Make heat applied transfers stand out with specialty materials and mixed media

The Wow Factor

Aaron is a garment decorating and personalization expert. He's been in the digital printing industry since 1997 and actively involved in industry trade shows via speaking, attending, and exhibiting. He writes on marketing, social media, the personalization market, and garment decorating topics for industry magazines. He's dedicated to helping small businesses grow and co-hosts the 2 Regular Guys podcast. For more info, visit

If you are like most garment decorators, a trip to the mall or department store isn’t really about shopping. Rather, it is also a chance to look at and feel all the different garment embellishments available. It was not too long ago that many of the garments were screen printed, some even had a distressed look, but all-in-all, retail decoration was pretty basic. Then came along brands like Ed Hardy, Affliction and others that really took to using what we call mixed-media for their designs. They were able to charge a premium for their shirts and other apparel due to the unique look of the designs… and consumers and decorators alike started to take notice.

What is mixed-media? The term represents a wild range in our industry because there are so many different types of application techniques. Mixed-media can be as simple as layering two different types of vinyl on a shirt or be as intricate as adding appliqué, embroidery, glitter, rhinestones, foil, and more. So, it becomes less about doing “mixed-media” and more about creating items your customers will want to purchase. Here, we’ll look at some of the most common and profitable methods of doing just that.

Specialty Vinyl

How can putting special vinyl onto a shirt be considered a mixed media piece? Basically, it is all about the look. In this examplea above, we see how, though rendered in a typical block-letter style you would expect on a jersey, the glitter makes it pop. We often see similar designs in economical cold peel vinyl. But using a black outline with glitter gives it even more depth and attracts people’s eyes to the embellishment, not the jersey. The extra cost of the glitter vinyl compared to the standard vinyl is nominal and can easily be made up in the perceived value of the jersey. 

That said, it’s still important, especially with this type of mixed-media, to know how the jersey will be used. For example, the glitter vinyl may stick to the floor if the athlete needs to dive or slide on the ground. In this case, a flock would be a better choice that still stands out but also allows athletes to slide across a gym floor without sticking.

Mixing Vinyls

There are a range of different types of vinyl, from a standard number-style to sparkly glitter and everything in between. Adding different types of vinyl to a project can easily make the apparel stand out without having to add a ton of extra colors. 

For example, this design (right) only used three different types of vinyl, yet it stands out with the glitter and print designs matched together. It is easy to create this look, charge a premium for it, and yet keep costs down. Just make sure the vinyl can be layered together. Typically, a hot peel and a cold peel will not work together. Don’t mix manufacturers/different brands of material, and stick with the same family when layering vinyl.

Adding Rhinestones

This mixed-media style can be as easy as having a vinyl design accented with a couple of hand placed rhinestones to make the design pop, or even going so far as to incorporate the rhinestones into the vinyl design. Below (left), we see how a simple embellishment can really catch one’s eye with just a couple of rhinestones as accents. The only tools that are required are some stones and heating source. (I recommend using a heat press, but I have heard of people using a flat iron for hair, with no problems for these minor embellishments.) 

A mixture of vinyls can create a mixed-media look without added embellishments or techniques.

Here, it’s important to plan ahead and build the vinyl with the rhinestones in mind. With this method, you cannot transfer the rhinestones directly onto the vinyl; the stones must adhere to the actual garment so they don’t come off in the wash. Use a rhinestone pattern and cut these areas out of the vinyl portion. The rhinestones should fit right into the holes of the vinyl and adhere to the garment.

Embroidery in the Mix

This one is great for all the embroiderers out there, and you don’t even need a vinyl cutter. This technique (below, right) is really cool for jerseys, cheer squads and others that want something embroidered but with a little extra pop. It’s simple: 

  1. Leave the middle of the embroidery design open. Outline a letter or object and delete the inner stitching. You may even use multiple colors in an outlined designed.
  2. Take a piece of vinyl (glitter flake works best) and remove the carrier so the heat-activated adhesive is against the garment.
  3. Sew directly onto the material. Use a single underlay stitch and a satin stitch on top.
  4. Once you complete the embroidery, simply rip the excess from outside of the embroidery portion away.
  5. Put the garment onto a heat press, cover it with a parchment paper or Teflon sheet to protect the stitches, and press for the time and temperature specified by the vinyl manufacturer.

Voila! The result is a fully-washable mixed media design that gives the appearance of an appliqué with half the effort.

Sublimation With… 

Sublimation is one of my favorite decorating techniques and is also one of the most versatile. You can layer just about anything onto a sublimated item because the sublimation process basically dyes the item and becomes part of the substrate. Once dyed, the item is ready to take on other decorating methods. The only limitation here is that the decorating technique must be able to adhere to polyester. 

Check out this beautiful backpack (above) with a nice but simple chevron design. The chevron is certainly a nice piece alone, but the added rhinestones really make it stand out. Again, the perceived value of such creations allows decorators to charge a little more without exponentially increasing the cost to create it. 

Vinyl is another add-on option for sublimated items. Just make sure to take into account the dye migration possibilities. For example, putting a low-cost white vinyl onto a red dye-sublimated garment will result in pink-colored lettering over time with washing. Use a vinyl that is made to block dye migration when possible. 

Another very popular decorating method with sublimation is a patch or an emblem. Most soccer jerseys are sublimated and the patches on them are mixed media. Some are actually even sublimated flock pieces.

The Right Stuff: Necessary Tools

Now that your head is swimming in a sea of mixed-media ideas, what do you need to do to get there? Most importantly, you have to ditch the mindset of just being a screen printer, embroiderer, D2 printer, heat applied graphics artist or whatever it is that you mainly use to embellish garments. Think of the business as more than these single descriptors, even if you stay focused on your particular niche. 

Call yourself an embellisher, garment decorator, or a problem-solver for your customers. Once you open your mind then you need to open your abilities. Talk to your customers, examine where you can expand your business. Do you need to add a vinyl cutter? You can actually add a good cutter (it’s just slow) for less than $300. How about sublimation? If you already have a heat press, the investment could be less than $600. Just start thinking outside of the box and hopefully you will find some new markets for your business with better profit margins.