Digital Decorating:

Heat Printing That Performs

Use these tips for heat printing on athleisure and performancewear.

By Stephanie Briske, Contributing Writer

Innovations in heat-applied transfers and materials allow apparel decorators to easily customize trendy and premium pieces without compromising their finish or function. Photo courtesy of Stahls’

February 21, 2023

As people across the globe continue to work from home, their wardrobe staples have transitioned from dress pants and blazers to athleisure — think matching sweat suits, leggings and other lightweight apparel. For most people, comfort is a motivating factor. For others, wearing such clothes encourages healthier habits and promotes accountability. If you’re already dressed for a workout, you’re likely to be more active.

If you’re an apparel decorator who offers heat printing, it’s important to understand how you can capitalize on this market by knowing the products you can offer and which heat transfers work best on these lightweight, heat-sensitive items. Many of today’s most popular fabrics present decorating challenges when it comes to using a heat press. Special care is required to prevent scorching these delicate fabrics and to ensure transfers will adhere correctly. That’s where your product knowledge comes into play.

Let’s jump into some top tips and considerations for a successful heat application on athleisure and performance fabrics.

Important Considerations

Pick a vinyl material or transfer that’s flexible, durable and applies at a low temperature. How you apply these materials also is crucial to ensuring a perfect print.

Using accessories like pillows, pads and cover sheets will help to protect your designs and your equipment. It’s important to have these accessories available so you’re prepared to decorate any garment style and accept any job opportunity.

Heat transfer athleisure heat printing

It’s important to understand the sizes and placements of the designs your customers may want. Avoid placing designs over mesh panels or side vents. Photo courtesy of Stahls’

It’s also important to understand the sizes and placements of the designs your customers may want. If you’re decorating performancewear with mesh panels or side vents, don’t place designs over these areas, as they serve a necessary function. But if you’re heat-applying designs to yoga pants, cropped hoodies or performance tees, you have a huge blank canvas to work with, allowing you to choose larger, more detailed designs or logos.

For the best results, stick with materials that move with the garment instead of adding stiffness. The main benefit of athleisure or performancewear is their function and ability to keep a wearer comfortable while improving their performance. The last thing you’d want to do is apply a thick, large transfer on the side of yoga pants. Keep things lightweight with the right design sizes and placements so the wearer feels good while looking good.

Cool Temps for Cool Apparel

Some of your favorite vinyl or transfers may not work for this type of apparel because they apply at a temperature that’s too high. Turning down your heat press and erring on the side of caution when trying a new product is important for ensuring a successful application.

If the material you choose has a recommended application temperature of 280˚F-300˚F, it’s best to keep your heat press set at the lowest temperature. Another reason for this is to prevent dye migration from occurring when applying designs on polyester fabric. Dye migration occurs when a polyester garment is heated to a temperature greater than 280˚F, which causes the ink used to dye the fabric to return to its initial gas form. When the garment releases the ink, it will stain or discolor any transfer being applied to it.

For instance, a piece of white heat-transfer vinyl (HTV) applied to a red polyester garment will turn pink under too much heat. You don’t have to necessarily use HTV specifically created to block dyes — although they are available — but it’s important to select one that has a low-temperature application.

The Right Tools for the Job

As athleisure continues to trend upward, heat-press manufacturers must keep developing tools and accessories to reduce the risk of scorching and find ways to provide an overall successful heat-printing experience.

Some heat presses are specifically designed to be compatible with platens of different shapes and sizes. Interchangeable platens allow you to apply heat to a specific area of the garment. These are helpful when decorating unique areas like a pant leg, sleeve, back of a collar or even tagless label.

If you plan on decorating a wide variety of heat-sensitive apparel and items, then investing in multiple heated lower platens is an even better option. These specialty platens allow heat to be applied from below, which requires less heat on the garment’s face. They come in different sizes to fit any item you’re decorating.

Other than interchangeable platens, other helpful accessories include cover sheets; pillows and pads; and even heat-resistant tapes. You can even use different types of cover sheets, depending on the materials you’re applying and the finish you’re trying to achieve. Cover sheets are a must-have accessory when working with HTV and transfers because not only do they protect your design, they also protect your equipment from ink potentially transferring to the upper platen.

Reusable heat-press pillows and pads are ideal if you’re decorating hoodies with pockets; half- or quarter-zip performance jackets; or other hard-to-decorate areas on apparel. They elevate the print area to ensure even pressure and prevent scorching around buttons, seams, zippers and other raised areas. When decorating these unique areas, accurate placement can be a make-or-break scenario for customers. You don’t want to heat print a premium item and then have a crooked or off-centered design because your vinyl moved during application. Use heat-resistant tape to keep designs secured when heat applying.

Materials That Perform

Heat transfer athleisure heat printing

Comfort is a motivating factor for people who are working from home and overhauling their wardrobes with athleisure. Photo courtesy of Stahls’

Tri-blends are super popular due to their durability, moisture-wicking and breathable properties. They’re usually soft and stretchy — perfect for binge-watching your favorite TV shows, but also versatile enough to go from the office to the gym. When decorating these items, it’s important to know the fabric composition. If you’re heat printing a T-shirt that has a fiber content of 50% polyester/25% cotton/25% rayon, choose a material that’s compatible with polyester.

Innovations in heat-applied transfers and materials have come a long way, allowing apparel decorators to easily customize these trendy and premium pieces without compromising their finish or function. There’s a wide array of materials for performancewear personalization that include soft and stretchable vinyl in neon and metallic colors; reflective options that meet safety standards; and even heat transfers that offer full-color looks in a single application.

Athleisure and performancewear trends aren’t slowing down anytime soon. By using the right materials, investing in helpful accessories and staying informed on innovative solutions, you’ll be prepared to successfully decorate any heat-sensitive garment that comes your way.

Stephanie Briske works in marketing, with a focus on providing educational and creative content for the apparel-decorating community. She currently is the senior content writer for Stahls’. For more information or to comment on this article, email Stephanie at

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Attention-Grabbing Placements

With big brands inspiring athleisure and performancewear, you really must think outside the box to create unique apparel that grabs the attention of new and existing customers. Everyone wants to wear the most popular and fashionable apparel, even if it’s in the comfort of their own homes.

With HTV and transfers, you can mimic these retail looks by heat-applying bold brand names or designs on the legs of yoga pants, across the hem of a sweater, on a sleeve cuff and so much more. HTV is so versatile and allows you to decorate beyond traditional placements and where other decorating methods can’t go. Using the right accessories and materials designed specifically for heat-sensitive and delicate fabrics, you’ll be able to heat-apply these looks at the speed of fashion.