Heat Printing: When and Why?
Although heat printing, also known as “heat transfer printing,” has been around for decades, innovations in heat-applied materials and heat application machinery are making it more popular. Add to that a low starting investment and an easy learning curve, and heat printing is now the method of choice for many decorators.
Heat printing differs from dye-sublimation printing in a few ways. With heat printing, the design is printed onto a sheet of heat transfer paper or vinyl using an inkjet or laser printer. When it is pressed onto a garment using a heat press, the image adheres to the fabric, adding a layer to the garment. Sublimation ink, on the other hand, turns from a solid into a gas when heated and embeds itself into the fabric. Once cool, it returns to a solid and becomes a permanent part of the fabric, adding no additional layer on top. Sublimation, however, only works with white or light-colored polyester fabrics, where heat printing will work on light or dark-colored cotton, polyester and cotton-poly blends. Sublimation also has a higher start-up cost than heat transfer.
Heat printing goes where other decorating methods can’t, with heat transfer materials designed for application on a variety of items and special platens designed for unique placements. Heat press platens are available for hats, hat bills, shoes, pant legs, and sleeves, enabling decorators to get creative with placements, including wrap-around designs. The more places that can be decorated on a garment, the more premium items that can be created — and that means higher profit potential.
One market that’s growing is performance wear. Heat printing offers several solutions for application on these kinds of fabrics. There’s heat transfer vinyl, designed for lower-temperature application to avoid scorching and inhibiting dye migration, and screen printed transfers formulated to give maximum stretch and a light feel on garments. Heated lower platens are another option to properly decorate polyester, polyester blends or even nylon without scorching.
Apparel and Beyond
With the right equipment and materials, heat printing allows decorators to go beyond apparel and decorate canopies, umbrellas, bags, and even hard goods like phone covers and mugs. Heat transfer vinyl is available for most materials for application on nylon, rip-stop, and canvas. Sublimation transfers apply on mugs, name badges, and phone covers with a polyester resin coating, and these transfers give full-color results with only a heat press. Pressure-sensitive sign vinyl is another decorating solution for application on hard goods like tumblers and signs.
The on-demand nature of heat printing means decorators can take on any size job at a profit with no wasted inventory. Customers are willing to pay a premium for apparel and accessories unique to them, so personalizing items with names, monograms, or additional graphics can lead to a greater profit margin.
Heat transfer vinyl is ideal for the sport uniform market. In fact, that’s where it originally gained popularity. Full contact sports uniforms require durable, abrasion-resistant decoration that can take a beating, and heat transfer materials are ideal.
There are several important considerations when selecting heat transfer materials for sports uniforms, including:
- Is it abrasion resistant? This is essential when decorating for contact sports such as football, hockey, lacrosse, and in some cases, baseball or softball. Decorators need to ensure the application is durable and can withstand the rigors of the sport.
- Does it block or inhibit dye migration? Sublimated garments and patterns continue to gain popularity in the sports market. There are also garments that are highly dye saturated, which can affect applications. Decorators want the white number on a red jersey to stay white and not turn pink. Typically, these highly dye-saturated jerseys are used in volleyball, soccer, basketball, baseball, or softball.
- Does it have stretch and rebound characteristics? Performance wear uniforms will be made from stretch fabric, so what is being applied to them also needs to have this property.
- Soccer, volleyball, and basketball uniforms tend to be made from lighter-weight fabrics, so ensure the material they are applying has a soft hand (i.e., a soft feel). Athletes prefer an applied material that does not affect the comfort of the fabric, so if a thicker material is applied, they will notice the difference.
- Can the material be applied at a lower temperature? This is important to consider when applying to lightweight performance fabric or heat-sensitive uniforms to avoid scorching.
Offering athletes and their fans various apparel and non-apparel items to show their team pride is a great way to expand team spirit. With items such as hoodies, T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, window decals, performance wear, and outerwear, decorators drive more business with heat printing.
Textures and Effects
With options ranging from glitter and reflective materials to full-color digital prints, heat printing is anything but flat or monochromatic. Heat printing is also great for mixed-media applications combining full-color transfers and textured vinyl all on the same garment. The extensive material and finishing options available include the following:
- Special Effects: Glitter and glow, neon colors and patterns in a variety of colorways, and finishes unavailable in other decorating methods mean heat printing provides plenty of decorating options for everything from spirit wear to fashion. Use heat transfer vinyl that glows to give Halloween treat bags an extra touch, or decorate cheer uniforms with popular glitter finishes in a range of colors. Using foil with heat transfer adhesive gives foil accents a long life on apparel compared to screen printing foils, which are temporary.
- Reflective apparel is expected to grow at a rate of 5.16% between 2018-2022. Big athleisure brands are already running with this trend, adding reflective accents to athleisure apparel, lifestyle apparel, and even the runway. Heat-applied reflective materials come in a variety of reflective levels for safety markets, along with colors for fashion accents.
- Emblems are a premium product ideal for application on garments, hats, bags, and other items. They’re a lightweight alternative to embroidery with high-definition color, texture, and detail, all with only a heat press. Emblems have no backing, which makes for soft wearability on the inside of garments, and they can be applied on demand, so there’s no need to stock inventory for quick-turn jobs and one-off pieces.
- Full Color: Applying more than one or two colors using screen printing can be costly and time consuming. Heat printing offers several solutions for full-color applications on a variety of substrates. For designs with two to three colors, heat transfer vinyl can be layered for a multi-color finish. Screen printed transfers are another solution for these applications. And full-color digital transfers offer high-definition details, gradients, and unlimited colors in a single layer for a soft hand on even the thinnest garments. These transfers are easy to heat apply on a variety of fabrics and in a variety of locations, from a six-panel hat to a left chest logo with all the color customers want.
- Appliques: There are heat-applied materials that give the look of embroidery without the expense and labor of direct embroidery. Heat printing also allows for decorating items like hats, which are difficult with regular embroidery. Offering heat-applied embroidery and appliques gives customers budget-friendly options for the look of embroidery with fewer stitches — without devaluing traditional embroidery as a premium product.
Heat printing is fast and flexible, easy to learn, and allows apparel decorators to get creative with placements, finishes, and applications not possible with other decorating methods. When deciding which decorating method to choose, consider the fabric, item, quantity, desired finish, and placement required to determine if heat printing is the right choice for the job.
This article originally appeared in the Printing United Journal.