Digital Decorating:

Heat Printing From Head to Toe

By Josh Ellsworth, Contributing Writer

April 20, 2016

Expression in sports comes not only from pregame rituals and post-game celebrations, but also from uniforms. Teamwear continues to evolve and so do the decorators who supply them.

When serving the team and league business, continuous adaptation is required. Trends rapidly move through sports as brand-name giants jockey for position to tout their creativity across collegiate and professional uniforms that are televised on the world’s biggest stages.  

Teams are defined by wins and losses. However, whether it’s a 5-year-old’s first tee ball T-shirt and cap or a first-round draft pick’s heat-printed jersey, the names and numbers printed on these garments define the players.

Let’s explore what’s trending from head to toe.

Metallic Films
It’s no secret that sublimated blanks in various patterns are thriving in sports uniforms, with renditions of camouflage leading the way. Regardless of the specific pattern, these blanks are challenging to print.

Dyes that bleed through lettering present major issues and risk for decorators wanting to customize allover-sublimated blanks. While common in standard game jerseys, such trends are even more prevalent in travel sports, intramural leagues and all-star uniforms. These groups are fashion forward and willing to get creative with blanks and decoration to stand out.  

One trend for tackling this style of uniform is with new translucent metallic heat-transfer films that feature sublimated patterns instead of allowing the dyes to bleed through. By using color-shifting products, patterns and bleed simply don’t matter. The translucent nature of the film changes color based on the finish and is a great option for customization.  

Metallics also continue to be popular in athletics and at retail. Consider that these color-changing products have been featured on the largest of stages and you’ll quickly find the confidence to create and show your customers outside-the-box pieces they will love.

Clear-Cut Color
Another trend in team uniforms in unity in purpose. Even collegiate teams have begun replacing last names above the numbers on jerseys with a team mantra.  Also, clear-based finishes that understate the individual player’s name are on the rise. Tonal effects are popular, both as details on top of uniform numbering and directly on the jersey. Gloss or matte clear heat-transfer films allow for cutting, weeding and a heat application that makes personalized elements possible.

The result of the gloss is a wet look, while the matte clear look leaves a laser-etched appearance on the garment. Both are best used on mid- to darker-toned fabrics for maximum impact, or lighter garments for understated branding.

While it’s not completely new, charcoal is now regarded as an acceptable alternative for black. Teams are opting for jerseys that include this neutral tone, combined with customized elements in the same family of metallics. For example, silver metallic numbering on charcoal jerseys is popular, as well as gold metallic decoration. Combined with new numbering styles, these color and font combinations create jerseys with a classy, but elevated fashion presence for a blend of traditional and edgy looks.

Beyond the Jersey
Team uniform decoration is no longer just a jersey game; there also are are opportunities from head to toe. One noticeable movement is the rise and dominance of the flat-bill cap. Like them or not, millions of athletes are wearing them every day for games and casual wear.

While 2-D or 3-D embroidery still is a leading decoration method for front customization, advancements in heat-press attachments provide tremendous profit potential for printing on the bill. Whether on top or underneath, adding players’ names, numbers or a custom mark can drive additional profit into every hat transaction.

The legitimacy of under-the-bill heat printing is cemented by the fact that this location is customized on caps that are displayed on every major national stage, from the NBA Draft to the World Series. The same trends for decoration style ring true in that this area can be customized with traditional heat-transfer films or new, trendier styles.

If you’re still searching for more profit centers, there are perhaps none bigger than in footwear. Customizing athletic sneakers or cleats is possible with heat-transfer films; all you need is a special shoe attachment to be loaded onto a compatible press. By using a flexible application pad — a special rubber cover sheet — a decorator can heat print with peace of mind knowing the shoe is not damaged.  

As we venture further into 2016, teamwear is sure to continue evolving. Heat printing is firmly positioned as a technology that allows both creativity and profit, and is quickly becoming a go-to option for brands and beginners.

Josh Ellsworth is general manager for Stahls’ For more information or to comment on this article, email Josh at or visit his website at