For the Fashion-Forward

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.

Dip, dye, burn, wash and destroy. Sounds like a corner pep talk in between rounds of a boxing match…but it’s not. It’s the terminology commonly used to describe finishes on today’s fashionable T-shirts.

From the popular burnout styles to pre-sublimated blanks, the garment marketplace is rapidly changing. Having used this analogy a lot, let’s look at it again: If these high-end garments are like a steak, putting any old decorating technique on them is like dipping that steak in ketchup. It’s unattractive, it doesn’t look good and frankly, it’s just a bad idea. Fact is, depending on the cut, some prefer their steak without any sauce at all—the same holds true for these already enhanced garments. But as garment decorators, we’re certainly pedaling the sauce, so let’s look at some A1 options for these premium cuts of Ts.

Burnout style

Burnout styles lead the category. They are almost always comprised of at least 40 percent polyester and often times up to 50 and 60 percent. The other fabric is commonly cotton but can be rayon or others as well. The garment itself is treated with a chemical that more or less strips away the fabric in certain areas creating a distressed, burnout style where no two garments are identical. Good news for decorators; these garments all have common characteristics in regards to composition. They’re sheer in the areas that have been treated and also extremely thin and porous. This treatment creates some issues, but none that can’t be overcome with the right technology. 

The first issue is the potential for pressing the design through the shirt, onto the other side. To address this, simply use a Teflon sheet or pillow inside of the garment when pressing. Next question—what sticks and stays? A lot of products will adhere, but not too many will maintain the integrity of the garment and meet the expectation of the customer. Most who buy these styles pay a premium for the vintage, distressed effect it delivers. Thus, in many cases, a technology that can deliver something that complements these effects is the best option. 

Notice how this distressed plastisol print makes it more relevant to the garment.

One common choice for this type of apparel is water-based screen printing. Many screen printers will steer completely away from plastisol inks due to their heavier hand. If they do use plastisol, a distressed effect is definitely in the mix. Likewise, new heat-applied film technology that delivers a result like that of water-based screen printing is a natural choice. 

For something with pizzazz, another great choice is a foil heat transfer. Foil fits the style of the fashion garment well and, in most cases, maintains its soft hand. Traditional heat transfer vinyl foil may be a little thick for this application, but new laser printer paper combined with heat press foil offers a preferred result of a decoration that is about half as thick as a traditional vinyl foil design. 

Distressed plastisol transfers are a more than acceptable choice here as well even though, just like direct plastisol prints, they leave a slightly thicker application on the shirt. Finally, let’s not forget about the ultimate in no-hand decoration—sublimation. With the right fabric blend and a light color, a sublimation print produces fantastic results that blend in as part of the garment.

An example of a heat-applied film technique that is semi-transparent and has a very soft hand similar to water-based screen printing. This technique is also nice for burnout garments as it allows the garment’s design to impact the print. 

Slub fabrics

Slub T-shirts, which can be comprised of 100 percent cotton, are yet another newer style that sort of mimics a cross between a burnout and a heather-colored T. The look is achieved by using threads of varying widths in the construction of a fabric. Since burnouts are inherently not able to consist of 100 percent cotton, slub Ts fill a void if decorating technology is limited only to cotton or if the customer prefers it. Slub fabric poses virtually no issues with decorating other than the 100 percent cotton styles rule out the possibility of dye sublimation transfers and welcomes a direct-to-garment print application. Just as before, take care to match a trendy decorating technique with this forward fabric.

Acid wash, lava wash and various dips

Many screen print professionals are beginning to dip their blanks prior to printing and many apparel manufacturers are offering specialty pre-treated blanks for purchase. A heat printing shop can easily leverage these blanks for fashion-forward decoration. 

Typically, a shirt goes through the dyeing process, spends time curing and is run through a dryer before you receive it, readying the garments for embellishment. Evaluate the garment for its fabric type and consider utilizing tone-on-tone prints for easy decorating options. Building the print in layers works well in this case; use a base transfer color similar to the garment or dye color and then integrate coordinating colors for effect. Semi-clear transfers produced with various colors make for an easy color changing effect on these styles of garment.

Soft is critical

Whether the garment is a burnout, acid wash, dipped, dyed or sublimated, the trend of a super soft decoration is critical to success in the category of fashion blanks. Throwing ketchup on that filet mignon simply won’t work. Evaluate heat printing options with these premier fabric constructions in mind. That is to say, the product employed for athletic lettering is not the same product to select here. Also take note that gone are the days of relying solely on screen printing for these types of retail-ready looks. Heat printing allows a multitude of options that meet the expectation for fashion with look and wear. So feel comfortable embracing customization and new alternatives for decorating on fashionable blanks.