Different Apparel Printing Methods: Pros, Cons and Everything in Between

One of the most versatile tools that any apparel decorator can own is a heat press. This one easy-to-use, but powerful tool opens a whole world of creative possibilities, from stylish graphics tees and hoodies to winsome home decor and everything in between. However, designers can use many different processes and techniques to print designs onto products. Choosing the right one for you and your business will depend largely on your goals, the customers you want to reach, and the items you want to decorate.

Heat transfer vinyl (HTV)

One of the most common apparel printing methods is heat transfer vinyl. In this process, a design is cut into a sheet of vinyl using a digital vinyl cutter and transferred onto fabric using a heat press. “HTV is a great option for beginners,” explains Henry Ma, CEO of Ricoma – a leading manufacturer of embroidery machines, heat presses, and other custom apparel decoration equipment. “It requires minimal upfront investment in equipment compared to other methods of apparel printing.”

Perhaps the most significant benefit of HTV is that it allows you to print on any number of substrates — including fabric, wood, glass, ceramic, and more — giving you greater diversity in the types of products you can offer. As you are cutting out the design yourself, there is also greater customization with this method – making it a perfect fit for custom one-off orders.

That being said, there are a few factors that need to be considered before using heat transfer vinyl. This decorating method is more labor-intensive than others. After you manually cut your design using your vinyl cutter, you have to weed out the excess vinyl from your design by hand. Furthermore, once the design has been transferred onto the garment, it has to cure for 24-hours — making it less effective for large bulk orders.

Two-step heat transfer printing

Another popular decorating method is two-step heat transfer printing. In two-step heat transfer printing, a design is printed onto transfer paper, which you then press onto an adhesive sheet  using a heat press before finally pressing the  design onto a garment.

The biggest benefit of two-step heat transfer printing is that it is a much faster process than HTV. As such, two-step heat transfer is a much more efficient method to use when completing a larger bulk order.  What’s more, two-step heat transfer printing allows you to print  more complex designs with a variety of colors and hues.

While the process is faster and less labor intensive,it does come with a higher upfront cost. This is because you have to purchase a white toner transfer printer. “Compared with the cost of vinyl, a White Toner Transfer Printer is a more sizable investment. ” Ma explains. “However, the efficiency two-step heat transfer printing offers means that you will still be able to recoup your initial investment fairly quickly.”

Sublimation

The most permanent method to print custom apparel is sublimation. Similar to two-step heat transfer, the sublimation process begins with printing a design onto a specially formulated paper using a sublimation printer. Once the ink is heated, however, it turns from a solid to a gas and embeds itself in the substrate. When it cools, the ink bonds to the fibers of the fabric and becomes a permanent part of the garment – making the design virtually indistinguishable from the garment’s natural feel.

This process results in much higher-quality products, as the design is not printed on top of the substrate, but rather integrated into it. Sublimated designs last longer, feel as soft as the fabric of the rest of the garment, and allow a greater degree of variety in color, meaning these products can be sold for higher prices.

Still, sublimation does require an investment in a sublimation printer, which is a substantial investment. What’s more, sublimation can only adhere to polyester-coated materials. As such, decorators who use sublimation printing are more limited in their choice of substrates.

There’s only one wrong printing method…

As you can see, having a quality heat press opens up a variety of decorating methods and product options for any decorator. Every method has its own advantages and drawbacks. Regardless of which method you ultimately decide to use, printing garments offers apparel decorators a phenomenal opportunity to increase their revenue creating stunning items that anyone would be proud to own. At the end of the day,  the only wrong printing method to use is not printing at all.

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