I get to attend dozens of trade show every year. At these shows I learn something new each time, but I also notice that for the 17 years I have been attending our industry trade events most people have some of the same questions, just worded a different way. Many of the people attending are new to our heat printing industry. One of the biggest questions that I get from those folks is what are the best heat printing types to use for printing garments? The answer to this questions can be a bit of a challenge as there is not one magic bullet set-up that is going to decorate all types and colors of garment. Each process has its pros and cons. I typically answer that question by asking them what their target market is and going from there. Since this is a blog and starts out as a one sided conversation I figured the best way to answer that question would be to give you a brief rundown of the 5 main heat printing types.
1) Plastisol - These transfers are made by the screen printing process. Even though it is a transfer, screen still have to be made, separations done etc. This is an analog method and the only difference from regular screen printing is that you are printing to paper in reverse order as to what you would print on a garment directly. Plastisol transfer or more commonly used for events where you have a large number of prints made and then transfer them to the garments on site so you don't have to worry about sizes or colors of garments. There are companies out there that are very good at this who you can farm out work to, but unless you are doing events this is not normally the transfer method you are looking for.
2) Inkjet/Laser Transfers – For the inkjet side make sure to get a commercial quality transfer paper (no what you can find at an office supply store). You can run the transfer paper right through an off the shelf inkjet printer. Printers like the Epson Workforce or other economical inkjet printers that use pigment based inks will work well and wash well. You will need to do some trimming around the paper especially if you are going on dark garments. These transfers can be trimmed using a vinyl cutter with an optical eye to remove the back ground. For best wash ability a heat press is the best way to apply this paper but can also be done with a hand iron. If you really want to be a serious about making garments though I suggest an LED Laser printer. These system are CMYK or in some cases have a white toner option and are quickly becoming the D2 killer (We will talk D2 below). With these systems you print to an A sheet and the press it together with a B sheet which acts as the adhesive layer and the under base for going onto darker garments. Only the toner printed potion adheres to the garment and after you press you have a great looking shirt. These transfers go onto cotton, polyester, blends and even assorted hard surfaces and other fabrics.
3) Dye Sublimation - This transfer method has great wash ability, but only transfers onto 100% Polyester. It will not adhere to cotton and there is no white ink, so you are only able to create light garments. Photos would only look good on white polyester shirts. If you were just going to transfer to white polyester garments though, this method would be awesome. The ink becomes part of the garment and will be on the shirt as long as the shirt is around. This method is best for smaller hard surface items like mugs or even some soft surface items like mousepads. If you have a large format printer and a large format press you can also make amazing and beautiful all over garments.
4) Vinyl - This method of transfer will not allow for photos to be reproduced unless you have a solvent printer which can be pretty costly. If you have someone with a solvent printer they can definitely make nice transfers and they will wash very well. The drawback to this type of transfer is it does tend to be a heavy think material and recreating this process in house once you are ready for that will require a very large investment ($15,000 to $20,000). If you are just doing 1 or 2 color hard edge logo type graphics, then standard cut able vinyl is an outstanding way to decorate. Many vinyls on the market today are very soft and stretch and they all wash very well when applied properly.
5) Direct to Shirt – This method is not traditionally what I would call a heat printing transfer, but we do use a heat press to cure the garment and there are many questions about it. First issue here is that the cost of entry is pretty high. Plan on spending about $15,000 to $20,000 for a good D2 machine. Anything less and you can most likely expect to tie a chain to the machine and use it as a boat anchor at some point well before you feel like you have gotten the value out of it. This method does require you to use a pretreatment for any shirts that you want to print white ink on. The pretreatment process can be a bit of an art unless you can spend another $4,000 to $5,000 on a pretreatment machine. Also this method really needs 100% cotton to be successful. I know some people claim to be able to print polyester with a special pretreatment, but try washing that a few times and see how it looks. If you do have the volume and cotton niche then this could really be the right choice for you. The hand (feel) of the shirt is really nice and the durability has been proven by some to be over 60 washes.
So now that you have some details about the 5 main heat printing methods, what is your market? How would one of these methods fit into that niche and what additional questions do you have?