Taking garment decoration upstream

Jodie and Zach Pillinger

With a philosophy of offering a truly customer service orientated approach, one Cornish garment decorator has a business plan that is all sewn up. P&P editor Melanie Attlesey reports.

A wise man once told Zach Pillinger, owner and director of Upstream Printing, that in business ‘big was ugly, small was beautiful’.

Although this man worked in an abattoir, Zach was spurred on by these words of inspiration and so set about creating a thriving screen printing and embroidery business in Cornwall. Zach describes his business as small, but with a big outlook and client base.

Zach’s career in the textile industry began 15 years ago when he set up a small fashion brand, which soon led to him becoming involved in screen printing. This evolved over the years to Zach becoming a partner at a mid-sized screen printing company. And after many years of, as he says, working far too hard for far too little money, Zach left to go it alone and formed Upstream Printing in 2011 with the help of his wife Jodie.

The name Upstream Printing derives from two trains of thought. Prior to being involved in textiles, Zach used to be a professional kayaker and secondly when he started the business he thought that it may be a bit of an upstream struggle.

The evolving industry

Zach drew upon his previous experience of working for a screen printer to create his new venture. “It became apparent that general business over the years, aided by e-commerce, had evolved and yet traditional screen printing businesses had stood still. With the development of shiny new websites print agents emerged all over the country and a great deal of printers became essentially trade slaves bearing large overheads, but reaping very small rewards,” he explains.

Screen printed water bottles for the London Diving Chamber

Adding: “These issues also affected customer experience, with customers nationwide being promised the world by inexperienced office staff, when in reality the actual decorator was unable to match the customer expectations.”

So Zach’s goal was to create something different. He wanted to create a business that utilised a full in-house production facility, that also dealt with clients direct. He believes he has achieved with Upstream Printing.

“This control allows us to offer our customers shorter lead times, greater product and production knowledge to manage customer expectations and increase our margins,” says Zach. “Six years on we have very much stuck to that mantra and to continue to offer our customers a truly customer service orientated approach, backed up by a full decorating set-up including screen printing, embroidery, labelling and digital printing services.”

Ultimately it is no good talking the talk, if your working environment and product offering is unable to follow suit. This means using the right equipment and sourcing the right garments is very important to Upstream Printing.

Equipment and garments

Equipment found in the company’s custom-built printing workshop includes products from M&R, Epson, Happy, SWF and Roland. The reason for this is as Zach explains: “We need a versatile and reliable set up that utilises space but lets us decorate any garment with a number of decoration methods to produce an end product that can live up to customer expectations. With a relatively basic set up correctly maintained and with experienced operatives, we can maintain a healthy workflow and produce an output that is hard to match using a much larger, but poorly operated set up.”

The equipment that Upstream Printing uses gives the company efficiency and control over current market expectations for garments that are finished using a multitude of decoration techniques.

This principle also carries over into the garments that Upstream Printing offers its customers. “Being active in a wide variety of specific areas we use a selection of products that we would recommend to suit the needs of each area of the business. For customers who would like a comfortable yet well-priced hoodie we use Cottonridge, for retail customers or ecologically sensitive customers we use the Continental Clothing range and for sports events we custom manufacture products using 100% polyester with wickable properties.”

Zach explains the reason he chooses these particular garments is because a good quality decoration finish is only as good as the garment it is produced on. He adds: “When a customer receives a product it may have a beautiful print or embroidery on, but if the garment washes poorly, is ill-fitting or falls apart you may as well have produced a poor quality decoration. We rely on customer tested products that we can have confidence that will stand the test of time and be as good as our finishes.”

Upstream Printing’s main customer base is sporting and music festivals, schools and corporate businesses. In 2016 the company staffed events from vintage cycle events and obstacle races through to one of the UK’s largest music festivals, with 30 of Upstream Printing’s staff selling the merchandise supplied.

Detailed embroidery for a local cake maker

Speaking to customers face to face is how Upstream Printing prefers to conduct its business. “The internet is a fantastic tool that we all rely on but we still believe people like to do business with people,” explains Zach.

Upstream Printing sells direct to customers through the company’s sales team based in the Midlands. Despite this Zach is aware of the advantages of the internet and says they are currently developing an e-commerce website to offer a full range of blank and decorated garments online.

Going to work is a joy

Day to day Zach says his job keeps him on his toes. “The sheer variety of customers and requirements presents challenges on a daily basis but producing that perfect solution to finish a tricky substrate and ensure customer satisfaction does make the job rewarding,” says Zach. “Also working with a great team of people who are all passionate about developing the business makes going to work a joy, well most of the time!”

Any garment decorator worth his salt will know that the industry is moving at an increasingly fast rate. New technology and garments enter the printwear market almost on a monthly basis and Zach says he intends to keep up with the times. “Continued investment in e-commerce and the emergence of DTG as a truly viable and versatile print solution will revolutionise the industry as we know it now.

“Upstream will continue to be a customer led business that will adapt to changing technology and new market sectors. We don’t plan on taking over the world but continued efficiency improvements and a finger on the pulse for future trends will hopefully see us develop our stance in the industry as a truly reliable supplier.”

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