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The Digital Workstation: Top Five Problems (& Solutions) for Sublimating Apparel

Chris Bernat is a partner with SourceSubstrates LLC, a firm that markets the Vapor Apparel brand of sublimateable apparel, substrates and specialty fabrics. His duties include product development, sales and consulting services. Previously, Bernat was director of sales for Sawgrass Technologies after serving as business manager of the Sublimation Division and Large Format product manager. Email him at chris@sourcesubstrates.com.

Sublimation is a great technology! It has amazing color, fantastic detail and an unchallenged capacity for customization. But it is not necessarily easy.

There are, however, many little tricks the knowledge of which will smooth your path. There are also quite a few well-kept secrets out there which I believe should be set free!

Sublimating apparel can be frustrating, especially if you spend the majority of your time sublimating hard substrates. Hard substrates are durable. They can handle a bit too much pressure or the temperature being a bit too high without ill effect. Apparel, on the other hand, needs to be handled with care if you are going to truly impress your customers and build customer loyalty. So here are a few tips to keep in mind the next time you sublimate apparel.

1) Lines, lines, lines . . . yeah!

Although many still struggle, press lines and paper lines should be a thing of the past. If you are getting lines in your shirts, you’re missing some easy-to-use, low-cost tools that can make a dramatic difference in the quality your customers see.

For starters, foam kits are available from most reputable sublimation supply companies. By using a heat-resistant foam and thin Teflon sheet you can keep lines out of your customer’s way. Here’s how it works:

  • leave a 1 to 1½" border around your image (for example, a 5" X 4" image will grow to 8" X 7");
  • cut a piece of foam that is larger than the image but smaller than the paper (5½" X 4½" for the example above);
  • place the foam on the platen and the Teflon directly on top of it;
  • place your shirt down with the decoration area centered on the foam;
  • line up your transfer ensuring the image is fully raised by the foam (paper should be hanging over all four edges of the foam);
  • use heat tape and press!

2) Blue fly don’t bother me

Few things are more frustrating than printing the perfect shirt, only to find little blue specs everywhere the press touched the shirt. Why does this happen? The answer is the source of sublimation legend and folklore. The real answer is contamination. Polyester typically caries a static charge and, as a result, is more prone to contamination.

The solution? Simple. Use a lint roller prior to pressing to remove any small traces of fabric that may contain contamination. It may sound tedious but the biggest sublimation fulfillment houses do it this way for a reason: profitability.

3) No friendly ghosts

Lots of hapless folks fail to use spray tack or heat tape when sublimating their garments. This can cause the image to shift when the heat press releases pressure, allowing the image to skip, leaving a light copy of the image—a “ghost” image—slightly to the left or right of the intended placement. Once you feel this pain a few times, you’ll be wanting to solve it. Heat tape is the low cost, flexible option. Simply use two small pieces of heat tape on the left and right sides of the image to keep it stable during pressing. (See illustration, p. 84.)

4) Don’t touch that button!

Sublimateable polo shirts are readily available in the market today. Thanks to brands such as Nike and Under Armour, performance polos are all the rage on the golf course, as well as with coaches on the sidelines. Offering your clients sublimated polos delivers full color and photographic imagery. But . . . if you press the buttons and the collar then you ruin the shirt along with your chance to impress your customer. Using foam (see #1) to raise up the pocket or other target area is a great solution for this issue. You should also align the decorated area to the side of the press, further reducing the chance the press will hit an unintended area.

5) The triangle of frustration: time, temp, pressure

Having the right time, temperature and pressure is essential to success. With the right combination of these three, your colors will looks fantastic and the garment will show no signs of wear and tear from production. Here’s the recipe. . . .

Time: 40 to 50 seconds will work for most sublimateable garments. You may have success with less time but 40 seconds is a safe place to start.

Temperature: 400°F is not the ideal temperature; 390° is the recommended temperature of several leading brands. Micro performance-type athletic garments should be pressed no hotter than 385°.

Pressure: Light pressure (when used with a foam kit) is the ideal pressure setting for apparel. The foam should be compressed to roughly two-thirds its original thickness when pressed down.

Now you have a few extra tools for apparel success. As sublimation continues to grow in popularity, you will see more and more apparel options hit the market. Apparel is one of the fastest ways to grow your sublimation business with existing customers. From safety apparel to zip-front hoodies, you have never had more product diversity at your fingertips.