All-Over Dye Sublimation – Why, How and What

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As a relative newbie in the garment decorating industry (only 16 years so far) I find that sometimes discussing decoration with the veterans (old guys as my friend Terry Combs, who is an old guy, likes to say) can be an interesting conversation. Many are hardcore screen printing or some will even dip their toe into the DTG world. Most shy away from polyester in a big way. When I was primarily involved with screen printing and direct to garment printing in my early days, I was a huge proponent of 100% cotton t-shirts. I really didn’t think I could ever come to love those polyester shirts. But due to companies like Under Armor and others, polyester performance wear has really become more in demand today than ever before. Now that my days are filled with all-over dye sublimation, instead of pretreatment and plastisol, I have been exposed to so much more polyester fabric that I almost feel like I nearly missed the boat. I have become a huge fanboy for the sublimation process. It provides such a rich and vibrant color that lasts the life of the garment and it works with those performance and high-end polyesters that people really want.

All-Over Dye Sublimation
The ability to sell a polyester garment at a premium is what draws most people to sublimation for apparel decoration. Polyester has changed dramatically in recent years, and terms like moisture wicking and performance wear have made the polyester garment something consumers are looking for when making their buying decisions. Polyester also allows for the softest hand available in decorated apparel with no stuck on plastic or vinyl. All of these traits allows you the decorator to sell these garments for a premium price as the perceived value is greater than other apparel in the market. Beyond just the look, feel and durability, it is a highly profitable way to decorate garments. all-over dye sublimation garments can command $50 to $100 each. Your cost to produce should be in the $10 to $15 range if you are efficiently creating garments. Even if you work with a contract sublimator you cost should still only be about $25 to $30 each. I’m horrible at math, but those are margins are something that many screen printers would really love to see. The process is clean and easy to do as well. You push print, transfer to your garment of choice and deliver the product to your customers. No color separations, screens to burn, messy ink or pretreatment. Just Profit!

Now that we are excited to dive into sublimation, we need to discuss some of the “how-to” pieces so you can plan accordingly, even if you plan to use a contract sublimator to start. With sublimation, we need 100% polyester for the best transfer. Yes, people do make a very nice garment with blends, but only the polyester portion of the garment is taking the ink, so if you have a 50/50 garment, it is going to look washed out and faded. The more polyester content you have them better the image is going to look. Also, the inks are transparent so transferring to anything but white will change the colors of the images. This is something you need to prepare for and possibly do some testing before production especially if your customer is color conscience. My suggestion is to produce all over garments so the color of the shirt doesn’t matter, you just make it whatever color your customer wants on each shirt.

One other area that is somewhat unique to the sublimation process is the type of decorating you will be doing. With all over printing, there are 2 ways to decorate the garment. One is print and cut and the other is decorating the presewn garment. By decorating the presewn garment this will save you the cost and time of having to sew the garment after decorated. This also overcomes having to have your own Shirt pattern and figuring out how to sew it which can be a challenge for many garment decorators. The downside is that you will have some blemishes and areas that don’t transfer well. (smilebad.jpg) We call those smiles, but you do have to prepare for that in your design process. With cut and sew you decorate rolls of fabric and then have them put together so there are no blemishes. This is more of what you see with sports jerseys and more solid bold colors. You see more decoration on presewn garments in the fashion and design sector where smiles blend right in with the art. (smilegood.jpg)

To create all-over dye sublimation apparel, you do need wide format equipment, including a wide format heat press. If you are looking to purchase your own equipment, prepare to spend about $30,000 to $35,000 on a minimum of a 44” roll feed printer and then a 44” x 64” heat press. To get into cut and sew and drum presses, extend your budget up into the $100,000 range. While I know these numbers can seem large to many folks, don’t let that initial investment fool you. You can lease equipment for a reasonable monthly payment and easily cover those lease payments with your profits from all over decorating. Remember the margins we talked about earlier?

If there is just no way to get started due to the initial investment, don’t turn your back on this lucrative marketplace. There are many great companies out there that specialize in contract sublimation. A quick Google search will give you plenty of great places to start and you can build your market with their services and then star saving up for your own equipment.

When it comes to the artwork, I know if you are currently getting artwork from your customers, you have never gotten small low-resolution art (obviously joking) but with all over apparel sublimation, the art size is critical. Because of the size of the artwork, I suggest making sure you have a minimum of 150 dots per inch (dpi) with 200 dpi being a better file size to shoot for. Remember the DPI should be at the final size of the shirt being printed, so make sure you have artwork prepared for all the different size shirts you might create. Next, if you are producing presewn garments make sure you are printing out your artwork in the shape of the shirt you are using, not just a square box. This saves some ink costs and makes lining up your transfer with the shirt much easier. Lastly, make sure you have plenty of bleed area on your print out for all-over dye sublimation. I suggest at least 2” extra to the size of the largest shirt you will be creating. This is printing a bit of extra ink by doing this, but the cost of that ink versus the ruined garment when not getting it perfectly lined up will be much less.

Bad Smile
These are the “smiles” to avoid.

