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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.

In last month's column, we explored several key considerations when decorating jerseys for the team apparel market. Considerations included how a decorating technique adheres to the fabric, how it looks and feels on the garment, its expected durability, potential safety compliancy and the cost to produce different effects.

The most popular heat printing disciplines used in the team sports arena include heat transfer film, pre-cut numbering, sublimation, screen printed transfers and digitally-printed film.

While these disciplines can service the team market segment individually in their own right, a decorator is wise to explore the best combination of techniques to reach a team marketplace that is as fast moving, diverse and demanding as the athletes who wear the jerseys.

When breaking down these five methods, we see some resemblances and some very unique technology. For instance, heat transfer film, pre-cut numbering (made from heat transfer film) and digitally-printed heat transfer film all leverage the same basic adhesive sets and surfaces. Therefore, in this category we can expect a lot of similarities when it comes to adhesion, look, feel, durability and safety. However, there are differences in cost to produce.

The big three

Having historically been made from polyvinyl chloride, most of the films available in today's market are now made from polyurethane materials. The transition in base components for manufacturers, which happened approximately 10 years ago, delivers a safer, more flexible product for application. And, most meet and exceed CPSIA requirements.

Generally, all three options‚Äîheat transfer film, pre-cut numbers and letters, and digitally-printed film‚ have a nice finish on athletic jerseys. However, there is a big difference in choices for heat transfer film, with some materials being as thick as 200 microns and others being as thin as 60 microns. Each thickness has its own benefit‚ i.e. a soft hand or resistance to abrasion.

Typically, materials in this category are chosen based on adhesion features as well as considerations regarding the fabric to which it will be applied and the sport for which the jersey will be used.

One of the overall differences between the products in this category is the way multi-color numbers and letters are achieved. Digitally-printed film is typically white and has the ability to be printed with CMYK solvent or eco-solvent inks for achieving a multiple-color number on a single layer. This product makes unique patterns, logos and other full color elements within the numbering possible‚ a trend being driven by Nike, Under Armour and Adidas.

Map out all of the specs of a given project so you can analyze which method proves most cost-effective. At left, for example, is the basic cost to produce this specific job with screen printed transfers.

The single-color heat transfer film as well as the pre-cut numbers and letters are not printable. Rather, they come in various colors and multiple films must be layered in the application process to achieve multi-color results. While this is cost-effective for two-color numbers, it usually becomes a clear overspend at three-plus colors when compared to the digitally-printed method.

Therefore, the number of colors in the number design is a simple way to select which process to use. However, when the customer wants single-color names and numbers on their jersey, the decision gets a little more complicated.

See the difference between using a complete cut-it-yourself workflow versus cutting the name in-house and using precut numbers.

Rolls versus pre-cut

The first and most simple way to choose whether to use rolled media or pre-cut names and numbers is based on whether or not a shop has a vinyl cutter that can cut names and numbers. For those that have the capability, it becomes a matter of availability and cost. For instance, pre-cut options are more limited in terms of font selection‚ suppliers usually offer fonts based on the actual, physical dies they have on-hand to execute the process. So, if you want to offer custom or unlimited fonts, cutting designs on rolled media is the way to go. When font style isn't an issue, the deciding factor now becomes cost.

To clear any potential confusion, the most cost-effective way to number and letter a team jersey with heat transfer film is to order pre-cut numbers and combine them with custom cut names. The main reason is that cutting names and numbers pre-spaced together on heat transfer film yields a good bit of waste and drives up costs. Also, the cost of the polyester carrier is eliminated when using pre-cut numbers.

Do or dye

Next, let's compare sublimation to the aforementioned digitally-printed transfer film. Sublimation is a completely unique technique due to the way it dyes the fabric, but it is a digital process no less. Sublimation requires a fabric of high polyester content and a light color. For this reason the job at hand will often rule out sublimation. However, for those jobs that allow for it, the finished results are second to none. The dyeing process leaves virtually no hand and a very good durability.

When calculating costs for sublimation, consider the cost of sublimation paper as well as ink. Typically, sublimation and digitally printed transfer films make good companion products, as the sublimation can specialize on the white and light polyester fabrics, while the digital transfer film can handle the dark-colored polyesters as well as any nylon constructions.

Analog answers

The last of our heat printing technology types is screen printed transfers. While there are four-color process transfers for high color-count designs, the most prevalent numbering styles are accommodated with simple, spot-color transfers.

For reference, screen printed transfers consist of actual screen print inks that are printed onto a carrier paper with an adhesive on the back. When applied, it is very difficult to discern the finished result from direct screen printing; they are very popular for this reason.

Screen printed numbers are purchased much in the same way as pre-cut numbers—usually by packs, with the cost going down as the quantity goes up. Most screen print suppliers sell an alphabet of letters that need to be manually cut apart and positioned for names, while some have found ways to effectively screen print names to a ready-to-apply transfer sheet.
The fastest way to do a name is by utilizing the latter, so individual placement of letters doesn’t consume time and drive up labor costs and potential error rate. Finally, some companies even use the screen printed transfer numbers while cutting their own names out of heat transfer film.
Conceptually, this workflow makes sense. However, when selecting a screen printed number and transfer film to match, make sure the colors and finishes are close in appearance so they’ll be acceptable to the customer.

With screen printed transfers, custom numbers are possible, but usually come at a premium price point or high minimum due to the need to burn a new screen to complete the job. Another key advantage of screen printed numbers not to be overlooked is that multiple colors come pre-registered on the transfer sheet and apply in one simple step.

Once again, all of the heat printing technologies are durable and each is an excellent way to letter and number jerseys. Yes, each process has its drawbacks and there are many cost considerations and output device considerations. Use this information as a guide to help identify which discipline to implement.