cubic yards of pellon waste per week it is estimated that 96,000 pounds of waste is disposed of per year, though the volume can vary based upon production levels.

Landfill Alternatives

Energy recovery option:

Many manufactured materials have energy that is embedded during the manufacturing process.  One end of life option to recover this embedded energy is to utilize the material as an alternative fuel to coal, natural gas or oil.  This waste to energy option can take a number of forms. In this case the best option is to convert the pellon material into a fuel pellet that can be burned in industrial boilers as a coal substitute.

Greenwood Energy is a firm with a fuel production plant located in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  They convert various paper and plastic waste materials into fuel pellets.  This is the nearest firm of this type to Visual Impressions, and their purchasing manager Steve Devere, has evaluated and approved the pellon material as an acceptable feedstock for their process.

In order to utilize this option, the materials must be transported to Greenwood’s location in Green Bay.  The most economical manner to transport the material would be to bale the waste to maximize the bulk density of the material and transport via semitrailer.  It is recommended that a down-stroke manual baler be purchased and installed.  Based upon industry estimates the baled material will be approximately 480 pounds per cubic yard or two times the original density.  We estimate there will be a semi-trailer of baled material produced every 20 weeks based upon the waste volume provided.

The economics of the recovery option are challenging.  A scenario of purchasing a reconditioned baler with a projected 10-year life span to prepare materials for shipment to Greenwood Energy would result in an increased cost of $2,365 per year.  If Greenwood were to waive tipping fees (the charge Greenwood would asses at $25/ton) the cost would be $1,165 per year.  This would have a negative impact upon Visual Impression’s economic bottom line but may be worth pursing if this step would achieve a zero waste to landfill target.

Waste Reduction:

Embroidery stabilizers come in various thicknesses of weights varying between one ounce per square yard (osy) and 3 osy.  Visual Impressions should match the weight and density of the stabilizer to the designs stitch count and density while taking into account the weight and stretch of the garment’s fabric.  Fabrics that are stable can use lighter weight stabilizers.  There may be some added costs in project set-up to match stabilizer with fabrics as well as an increased inventory and inventory management costs for having various weights of stabilizers on hand.  Reducing the osy of the stabilizers will reduce the weight of the waste material generated.  The size of the weight reduction is dependent upon the osy of the stabilizer currently used.

Materials substitution:

We investigated other stabilizer materials, such as cellulose and dissolvable stabilizers.  Our research indicated the cellulose products had performance issues, and the dissolvable stabilizers made from polyvinyl alcohol merely shifted the problem from solid waste to waste water.  The dissolvable stabilizer would also require an additional step in the manufacturing process in order to wash off the remnants of the dissolvable stabilizers.


Fabrics and textiles have long been reused and recycled.  The pellon material being comprised of three different base materials is not a good candidate for recycling.  While the polyester can be recycled, the cellulose and binder are contaminants that a recycler is unable to separate.  We shared several samples of material with textile recyclers and waste material brokers none of whom were able to find a viable end user.


Reuse options for this material will require close proximity between the waste generator and waste user, as there is little to no value in the material.  We were unable to locate a viable reuse opportunity for the pellon material.


Visual Impressions leadership should advocate for industry change by working with suppliers of embroidery equipment to develop technology that eliminates the need for stabilizer materials.  Visual Impressions’ participation in the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership provides a starting point for this effort.  Steps will need to be taken to invite other firms involved with manufacturing embroidered products as well as equipment manufacturers and equipment designers.  It will also be beneficial to involve the suppliers of the garments that are commonly embroidered in the process.  The intended outcome of this effort will be to develop technology that can modify existing production equipment in addition to being utilized by new equipment.

The development of embroidery equipment or a process that eliminated the need for stabilizers will have to focus upon the mechanisms that hold garments in place during stitching.  There are some fabrics, such as twill, that are less dependent upon stabilizers that others but may not be acceptable garment choices for Visual Impressions’ customer base.  So efforts to find mechanisms that provide variable tension based upon fabric needs will be imperative.  The technology will also have to avoid damaging the garment.

The achievement of stabilizer-free embroidery will have a significant impact not only for Visual Impressions but for the industry as a whole.  Eliminating the stabilizer will impact production costs in three ways:

  1. The landfill disposal cost for scrap material will be eliminated.
  2. The labor costs for cutting away excess stabilizer will be eliminated.
  3. There will no longer be a cost to purchase the stabilizer.

Visual Impressions can lead this effort to transform the embroidery industry and have a lasting impact upon the volume of waste generated and the environmental impact of their products.


