Build Your Business:

Heat Presses and the Holiday Market

Take advantage of the apparel customization options a heat press offers to boost sales this holiday season

By Cris Saunders, Contributing Writer

Heat transfers allow plenty of flexibility when selling to customers during the holidays. Photo courtesy of Insta Graphic Systems

October 21, 2022

Heat transfers have become an increasingly effective and affordable means of apparel decoration and custom brand identification. Opportunities to use transfers are expanding daily, as are opportunities for using a heat press as a tool for greater customization and profit. What better time to capitalize on this than the holidays? It’s the biggest shopping season of the year, and consumers likely will be interested in customizable gift options.

Heat transfer decorated handbag

Handbags are another customizable item that lend themselves to heat-press decoration. Photo courtesy of Insta Graphic Systems

Advances in inks, papers and heat presses have expanded the use of transfers far beyond the realm of garment decoration and have made heat-transfer application an effective method of custom printing for many industries. Gone are the days of transfers being restricted to fabrics and wearables. Depending on the substrate, options like sublimation, color copy paper, vinyl and traditional transfers can be used in the customization process.

With this in mind, let’s delve into some unique items to customize this holiday season:

  1. Holiday-Themed Aprons: This product will appeal to the at-home holiday chef. Customizing an apron can be similar to a shirt or garment, depending on the material. Keep in mind that you may need a larger-format heat press, especially if you’re planning to do an allover sublimation print or even a larger traditional transfer on the front of the apron. Remember, just like baking a cake, getting the best result is a function of time and temperature. Follow the correct “recipe” for your transfers of choice.
  2. Decorative Dish Towels: Depending on the material, towels can be another viable option for allover sublimation printing. Once again, based on the towel’s size, a large-format heat press can be useful. Even when decorating smaller items, a larger platen can allow you to do multiple prints at once and increase output.
  3. Winter Hats: Winter hats come in all different shapes and materials. It may be helpful to use accessory platens to get the best application on your heat press. You may even want a dedicated hat press, depending on the hats you choose to decorate.
  4. Holiday Artwork on Metal Plaques: That special photo of a loved one or event can be transferred using dye-sub printing on metal plaques to create long-lasting holiday memories.
  5. Book Covers: Use color copy papers to customize cookbooks, children’s school notebooks or a scrapbook for that special someone using heat-transfer papers and a heat press. Creativity with blank covers can create a special gift during the holidays or any time of year.

The list goes on and on.

Choosing the Right Heat Press

When choosing customization tools to take advantage of the holiday season, there are an almost overwhelming number of options. The most important factors in picking the right press are platen size; even heat and pressure distribution across the platen; manual vs. automatic; and style (clamshell vs. swing-away).

Keep in mind that not all heat presses are made equal. Many brands claim to have even heat and pressure distribution, but when put to the test, the applied transfer clearly shows otherwise. If the transfer is peeling off in areas or scorched in others, the heat press is not evenly distributing the pressure or heat.

Swing away heat press in operation

A swing away press is being used to customize this cloth-bound book. Photo courtesy of Insta Graphic Systems

Also, assess whether the heat press you are considering has rapid heat recovery to minimize downtime between the application of transfers. Many heat presses not only lack the ability to distribute pressure evenly, but to also reach a certain pressure level, which often results in transfer-adhesion issues. The adage, “Time is money” is true. Downtime—whether it’s waiting for heat recovery or repairing an unreliable press, should factor into your investment decision.

Do your homework before making any kind of purchase. Find a heat press that has the key elements you require for quality and reliability. Be sure to evaluate what you will be customizing to ensure you get the ideal model to meet your specific needs.

Here are a few tips for choosing the right heat press for your customization needs:

Entry-level—A smaller, manual machine that can be used with color-copy papers, stock transfers or CAD-cut vinyl offers the perfect option for customization for home, craft, school and small retail environments.

Direct-to-Garment (DTG)—For pre- and post-curing substrates, the clam-shell press style and a platen footprint matching the DTG machine will provide immediate customization ability on products from T-shirts and shoes to caps. Clam-shell presses offer a smaller footprint and are the perfect complement to a DTG printer. Choose one with an auto-open feature as an added benefit, as well as one with a lightweight, ergonomic design.

Retail/sports environments—Manual swing-away heat presses in retail settings offer the ease of dressing garments with interchangeable platens for jersey lettering and numbering, transfers and vinyl CAD-cut printing with unobstructed access to the entire platen. The manual heat-press option offers many different platen sizes, depending on your application requirement. Swing-away presses have been strategically designed for uncomplicated operation with consistent, reliable results.

Sublimation Printers—With digital printers and a heat press, you can customize just about anything. Depending on your needs, choose a heat press with the right platen or one with interchangeable platens. Using a large-format, oversized machine is ideal for customizing oversized garments, allover printing, towels, blankets, aluminum panels, wood or doormats. Having a heat press that allows for a larger gap opening to print on both thick and thin substrates provides added versatility in the customization process.

Production—For high-volume production, automatic machinery is a necessity. Not only will your output be higher and overall costs lower, but operator fatigue and chance of injury will be minimized. In addition, interchangeable platen options, various standard platen sizes and ease of repeated application will allow your customization output to be consistent.

Whether you’re an entry-level entrepreneur or a seasoned shop owner, expanding your custom product offering this holiday season could be a great business decision. With the variety of customizable printing options on the market today, as well as the various substrates that can be used, customization is limitless with the right tools and imagination. 

Cris Saunders, director of sales and marketing for Insta Graphic Systems, has more than three decades of experience in the decorated-apparel industry. Formerly with Printronix, she has held various positions with Insta and currently oversees machine marketing and worldwide sales. For more information, email