Transfer printing is a broad term used to describe any sort of technique where the design is first printed on a non-textile surface so it can later be transferred onto a different one – hence the word ‘transfer.’ Most transfers are done with a kind of vinyl which is later sealed (much like a sticker) onto the T-shirt using a heat press.
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the final product from other techniques like screen-printing which is why some wonder why we should choose transfer in the first place. At times, this technique might seem like it has an unnecessary extra step — especially when compared to processes which print directly onto the garment — but, as we will come to learn, there are several benefits to transfer printing.
Where does vinyl T-shirt printing come from?
Transfer Printing was first developed to embellish ceramics, not clothing. The technique was born around the 1750s in England and quickly spread to other parts of Europe where it caught on.
Back then, the process involved a metal plate or roller that was engraved with a decorative element. The piece would have its surface covered with ink and later pressed or rolled over the object to be decorated. It wasn’t an easy procedure (or fun) by any means, but it was still quicker than hand painting and the result was similar enough.
Thermal Transfer Printing, which is the kind of technique mostly used today, didn’t come until much later. It was invented by a corporation called SATO during the late 1940s in the US. The first thermal-transfer label printer was first produced in 1981.
Why we choose transfers over other techniques:
Due to its versatility, transfer printing can be the right answer to many different types of jobs. And as with everything in life, it has its advantages and disadvantages.
On the good side
It’s fairly simple, the equipment is relatively inexpensive (especially when compared to DTG printers) and it can reproduce high quality, complex images. It is also one of the best techniques to use for full-colour prints.
Great for Personalisation
Due to its quick process and setup, this technique is perfect for personalising the same garment numerous times with different designs. For example, the kits of sports teams. These need the same type of T-shirt printed several times but with different numbers and name for each of the players.
Great for Bold Choices
We’re not exaggerating when we say that transfer paper comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. There is pretty much an endless amount of options when it comes to effects and colours. Worth noting are fluorescent tones which are hard or impossible to achieve with other printing techniques. Also, transfer paper comes with effects such as flock and glitter, among others.
It is also a good choice when the design is simple but the units are not enough to justify the setup costs of screen printing. Generally speaking, transfers are cheaper than DTG in most cases.
Attention to Detail
Because the design is printed on paper before it is transferred to the fabric, this technique is much better at replicating designs with small details. Because fabrics have much bigger pores than paper — it tends to make designs look ‘muddier.’
Vinyl is a very durable material. It can withstand many years of washes and wear. This is why it is one of the preferred materials when personalising sportswear.
Good for small businesses
Heat transfer machines are relatively cheap, easy to use, lightweight and don’t take up much space. This kind of printing can be done on demand, eliminating the need for holding stocks or large print runs. Just print when people place orders, as opposed to printing, keeping garments in stock and hoping you’ll receive hundreds of orders. This can be beneficial for start-ups offering small quantities of specially designed T-shirts as there are virtually no extra costs involved.
- Designs that are printed on paper are easier to store away
- Production times are much shorter than DTG
- The technique doesn’t require high skill and has low reject rates
- Certain effects and textures can only be produced with a transfer
- It is easier to print complex designs directly on paper than on fabric
- The equipment needed for transfer printing can be inexpensive
- The equipment doesn’t require much space either
- There are practically no setup costs
- There’s a great variety of effects and textures from fluorescents to metallics and even velvet
On the bad side
It is slower than other procedures, it’s got limitations onto which types of fabrics it can be printed; those sensitive to high temperatures are a no-no, and there might be some restrictions on the reproduction of darker shades.
Not practical for large quantities
Not as flexible when it comes to printing on different kinds of materials
Each design must be cut one by one
Different Kinds of Transfers
There are many different kinds of transfer printing techniques, here are just some of the most popular ones.
Technically speaking, this is the name of the ink used. 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.
Because it is so similar to screen printing, it shares its strengths and weaknesses. Case in point, this type of heat transfer is known for its vibrant colours but it cannot print too many at once. Generally no more than four. Unlike other inks, Plastisol has a very soft feeling and can last almost as long as a screen print. This is the most popular of all transfer techniques.
Litho is the latest technology in the transfer world. It combines the best of digital and screen printing. Unlike CAD-cut vinyl, a litho transfer doesn’t have to be cut. The name litho refers to lithography because it works in a similar way.
Litho transfer retains the details of the artwork better than other printing techniques because, as we mentioned before, it is printed on paper first. Paper is a smoother substrate than fabric which means the dot of colour doesn’t expand as much when it touches the surface.
This kind of transfer printing is different from the rest because it works with a special kind of ink that turns into gas whenever it’s heated. It is quite unique because the gas joins the polyester, becoming part of the material instead of just attaching to it.
