The Most Massively Useful Thing You Can Have
A towel, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have,” according to the book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams. Now, while you might not use it for warmth on the cold moons of Jaglan Beta, or to lie on the marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, or as a blanket on the desert world of Kakrafoon, or use it in hand-to-hand-combat, you still can wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes, wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough. At least according to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide.”
Towels — and blankets, in this case — seem to be pretty practical textiles. They might also be one substrate you may not have considered when it comes to providing specialized graphics and promotional items.
Towels and blankets are typically part of the mix of substrates that screen and dye-sublimation shops can offer clients. There are specialty towel printers that handle runs in the tens of thousands, but for small- to medium-size shops, runs are typically 24 pieces up to 1,000.
The two most popular methods for printing on towels and blankets are screen printing and dye-sublimation, even as the use of digital and direct-to-print continues to grow in other types of fabric printing. Embroidery is also an option, but more commonly used on t-shirts, hats, and polo shirts.
Each process and each substrate has its advantages and its failings, but no matter which you choose, the fabric and its thickness can pose some production challenges. For example, when printing on towels, the type of yarn used determines the types of designs that can be used. It’s important that the printing method used is able to distribute ink uniformly. Also, it’s important to remember that the water-based inks used in towel printing require a different type of drying system.
Screen printing is by far the oldest method for imprinting on fabric. It’s believed to have been invented 1,500 years ago in Asia and grew in popularity in the region in the 1600s. In fact, the Southern Illinois-based company Silkworm got its name from the term silk-screen, when screens were made from silk. Technological advancements continue to improve quality and efficiency, but the basic concept remains the same: ink is forced through a mesh stencil onto a substrate. And, of course, screens are no longer made from silk, but instead from a mono-filament polyester.
In the dye-sub process, ink is transferred to a substrate such as metal, glass, ceramic, or fabric and in the process chemically bonds the ink to it. This is achieved with a combination of special inks, heat, and pressure. The result is a super-permanent transfer that does not scratch or fade.
“The decoration literally becomes a part of the finished product rather than just sitting on the surface,” says Chris Daniels, business development manager at AccuLink, which is located in Greenville, N.C. “This process also affords easy personalization.”
In fact, Tom O’Brien, AccuLink president says, “We are all about personalization. It’s what we do best. We see everything from photos to commemorating dates to floral prints and geometric designs. People are very creative when it comes to how they choose to decorate the blankets.”
Personalized towels and blankets are a perfect fit for today’s consumer demands. Both practical and fun, they are well-suited for team spirit shops, promotional giveaways, family memorabilia, and holiday gifts. They can be corporate-branded or customized with text from a favorite poem or recipe, or photos from family reunions, holiday photos, or of a beloved pet. Print shops will also have an array of design, colors, and images that allow consumers to customize their blanket or towel.
Sublimation Opens up New Markets for AccuLink
Established in 1980, AccuLink’s 115 employees provide an array of digital print and bindery services, including towel and blanket printing. “We use a diverse mix of equipment that allows us to print on a variety of substrates, from paper, plastic, glass, metal, ceramic, fabric, and more,” Daniels says. “We produce everything from invitations, cards, flyers, brochures, books, boxes, signs, drinkware, towels, blankets, photo gifts, [and] mousepads.”
Sublimation capabilities have been a great addition to AccuLink’s mix of capabilities, Daniels says. “As a wholesale printer on paper for most of our existence we saw that business shrink after the last recession as about a third of our clients went out of business,” he explains. “Sublimation has opened new markets for us and actually allowed us to grow beyond our pre-recession sales level. We have been able to secure some key industry partnerships in the online photo gift space serving as their production operation, allowing them to focus on growing their market share.”
AccuLink’s sublimation business has a peak cycle that runs from Black Friday through Christmas. “While we have a tremendous production capacity it gets tight during this time,” Daniels says. “One of our greatest challenges relates to staffing up to cover this time but we are building in greater automation now to address this issue ahead of this year’s peak.”
Similar to a majority of print shops, an additional challenge is filling its underutilized capabilities during the off-peak season. “We have found some success with apparel such as shirts and socks for other clients where their peak season cranks up in spring ahead of the travel season,” Daniels says.
Custom is Key
Murphysboro, Ill.-based Silkworm is a custom apparel, promotional products, and graphic design company. The 70-employee shop, established in 1981, operates seven presses in a 41,000-sq.-ft. building. Silkworm uses an eight-color automatic Anatol Jumbo Trident screen-printing press with a 30x40" print area for its larger prints, and a six-, 10-, 12-, and 14-color M&R Guantlet II or Sportsman for its standard size print area of 15x20". For digital printing, it uses a 54" CMYK Roland VersaCam.
“We direct screen print the majority of our blankets and towels,” explains Bob Chambers, president, Silkworm. “We have also used a digital or screen-printed transfer for decorating full-color images on blankets. Dye-sublimation is used for full color on polyester towels.”
Towel and blanket sales are not Silkworm’s primary products, but the sales of those items hit most of its customer types, including schools — from elementary through to college — retail, construction, medical, business promotion, manufacturing, and events. They are used as fundraising items, giveaways, spirit items, employee rewards, and for-profit retail sales.
For firms just starting out, Chambers advises not to buy equipment solely based on price and current needs. “If you have the resources, it pays to buy the better built machine,” he urges. “It will pay dividends in lower maintenance costs and downtime, as well as in print quality. Of course, it never hurts to have more print heads on a machine.”
“I wish we had talked to some other fulfillers of blankets, towels, and other larger soft products,” O’Brien notes. “We really weren’t using very efficient processes when we first got started. We had more waste than we should have and it was a slow process. We kept our issues transparent to our customers, though.”
Competition is certainly an issue, especially when online companies pursue cost slashing to create an edge. But Silkworm has found that being a presence in the community has far-reaching benefits.
“We realize that we are not going to be competitive for the transactional sales that companies like Amazon and Custom Ink attract,” Chambers acknowledges. “We enjoy being actively involved in the community and markets we serve. We still believe that building relationships with our customers is a positive long-term strategy.”
In fact, it’s the service factor that Silkworm sells, and that allows it to compete with online sellers. While quality and attention to detail are critical, the real secret, Chambers says, is “our awesome customer service. We value our customers and are committed to helping them succeed.”
Silkworm also keeps an eye on new technology that can help serve customers. “Screen printing of towels and blankets looks to be a cost-effective decorating method for the near future,” Chambers says.
To help it manage in the competitive environment, AccuLink depends on its built-in efficiencies, use of technology, and automation. “The shift in the market toward personalization has coincided perfectly with our mix of equipment and capabilities,” Daniels says. “We can handle orders of one just as easily and profitably as higher volume orders. Our development team has built an amazing automated workflow that receives orders, tracks production, and assures accurate ship fulfillment on any size order, no matter how large or small.”