All-Over Dye Sublimation: Going All-In
Polyester can be a bear to work with if you aren’t prepared, but the rewards are worth the investment. Why not step up your sublimation game?
Many of my “old guy” garment decorator friends shy away from polyester in a big way. When I was primarily involved with screen printing and DTG, I was among them, a huge proponent of 100-percent cotton T-shirts. I really didn’t think I could ever come to love polyester shirts. But thanks to companies like Under Armour and others, the demand for polyester has changed in a dramatic way. Terms like “moisture wicking” and “performance wear” used to market polyester garments are qualities that consumers are now looking for when making their buying decisions.
As a result, many decorators have figured out how to make their current processes work for polyester, but they often run into issues like dye migration in screen printing and press lines created by vinyl transfers. Personally, I’ve become a huge fanboy for the sublimation process. It provides such a rich and vibrant color that lasts the life of the garment, and it works well with those performance and high-end polyesters that people really want. It also allows for the softest hand available in decorated apparel.
The one limiting factor with dye sublimation is the lack of white ink. You cannot take a red garment and put yellow letters on it and provide that to your customer. The solution? All-over dye sublimation, which allows you to take a white shirt and make it whatever color the customer wants.
Sound expensive? The plus is that the perceived value of polyester today is greater than other apparel in the market, so this is a highly profitable way to decorate garments. All-over sublimated garments can command $50 to $100 each. Your cost to produce them should be in the $10 to $15 range, if you are efficient. I’m horrible at math, but those margins are something that many screen printers would love to see. The process is clean and easy to do, as well. You push print, transfer to your garment of choice, and deliver the product to your customers. No color separations, screens to burn, messy ink, or pretreatment – just profit.
To create all-over sublimation apparel, you need a wide-format inkjet printer and a wide-format heat press. Prepare to spend about $30,000 to $35,000 on a rollfed printer that’s at least 44 inches wide and a 44 x 64-inch heat press. If you have the money for a dual heat press, get it. This reduces the number of touchpoints and therefore opportunities for error and production time.
While I know these numbers seem large to many folks, don’t let that initial investment fool you. You can lease equipment for a reasonable monthly payment and easily cover those costs with your profits from all-over decorating. Remember the margins we talked about earlier?
When looking at equipment, think long-term. This is an investment that will stretch your dollars out over several years of financing, and it’s truly a case of getting what you pay for. Don’t worry too much about saving a few pennies on ink – that is going to be the smallest part of your costs. Your real costs start piling up in labor and reprints, so make sure you get the tools that will make you as efficient as possible with the least opportunity for errors. Dollars that you spend upfront on the right equipment and the correct setup and tools will make you exponentially more dollars down the road, so save your penny-pinching skills for other areas of your business that won’t harm your long-term production.
If there is just no way for you to justify the initial investment today, don’t turn your back on this lucrative marketplace. There are many great companies out there that specialize in contract sublimation. A quick Google search will give you plenty of places to start, and you can build your market with their services while you save up for your own equipment.
It Starts with the Shirt
All-over sublimation requires 100-percent polyester for the best transfer. Yes, people do make very nice garments with blends, but only the polyester portion of the garment is taking the ink, so if you have a 50/50 garment, it is going to look washed-out and faded. The more polyester content you have, the better the image will look.
With all-over printing, there are two options: You can print and cut or decorate the pre-sewn garment. The latter will save you the cost and time of the sewing operation. The downside is that you will have some blemishes and areas that don’t transfer well – we call these “smiles.” (Left.) This means artwork preparation is one of the most common roadblocks for many decorators. My suggestion is to start off with a garment manufacturer that is known for sublimation, as they will have design templates and other tools to help you.
The most effective approach is to design around the smiles. Know that many of these will occur at the seams and under the sleeves. Because of this, try to avoid solid, dark colors in these areas and soften your art by using gradient fills or busy patterns. (Right.) Beyond that, embrace the smiles and sell them as a unique feature of the garment. No one else will have that exact shirt.
The type of garment is also critical if you want to reduce smiles. The construction of the arms and hemlines will have an impact on the quality of your transfer. Some people think that all T-shirts are the same shape, but there are tons of different styles, and the more straight-across the sleeves are, the fewer smiles you will have, as there will be less bunching underneath. Unfortunately, humans are not shaped like a “T,” so keep comfort in mind here.
The flatter the garment lays on the heat press, the less likely smiles will occur. Garments manufactured with sublimation in mind are typically going to lay much flatter and will be more receptive to the sublimation ink transfer. Another best practice is to prepress the shirt before decorating it. Start by placing the shirt on the press between two blowout sheets. I use craft paper, as it recycles well and is cost-effective. Make sure it is as flat as you can make it by hand and press it for 5 to 10 seconds; then lay the shirt on the transfer. You’ll want to have plenty of Teflon sheet around; you can cut it into different shapes and cover up specific areas that you don’t want to be decorated, such as collars and tags.
