Digital Decorating:

Print Like the Pros

By Josh Ellsworth, Contributing Writer

This uniform shows the wide range of possibilities for decorating with heat-transfer film.

February 24, 2017

A big part of the ongoing success of any decorated apparel shop in the team uniform market is staying abreast of the latest trends. Being perceived as the shop that always has the hottest new looks can be an advantage in this competitive arena.

The saying “change or die” applies to team uniform decorating as much as anything else. While the team uniform market is considered traditional, there are exceptions to the rule, and you should present new looks to your team customers who may be ready for a change.

Big brands like Nike, Under Armour and adidas drive some evolving industry trends, and they are good examples to look to for clues regarding the direction in which team uniforms are moving.

The following are seven observations of today’s team uniform industry.

1. Decorating Options:
There are three primary ways to decorate team uniforms: screen printing, embroidery appliqué and heat-applied graphics.

There are several sub-categories within the heat-applied graphics group, including screen-printed heat transfers, digital transfers (sublimation, inkjet, color laser printer, printer/cutter) and film-based cutter materials.

Each type of heat-applied graphic has its pros and cons, which should be taken into consideration when choosing the method to use for a particular job.

For example, there are three ways to heat apply a number and name to a uniform. The first method is to buy individual precut letters and numbers, and position and heat-seal them on a uniform.

Another option is to purchase cutter material and cut your own numbers and names; however, cutting numbers can result in wasted material, especially in the production of two-digit numbers.

The third way is to purchase precut and prespaced names and numbers, which come on a clear carrier sheet ready to be heat applied. This is the fastest production method, but also the most expensive.

The most cost-effective solution is to combine methods and buy precut numbers and cut your own names.

2. Performance Fabrics: Today’s team uniforms are made of soft, light, stretchy fabrics that are moisture-wicking, antimicrobial and offer other features, such as compression. The heat-applied materials used to decorate these fabrics must be able to stretch and rebound back to their original shape without distortion.

Another challenge with performance fabrics is that they are, by and large, made of polyester, a material that scorches under the traditional 300°F-plus heat-transfer temperature settings. It’s also important to avoid putting a heavy, rubbery-feeling decoration on an airy jersey. The decoration needs to be light, breathable and have a soft hand to be compatible with its substrate.

There are a variety of heat-applied graphic materials designed specifically for this type of apparel. So as a decorator, it’s crucial that you offer two main types of materials: all-purpose products for cotton/polyester T-shirts and choices for performancewear.

3. Detailed Logos: For years, sports names and numbers were printed in either a plain block or script font. Now, there is a trend toward using more detailed, intricate fonts, which are being integrated with team mascots or graphics to create more eye-catching, sophisticated looks. This trend extends to team uniforms and fanwear.

To offer this look, choose your decorating process carefully. The printer/cutter process, which involves inkjet printing a design on white material and then contour cutting it, is ideal for high detail. One of the newer trends is to use a laser cutter to create graphics with film-roll goods. Laser cutting also reduces the amount of weeding necessary, which always has been a barrier to doing intricate designs with a blade because it can double or triple the weeding time.

4. Stretch Litho: A new hybrid transfer, called stretch litho, allows decorators to offer full-color screen printing with no limitations on colors. While printer/cutter transfers are ideal for smaller-quantity, full-color jobs, the cost does not decrease as the quantity increases. With stretch litho, however, the price drops as the quantity increases, making it ideal for orders of 100 pieces or more.

5. Color Blocking: Color blocking is making a comeback in the decorated apparel marketplace. Color accents are added on elbows, across shoulders, in striping and side panels, or in piping and trims on uniforms.

In terms of adding decoration to a color-blocked garment, if color matching is a concern, a printer/cutter is the ideal process. You can most closely match a color using a printer/cutter vs. being restricted to the stock colors of film-cutter materials.

6. Standout Details:
The bling trend lives on, with metallic gold and silver continuing to be sought-after effects for uniforms and spiritwear. Teams like to stand out and metallics are a good way to achieve that goal.

Tonal prints are another evolving trend at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s an understated look that almost blends in with the garment. You can easily create a tone-on-tone look by using a clear glossy or clear matte heat-applied material. It allows the shirt color to show through, but provides just enough sheen to make the graphic visible.  Tonal effects also work well as accents, especially on players’ names.

Another trend is using a team motto — as a tonal effect — instead of players’ names. A motto can build team camaraderie and, if done subtly, won’t compete with the number.

 7. Patterned Twills: Twill used for embroidery appliqué has long been a staple in the team market especially for football and hockey jerseys. Many suppliers sell patterned twill numbers. Patterns also can be incorporated with heat transfers. A heat-applied film does not add a lot of weight, but gives an eye-catching two-color effect.

These ideas can help you offer new looks to your team uniform customers. Doing some research and development to come up with new looks on your own often can pay off in increased sales. Experiment with these tips and see if you can get your team customers excited about having the most unique uniforms in their league.

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