Build Your Business:

The Heat Is On

Heather Performancewear is rising in popularity, as are the soft, stretchable metallic products designed for printing on it.

March 9, 2015

In the world of apparel decorating, there is nothing more popular or challenging than embellishing on performancewear. The category continues to grow and buyers are expanding their budgets to allow you more per-piece profit. The question really isn’t whether you will decorate performancewear; rather, it’s when and how will you do it?

There are many ways to customize these fabrics. The figurative heat-printing umbrella offers a variety of solutions for customizing products with a heat press. Technologies like cuttable heat transfer film, print-and-cut digital transfers, screen-printed transfers and sublimation lead the pack.

Cuttable Heat Transfer Film
These polyurethane-based films are laminated to a PET carrier sheet that can be cut on a vinyl cutter, then weeded and heat-applied for spot-color customization. This includes layering on a variety of fabrics.

Print-and-Cut Digital Transfers
Polyurethane-based, print-receptive films are laminated to a paper or PET carrier sheet that can be printed with solvent or eco-solvent ink. Then, they are cut, weeded, masked and heat-applied for multicolor, digital customization on a variety of fabrics.

Screen-Printed Transfers
These have designs using plastisol ink screen printed onto transfer paper in a mirror image with a heat-activated adhesive. They are ready to heat press onto a wide variety of fabrics.

Here, sublimation inks are printed onto a special release paper, after which, it is ready to be applied to light-colored, polyester-based fabrics.

Each aforementioned technology set has options that can be used for performancewear printing. Sublimation is unique because the chemistry requires a certain temperature for the ink to turn into a gas and effectively dye the garment. The other technology sets leverage heat-activated adhesives that allow for a greater range of flexibility when altering the variables — time, temperature and pressure — associated with a heat application.

Due to this notable difference, we’ll explore the adhesive technology sets independent of sublimation. Let’s start with the challenges of printing performancewear to garner a proper understanding of what to look for.

Performance fabrics are comprised of synthetic materials. Whether polyester or nylon based, these products usually are sensitive to heat. When heat-pressing these fabrics, the dreaded heat press marks can be left behind on the garment, scorching or even melting it. For this reason, look for products in every heat-transfer category that limit the fabric’s exposure to heat. It’s best to find products that apply at a low temperature for a short time at the lightest pressure.

Before ordering, printing or cutting transfers, place your intended fabric on the heat press and run a dummy application for the exact time, temperature and pressure you intend to use. It’s recommended to test an inconspicuous area so the garment can be reused if scorched.

Though similar to heat sensitivity in that it should be tested, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to pressure sensitivity. This variable mostly involves how you load the garment on the heat press. Most of today’s decorators have invested in “threadable” heat presses with interchangeable lower platens. This type is essential when printing performancewear. The key to the perfect pressure is ensuring the print area is completely flat. With synthetic fabrics, any raised area — such as a seam on the press area — will cause an issue. The seam receives a lot of the applied pressure and, therefore, scorches easily, which can ruin a garment or compromise quality. Seams on the backside of garments that are not threaded onto the press also can print through easily, ruining an item.

The last pressure challenge is gaining an understanding of how applied pressure is dispersed across various surface sizes. When switching from a 16″ x 20″ lower platen to a smaller platen (such as 6″ x 10″), pressure needs to be reduced. Decorators often apply too much pressure to small areas. For this reason, we hear a lot of complaints about heat press marks on performance polo shirts with left-chest graphics.

Dye migration is another factor to consider. Polyester garment manufacturing leaves a dye in the fabric that can become unstable when heated. If applying a light-colored graphic to a darker-colored polyester fabric, then dye migration or bleeding becomes an issue. While low-temperature materials will help to inhibit the possibility
of bleeding, it is best to test your fabric
for dye-migration issues or select a dye-inhibiting material. Heat-transfer manufacturers have bleed-resistant materials that apply at low temperatures to address migration. Also, garment manufacturers are increasing their investments in stopping this issue by offering cationic polyester fabrics that are a lot less likely to bleed.

When heat printing performancewear, sometimes the garment will leave an
indentation of the transfer’s carrier sheet. There are a few ways to avoid this, depending on the transfer. Use a lower density base, such as a foam pad or heat-printing pillow, for application. Also, you can tack the heat application into place, remove the Mylar carrier, and then cover and complete the full application. This only works for cuttable films and digital transfers.

The last alternative is to soften the transfer’s edge. You can do this by placing a torn Pellon strip beneath each edge of the design. Or, if using sublimation or screen-printed transfers, simply tear the transfer paper itself at the edge, creating a soft edge instead of a hard one.

If you understand the challenges of printing on performancewear, there is no reason not to pursue the opportunity. You also can incorporate some strategy into the sales process to lend more successful production.

First, color is key. Scorch marks on dark-colored garments stand out. Black is one of the most challenging performance fabrics to decorate due to this issue. Try showing ash gray, charcoal or gray garments as an alternative to black in your next sales proposal or sample set. You will immensely expand your decoration choices. Likewise, when considering school or team colors, try avoiding shades of red as the blank wearable. Instead, offer red decoration on a white or alternate-color garment to achieve the desired color combination.

Next, understand your garment suppliers. There is nothing worse than getting a request for performancewear, flipping through a catalog and starting your first experience with a 50-shirt order that goes wrong. Invest some time into sourcing wearables now. Dial in a range of transfer types that work on the garments you want to supply and be confident in the results. You can take control of the sales process and define your
performancewear line to the customer, and everyone will be happier with the result.

Finally, understand your transfer suppliers. Take the time to discuss transfer options for performancewear with them. There are companies with complete product lines designed with low-temperature adhesives for printing on performancewear. Options include metallic materials, printable glitters, reflectives, clear matte and gloss products, neons, etc. These all are designed to help your business grow in this lucrative category.

A business would do well to separate performancewear printing products from the “business-as-usual” products. Although most transfers will stick and stay on polyester, you simply should not put a standard transfer onto a high-end performance fabric and expect sellable results devoid of the pitfalls discussed.

Josh Ellsworth is general manager for Stahls’, a direct-from-manufacturer source for heat-applied films. For more information or to comment on this article, email Josh at or visit