Performance Equals Profits
This article examines the variables associated with decorating activewear and apparel.
The screen-printing industry has forever changed the way I look at clothing. There is no more: “Wow, that’s a cool shirt!” There is only: “What type of ink did they use? Is it in registration? How many colors? I wonder if I can reverse this process?”
If you’re a screen printer, then you know what I mean. This has its disadvantages, of course, but the advantage is that things sometimes catch your eye and spark an idea. This idea can help form new relationships, invent new markets, inspire new products, and, well, give you something to write about in an article! A few months back I was sitting with my wife Amanda at breakfast after we had been running. She was wearing a green Nike Performance sweatshirt with a Nike 6.0 logo on it (Figure 1).
Being used to seeing the Nike swoosh everywhere, I didn’t pay much attention to the logo, and something it caught my eye. This wasn’t just any swoosh, it was dimensional—it stood off the shirt using high-density ink. Yes, it was simple and just one color, but it was definitely unique. It made me think of something Steve Job’s once said: You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new. So ask yourself: are you trendsetter, a trend follower, or not even on the playing field?
As I began to write this article, I thought to myself: There are dozens of tech papers and YouTube videos about screen printing on poly or athletic apparel, but knowing how to do it is only half the battle. Knowing what to try and when to try it, and how to sell it—that’s the key. I saw something just a little different in that Nike sweatshirt that made me want to dig. This article reviews what I uncovered about the imprinted-performance-apparel market.
A little bit of history: Nike made its first swoosh shirt in 1971, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that what we now know as performance apparel appeared. To this point in time, sportswear was mainly embroidered (Figure 2) or printed with thick plastisol inks. The apparel was constructed of cotton or poly and did not lend itself to a comfortable feel during exercise, especially when factoring in perspiration.
Performance apparel is now one of the fastest growing markets in the apparel industry and is currently estimated at $ 6.4 billion, which is up 19.4% over the last four years, and is expected to grow a further 18.75% to $7.6 billion by 2014. Performance apparel is expected to outperform all sportswear by a factor of two, raising the value of performance sportswear from $5.89 billion to $7.2 billion. Its share of total active sportswear will rise from 10.71% to 11.86% (source: Textile Exchange’s Global Market Trends for Performance Apparel).
Performance apparel defined
Performance apparel consists of two segments: sportswear and protective clothing. Performance apparel combines technology, fashion, comfort, and style to create attractive clothing that performs under pressure. Consumers include everyone from construction and the military to professional sports and the casual athletic enthusiasts.
Performance apparel comes in two types of fits: compression and loose. Compression hugs the muscles and skin, while loose is more of a comfortable fit. The construction is mainly polyester microfiber with a blend of spandex to give it stretch while retaining moisture-wicking attributes. The construction of performance apparel makes it more difficult to decorate than standard cotton due to polyester dye migration and the elasticity of the garment.
Decorating performance apparel
Embroidery doesn’t really work well, as you can feel too much on the inside. Those thick screen prints—who wants clothing that hugs the skin with a print that feels like a plastic vest? Soft hand is important, and defined prints are key. You want to be seen, and the brand wants recognition. So, it comes down to these options: screen-printed transfers, direct screen printing, and vinyl transfers.
Screen-printed transfers seem to be the number one way the big three sports-apparel companies brand their shirts for retail. It’s honestly tough to tell because they product a very sharp, long-lasting results—not typically what comes to mind when you think of a screen-printed transfer. Most of the major brands have switched away from plastisol inks, so they are likely using a rubber- or water-based hybrid ink. The reason for the switch is for compliance in the children’s market and the European markets, where plastisol is essentially non-existent.
The logo decorations actually feel more like a vinyl transfer than a screen print. The transfers all tend to have a clear base that you can see beyond the design’s edge (Figure 3). The base is printed last on the transfer paper and is printed for adhesion and preventing dye migration (this depends on shirt and ink color). If you plan to incorporate additional prints onto the garment, such as a team logo or number, you’ll want to protect the brand-name transfer during the curing process. Cutting out small wood blocks and wrapping them on tin foil can accomplish this. Simply place the block over the transfer, and it will stay on the garment on the conveyor tunnel and protect the transfer from heating up (Figure 4).
If you’re looking to decorate your own performance apparel with transfers, I recommend contacting a professional transfer house. If you want to do it yourself, the direct-print and vinyl cad-cut transfers are a much more reliable process to accomplish for a traditional print operation.
Direct screen printing is still used to decorate performance apparel, but it is used to facilitate a need that can be met in another form, such as special effect inks. Direct screen printing has traditionally been used for larger print areas and for wholesale shirts not sold into the retail market. For instance, a race shirt (either a name brand or generic shirt) is chosen and then screen printed with the race’s logo and date.
Screen printing poly is definitely more difficult than screen printing cotton. The stretch of a high-elongation poly blend adds complexity to direct screen printing, and dark polyester contributes to dye migration through the ink or print area. A lot of companies tried to push sublimation as a way to decorate performance garments when the apparel first started coming out.
