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Wear Your Spirit Warehouse

From being a traditional screen printer, embroiderer, and digital decorator, Ali Banholzer’s shop has quickly adapted to switching its business model to the direct-to-film (DTF) process.

By Marcia Derryberry, Contributing Writer

“Life is hard. T-shirts don’t have to be.” That’s the motto of Wear Your Spirit Warehouse in Huntingtown, Maryland. The company started out in the scrapbook industry with owner Ali Banholzer eventually using the same equipment to make signs and banners. The entrepreneur soon added screen printing, embroidery, and sublimation equipment to service the fire department niche, schools, and local companies. 

“I started it on my kitchen counter like so many of us,” Ali says. “I was a criminologist and I married an Air Force officer. I discovered that criminology was not a career field that would move with the military because we moved seven times in 11 years. In 2004, I was tired of having a resume that showed we were moving every 18 months. It made employers not very interested in me. So I said, ‘I’m going to start my own business and employ myself.’”

As her banner business took off, she had a customer ask if she printed T-shirts and landed a big contract with the fire department. So, she simply went out and bought equipment, went to a three-day class, and started printing. Through trial-and-error she quickly grew her business and moved into a commercial building, where she soon brought in embroidery, sublimation, and laser engraving. 

“I just kept expanding the business until we got to where we are now,” she says. “In 2014, my husband was the commander of Air Force One. One Saturday morning, he had a grand mal seizure. So, I closed my commercial space and brought the business home, keeping two employees and just my very best customers. I didn’t have space for screen printing equipment, a dark room, and wash out area so I got rid of my screen printing service and started printing everything with transfers. I added the screen printing equipment back in after a while. We now have 10 employees.” 

At that time, Ali began creating online stores for clients, maintaining her customers, and taking care of her husband and two young kids. Sadly, her husband passed away in 2016 so in 2017 she reopened her commercial space. But she didn’t re-buy screen-printing equipment at first, however. Rather, she continued to do everything by transfer. She had no complaints from customers from the change in processes and now has close to 100 online stores. She has found a niche of how to be able to manage online stores and on-demand productions through transfer technology.

“Eventually I did go into DTG (direct-to-garment) printing and did it for about 18 months,” Ali says. “I hated the product because the maintenance and pretreatment were so challenging. I was thinking at the time, ‘What if someone could just figure out how to print DTG onto a transfer?’ I didn’t have the expertise to make that come to light, however.”

“But it would be great to print a bunch of digital transfers on sheets, put them in a box, and keep them on a shelf without taking up too much space and be ready to go,” she adds. “And here we are a few years later with DTF being developed. I have gotten some very large customers and we use screen printing with DTF in kind of a hybrid system. We produce DTF for any of our multicolor online store jobs, and then we use our automatic screen-printing machine for bulk orders that require one color.”

On the Edge of Technology

As soon as DTF came out, Wear Your Spirit Warehouse began ordering pre-printed transfers. A Lean Sigma Six Black Belt, Ali spends lots of time gathering analysis for the company’s overhead, pricing, etc., and is looking for the tipping point of when it makes sense to bring DTF in house.

“We’re very close to that point, but we’re not there yet,” she says. “Because it’s still a bit in its infancy, the biggest challenge we’ve had is inconsistency in reordering. We’ll send off a job, get it in, produce it, and then we’ll reorder with the exact artwork and it won’t come back with the same colors as the previous run. So there’s an issue in finding a company that can print consistently.”

Do customers realize the difference between transfers and screen printed garments? No, Ali says. Her team explains the DTF process to customers as a digital print technology without getting into the nitty gritty of it because it can be confusing to the layman. 

“We are upfront with clients and we don’t lie to them about what the best decorating process is to use for their particular project,” she says. “We tell them the different services we offer and explain that we are professionals within this industry and will look at the budget and needs to determine the best process to get the items produced. So, if price point is the most important, we’re going to recommend that we do a bulk screen print run because we can do that less expensively. But if a quick turnaround or a lot of colors are needed, then we’re going to recommend DTF. So, let us be the experts.”

In the near future, Ali says she sees DTF technology improving to the point where she will buy a DTF machine and produce transfers in house. She says she predicts the cost-of-entry barriers coming down so the equipment is getting less expensive and more small businesses can do it. For smaller shops, she thinks we’ll see more consistency with colors and color formulas. Also, equipment will become more reliable. It will parrot what happened with DTG technology. There will be more traditional, large screen printing equipment manufacturers producing machines and the maintenance and service will become more reliable, she adds. 

“I don’t have direct experience with owning a machine yet, but what my research and networking show is that most of the DTF machines are coming out of China,” Ali says. “They’re great machines and they work really well – until they don’t. And when they don’t, it’s tough to get support and there’s a long wait time to get replacement parts. So if you only buy one machine as your sole DTF production source and it goes down, it could be months before you’re back up again. So, if you’re going to do volume, it’s like you need to be able to afford to buy two or three machines, not just one.” 

What is Ali’s main tip for others entering this space? Do your homework, she advises. “I would say outsource it at first and do the math. My tipping point in buying a machine is when I think I’m doing enough business to get my ROI in 12 months. And you can’t use my math because my math is not your math. I’m just outside of Washington, D.C., and my warehouse space is very expensive. My overhead is expensive. My labor is expensive. We’re very space constrained. So you need to be able to know how to crunch the numbers to find where your tipping point is before you race out and buy a machine.”

Marcia Derryberry is the former editor-in-chief of Impressions magazine and content developer for the Impressions Expo conference program. She now owns her own media communications company, Derryberry Media Communications in McKinney, Texas.

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