Sublimating Apparel – Why, What and How

Why – If you have read anything else I have written on the topic of sublimation, you will know that I am a true sublimation evangelist. I find the process fascinating and the possibilities endless. On top of the possibilities, the real area for success is the value proposition for the decorator. For all you cotton enthusiast out there, like it or not, polyester is here to stay and the ability to sell a polyester garment at a premium is what draws most people to sublimation for apparel decoration. As I have discussed in other articles, 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. Sublimating apparel 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. With all over garment resortwearDecorating becoming more prevalent in the marketplace today, you are seeing more and more people leaning towards sublimation for their decorated apparel. If you are not at least contracting out sublimation apparel, in my opinion, you are missing a growing and lucrative part of the garment decorating marketplace. Markets like team apparel (volleyball, wrestling, basketball etc.), outdoor sports (hunting, fishing, paintball, cycling) fashion (burnout and resort wear) are all ripe and ready for sublimation.

What – Sublimating apparel can come in a variety of styles and can be done by different types of equipment. Keep in mind the limitations of sublimation when it comes to garment decorating. First, a polyester garment is needed to get the ink to transfer onto. You can use some blends of polyester and cotton, but the ink only adheres to the polyester portion. So, the more cotton content the more faded the image becomes. The ideal surface for bringing vibrant images is 100% polyester. Secondly, the lack of white ink in the sublimation process may be limiting. The best description for the lack of white ink can be found on the Printwear website in video form by Jimmy Lamb from Sawgrass Ink. Beyond those two minor limitations, nearly any type of apparel can be sublimated, as long as it can withstand approximately 375 degrees or more.

basic3The most common form of sublimating apparel is the basic logo and designs on a garment created by small format equipment. These machines are typically 8 ½” to about 13” wide and are desktop units that print sheets. Great for creating left chest logos and quick numbers, as well as full-color designs that are around 8” to 10” wide. Given the limitations of sublimation, these are typically lighter colored garments or are single color black lettering on darker garments. Unfortunately, you will not see any black shirts made with small format sublimation. This style of apparel sublimation can also be used to make a full coverage type garment with pressing your sublimation design onto multiple locations. The key here is to not overlap the prints as the ink will reactivate and cause ghosting or color changes that will ruin your image.

The next type of apparel sublimation found in the marketplace is the all over garment decoration method. This is done in the same fashion as the smaller format garments, but the prints created are the entire size of the garment and the heat press used can press all of the garment at once. Any color of a shirt can be created as it is started with a white garment and dyed with any transfer color along with the image. This equipment typically runs about $7500 and above for a 44” sublimation printer and the heat press can range $10,000 to $25,000 for the size that will allow for full garments to be pressed. The trick with this process is to find the correct garment that will lay as flat as possible for the pressing phase as any wrinkles or creases will cause white spaces that are commonly referred to as “Smileys”. These have really become part of the allure of all over garment decoration. If the design is made right, the smileys even look like part of the image. The smileys typically occur under the arms and around collars.

softballTo achieve very clean solid color sublimated garments, the method used is called cut and sew all over garment decoration. This is where you sublimate to cut out pieces of the garment from a roll of fabric or sublimate onto the roll of fabric with a drum style heat press, then cutting those pieces out. After the pieces are sublimated you would sew them onto the garment. This can be one of the most tricky apparel sublimation methods due to the sewing process. Challenges from the patterns for the cut pieces to making the right sizes to your customer’s needs can arise and takes practice to perfect. If you do have good patterns many times you can find local upholstery or garment repair type business who are willing to sew the garments for you.

Beyond your typical garment (i.e. shirt or jersey) you will also find some very lucrative sublimating apparel markets with items like beanie caps, scarves, baby one pieces, bandanas, golf towels and even beach towels. Also, don’t forget about the socks. That is one of the fastest growing segments in apparel sublimation.

How – It’s time to finally sublimate onto apparel. Keep in mind you may have challenges with transferring onto garments with the small format equipment as it is possible for the edges of the transfer paper to show up as permanent marks on the garment. The polyester becomes softer under the heat and you are actually melting the edge of the transfer into the shirt. This can be overcome by reducing your heat and pressure down until you have the combination of quality transfer and not pesky transfer lines. Some garments might still be a challenge even when you have reduced the heat and pressure so let me give you a quick set of instructions for using heat resistant foam to rid yourself of the transfer lines:

  1. presscalibrationCalibrate the press by putting the heat resistant foam in it and when the press closes, it should reduce the size of the foam by half its normal size.
  2. Place the foam on the location where the image is going to be pressed and then cover the entire platen with a Teflon cover sheet.
  3. Place the garment on the press in a threaded fashion and align the image area over the top of the foam piece.
  4. Use a light spray tack adhesive and spray your transfer and then put it over the top of the foam piece so the edges of the transfer are out over the edges of the foam.
  5. teflonfoamPlace a blowout sheet over the top of the transfer and press according to the manufacturer instructions. Typically around 400 degrees for 45 to 60 seconds.

If you are going to be doing all over decoration with larger format equipment you typically will not have to worry about these lines as the transfer sheet is larger than the garment so no edges get in the way. What you do need to watch out for are the smileys we discussed earlier. As I mentioned one of the ways to reduce that is to get the right garment that will lay as flat as possible. The garments that lay the flattest typically have sleeves that make more of a T in the garment to keep the armpit area from bunching up during pressing. A standard t-shirt is typically less of an actual T shape as the sleeves come off the shoulder and then head down and cause more bunching under the armpit area. From a comfort standpoint, you do want to find a garment style that does droop a little otherwise the garment can be somewhat uncomfortable to wear unless the wearer plans to walk around with their arms outstretched all the time.

wrestlingIn the cut and sew section of garment decorating the best thing to do is plan ahead when it comes to your patterns and the sewing process. Make sure you have sourced the correct fabric to make the garments your customer’s desire. Not all 100% polyester is created equal. Things like stain guards and the weave style can impact your image once it is pressed. Always test the feel of the fabric once it is sewed together and the image quality once pressed before committing to large rolls of it.

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