Sublimation transfers use a gas-sublimation process to decorate white polyester material. The ink becomes a gas during the heat-transfer process and actually becomes a part of the garment, leaving an amazing image with digital resolution quality. However, sublimation has not taken off due to the fact that it works only on light or white garments and does not look particularly bold on the garment. Direct screen printing will work on light and dark garments and definitely pops off the shirt.
Standard plastisol or water-based inks can be used on light garments. Typically, the screen-mesh selection is between 156-230 threads/in. depending on coverage and the garment color. For darker garments, a low-bleed ink and/or dye-migration-blocking underbase is absolutely needed. Dye-migration-blocking bases come in three options: poly white, blocker grey, and blocker clear. A poly white is the most common because it can also be used as an under base so that other colors that may be involved in the print show up well on the garment.
Experimenting with the blocker grey or clear makes for some interesting color possibilities—especially for prints that have darker or muted colors in them. The blocker bases are also thinner and easier to print than thick poly whites and are more flexible because they have less pigment. For performance garments that have spandex or other blends in them for flexibility, using a small amount of stretch additive is needed to give the ink conformity to the garment.
Keep in mind that the more additives you incorporate into ink, the more you cut down the ink’s low-bleed properties. Another important thing to remember: The lower the garment temperature, the lower the risk for dye migration. Adding a low-cure additive into the ink will allow you to prevent the poly from reaching the temperatures that are conducive to migration. Running poly garments through the dryer before printing gets some of the gasses out of the garments.
Determining the correct print order for ink adhesion and production speed is key. Poly shirts do not accept ink as easily as cotton does, so you will most likely need to flash more—even if the ink is not touching. The shirt shown in Figure 5 was printed for a local race I ran. It’s a 100% poly Sport Tec performance brand. The print started with a standard maroon printed through a higher mesh count. The maroon went down first because it didn’t need an underbase. A poly white was printed next through a 156-thread/in. mesh, flashed, and then a highlight poly white was printed over the letters. The print still looks great after several months and numerous washes.
Figure 6 shows another example of a performance shirt I received at a Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon. The design was direct-printed on high-quality, medium blue, 100% poly performance apparel. This four-color print was applied with the smaller colors first going down wet on wet and then a flash after the larger colors to prevent ink transfer.
Polyester-rich garments perform completely different from cotton ones. The fabric reaches higher temperatures much quicker than cotton does. Stabilizing your conveyor dryer at a lower temperature is important to ensure the garments don’t get too hot and possibly scorch. Convection dryers work best for curing performance apparel because the heat is evenly distributed by air throughout the dryer. As mentioned before, mixing a low-cure additive into your ink will lower your required curing temperature and assist you in this process.
Vinyl transfers are used for decorating short runs of performance apparel and in personalization. Vinyl transfers have come a long way over the years. The business has exploded—first in Europe and now in the U.S. Polyurethane vinyl (PU), is most commonly used. PU heat-transfer vinyl will adhere to the shirt at temperatures as low as 300°F and is available as a flex vinyl, specialty styles of ink, and hot fluorescent or neon colors. This type of application, while most commonly used for personalization of names and numbers on jerseys, is also used in smaller production runs.
Reflective transfers are much more consistent than direct prints, and they give a much brighter reflection. In addition, a fluorescent or neon look is harder to produce via direct print on a piece of dark performance apparel because these inks are typically very thin and the underbase can bleed through.
Figure 7 shows a name-brand garment that looks like it was printed in a garage by a novice screen printer. I imagine that whoever printed this shirt was a professional printer, but the example illustrates the difficulty associated with producing this type of print. The print is rough, and the underbase can be seen through the fluorescent ink. On the other hand, a neon vinyl transfer is opaque, smooth, and flexible. Given how easy it is to create and transfer a CAD-cut heat transfer, this form of garment decoration is becoming extremely popular in the performance apparel niche.
Now that you know what your options are for decoration, where do you find quality performance apparel to decorate? This is a regular question we hear from our customers, so I decided to pose the question to apparel printers on Facebook. Some of the feedback includes many recommendations for Badger Sport, Teamwork Athletics, and Augusta; a big recommendation for Xpert Apparel for high-quality garments made in the USA; and several recommendations for buying name brands such as Under Armour and Nike (Chart 1).
Getting set up for wholesale with larger companies like Under Armour or Nike is more difficult (and more expensive) than going through a wholesaler like Teamwork. However, name-brand apparel can achieve a higher market price.
Boost your performance
The performance apparel market is growing by leaps and bounds. Are you sitting on the sidelines or playing in the game? Look for market opportunities around you with races, business protective wear, gyms/personal trainers, high-school sports, leagues and associations, brand fulfillment, brand creation, and direct to consumer.
Learn the options for decoration, and invest in the technology to do so if you do not currently have the capacity. Find a good source for performance apparel and order samples so you can practice decoration and create printed samples to sell your work. Try new types of inks and forms of decoration. Who knows? You could become a trendsetter!
Ryan Moor is founder and CEO of Ryonet (www.ryonet.com).