When it comes to presewn garments, the type of garment does matter if you want to reduce the smiles (small blemishes). The way the arms are sewn on and how straight across the tops of the sleeves are will reduce the smiles. The smaller hemlines also help reduce the smiles. With our shirt, it is important that we lay it out and take a little extra time making sure that it is laid out as flat as possible. For cutting and sew operations you can produce that one of 2 ways. You can just imprint your transfers onto a roll with a drum style press or you can actually sublimate the precut pieces by laying them out on a flat press or having a piece table attachment for your drum press.

(Tip: Due to the bright vibrant nature of these garments, this might be an idea time to take the artwork from the shirt and produce a few other sublimation items and offer them to your customers as samples. I bet you more often than not the customer will say, “hey, I need to get more of those coffee mugs or cell phone cases. My group loved them.”)

One thing I have noticed when it comes to this sublimation market is that it is actually all around us, and many times we don’t even know it. For example, not too long ago I was helping hang laundry into my wife and I’s closet and I noticed that her side was full of sublimation garments. I could not believe it since I am involved in that industry and I have not once made a shirt for my wife. Hey, at least I help with the laundry…  So I started digging around and asked her where she gets the shirts I saw. I was shocked by how “mainstream” the retailers were who offered these sublimation garments. She pointed out shirts from Kohls, Charlotte Russe , New York & Co. and even a local St. Louis brand, Before+Again Clothing. In talking to one of the owner’s from Before+Again Clothing, Joe Werner, he shared with me why sublimation had really taken off in the fashion industry. “When we really kicked off our line of fashion, It was in 2008, the height of the recession. Because of the all-over dye sublimation process, we were able to be a just -in- time manufacturer. Our ability to turn around highly creative pieces with low minimums fit well for a market that was nervous about high inventory levels. And in the fashion business, it is key to being able to quickly react to what is on trend now and replenish product vs. waiting months for foreign goods which also require larger orders. Bottom line our equipment, design and production processes allowed us to mitigate risk to stores and give a tremendous amount of creative choice to consumers.”

And the market for sublimation garment decoration is not just fashion. If you are not at least contracting out sublimation apparel, you are missing out on markets like team apparel (volleyball, wrestling, basketball and more) or outdoor sports (hunting, fishing, paintball, cycling). Here are a couple of specific markets;

sportsjersey2Sports Jerseys – For years and years, the sports jersey industry was dominated by dye houses and vinyl lettering. There was a lot of cotton being used and still today that business is strong. Things have changed, though, and the polyester performance jerseys are becoming the “normal”. No longer do you see the solid color jersey with the one or two color name and number on it. You are now seeing excellent designs, multiple colors and more. On top of all that, the garment can enhance the athlete performance by wicking away moisture and keeping the athlete cooler. Jerseys today are no longer just to designate a number; they are part of the athlete’s performance.

For me the sign that things were changing was at a nation volleyball event I was coaching at two years ago. The big player in the volleyball world when it comes to apparel is Mizuno. At most of the national club volleyball events, they have a large booth set up to sell and promote their products. I always peek in to see what they have and to add to my collection (yes I’m a bit of a volleyball nut). Right out front of the booth was a large banner that read “ASK US ABOUT SUBLIMATION JERSEYS!” Now you can go to their website and check out their all-over dye sublimation and cut and sew offering. This was huge in my world because someone was actually talking to the public about sublimation.

On top of the moisture wicking properties, if you replace the vinyl with a fully sublimated item you remove another problem that the volleyball jersey world has along with some other sports. When you have the thick vinyl on the garment and you go to dive across the floor, if your back or chest sticks to the ground you stop pretty abruptly. I have seen some pretty beat up chins due to a jersey grabbing the floor and slamming the athlete’s chin right into the ground. Ouch!

Swimsuits – This garment has long been something where the athlete is looking for the swimsuit to help them move through the water faster. In 1924 the British Olympic Swim team wore outfits made of silk to reduce drag. Today’s swimsuit for the elite athletes more resembles shark skin that a swimsuit. The garments in between are typically made of polyester performance fabric. These suits provide the ideal comfort for a swimmer and also provide performance improvements. Beyond that comes bold bright colors that stand out in the pool, and you have a winning combination for swimmers and decorators alike.

To summarize, I urge you to take a really hard look at all-over dye sublimation as a tool for your garment decorating company. It is a profitable decoration technique and needs to be part of any decorators tool belt.  The tools needs can have a large initial investment, but either through leasing / financing or even working with a contract sublimator anyone can be a part of sublimation. You have options, like cut and sew or finished good pressing, plus things we didn’t even discuss much that you can now offer to your customer. Cell phone cases, baby blankets, coffee mugs, doormats and more. The possibilities are nearly limitless. The markets to a target can range as wildly as your interest range. Are you into sports, check, fashion, check, the great outdoors, check. The list could go on and on. Don’t wait to get your business started in sublimation today.

1 thought on “All-Over Dye Sublimation – Why, How and What”

  1. Vinyl and volleyball chin slides. Nice touch, Aaron.
    I am a running nut and used to swear with cotton shirts. But warmer climate in the US made me a wicking-shirt freak.
    On the smiles subject, some shirts lay down better than others. Pre-inspection of those hem lines can help with the proper brand selection.


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