Fun Apparel Decorating Tips That Will Make You a Hero

Fun Apparel Decorating Tips That Will Make You a Hero - Written by PromoKitchen Chef Marshall Atkinson

Do you sell apparel to your clients? T-shirts, Sportshirts, Uniforms and the like? Are they just simply tired of placing their logo on the left chest with some big graphic on the back and a phone number?


If you want to get away from that snooze fest, see this list below and take them to your favorite apparel decorator and give them a whirl. Get it mocked up and sell it your customer base and increase your sales, demonstrate your product knowledge, and increase your value to your customer by bringing them something new.

Distressed or Vintage

Distressed - This is really incredibly easy to do, and won’t cost you anything extra. A distressed texture is simply placed over the graphic in the illustration software. This creates and knocks out all the lines, spaces and little areas where the shirt can show through. This isn’t done with the’s just the graphic file. The art is then separated as usual and printed. When you pair it up with a garment dyed or heather t-shirt the result is something that looks like it’s been around forever. This is a huge trend, and if you’ve been to the mall anytime in the last decade you’ve seen this. Has your client used this yet for their company store? If not, this usually will be the number one seller shortly when rolled out.

Vintage - A vintage look can be created a few ways. Normally you can pair the graphic with dark acid washed or garment dyed t-shirt and simply not underbase the file on the shirt. This mutes the colors. Make sure your printer used high mesh screens and reduces the ink down to increase the viscosity to make the ink thinner and softer to the touch. Another great tip is to use white or black ink only and use a lot of the curable reducer in the ink. This makes the ink translucent. Want to have that “chalkboard” look on a heather charcoal t-shirt? Use reduced white ink with one screen for that effect. The reduced ink should be translucent enough so that the grain of the shirt shows through. When you pair this effect with a t-shirt that has a pattern or flecks in the grain, that will show through the design.

Discharge - You can also get great effects using discharge ink or a discharge ink hybrid. Most shops will charge a little more for this, so ask before you work up a quote. Discharge removes the dye of the shirt during the curing process. This only happens with 100% cotton. For a funky effect, do it on a 50/50. The polyester content will remain dyed the same, but the cotton dye will be removed. When removed, what’s left is the normal basic color of the shirt, which is usually a light tan or gray. Some shirts have been overdyed by the distributor when they don’t sell, so a black t-shirt could have been green at one point. When discharged, the remaining look will have a green tint to it. When ordering, make sure you ask for “dischargable” t-shirts...this means that they weren’t overdyed. Discharge is a great effect, and is normally used just as a one color type look. This is very popular in retail, especially with youth oriented brands. Since there isn’t any ink, the effect has a great hand on the shirt. Talk to your printer about this and get them to show you some samples.

Smoke Ink - This ink is simply a dark color that has been reduced down to the point that it is transparent. 50%-75% curable reducer to black, depending on how dark a shade you want. The great thing about this mixture is that it makes the best shading effect on a shirt around. On a red shirt, the ink will look maroon. On a kelly green shirt, the ink will look forest. On a royal blue shirt the ink will look navy. Using this, you can print several shirt colors using the same ink and get different looks. This can save you money on color washes from your printer. It looks phenomenal on anything that’s a heather because the grain of the shirt will show through. This is practically mandatory on those “Property Of” shirts that companies use for their corporate store. Try it!

Design Placement

One great trend that I’m seeing with branding on apparel is getting away from the traditional full front, full back, left chest type of placement. If your client is stuck in this rut, try livening things up by showing them newer, trendier looks that are the rage these days.

Bottom Right Hem - instead of a full front graphic, have the design printed the same size, but place the graphic down on the bottom of the t-shirt and a little over to the side under the arm. T-shirts are rarely tucked in these days, so getting your graphic down there recognizes that fact and (pardon the pun) shows how hip the brand can be. This works great for a big headline type graphic or brand icon. Push the envelope even more and use a distressed or vintage look too.

Side Wrap - this is fully placing the full size graphic on the side of the shirt between the sleeve and the hem of the shirt. This method is really easy to load on the press, but looks very unique when designed right. I’ve seens some great creative thinking with this print, such as a football, Christmas present, even a teddy bear. When the person is wearing the shirt and their arms are at their sides it looks like they are carrying whatever is the graphic. Imagine if this was the product your client sells? What if you used this technique for their trade show shirt? It would look like everyone was carrying around their product.

Spine Print - if someone has a horizontal look to their logo, or a long wordmark try rotating the design ninety degrees and running the art down the back spine of the shirt. This looks great on a sportshirt with the print that matches a color block, or even in reflective ink. If the shirt will be tucked in though, make sure the print starts more near the top of the shirt so it ends before the bottom of the graphic disappears into the pants.

Spine Print.jpg

The North Face - ever noticed the back of a North Face jacket? They have their brand logo on the upper right shoulder. This offset draws a lot of attention to their brand because it isn’t symmetrical with the normal alignment of the garment where everything is centered. That off-centered look is very popular and a good look for any brand. 

Cheap(er) Special Effects

Want to add some pizazz to your design, but don’t want to break the bank? Here are a few ideas to get you started. All of these are easy to do and will work on any budget. 

Puff Ink or Embroidery - One thing that stands the test of time in branding is getting the art raised up off of the garment. Using puff ink or puff embroidery is the go-to technique for this as it is very easy to do.

Puff ink is actually an additive that is mixed in with normal plastisol ink that allows the ink to puff up like a muffin when heated in the dryer to cure. The edges are slightly rounded, and if mixed right by your printer will have good durability. Unlike high density printing, using puff doesn’t require any special screens or’s just a simple additive. One tip though, only puff one part of the design...not everything. Be careful about small openings or tiny lines as they will be problematic.

Puff embroidery simply uses foam underneath the thread to build up the dimension needed. This is most commonly used on hats, but I’ve seen it successfully used on tote bags too. You need a more rigid surface to support the look. The foam is usually either white or black, and your embroiderer will have to digitize a new file to make this work, so there will be some set up costs involved. If you’ve ever been to a sports game or hat store in the mall, you can see this technique on about half of the inventory, so it’s extremely popular.

Foil - Using metallic foil on a shirt is very easy to do and adds some instant bling to any project. Foils come in a huge array of colors, textures and patterns, but the most common are gold and silver. For screen-printing, most shops either will print with water-based ink (as foil doesn’t stick to that) or add foil-release to the other colors. Where the foil goes should be printed in an ink that is the foil color, or a gel that has been tinted that color. This is done so that is some tiny area of the foil doesn’t stick, it is practically invisible.

Metallic Ink or Thread - want some bling but don’t want the cost of rhinestones or foil? Try using metallic ink instead. Even metallic glitter can work too. Try replacing the normal colors used with metallics and see what happens. You can mix any PMS color into a metallic by having the printer add some silver shimmer flakes to the PMS color. Voila! Instant metallic, but one that matches the corporate color.

Mixed Media - want a spectacular look on a garment? Combine screen-printing and embroidery. This effect is created by simply screen-printing a pattern on the shirt, and then embroidering over the top with a design or logo. If you have a great design and production team, this effect can be a show-stopper. To keep your costs down, have the screen-print just be one color. If you use the Smoke Ink idea above, you can get different color effects on different shirt colors easily.

So, there you have it! Just a few ideas to get you started. I would highly recommend contacting your apparel decorator for some great tips and tricks that they use, and to make sure whatever idea you have is feasible for them to pull off.

Try something new today!