Ever wondered how crisply detailed images are rendered onto catchy Tee´s in mass-production quantities? Maybe you were baffled as to how “they”, the printers, managed to get the designs so perfectly into each thread.
It wasn’t too long ago that you´d get socks that nanna knitted for Christmas and you´d be content with your lot! But look what they can do now: bulky knitted designs replaced with smart, snappy detail. The wonders of modern technology!
This article goes into the process of the transfer printing technique, the advantages and disadvantages of choosing this method, a little of the history, some examples, a myth buster session, and a handy FAQ to boot.
What is Transfer Printing?
Transfer printing is a term used to describe any printing technique that begins on a non-textile surface before being transferred, with a different process, onto the fabric.
In fact, most transfers are done on vinyl, which is later sealed into the T-shirt fibres using a heat press.
The final transfer print T-shirt may seem similar to designs achieved with other techniques, such as screen-printing, which might make you wonder why we should choose transfer printing over the other techniques, especially when this process requires additional steps. However, there are actually several benefits that make transfer printing so special.
Why Transfer Printing Over Others?
Developed over the years, transfer printing is a versatile form of garment decoration, which is a cost-effective, durable and high-quality method for a wide range of garments or accessories. Take a deeper look at the features of transfer printing and see which fits you best.
Advantages of Transfer Printed T-shirts
- Easier storage when designs are printed on paper.
- Cost-efficient for small quantity orders (especially when compared to DTG printers).
- Shorter production time than DTG (when orders are up to 250).
- No need for high skill and has low reject rates.
- Certain effects and textures are only available by transfer.
- Easier to print complex designs when printing directly on paper than on fabric.
- Inexpensive equipment cost.
- Lower storage costs – ´Print on Demand´ possible
- No set-up costs
- Great variety of effects and textures from fluorescents to metallics and even velvet
- Suitable for full-colour printing
- Capable of producing high quality and complex graphics such as gradients with unlimited options
Perfect for Personalisation
The speed of the process and it´s set-up, make it perfect for personalising the same garment numerous times with different designs. Sportswear is a great example, which requires several of the same types of T-shirt, each with differentiating player names and numbers. In this way, transfer printing allows detailed and unique customization for every piece.
Variety of Effects and Textures
There are endless options of dazzling effects and brilliant colours when using transfer printing. Flock, glitter, metallic or velvet, you name it! In fact, it is worth mentioning that fluorescent tones, and some other effects, are only actually available when using this technique.
The price per printed item differs with the size of the unit. While screen printing is ideal for larger batches, transfer printing is a better choice when more complex designs are involved. Or, as the equipment is relatively inexpensive when the printing needs are not enough to justify the set-up costs.
Attention to Detail
When the design is printed first on paper, then transferred onto fabric, it is often found that, unlike other techniques, the integrity of the rich details are kept intact. The simple reason for this is textile is more porous than paper, which explains why when printed directly onto the fabric first, the design can appear ´muddy´. This makes it possible to produce high-quality, complex graphics in transfer print; such as the very popular colour gradients.
However, keep in mind this does not always apply to all transfer printing techniques. For example, CAD Cut Vinyl is monochromatic and for sublimation printing does not fit with sharpness, but allows placement of artworks in less conventional parts of the garment, or even printing on non-cotton based clothing. Especially beneficial when it comes to sports and technical wear.
Vinyl is a very durable plastic that can withstand many years of wash and wear. This is why it is one of the preferred materials when personalising sportswear, etc.
Good for Small Businesses
Unlike screen printing – which requires a decent amount of set-up cost – transfer printing has no set-up cost, whilst the cheap heat transfer machines used are easy to use, lightweight and don’t take up much space. What is more, this kind of printing can be done on-demand, lowering storage costs and orders are conducted when customers´ place them, so no need to keep garments in stock.
This can be beneficial for startups offering small quantities of specially designed T-shirts as there are virtually no extra costs involved. Nevertheless, most on-demand printing companies, including Printsome, don’t offer transfer printing for on-demand orders, instead, they use DTG – so keep that in mind! Although still, for small batches in bulk, transfer printing remains a common choice.
Disadvantages of Transfer Printing
- Only practical for smaller quantity – transfer printing is cheaper than screen-printing (only up to 100 units per order) and DTG printing (when 50 to 250 units per order).
- Not as versatile for printing on different kinds of material as screen-printing.
- Each design must be cut individually, especially for vinyl transfers.
- Direct ironing and prints may cause damage to the image.
Whilst, transfer printing has numerous benefits, depending on the quantity and the way you treat it, it might not be the best option for you.
