The method for adding embroidery to clothes is centuries old, but the tools and techniques that once embellished apparel are a thing of the past.
Instead of needles and bobbins, ink and messy screens, the task of personalizing garments now includes computers in the formula.
Now, embroidery and digital printing combine with technology to yield a growing business.
For one Hickory entrepreneur, embroidery and digital printing plus technology equals a growing business for Addison Fox, 34, owner of Apparel Technology in downtown Hickory.
The printing business isn’t new to Fox. During his high school years, he worked for an area screen printer, but by the time he graduated from college, technological advances changed the way Fox learned to print.
“After I graduated, I worked for a Fortune 500 company that ran a Toyota production system,” Fox said. “The machines were high tech, direct-to-garment, and there was no waste.
Later, Fox saw the new direct-to-garment machines at a trade show and recalled what he learned from that production system.
“I thought about no waste, no ink on my clothes, my hands, no mess,” he said. “Plus, it’s a lot faster, and there are no screens to wash.”
Fox started Apparel Technology four years ago. He has two direct to garment printers, as well as one single head embroidery machine and an eight-head embroidery machine.
Using patterns he generates in Corel Draw, he can produce 60-75 shirts in one hour. The learning curve on the computer was a bit steep at first, Fox admitted.
“Typing was the only course I flunked in high school,” he said, laughing. “I had it and study hall for the last two periods, so I hardly ever went to class.”
Fox took a short course on an early version of the computer software. On-the-job training was his teacher for succeeding updated versions of software programs. Still, his business continues to grow.
“Our contract embroidery grows 50 percent each year,” he said. “I have three part-time employees, and we produced 33,000 shirts in a little more than two years.
“With two machines, we produced 60,000 to 70,000,” he added. “We’re still small potatoes, but we’re growing.”
Some of his contract work includes printing for four car dealerships, which include Cale Yarborough Honda, in Florence, S.C. and Jerry Wood dealership in Salisbury.
“Two car dealerships in Hickory,” Fox said, reluctant to divulge more. “I can’t tell all my secrets.”
Fox comes from a family of entrepreneurs. In fact, he shares space in his Trade Alley business with his brother, Joe, who owns Dirtball. Joe makes an extensive line of T-shirts, khaki pants, jeans, shell and outerwear — all made with organic materials or recycled materials.
“Both grandfathers, my father, my mother and my brother – all were or are business owners.
“Being with Joe has been a good venture for both of us,” he added.
And, yes, expansion is in his future.
“Sure, more embroidery, but no screen printing,” he said. “I like the digital printing. We print almost anything, and if we can’t, we source it out.”
Fox has his eye on a 16-32 head embroidery machine, which is expensive but will more than double output with less time.
“You gotta pick and choose your battles in this economy,” he said with a tell-tale grin of secrecy.
In his alley business, Fox ran from printer to printer, balls of threads stuck to the bottom of his shoes. A blur of motion, he keeps an eye on the machines. He printed five shirts for a reunion in 15 minutes.
“Screen printing would take five days,” he said.
He shared his funniest “mess-up.”
“I printed T-shirts for a church and misspelled United,’” he said. “No one noticed it until one night, a 9-year-old boy asked why their shirts said ‘untied.’”
There might be more than business at Apparel Technology in his future. Fox serves on the Hickory Parks and Recreation Commission, the board of visitors for Catawba Science Center, and is a member of Lake Hickory Rotary Club.
His mother, Sally Fox, serves on Hickory City Council as alderwoman for Ward 6. She was elected to city council in 1993, and her term expires in 2013.
Does he aspire to run for a seat on Hickory City Council?
“I’ve been approached,” he said. “It would take some consulting with Mom.
Apparel Technology is located at 246 Trade Ave. NW in downtown Hickory. For information, call (828) 345-1478.