Sublimation can create some really vivid, long-lasting images — the problem is that it is limited by the materials it is compatible with. Because of the particular nature of the inks, this technique only works on plastic and fabrics made out of polyester.
Sublimation is a particularly popular technique for all-over printing. It is easy to recognise because any fold or crease on the T-shirt will remain white. This is a problem with the area under the sleeves.
The CAD (Computer Aided Design)-Cut 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.
How does CAD-Cutting work?
The process uses different types of vinyl which are cut, usually into a number or name, and then applied to the garment using a heat press. To ensure the cut is perfect, a computer is used to control the process. Then, the excess is picked out. This process is known as weeding. Once this has been done the material is heat-transferred onto the garment.
Types of CAD-Cut vinyl
Different vinyl colours and textures can be used to customise clothes further. The most popular one is plain block-colour but also available are effects in polka dots, chevrons, animal print, jeans, army, leather, and stripes. Before you choose a type, make sure you consider all the options. Maybe green zebra will work for a school team or club but not necessarily for a rugby team.
Pieces of vinyl can also be layered to create unique effects. The material usually comes in a roll and must be cut by hand or an automated process. Choosing the right vinyl for the job means it will keep its pristine condition and won’t peel off after washes. The correct application is also vital.
The most popular CAD-Cut vinyl materials are:
- Airflow Heat Transfer Material – this is a breathable vinyl that allows air circulation as it contains tiny holes. This is the perfect printing solution for sports shirts.
- Thermo-FILM Heat Transfer Material – a great vinyl that doesn’t absorb dyes from the fabric (dye migration) and creates a sharp and bold transfer. Great for contact sports like rugby as it’s strong and anti-abrasive. It has a semi-gloss finish and gives sports shirts a professional look.
- Fashion-FILM Heat Transfer Material – this vinyl is great for fashion clothing as it’s thin and very soft, has a matte finish and is good for detailed designs.
- FLOCK Heat Transfer Material – flock has a suede-like feel and finish and is perfect for layering two colours as it has a distinctive look and texture. Flock is great for trendier designs.
The benefits of using CAD-Cut Vinyl
CAD-Cut vinyl is ideal for garment printing of 1-3 colours. Other benefits are:
- Durable finish
- Easy to apply
- Available in many colours and patterns
- Compatible with garments that have already been printed
- Fast – no setup time as with screen printing
- Matte or gloss finish
- Can be used in any colours
Let’s take a look at the different stages of transfer printing:
Step 1: Image selection
How the artwork is handled will depend on the type of transfer that will be used. 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.
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.
Artwork for any kind of transfer
- Most transfers work with Pantone colours, which means these have to be carefully selected when working with the design software
- The artwork must be saved in vectors and in AI, EPS and PDF formats
- All paths must be converted to strokes
- The artwork must be done in the real size as the final print
- Saved at 300 dpi
- Avoid gradients and shades
Step 2: Print
Once the design has been selected, it is printed on the transfer material.
It’s advisable to use professional heat transfer paper as this will give the image a much better 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.
Step 3: Weeding (Optional)
When working with vinyl, the design must be cut from the material. This process can be automated or done by hand.
Some types of transfers need this step others don’t. Basically, this refers to the access of material that sometimes is left after the design has been cut off.
Step 4: Press
The paper is later pressed against the fabric using a heat press. It is left this way for the amount of time necessary for the heat to do its job.
Most professional T-shirt printers nowadays use a more sophisticated version of the simple iron-on method, but the basics are still the same. What happens is that the heat transfer machine releases the right amount of pressure, holds the garment in place and has a consistent temperature which allows the colour pigments to be transferred from one surface to the other.
Step 5: Cool Off
After the required amount of time has passed, the press if lifted and the garment is left alone to cool down. If everything went well, then you should have a quality finish T-shirt.
Vinyl T-shirt Printing Myths
Here are some myths surrounding transfer printing. Let’s take a look and see how correct they are.
It looks shiny and plasticky
This isn’t completely false but it isn’t completely true either. In the past, most types of vinyl ended up looking cheap but modern ones have nice matte finishes. It’s all about knowing how the material works. For example, you would never want to cover a large area with vinyl because it makes it rigid.
It cracks with time
Again, it mostly depends on the quality of the paper. Nowadays there are good-quality options like IronAll and SoftStretch which are elastic and take care of the cracking problem — when they’re properly taken care of, of course.
Vinyl doesn’t work well with negative spaces
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.
What’s next for transfer printing?
We’re never quite sure about the technology of these techniques, but after seeing this video, everything might be possible. Some savvy people in Barcelona discovered a way to transfer prints using water.
Printsome is a clothing printing agency in the UK based in London that delivers all across the UK, from printing T-shirts in Brighton to York and anywhere in between. So, if you’re after a T-shirt or custom clothing, get in touch for a quote and indulge yourself in some awesome customer service.