In small batches you will find it to be cost-effective, but in larger quantities, time-consuming and expensive. Whilst, there might actually be some restrictions on the reproduction of darker shades, it is also limited in versatility of fabrics on which it can be printed and, lastly, beware of ironing directly onto sensitive areas.
Where does Transfer Printing Come From?
Interestingly, transfer Printing was originally developed to embellish ceramics, not clothing! The technique was born around the 1750´s in England and spread like fire to other parts of Europe where it caught on.
Back then, a copper, steel plate or roller, engraved with a decorative element, was used to print monochrome on paper, to then transfer the decorations onto the ceramic piece. The surface of the tool would be covered with ink and later pressed or rolled over the object in order to decorate it. The process was not easy (or fun), but it was still quicker than hand-painting – and with fantastically similar results!
Thermal Transfer Printing, which is the kind of technique most used today, was not discovered until much later. It was invented by a corporation called SATO during the late 1940s in the US. Then in 1981 the first thermal-transfer label printer was first produced.
How does Transfer Printing Work?
Depending on the technique the process differs, but the most general form of transfer printing happens with a soft, elastomeric stamp. The process operates in three steps:
- Inks (also called microdevices) are prepared on the donor substrate in an ordered and releasable manner. (Usually through wet chemical etching or dry etching).
- An elastomeric stamp is used to retrieve inks from the donor substrate. During this process, a proper preload is applied to the stamp to ensure the conformal contact between stamp and ink, which makes it adhesive enough to retrieve inks from the donor substrate. The process can be either selective (if you are looking for precise manipulation of the inks) or non-selective (for high throughput).
- The inked stamp is printed onto the receiver substrate. The removal of the stamp completes the transfer printing process. The printing mode can be non-selective or selective.
While the retrieval-printing process above applies mostly to techniques that require the use of transfer papers, some techniques; such as CAD-Cut Vinyl, use solvent releasable tapes or thermal releasable tapes instead of stamps, simplifying the process.
For sublimation printing, a special kind of ink is used that evaporates when heat is applied. It is therefore unique in this way because the gas joins the polyester, becoming part of the material instead of just attaching to it.
Transfer Printing Examples From Printsome
Different Kinds of Transfers
Did you know that there are actually so many ways to do transfer printing? Have a look at some of the most popular transfer printing techniques.
Named after the ink used, plastisol-transfers are a great choice for company logos, labels, text and designs where fine detail and vibrancy of colour is the priority. It is often confused with screen-printing because it is practically the same process with the only difference being that this time we print onto transfer paper instead of the garment. It is also very similar to water-based transfers, but the ink doesn’t contain PVC which makes it more environmentally friendly.
This type of heat transfer is known for its vibrant colours, but it cannot print too many at once. Generally no more than four. However, the colours are particularly bold and very durable. Unlike other inks, Plastisol has a very soft feeling with the capability of a much finer level of detail. When heat-pressed, the transfer is allowed to cool before the backing is removed, (hence ‘Cold Peel’) which allows easy application and suitability for most types of garment. This is the most popular of all transfer techniques.
Litho, named after lithography, is the latest technology in the transfer world. It is a great combination of digital and screen-printing. As first printed onto paper, litho transfer retains the details of the artwork better than other techniques. Paper is a smoother substrate than fabric, so the dot of colour does not bleed as much as when touching the paper´s surface, as it does on fabric.
When you want to decorate 100%-polyester shirts, sublimation transfers are a full-colour solution that is also cost-efficient. The process of this technique differs from the others because it works with an ink that turns to gas whenever it’s heated. The gas joins directly to the garment, becoming part of the polyester instead of just attaching to it. Therefore, it does not add any extra layer on top of the fabric, which makes it work best on white or very light coloured garments.
Nonetheless, the sublimation process is quite similar to heat-transfer paper, since it involves printing said design onto a sheet of sublimation paper (in this case) and pressing it to a garment with a heat press.
Bonus! Sublimation not only works on polyester fabrics – it also works on a wide variety of hard surfaces which first have a poly-coated layer.
Sublimation transfer can produce long-lasting images, on the other hand, it is limited by the materials it is compatible with. Due to the nature of the inks, this technique only works on fabrics made out of polyester. Yet, sublimation also works on a wide variety of poly-coated hard surfaces, so it can be used for mugs and other promotional items as well. A particularly popular technique all round! However, it is easy to recognise because any fold or crease on the T-shirt will remain white – a problem found in the area under the sleeves.