Calculations and Assumptions

Energy Recovery

8 Cubic yards of pellon produced per week per Marshall Atkinson

Textile weight density – from MN Score report

Loose mixed textiles – 240#/yd3

Baled mixed textiles – 480#/yd3

Semi-trailer volume – 146 cubic yards

Semi-trailer weight limit – 40,000 pounds

83.3 cubic yards of baled textiles = 40,000 pounds


Capital Cost for baler – $7,850 (reconditioned and installed)

Annual cost at 15% opportunity

$2,500 at a 5-year baler life

$1,550 at a 10-year baler life

Baler operation & maintenance – $700

Baler labor cost (not included)

Bale storage cost (not included)

Transportation cost

–          115 miles from VI to Greenwood Energy

–          Hauling costs – $2.25 per loaded mile ($1.63 per loaded mile x 25% profit margin + 10% contingency: still may be too low)

–          38,000 pounds per truckload of baled material

–          Estimated 2.5 truckloads per year

Tip fee at Greenwood Energy $25/ton (Maximum)

Anticipated cost-

–          5 year scenario – $5,000

–          10 year scenario – $4,100

Waste services cost reduction

–          If reduced to one pick-up per week savings of $144.58/month or $1,734.96/year

–          If reduced to one pick-up every two weeks savings of $275.58/month or $3,306.96/year


Victory Lap – atkinsontshirt Blog Reaches Milestone


I’m sure some blogs get millions of views.  Mine doesn’t and I’m ok with that. (One day!!  We all need goals.)  As many of you know this blog is centered on the decorated apparel industry, a decidedly tiny community in the scheme of things.  You have to pull a squeegee or thread a commercial needle to really understand it.  Or maybe just own a t-shirt and have some sort of weird interest in how things are printed or sewn.

Two and a half years ago I started the blog to give back to this wonderful community and as a personal creative outlet.  I think it makes me a better manager, as I’m constantly looking at things from several unique perspectives.  I’ve found that I like writing in the morning.  It goes great with coffee.

This past week, the 20,000th person read an article on this blog.  That is a milestone that makes me happy and proud.  People from 136 different countries have read something, and most read a second article while they are here.  That’s incredible to me!  Talk about global outreach!!

In 2012 I had an average of one reader per day.  In 2013, I started using social media to help gain readership and built it up to an average of 32 readers per day.  This year so far, it’s now at 69 readers per day on average.  April currently is at 114!  It’s been slow and steady growth.  Believe it or not I still haven’t run out of ideas to write about either.

Here are my all-time most popular articles.  Have you read them all?  Which one was your favorite?  The top one, which I refer to as “Alligators” in my house, gets about a dozen or so views every day.  It’s one of my favorite things to check when I’m reviewing my stats…

  1. When You Are Up to Your Ass in Alligators
  2. Creating Art for T-shirts: Common Rookie Mistakes Defined
  3. When Lightning Strikes – On the Production Floor with Boston Strong
  4. 20 Biggest T-shirt Shop Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
  5. Race to the Bottom: Pricing Wars
  6. Feed the Eagles & Starve the Turkeys 
  7. The Ironical Hard to Hear Truth About the T-shirt Industry 
  8. 10 Creativity Tips for T-shirt Designers 
  9. Save That Misprinted T-shirt – 7 Secret Tips That Really Work 
  10. 9 Core Skills Every Apparel Decorator Should Master 

If you are interested in creating your own blog, this is what currently works for me: I use Word to write and edit the articles.  I spend about ten to fifteen minutes a day writing each morning.  I start with an outline on Monday, and by Friday the article is ready to go usually.  I reread on Saturdays and publish.  It gets copied to my WordPress blog, and I use Buffer to push it out as I like to review the statistics.  Buffer is a great app for social media, as it allows you to schedule all your posts on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Facebook.  I usually do my scheduling on Sunday’s and Wednesdays, and in about ten minutes have all my posts set for the next few days.

I hear back from many readers as they write me to express how I helped them overcome a challenge, or to ask a follow up question.  A good many have been from shops in other countries, and those are really fun to read and respond to with a short note or helpful hint.  If you do need to contact me you can e-mail me at matkinson4804@gmail.com.  I would love to hear from you!

I would like to ask a favor though.  I’m currently raising money for breast cancer research through the American Cancer Society for their Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event here in Milwaukee.  If you have enjoyed my articles or if anything on my blog has helped your shop improve, please spread the gratitude by donating to help end Breast Cancer!  Even $1.  Donate by clicking here.

Thank you very much for your continued readership.  I appreciate it.  Without your readership and involvement, this blog would be just some sort of weird hobby with a lot of typing and coffee consumption.  So consider this a virtual high five “Thank You”.  Bam!