Digital Decorating:

Heat Printing: Take a Number

Keep in mind these advantages of heat printing athletic numbering.

By Josh Ellsworth, Contributing Writer

In the vinyl-cut workflow, numbers can be ordered pre-cut or can be cut on demand with a vinyl cutter. All you need is a heat press. Photo provided by Stahls’.

April 30, 2019

Numbering on team uniforms is an essential part of administering the game for apparel decorators servicing this market niche. Athletic governing bodies often have rules stipulating the specific numbers that can be assigned to certain player positions, as well as sizes and colors.

Having legible numbers is important to their function. There are many ways to apply numbers to a team uniform, including screen printing, appliqué, sublimation, screen-printed transfers, print/cut and vinyl-cut material.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a consensus on the “best way” to number uniforms due to the pros and cons associated with each technology. Therefore, it’s important to understand where each method thrives. Let’s focus on the benefits of heat printing and why a shop may want to make it a core numbering method.

Lean Technology for Numbering
Consider the options for screen printing a number. While there are several different screen-printing presses and workflows that are suited for numbering, they share certain realities.

First, a screen is needed for every font, size and digit. This means that offering a selection of fonts in various sizes requires an investment and space to store the screens. Most shops choose to burn numbers once and hold the screens for all orders. Some screen-printing numbering systems require a single screen per digit, while others hold five or more digits on a single horizontal screen.

In any case, there is an inventory need. Offering eight fonts in the common athletic-number sizes — 4, 6, 8 and 10 inches — would require 288 screens. If all eight fonts offered an outline color for a two-color look, then the total screen count would be doubled. It’s not that this makes screen printing numbers too costly, but it requires upfront and ongoing capital to scale equipment and selection.

This is a primary reason that many sports businesses choose to decorate with heat printing. Rather than housing screens, decorators typically choose vinyl-cut or screen-printed transfer numbers. In the vinyl-cut workflow, pre-cut numbers can be ordered or they can be cut on demand with a vinyl cutter. This gives the designer access to millions of fonts digitally via a graphic-design program.

With screen-printed transfer numbers, a decorator gets the benefit of a plastisol-ink look and feel while ordering the numbers already printed on a transfer sheet. While there still are screens being burned and held in the process, the decorator places orders alongside all the other sports companies served by the transfer manufacturer. This translates into a broader font selection without the inventory.

Clean & Versatile Technology
Heat printing numbers requires only a small space to get started. It’s a clean process that many businesses complete on a factory floor or in an office environment. Even with just a heat press, much can be accomplished.

The team-uniform space is comprised of many different fabric types, all with unique challenges. Screen printing on these fabrics requires expert knowledge, and specialized inks and chemicals. In heat printing, the chemistry is baked in. Whether it’s a screen-printed transfer or film for vinyl cutting, there are many adhesives, dye blockers and compositions to solve today’s uniform challenges.

A great example is silicone-based heat-transfer film that allows a decorator to print polyester jerseys that may bleed without the headaches associated with screen printing silicone. There also are new water-based technologies in transfer numbers that address the demands of eco-conscious consumers and big athletic brands. Water-based inks tend to be difficult, especially when printing on synthetic fabrics. Water-based transfer numbers are a much simpler solution, only requiring the decorator to apply at the correct time, temperature and pressure with a heat press.

Player-Name Customization
While some teams still don’t use player names on jerseys, most include them as part of the standard back decoration above or below the number. Heat printing is a viable solution for applying individual player names.

Vinyl cutters process materials that can complete an entire roster in minutes. These names then can be added to the jersey, often at the same time the number is heat-applied. Most decorators want the name and number to have the same look, feel and color, so heat printing makes sense in that regard.

If selling into the athletic space is part of your business, consider heat printing. It has been a primary choice for team decorators for decades. Now, many of the largest brands realize the benefits, too — whether it’s for an arena fan shop, sponsored travel team or customer experience in a flagship store. All that’s needed is a heat press.

Josh Ellsworth is the vice president of sales, dealer channel for Stahls’, a GroupeSTAHL company, Sterling Heights, Michigan. For more information or to comment on this article, email Josh at

Heat Printing: Beyond Basic

In addition to the core considerations, there are even more reasons to use heat printing for athletic numbering — especially for unique jobs or experiences.

Heat printing is a mobile technology and often creates sales at events or games for fans at the highest levels. The ability to pick the number and press or cut it on demand is an easy workflow that generates profits.

When full-color numbers are needed, the digital print/cut method often is chosen by decorators. This process uses a CMYK printer to create numbers that include effects, logos and the like for special-occasion jerseys, and intramural or club sports. Sometimes, sublimation even is applied to white polyester twill for a mixed-media look that delivers a premium finish.

Heat-printed numbers also are manufactured in products that rival sewn-on tackle twill. These special numbers help provide an authentic look in a fraction of the time as other methods, allowing a decorator to deliver something quick and on budget.