The CAD-cut (Computer-Aided Design) vinyl transfer printing is a method of heat-transferring onto T-shirts and clothing. It is most commonly used for printing the numbers, names, and logos onto sports T-shirts. It prints directly onto printable vinyl or nylon, which is ideal for garment printing of one to three colours. It is known for its durable, matt or gloss finish, and available in many colours and patterns. Moreover, with no set-up time, it’s faster and easier than screen-printing!
The transfer is usually cut into a number or name and then applied to the garment with an application tape, which allows you to heat press right away.
To customise clothes further with this technique, different vinyl colours and textures can be used. Along with plain block-colour, cool effects such as polka-dots, chevrons, animal-print, demin, camo, leather and stripes are available too. By layering pieces of vinyl, you can also create unique effects. To keep its pristine condition and to prevent it from peeling off after washes, choosing the right vinyl applied right way is also vital.
The most popular CAD-Cut vinyl materials are:
- Airflow Heat Transfer Material – as it contains tiny holes in the vinyl, the material is breathable, ideal for printing sports shirts.
- Thermo-FILM Heat Transfer Material – with a semi-gloss finish, the material creates a sharp and bold transfer as it does not absorb dyes from the fabric (dye migration). It is great for contact sports like rugby as it’s strong and anti-abrasive.
- Fashion-FILM Heat Transfer Material – good for detailed design, this vinyl is great for fashion clothing. It is thin and very soft, with a matte-finish look.
- FLOCK Heat Transfer Material – with its distinctive look and texture, this vinyl is nice for layering two colours. It has a suede-like finish look.
The different Stages of Transfer Printing
Unlike other techniques such as DTG, screen-printing or embroidery, the process of transfer printing varies with the type of transfer performed.
Step 1: Image selection
Depending on the type of transfer, the artwork is handled in a different way. Techniques like plastisol or litho allow for complex (with many colours) images to be printed in detail. While processes like CAD-cut vinyl require simple vector shapes so they can be ‘read’ and cut by the computer. That being said, regardless of the type of transfer, it is recommended for the original file to be saved in high-quality (300 dpi) to ensure the best possible result!
After all, the artwork requirements are equal to the different types of transfer printing. Most of the transferring process works with Pantone colours, which requires careful selection when using the design software. Moreover the artwork must be saved in vectors in AI, EPS and PDF formats. After that, all should be converted to strokes and the artwork must be done in the actual size of the final print. Be aware not to put gradients and shades.
Step 2: Print your artwork
Once the design has been selected, it will be printed on the transfer material. Place the transfer paper onto an inkjet printer through the software of the cutter or plotter machine. Make sure to adjust the graphics to the size of the print as desired.
It is advisable to use professional heat transfer paper as this will give the image a high-quality finish. It lasts longer and won’t fade, bleed or peel. Cheap papers usually leave a line around where the design has been cut and have a shiny finish, which many find unpleasant.
Differences between the technologies for step 2:
- CAD Cut Vinyl: unlike printing the artwork on a transfer paper, this technique allows you to print directly onto a printable vinyl or nylon.
- DST: when printing the artwork, instead of using ink, the artwork will be digitally laser-printed on a transfer paper.
- Sublimation Printing: instead of transfer paper, sublimation paper will be used during this process.
Step 3: Cutting
After the artwork is printed, carefully load the printed transfer medium into a cutter/plotter. Then the machine will detect and cut the medium into the shape of the graphic.
Once the cutting process is complete, do not forget to remove the unwanted parts by using a weeder tool. Double-check if the print looks how you want it to be on the T-shirt!
Step 4: Weeding (Optional)
When working with vinyl, the design must be cut from the material. This process can be automated or done by hand. A computer is used to control the process to ensure the cut is perfect. After that, the excess will be picked out. This process is known as weeding.
Some types of transfers such as CAD-Cut Vinyl need this step others do not. Basically, this refers to the excess of material left after the design has been cut off.
Step 5: Pressing onto the Garment
The paper is pressed against the fabric using the heat press and is left for the heat to do its job. Ensure that the shirt is placed straight and the graphic is centralized to avoid a crooked print.
Though, there are several things to take in account on the heat press machine before printing. For example, the optimum temperature depends on the transfer medium and the type of fabric used. Usually, 155’C to 180’C is good. The pressure should not be too high or too low. When pressing, follow the instructions stated on your medium to avoid over-pressing and leaving burn marks on your garment.
Nowadays a more elaborate version of the simple iron-on method is used by most of the professional T-shirt printers. Yet, the basics did not change! The heat transfer machine releases a certain amount of pressure while holding the garment in place with a consistent temperature that allows the colour pigments to be transferred from one surface to another.