When it comes to the artwork, I know you’ve never gotten small, low-resolution art, but with all-over apparel sublimation, art size is critical. Make sure you have a minimum of 150 dpi; 200 would be ideal. Remember, the resolution should be at the final size of the shirt being printed, so make sure you have artwork prepared for all the sizes in the order.
Next, if you are producing pre-sewn garments, make sure you are printing out your artwork in the shape of the shirt you are using, not just a square box. This saves some ink costs and makes lining up your transfer with the shirt much easier.
Lastly, make sure you have plenty of bleed area on your printout. I suggest at least 2 inches beyond the size of the largest shirt you will be creating. This does take a bit of extra ink, but the cost of that ink is much less than a ruined garment if you don’t get it perfectly lined up.
For those who aren’t intimidated by shirt patterns and sewing equipment, this is a great way to avoid smiles. It’s typically used for products like sports jerseys and other garments that require solid, bold colors. Getting into cut-and-sew work will extend your investment up into the $100,000 range. Cut-and-sew applications can be produced one of two ways: You can imprint your transfers onto a roll with a drum-style press, or you can sublimate the precut pieces by laying them out on a flat press or a piece table attachment on your drum press, and then sew the garments afterward.
The all-over sublimation market is all around us; many times we don’t even notice it. Not too long ago, I was helping with the laundry and I noticed that my wife’s side of the closet was full of sublimated garments. I couldn’t believe it – I am involved in the industry and haven’t once made a shirt for my wife. (Hey, at least I help with the laundry.) I started digging around and asked her where she’d gotten the shirts. I was shocked by how mainstream the retailers were. She pointed out shirts from Kohl’s, Charlotte Russe, New York & Company, and even a local St. Louis brand, Before+Again Clothing.
One of the owners of Before+Again, Joe Werner, shared why sublimation has taken off in the fashion industry: “When we really kicked off our line of fashion, it was in 2008: the height of the recession. Because of the sublimation process, we were able to be a just-in-time manufacturer. Our ability to turn around highly creative pieces with low minimums fit well for a market that was nervous about high inventory levels. And in the fashion business, it is key to be able to quickly react to what is on trend now and to replenish product versus waiting months for foreign goods – which also require larger orders. Bottom line: Our equipment, design, and production processes allowed us to mitigate risk to stores and give a tremendous amount of creative choice to consumers.”
And the market for all-over sublimation garment decoration is not just fashion. If you are not at least contracting out sublimation apparel, you are missing out on markets like team apparel (volleyball, wrestling, basketball, and more) and outdoor sports (hunting, fishing, paintball, cycling).
For years, the sports jersey industry was dominated by dye houses and vinyl lettering. There was a lot of cotton, and while that business is still strong today, things have changed. Polyester performance jerseys are becoming the norm. No longer do you see the solid color jersey with the one- or two-color name and number on it. You are now seeing excellent, complex designs; multiple colors; and more. On top of all that, the garment can enhance the athlete’s performance by wicking away moisture and keeping the person cooler. Jerseys today are no longer just to designate a number; they can influence how well the athlete does.
On top of the moisture-wicking properties, replacing vinyl with a fully sublimated item removes a long-suffered problem in volleyball and other sports: When you’re wearing a jersey with thick vinyl on its surface and you go to dive across the floor, your back or chest sticks to the ground and you stop abruptly, resulting in some pretty beat-up chins.
Swimming is another sport where sublimation is exploding. Swimmers are always looking for apparel that will help them move through the water faster. In 1924, the British Olympic swim team wore outfits made of silk to reduce drag. Today’s swimsuits for elite athletes more closely resemble shark skin than traditional swimming apparel, but the garments in between are typically made of polyester performance fabric. These suits provide the ideal comfort for a swimmer in addition to performance improvements. Add in bold, bright colors that stand out in the pool, and you have a winning combination for swimmers and decorators alike.
Two years ago, I saw a Mizuno booth at a national volleyball event sporting a large banner that read “Ask Us About Sublimation Jerseys!” This was huge in my world because someone was actually talking to the public about sublimation. The trend toward sublimated garments is real and shows no sign of slowing down.
Take a hard look at sublimation as a tool for your garment decorating company. It is a profitable decoration technique and needs to be part of any decorator’s tool belt. It gives you options to expand, from cut-and-sew to finished goods to a myriad of things like cellphone cases, baby blankets, coffee mugs, doormats, and more. The possibilities are nearly limitless.