Considerations in Heat-Applied Film

Media Options for CAD Cut

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.

Heat-applied film encompasses a vast array of products. Just like with screen-printing ink, films are designed to create an effect, look or performance. Depending on the film used, looks can range from matte to glossy, thick to thin or soft to rugged. In a market where the style of apparel ranges greatly, it’s apparent that manufacturers of heat-applied film have reacted with innovations to meet the garments.

Making it stick 

Heat-applied films are available with a wide range of adhesives. The basic construction of a heat-applied film consists of three layers: a polyester plastic-like backing, an adhesive and a polyurethane or PVC-based film. The adhesive and film layers are laminated together and should not be separable. 

Depending on the film and its intended use, different adhesives are employed. When selecting a film, it is pertinent to make sure the adhesive is compatible with the fabric to be decorated. Most adhesive will adhere to cotton without issue. Most will also do well on polyester and some will adhere to nylon. In today’s fabric world, garments are often blended, containing a mix of multiple fabrics. If nylon exists along with a polyester-based fabric (such as Lycra or spandex), it’s important to use a nylon adhesive. Also pay special attention to whether nylon-based products will adhere to coated or woven nylons or non-wovens.

Hot-peel materials definitely boast improved production speeds for two-color designs.

Select materials have phenomenal stretch capabilities for decorating today’s performance blends.

Colorful life

After drilling down into a couple different products with varying adhesive capabilities, color range should be considered. Having a stock product that comes in a wide array of colors can be beneficial. Most suppliers will provide color swatches to use as a sales tool. 

Making the cut 

Most heat-applied films are very easy to cut on any vinyl cutter, though, in select instances, a special blade may be required and a worn blade may not be as effective. It’s important to make sure the width supply of the roll is able to be accommodated in the vinyl cutter of choice as well.

Weeding or peeling away the unwanted film from a cut design is the most labor-intensive step of completing a garment with heat applied film—it takes about three minutes on average for a full 12" X 12" design. Of course, the weeding varies based on the actual complexity of the graphic, but when comparing the same graphic across different films, there are clear differences.

When evaluating a specific heat-applied film, it’s important to make sure the weeding process is part of the equation. Some materials have a sticky polyester carrier which allows for greater detailed cutting. Others lacking tackiness on the carrier allow for faster weeding on larger designs and yet others have a very slight tack that attempts to offer the best of both worlds. Try them out to compare differences. 

Time 

While it is not as labor intensive as weeding, the heat-application time factor cannot be overlooked. Some materials apply two colors in as little as 10 seconds while others take 30 to 40 seconds. Likewise, some materials require a second step to ensure durability whereas others offer a one-step application. Research the time it will take to complete both one- and two-color applications with various films to centralize on a production-friendly product. 

A very critical consideration regarding heat application time is how fast the backing can be peeled. Hot-peel materials definitely boast improved production speeds for two-color designs. For single-color designs, a hot or cold peel yields the same production as long as it’s a single-step application. When dealing with a two-step application, a cold peel media requires additional wait time.

Not directly related to production yet still important is the heat application temperature. Materials with a lower application temperature allow for greater flexibility, specifically on heat-sensitive fabrics. Most heat press operators also prefer a lower temperature as it makes the machine more comfortable to operate.

When evaluating a specific heat-applied film, it’s important to make sure the weeding process is part of the equation.

Finish

The considerations for heat-applied film that matter most have to do with the way it looks, feels and performs on the actual garment. Given that films in the U.S. market range in thickness from 60 to 200 microns, there is quite a difference in how each product feels on the garment.

Thicker films may offer increased performance when it comes to durability for contact sport applications, whereas thinner films offer a softer hand for T-shirts and performance apparel applications. 

There is also a risk of being too thin on certain types of garments. For instance, a 60 micron film on a heavyweight cotton T is not recommended. Because the garment shrinks but the film does not, the result is a raisin-type effect; the film cannot stand up to the garment. Another core consideration is how well the material stretches and recovers. Select materials have phenomenal stretch capabilities for decorating today’s performance blends.

Durability 

No matter if a certain media looks great, is the right color and was easy to use, if it washes off, the customer won’t be happy. Most heat-applied films offer great durability. The technology in general is very resistant to cracking, peeling and fading. Durability is as much about an accurate heat press as it is sourcing the right material for the right fabric. 

Be sure to make doubly certain that the adhesive is right for the garment, the right heat settings are being used and the heat press is accurate. Following these recommendations in combination with a quality film will ensure fantastic durability.

Price 

The price for which a material can be sourced has a direct correlation to the profit a shop can make. Standard heat-applied film lines range from $1.30 to $2.20 per square foot. Consider the number of garments decorated in a job or in a month with this technology and price can make a big impact on profit. Be sure the heat-applied film brands of choice allow for maximum profitability while delivering on all of the variables.

Maybe the venture into heat-applied film is just beginning or possibly you’re a pro. No matter where you fall in the spectrum, it’s always important to stay innovative and deliver the best possible product.