Differences between the technologies for step 4:
- Plastisol Heat Transfer: there are two options for this technology: hot-split transfers and cold transfers. While the heat transfer press is being set between 166’C and 177’C, press the heat transfer onto the substrate for 10 to 12 seconds. If your option is hot-split transfer, you will immediately peel off the paper, which makes the ink split into two, depositing some on the substrate, while leaving the remainder on the paper.
This option provides a softer feel. For the cold transfer option, you will let the substrate and the transfer paper to cool for about 40 seconds before the peeling process. Then, the entire plastisol transfer will remain well on the shirt.
- DST (Digital Screen Transfer): before this step, DST requires additional steps compared to other technologies which are placing DST film on a platter and applying white base and DST adhesive. After applying, place the DST film for 5 to 7 seconds in a heat press set at 120’C with light pressure. Then, set it between 125’C to 140’C with medium pressure to transfer the artwork to a garment.
- Sublimation printing: when the sublimation ink is heated, the ink turns from a solid to a gas that embeds itself into the polyester fabric.
Step 5: Cool Off
When the required amount of time has passed, lift the print and leave the garment alone to cool off. If everything goes as planned, you will have before you a quality T-shirt with your very own design!
Differences between the technologies for step 5
- Sublimation printing: in step 4, the ink turns to gas while being embedded into the polyester fabric. During this step, the gas goes back to solid and becomes a permanent part of the fabric. So in this case, there is no difference in feeling between the printed image and the rest of the fabric, since the transferred design does not add an additional layer on top.
Transfer Printing Myths
There are several myths about transfer printing. Take a look and see:
It looks crude
In the past, most types of vinyl end up looking cheap, but modern ones have a nice matte-finish. It’s all about knowing how the material works. For example, you would never want to cover a large area with vinyl because it would look rigid.
It can happen, but as always, it mostly depends on the quality of the paper. Nowadays there are good-quality options like IronAll and Soft Stretch, which are elastic and solve the cracking problem so long as you take good care of it!
Vinyl doesn’t work well with negative spaces
As a matter of fact, quite the contrary, when the vinyl is cut to show the colour of the T-shirt as a background, it makes it feel less ‘stiff’ and plasticky.
Frequently Asked Questions about Transfer Printing:
How much does it cost to print a T-shirt with Transfer Printing?
Transfer printing costs £6.00 per print, with an additional cost of the garment.
How long does it take?
Transfer printing normally takes us 5 – 7 working days for UK orders.
What fabrics can be used for transfer printed garments?
Aside from fleece garments or garments with embroidery, transfer printing can be done on any fabric.
For which volumes is transfer printing more suitable?
The price per printed item differs with the size of the unit. While screen printing and DTG being ideal for larger batches (screen-printing fits best for orders larger than 100 units and DTG is a better option when the orders are larger than 250), transfer printing is a great choice when the design is simple, but the units are not enough to justify the set-up costs.
The equipment needed for transfer printing is comparably inexpensive and does not require much space. Moreover, printing on-demand is possible, which leads to fewer storage costs.
What’s next for transfer printing?
There is steady development in transfer printing with reference to the quality and special effects. In 2020, we are expecting creative brand positioning on garments with special effects, such as foil and glitter. Moreover, we have noticed some trends like branding on side panels, the back shoulder and on sleeves over the traditional left breast.
Due to the fact that there are no set up costs for small quantities and other textile products, transfer printing is ideal for customising items to create a unique feel and look. With lower minimum order quantity, brands and businesses nowadays are focusing on quality and durability, which makes transfer printing perfect. Today, the number of orders for jackets, holdalls, laptop cases and other practical items are growing hugely.
Take a look at this video. Some cool people in Barcelona discovered a way to transfer prints using water. The transfer printing world is expanding remarkably and it seems like there is no limit!
Transfer Printed T-shirts for Businesses in the UK
Thanks to our five years of experience in the bulk apparel-printing industry, we are able to offer a service catered towards the needs of business around the UK.
Printsome’s T-shirt printing services are not only perfect for agents in search of merch, but also for event agencies in search of event T-shirt printing solutions. We produce also personalised sportswear, personalised workwear and all type of custom clothing for businesses in London and all around the UK.
From the moment you get in touch, one of our printing experts will answer all of your questions and find efficient solutions to your needs. It doesn’t matter where you are, we print T-shirts in Manchester, we print T-shirts in Bristol and everywhere in the UK. It is our mission to help you reach your goals.
We ship all over the UK with flexible delivery services that can adapt to most deadlines. Fast T-shirt printing has never been this easy. To find out more, simply visit our website by clicking on the banner below.