Digital Decorating:

Trends and Innovations in Digital Heat Printing

By Josh Ellsworth, Contributing Writer

May 27, 2014

The heat printing graphics market continuously is improving. New technology is meeting trends in performance apparel and pushing fashionable looks without compromising performance.

Synthetic garments, such as performancewear, present some of the most unique decoration challenges and opportunities. The average profit on a synthetic garment is much higher than cotton and these garments offer a much less competitive marketplace, especially in the area of low-quantity customization.

Consequently, some of the hottest trends and biggest innovations in the heat printing sector are in the printing of performance apparel and other synthetic fabrics, such as jackets and bags.

Decorators have struggled with synthetic fabric applications and have sought solutions for many years. Sublimation technology has presented quite an opportunity for decorators to print on white or light-colored polyester, but has left decorators searching for a comparable alternative for dark-colored polyester and other fabric types. Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing has largely left decorators with limited options when it comes to non-cotton fabrics. And to date, print/cut technology also has had its share of shortcomings.

The marketplace has been ripe for innovation, and decorators have been searching the pages of trade publications, trade show floors and industry forums, but have come up empty. This could be the year in which the advancements of textiles finally find similarly upgraded heat transfers capable of printing on them.

One solution is built on the development of a new style of adhesive. Manufacturers have cracked the code and now have low-temperature adhesive technology that eliminates heat press marks while mitigating against dye migration. Adhesive sets include print/cut technology, and vinyl cut and screen printed transfers that feature heat-activated adhesives that apply as low as 250˚F-280˚F, eliminating the bruising and scorching of these challenging synthetic fabrics. These products also maintain an adhesion performance that withstands the wear and tear the garment undergoes. Manufacturers are now lab-certifying products for 50-plus laundering cycles and some products are now approved for industrial wash cycles.

With a new adhesive technology in queue, additional functionality performance is being incorporated into heat-applied products.

A major advancement in polyester garment decoration is new dye-inhibiting technology for bleed resistance. Heat-applied products of old were labeled “dye-inhibiting” when thickness was increased to limit bleeding dyes, or were labeled “dye-blocking” when a metallized layer was added to the transfer to stop migration. Both of these solutions have had shortcomings in that neither meets the polyester fabric marketplace that demands a lightweight feel and pliable performance.

As one would imagine, thickness and metallized layers equal stiff, crunchy, undesirable graphics that compromise the textile’s performance. In addition to the previous adhesive breakthrough are new manufacturing processes that allow charcoal-based dye inhibition while maintaining the low melting point application. The charcoal dye filtering compound remains soft and supple, while inhibiting bleeding on most performance polyesters that are dyed, not sublimated.

With adhesive designed for synthetics and a dye-filtering functionality, we can start to get into the fun part of heat printing, which includes the effects and looks that can be created within graphics. The advent of printable special-effects materials that really work is exciting decorators in 2014.

New print-receptive coatings have been created that allow solvent and eco-solvent printing to new styles of polyurethane film with unrivaled results. One big trend is in the manufacturing of metallic-based printable material. Silver metallic has been on the market for some time, but the results were thick and rigid. New, soft metallic printable products in silver allow the delivery of virtually any metallic color with a single roll stock.

Consider full-color metallic prints for retail-ready display and trending sportswear applications. Best of all, the innovation in printable metallic doesn’t stop at silver; new printable gold metallic-based products offer creative opportunities for the artistic eye, while printable metallic white boasts an understated pearlescent sheen that can be used as an extra stylistic touch that doesn’t compromise color reproduction in logos.

Further, color-changing products that come to life at various intensities and at different viewing angles have been sought after for some time (think Oregon Ducks jerseys). New color-shifting, printable metallics are perfect for applying directly to a garment or to the face of another decoration for an added effect. This type of digital transfer product starts with a transparent printable metallic. After heat printing to a garment, the metallic’s brightness increases. The darker the base fabric to which it is applied, the more metallic the decoration will become. This varying metallic brightness creates understated branding opportunities for light-colored fabrics, such as a sleeve or back-neck decoration for an event sponsor on a golf shirt.

Glitter materials also have been trending for some time. The challenge with glitters is that they have only existed in the single-color variety for cutting or spot-color screen printing. Manufacturers have added to their range of glitters for transfer manufacturing and for films that can be cut; however, there always are limitations — namely multicolor applications.

Now, new printable glitter materials in varying base colors are significant for many decoration types. Whether upgrading a customer’s full-color logo to glitter or printing a variety of popular patterns on demand, this innovation has tremendous potential for increasing sales. Like the other aforementioned innovations, new glitter products feature a thin, soft feel along with stretch, recovery and low-temperature adhesion.

One of the more popular general trends in apparel imaging is the “wet look,” sometimes referred to as “liquid.” To mirror this, manufacturers have developed high-gloss materials that can be cut and heat applied, or reverse printed on a solvent printer and then heat applied. The resulting finish is a fashionable styling that can be applied to light colors for visibility of the printed image or to dark colors if a tonal wet look is desired.

There also are new developments in matte clear products for digital transfers. This technology fits in perfectly for heat-sensitive polyesters that won’t withstand the high temperatures of sublimation. And it presents an opportunity for nylon-based, light-colored performance fabrics that still require a soft, stretchable transfer product or just the benefits of adhesion (think tent tops, umbrellas and bags).

An added benefit is that clear products eliminate an entire step of the print/cut process in that they are reverse printed, cut, weeded and heat applied. Opaque products for dark fabrics, on the other hand, require a masking step after weeding.

Many noteworthy trends in the digital heat transfers of years past remain undiscovered and largely underused. Polyurethane-based heat transfer products remain a viable product for children’s apparel and are CPSIA compliant. Companies that use digital heat printing products find extreme value in them for decorating a variety of manufactured goods after construction. With the proper heat press and attachments, application to a variety of bags, jackets, chairs, umbrellas and additional items becomes possible and profitable.

As the performance apparel market moves from trend to mainstay, so do technology sets that allow the decoration of these garments. The shop that discovers digital heat transfer films quickly will realize there is an entire world of innovation waiting to power its decorating business into 2014 and beyond.

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 his website at