Images visits Designs Alike in Portsmouth where owner Bev Mapes combines UK manufacturing with garment decorating for customers including Dance World Cup teams

After 30 years making and then decorating garments, Bev Mapes decided she needed a new challenge. Devastated by the loss of her husband Rob, who died aged only 51 six years ago, she nearly gave up her business, Portsmouth-based Designs Alike. Instead, she invested in dye-sublimation equipment, a move that set her off in successful new directions.

“It was something we had to learn from scratch,” she recalls. “It just enabled us to branch out into something completely new. If I hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t be where we are now.”

With an eight-strong workforce, Designs Alike is now manufacturing and customising garments from workwear to teamwear, but most significantly kit for over 1,000 UK dancers taking part in the annual Dance World Cup. It is a company of “two halves”, Bev explains. One is embroidery and printing on bought-in products, mainly workwear such as hi-vis items; the other is “purely bespoke” garments that are made to order using dye sublimation.

“There’s a little bit of crossover as there are dance schools and gym clubs that maybe want a bespoke tracksuit but an off-the-shelf T-shirt. We’ve also supplied a few companies with bespoke hoodies that we’ve manufactured for them.”

An accidental embroiderer

Bev believes that being a manufacturer differentiates Designs Alike from most garment decorators. The company offers both cut-and-sew (where panels are cut out from fabrics, sewn together into a made-up garment, and then decorated), as well as ‘dye sublimation’ (where designs are printed on transfer paper and then heat transferred on to pre-cut white polyester panels, which are then sewn together to make a finished garment).

Bev Mapes [right] holds Designs Alike’s innovation award alongside her team (and Skyla, the boxer)

Bev Mapes [right] holds Designs Alike’s innovation award alongside her team (and Skyla, the boxer)

She started out in the fashion trade 36 years ago with a sewing business making casualwear to order, selling it through the party-plan model. At its height, she had 10 demonstrators working for her. She says she got into embroidery about 30 years ago “by accident” when her mum Margaret bought a small embroidery machine. It was then that she set up Designs Alike, adding vinyl printing soon after, alongside cut-and-sew.

For the dye-sublimation work, the designs are printed onto transfer paper using an Epson SureColor F6200 dye-sublimation printer and applied to the white polyester fabric using a Monti Antonio press, which Designs Alike added in 2017. The printed panels are then put together and finished using industrial sewing machines from Juki and Brother.

Bev points out that the company’s set-up does not follow a standard factory line. “With us, they [the machinists] each make them from start to finish. They have to be skilled to be able to do the whole thing.”

Bev is proud to be making garments, often with fabrics from the UK, rather than getting them from overseas. “We’re making small quantities so you do have to pay a premium. You also have a longer lead time than if you are buying it from Ralawise or PenCarrie who can do next-day. Most people understand it means our lead time is about six to eight weeks, although sometimes we can do it quicker.”

Production is shifting to being more sustainable through using recycled polyester and eco-friendly Madeira thread. This commitment to sustainability and digital technology contributed to Designs Alike winning The News Portsmouth Innovation Award for manufacturing in October.

SWF workhorse

The other part of the production set-up is decorating on finished garments that have either been made through cut-and-sew or bought in as blanks. Designs Alike still uses a single-head SWF embroidery machine that Bev bought 30 years ago. “It’s old so not as good as the newer machines and it doesn’t use the software, but it was built as a workhorse and the quality of the framework is better than a lot of modern machines.”

A dual-function machine “blew up” after water leaked into it two years ago and has been replaced by two single-head Happy machines, which are “great”. Bev believes larger embroidery machines would not suit Designs Alike. “We tend to specialise in smaller numbers. We do a lot of personalisation with individual names. Having separate machines enables you to have different jobs running.”

The company’s versatility is reflected in its shop where it displays examples of made-to-order pieces plus printable blank garments from suppliers. It includes a section of sustainable garments featuring Ørn’s EarthPro workwear in recycled polyester.

The company’s SWF embroidery machine is still going strong after 30 years. Shown here with the two Happy machines that were installed two years ago

The company’s SWF embroidery machine is still going strong after 30 years. Shown here with the two Happy machines that were installed two years ago

Dye-sublimated kit in the company’s shop window

Dye-sublimated kit in the company’s shop window

Dance trends

Designs Alike has been supplying dancewear for nearly three decades after a local dance school ordered some tracksuits that were cut and sewn and then decorated. Now, most of the garments are made using dye sublimation, although some still require cut-and-sew. Through word of mouth and its website, the company supplies dance schools and a handful of retailers across the UK and a few abroad too. Orders can be just one jacket when a new student joins or a full set of tracksuits for a whole dance school.

“The teachers know it will take six weeks, but they like that they can get something completely unique – and, because it’s on sublimation, they know it won’t be something that could be discontinued if a particular fabric is no longer available.”

Bev and her team have seen trends come and go. Glitter using vinyl print was popular, but that has almost died out, especially as the bulk of garments are now made from dye-sublimated polyester. Rhinestones were also on trend but “we’ve stopped doing that as nobody asks us for those these days”.

The company lists products on its website, but sticks to the tried-and-tested process of teachers filling out an order form and emailing it. “We feel it’s better to talk to the customers rather than make it anonymous. The personal touch is very important to us. Our USP is we’re flexible and friendly with no minimum order. Some of our customers have been with us for 25 years.”

Fabric cutting at Designs Alike

Fabric cutting at Designs Alike

The Monti Antonio press

The Monti Antonio press

Designs Alike’s busiest time of the year is the period after Christmas, thanks to the Dance World Cup. Seven years ago the manager of the championship’s UK teams was disappointed with the quality of tracksuits ordered from an overseas manufacturer. Designs Alike stepped in the following year and now supplies the England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland teams, as well as the Republic of Ireland, Guernsey and Iceland.

The event, held in June, was cancelled in 2020 due to Covid but returned as the 2020/21 Dance World Cup, thankfully with the same design as was used on garments ordered the year before. In 2022, it involved 176 dance schools across the four UK nations (about 1,500 dancers). The range includes jackets, T-shirts, leggings, hot pants, crop tops and garment covers. On average, each competitor needs four items. “The dancers are so proud to have qualified and they wear them all year round,” Bev adds.

Because of the volumes, the UK teams’ kits are now contracted out to another manufacturer, but all garments still come back through Designs Alike. As there is not enough room in the company’s three-unit premises, it temporarily rents out extra space. “We have boxes and boxes that all come back here and we have to allocate them to each school. It’s a bit like doing schoolwear, but it’s all personalised – each jacket has an individual name on it. But we’ve been doing it for years so we have a great little system going.”

Despite this expertise, Designs Alike avoids school uniforms. “We did a couple of secondary schools for a few years, but it took so much time that it wasn’t worth it, and there’s quite a lot of competition in Portsmouth so we just dropped out of that.”

Building on sportswear

Bev would like to build on the sportswear side of the business. Until 2013, it supplied local football teams through cut-and-sew and embroidery, but was pushed out by other companies offering dye sublimation. “There are effects that you can only get with sublimation. There’s just so much you can do with it. The only reason we haven’t branched back into football is because dance took over, but it is something we’re looking to do.”

With an experienced team, Bev can now spend some of her time working remotely from a campervan in Yorkshire, accompanied by her 11-year-old white boxer, Skyla, who is also a familiar face in the print shop. “I like to just park the van somewhere with a view and work from there,” she explains. The business has been through ups and downs, most recently the Covid pandemic when dance schools were closed, but it has survived and is stronger than ever.

Bev comments: “We’ve got through two recessions and lockdown and we’re still going. What we’ve achieved here is something to be proud of.”