Uniforms with stretch

Decorating Team Uniforms

Josh Ellsworth

Josh is the VP of sales, dealer channel for Stahls'. He deals in the sales and implementation of heat-applied, apparel-decorating systems with a focus on customization. He holds skills in the production, sale, and marketing of customized apparel. He presents seminars at trade shows and contributes articles to trade publications, like Printwear magazine.

Decorating athletic team uniforms is a staple of any sporting goods shop, and many screen printers, embroiderers and even sign makers take on the challenge as well. However lucrative the market may be, the fabric technology that comprises most sports uniforms continues to evolve and, consequently, so does the technology to decorate it.

Whether for baseball, hockey, football, volleyball, basketball, lacrosse or track, uniforms are widely comprised of synthetic fabrics. Blends and weaves of polyester and nylon are most popular. Growth in this category is on the steady rise as the line between performance wear and jerseys blur.

Today’s typical football jersey can feature a polyester four-way stretch mesh body and a nylon dazzle yolk. A basketball jersey can feature moisture-wicking tricot mesh, while a track jersey can sport compression construction blended of polyester and spandex.

Of course, one can venture to screen print the variety of these fabrics, and many decorators do. But when it comes to names/numbers and simplicity of application, there is a strong case for heat printing. Let’s explore the major considerations for selecting a heat-applied product for team uniforms.


Adhesion describes the heat transfer’s actual grip on the fabric to which it is applied. If proper adhesion isn’t achieved, any expectation for durability can be dismissed. With heat printing, adhesion starts with proper heat application. Time, temp and pressure contribute greatly to adhesion as does preheating. The mantra for team uniform decoration with a heat press is preheat, preheat, preheat.

Synthetics typically retain a lot of moisture and chemicals. These contribute to degradation of adhesion. For this reason, lock the press down on each jersey until the steam doesn’t release. It’s recommended that users conduct a series of preheat cycles in order to let the moisture release.

When decorating team uniforms, pressure is usually another lost element. Jersey constructions range from smaller women’s cuts and youth garments to large adult constructions, each with their unique set of seams impacting the pressing area. In the case of light- to medium- pressure applications, a Teflon pillow can be used to absorb the seam structure and obtain adequate, accurate pressure.

For heavy pressure applications, one should explore the possibility of using specially-sized platens or a firmer density pad inserted into the garment. Achieving a firm pressure on a low-density surface, such as a pillow, is near impossible. This is one common area where adhesion fails.

Further, and perhaps assumed, is choosing the right material for the fabric at hand. Jerseys consist of a large variety of fabrics including mesh, dazzle and compression constructions, comprised of polyester or nylon. It is very important for those doing the heat printing to understand what fabrics or combination of fabrics they are addressing to select the right type of heat transfer.

Style and hand

A few considerations jump immediately to mind in consideration of the look and hand of transfers printed on synthetics; the first is opacity. Print opacity refers to the heat transfer’s ability to maintain color consistency on the fabric to which it is applied. Certain manufacturing batches of fabric present complicated issues for opacity such as unstable dyes.

Dye migration has been well-documented in the pages of this publication throughout the years. Basically, it is when the dyes used in a garment’s manufacture release through the print. This is more common in polyesters. A common example of dye-migration is when white numbers applied to a red jersey turn pink over time.

Shops should have a standing policy to evaluate jersey lots for dye migration prior to production and the cost and time of this testing should be incorporated into the selling price of the garment. Of course, if using a heat transfer that blocks dye migration all the time, these tests aren’t totally necessary. However, most decorators prefer only to use dye-blocking transfers as needed, since they usually feature an increased hand on the garment and have limited stretch properties.

How the print looks and feels is paramount to obtaining the sales or for ecommerce and booking reorders. For this reason, a soft hand and stretch is a close second preference to opacity. Many heat transfer products undergo the Dupont test that measures elongation and recovery. In today’s team marketplace, having the ability to place something on the fabric that stretches and recovers well is becoming a greater demand.

Other considerations in this arena include the finish of the print (gloss, matte or metallic), as well as the transfer’s ability to deliver a two-color result.


Confirming color- and wash-fastness and anticipating potential issues that could arise when the garment is worn are important factors in keeping team contracts. For instance, if decorating for a contact sport, such as football, use a transfer type that won’t tear when met with abrasion. Thicker materials may not always look, feel or stretch like the ultimate product, but if it lasts throughout the season while delivering an acceptable look and hand, it may be the best choice.


Government legislation places certain requirements on products used to decorate children’s apparel. The mandates of the Consumer Product Safety Information Act (CPSIA) mostly pertain to products intended for use by children under the age of 12. While it’s not necessarily pertinent for all circumstances in this market, there are a good percentage of players in organized sports that fall under the age of 12. Thus, when decorating team uniforms for this group, it’s important to ensure that both the apparel and decoration type meet the regulations of CPSIA.

Many manufacturers of sports lettering and materials for lettering will provide a certificate stating that the product is CPSIA certified, basically giving peace of mind that the product is below the minimum amount of lead and phthalates or possible lead and phthalate free.

Cost and profit potential

Because heat printing offers decorators many options for embellishing team sports apparel, it’s not always clear-cut on which process or combination of processes to choose. When evaluating a process, consider the adhesion, look, hand, durability and compliance to standards, but also the profit potential.

Heat transfer film, pre-cut numbering, sublimation, screen printed transfers and digitally printed film are the five main categories in heat printing for team wear. In next month’s issue, we’ll break down what it costs to produce several jerseys with each decorating method while highlighting the attributes and the shortcomings of each technique based on the criteria that we’ve outlined in herein. Stay tuned!]