Sublimating Apparel – Why, What and How

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Why – If you have read anything I have written on sublimation, you will know I am a true sublimation evangelist. I find the process fascinating and the possibilities endless. On top of the possibilities, the value proposition for the decorator is the real area for success. For the cotton enthusiasts, like it or not, polyester is here to stay. The ability to sell a polyester garment at a premium draws most people to sublimation for apparel decoration.

As I have discussed in other blogs, polyester has changed dramatically in recent years, and terms like moisture wicking and performance wear have made polyester garment something consumers want when buying. Sublimating apparel also allows for the softest hand in decorated apparel with no stuck-on plastic or vinyl. All these traits allow 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 Resort WearDecorating becoming more prevalent in the marketplace today, more and more people are 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 various 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 polyester and cotton blends, 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 Graphics Pro 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.

Basic DesignThe 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, quick numbers, and full-color designs around 8” to 10” wide. Given the limitations of sublimation, these are typically lighter-colored garments or 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 by pressing your sublimation design onto multiple locations. The key here is not to overlap the prints, as the ink will reactivate and cause ghosting or color changes that will ruin your image.

The all-over garment decoration method is the next type of apparel sublimation in the marketplace. This is done in the same fashion as the smaller format garments, but the prints created are the entire garment size, and the heat press used can press all of the garments simultaneously. Any shirt color can be created as it starts with a white garment and is 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 from $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 commonly referred to as “Smileys.” These have become part of the allure of all-over garment decoration. The smiley looks like part of the image if the design is right. The smileys typically occur under the arms and around collars.

Sublimation Softball JerseyTo achieve very clean solid color sublimated garments, the method is to 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 cut those pieces out. After the pieces are sublimated, you would sew them onto the garment. Due to the sewing process, this can be one of the most tricky apparel sublimation methods. 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, you can often find local upholstery or garment repair businesses 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 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 sublimate onto apparel, finally. 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 melting the edge of the transfer into the shirt. This can be overcome by reducing your heat and pressure until you have the combination of quality transfer and no 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. Heat Press CalibrationCalibrate 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 will 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. Teflon over FoamPlace a blowout sheet over the top of the transfer and press according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Typically around 400 degrees for 45 to 60 seconds.

If you are doing all-over decoration with larger format equipment, you will not have to worry about these lines as the transfer sheet is larger than the garment, so no edges get in the way. You need to watch out for 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 want to find a garment style that does droop a little. Otherwise, the garment can be uncomfortable to wear unless the wearer plans to always walk around with their arms outstretched.

Wrestling SingletIn the cut and sew section of garment decorating, the best thing to do is plan ahead regarding your patterns and the sewing process. Make sure you have sourced the correct fabric to make the garments your customers 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 sewn together and the image quality once pressed before committing to large rolls.

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