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T King AssociatesPersonalisation Methods

Advice about ... heat transfer -vs- dye-sublimation -vs- screen printing -vs- embroidery

There are a number of processes that we use to get your logo/image onto your chosen garments. Each has its plus and minus points and differing cost profiles.

Heat Transfer

This process is commonly used for very low production runs, including one-off garments.

Unlike the cheap iron-on transfer paper that you can buy in computer shops, this process uses special CAD-cut pre-coloured paper to make up the image - a bit like a jigsaw. The pre-coloured paper gives much better longevity than the DIY iron-on transfers.

However, the process thereafter is the same. We don't use an iron as such, but have a number of heat presses that allow us to deliver a uniform level of heat across a large area.

Each CAD-cut transfer 'jigsaw' is laid onto the garment and the heat from the heat press causes the ink to transfer from the special paper onto the garment. The CAD-cut transfer can only be used once.

Plus Points

  • Cost effective for very small, or even one-off, production runs
  • Much better quality and longevity that DIY iron-on transfers
  • The special paper can include a range of different textures and finishes, flock, metallic and so on.

Minus Points

  • Image can fade and crack after a number of washes
  • The setup costs make it non-viable for large production runs
  • The complexity of the image can be limited

Dye-Sublimation

Dye-sublimation uses a heat press like the heat transfers process, but creates a more permanent image on the fabric. It works with polyester only.

The image is printed onto special paper using special inks as a single multi-coloured item (looking just like the artwork that you might print on your home or office printer). The paper trimmed and laid onto the garment in the right place and put in the heat press.

The heat of the press causes the pores of the polyester fabric to 'open' and allow the ink/dye to run inside. Once this has completed the garment is taken out and cooled down. The polyester pores 'close' up to their normal position and the ink/dye remains locked in.

The process is similar to tattooing or to permanent hair dying in that the colour is lodged within the medium rather than laid on top of it.

Because it uses a fully printed image to carry the ink, dye-sublimation is very good at transferring near-photo quality images onto garments.

Plus Points

  • Images retain their definition and colour after many washes, with no cracking
  • Images can be complex and near-photo quality
  • No extra cost for using more colours works within the CMYK process
  • Has a fixed setup cost per garment, so is suitable for short production runs

Minus Points

  • Works with polyester only, so limited range of garments/items.
  • The setup cost does not decline as the production volume increases, so can work out more expensive than screen printing for runs over 25 or so.

Screen Printing

Screen printing is widely used where the print run is quite large and the quality feel of embroidery isn't a requirement, or is a large decoration area and thus works out more cost effective than embroidery.

Most commercial t-shirts that have any kind of image on them will have been screen printed. This is because screen printing is a very effective way of printing on cotton at high volume.

The process is named from the 'screens' that are created to make the ink transfer process work. A 'screen' is made of a fine mesh. A light-activated chemical is applied to the surface and exposed to a light source through a film of the image required that has been produced for one of four colours (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow or Black). Where the light passed through the film the chemical on the screen solidifies, and where it didn't it remains soluble. After a while the screen can be washed of the soluble chemical leaving an imprint of the image in solidified chemical.

This process is repeated for each of the other colours that are required for the image.

Once all of the 'screens' have been created, they can be laid in turn onto a garment and the correct coloured ink spread over. The solidified chemical prevents the ink running through the screen onto the garment, thus only areas that match the image transfer ink onto the garment itself.

Once all of the inks have been transferred through their respective 'screens', the garment can be taken to be dried and the process will be repeated for the second garment in the run, and so on.

As you can see this is a very labour intensive process and can be quite slow. However, when the costs of this are apportioned over a large print run (of 100s or 1,000s of garments) then the overhead per garment can be small.

Plus Points

  • Can work out to be very cost-effective for large print runs (25 and upwards)
  • Can cope with large images well
  • Screen print lasts very well if applied correctly
  • Many effects can be achieved with specialist inks
  • Printing onto dark garments is made simple with a white ink base

Minus Points

  • Setup costs can be prohibitive for small print runs (under 25 garments)
  • Cost increases as more colours are used
  • Images don't retain their definition and colour as well as embroidery
  • Can only be used on certain types of flat fabric, such as cotton and polyester

Embroidery

Embroidery is a very popular approach for garments that are to be worn multiple times where the logo/image needs to maintain its definition and colour. Typical uses are for work-wear, 'uniforms', sports kits and so on. It is however, the most expensive way to brand clothing.

The logo/image is digitised by special software, usually from the supplied customer artwork. The digitising software converts multi-colour electronic images into a stitch pattern that the embroidery machines can follow. It works out which stitches can be done with the same coloured thread and the best order in which to do them across the whole image. This information is then passed to the embroidery machines.

The machines will check with the operator that the correct coloured threads are loaded, and on which spindles each is. Finally, the operator 'clamps' the garment in special hoops that hold the right area tightly under the sewing needle so that the image is embroidered without puckering the fabric. Different hoops are used for different sized images or for sewing onto unusual places, such as cuffs and collars.

The embroidery machine (or machines) are then set running. They typically sew at a rate of 1,000 stitches per minute, starting with the first colour of thread.

embroidery machine in progress
Once all of the stitches for that colour have been done, the machine automatically selects the next colour...

completed emroidered personalisation
 
and so on until the entire image is complete.

Embroidery is priced by the number of stitches that the image will require, in thousands. There is no price difference for the number of different coloured threads used, but having an image that is too 'fussy' can reduce its readability.

The embroidery machines can sew onto most fabrics and garment types (including caps), but have to access to both sides of the area being sewn so there is a limit as to where a logo/image can be placed.

If you would like more information or advice on whether embroidery is the right approach for your need, then just give us a call.

Plus Points

  • Images retain their definition and colour after many washes
  • Gives the garment a feeling of value and quality
  • No extra cost for using more colours

Minus Points

  • Images can't be too 'fussy' or else they won't be readable
  • Can be expensive compared to other branding processes
  • Can only be used where there is access to both sides of the fabric
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