Digital Decorating:

Decorating Methods Up Top

With so many advancements in headwear technology, cornering this market niche is a snap

By James Ortolani, Contributing Writer

STAHLS’ Ultra Color Max DTF heat transfer being applied to a six-panel cap over the seam. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

February 22, 2023

My career started in the imprinted sportswear industry selling both screen-print and heat-transfer equipment for embellishing caps. My job included testing various methods for decorating headwear. Little did I know that 38 years later I would still be involved in helping headwear decorators find the best decoration method that fits their needs.

In the early years, foam-front trucker caps were the main cap styles available. I must have printed 10,000 of these hats at tradeshows and at customers’ shops over the years. Today, there are many other headwear styles available, like unstructured caps, structured six-panel caps, visors, beanies and more.

Along with these new headwear styles came the opportunity for equipment manufacturers to develop innovative machines and technologies to meet cap decorators’ needs. These include heat-applied plastisols, flock and sublimation graphics, embroidered patches and direct-to-film (DTF) transfers. It’s important to research the best decorating method for your shop, and you may ultimately require one or more of the processes below, depending on how many hat styles your business offers.

Transfer Varieties

Heat Transfers are one of the most popular choices to get started in decorating headwear since the process has an easy learning curve and a low startup cost. When choosing a cap heat press be sure to buy a machine with interchangeable lower platens to fit the contour of a variety of crown heights. With trucker caps, for example, a larger lower platen is needed. For structured hats a smaller crown height lower platen is necessary.

Transfer Express Stahls' Hat Heat transfer

A single color GOOF PROOF plastisol transfer by Transfer Express on a six-panel cap. Photo courtesy of STAHLS’

While on the subject of heat presses, it’s worth mentioning that the STAHLS’ Hotronix line includes a heated upper and lower platen machine, and Geo Knight & Co. offers the option of a heated lower platen with its cap presses. Both are ideal for heat pressing embroidered or leather patches that have a heat seal adhesive backer.

Another innovating hat press design is Geo Knight & Co.’s dual lower platen machine, which allows the operator to load a second cap, while the first cap is being pressed. (For more on cap presses, see Finding the Right Heat Press: Part 2.)

Sublimation Transfers are a great choice for decorating on 100 percent polyester foam caps. The equipment needed for this process includes a computer for generating artwork, a desktop ink jet printer, sublimation ink cartridges, sublimation paper and a hat heat press. Get yourself these straightforward pieces of gear, and you’re in business.

Plastisol Heat Transfers are the most common type of heat transfer, and there are many transfer manufactures in our industry that offer custom “screen-printed” transfers for cap decorators. In some cases these companies can ship their transfers the same day the order is placed, allowing quick turnaround time’s customers.

Screen-printers can easily make cap transfers in-house using the same plastisol inks they’re already working with to print on garments. It’s a low investment for screen printers to add custom heat transfers to their arsenal, since all they need to add to their operation is a vacuum platen to hold the transfer paper in place while printing, heat transfer paper, adhesive powder and a cap heat press.

It’s important to use a cap press that comes equipped with a Teflon hold-down strap positioned between the upper heat platen and lower cap platen, that or some other kind of clamping mechanism. A nice thing about a Teflon strap is that in addition to allowing the machine operator to easily align the transfer prior to heat pressing, it also applies light pressure against the back of the transfer after the machine is opened. This in turn provides a second or two for the heat-transferred graphic to cool down before fully opening the press.

Note: Opening a cap heat press too rapidly after heat pressing can cause the edges of the transfer to lift and not adhere to the cap surface since the ink is still very hot and fragile on the edges.

A cap heat press also must have an adjustment knob to increase or decrease the platen pressure to accommodate for different material thicknesses. Some hat presses use a simple timer, requiring the operator to open the press manually at the end of the pressing cycle. There are also higher-end models available that open automatically at the end of the transfer cycle time.

Direct Screen-Printing

There are two main techniques for direct screen-printing on caps: printing the cap flat and printing on a curve.

Screen-printing a cap flat is an old-school method that works. However, it is also somewhat limited in terms of the image size that can be printed. Finding a good way to hold the cap secure to the platen can also be a challenge. One solution is to use a spray adhesive to hold the cap to in place. More sophisticated machines often employ a mechanical cap hold-down device.

It’s important to be aware that printing large logos on caps via the flat screen-print method will often cause distortion when the hat is removed from the platen. For example, screen-printing a round circle design flat on a cap front can cause the image to distort into an oval shape when taken off the platen.

By contrast, screen-printing caps on a curve is the far better choice for reproducing larger graphics and avoid image distortion when removing the hat from the platen. On the downside, there is a slight learning curve with this method in order to achieve a clean, crisp image. I recommend using a somewhat coarse 86 or 110 mesh to allow the ink to clear the screen on the first squeegee pass, thereby avoiding the need for multiple passes and possible misprints.

Printing over the seam on the front of a six-panel structured cap can also be a challenge. For printing this style of hat, machine manufacturers offer a lower platen with a groove down the center into which the seam fits thereby providing an even print surface.

Embroidered Hats

In the early years, embroidery machines were not designed to stitch over a curved surface. This all changed when embroidery machine manufacturers began modifying select machines with a “drop table” that allowed a cap to be loaded on a hold down mechanism on the machine. Today there are a wide range of hat embroidery systems available from such equipment manufacturers as Melco, Ricoma, brother, Avancé, Barudan and Tajima to name a few.

Embroidery machine hat

Choosing the right embroidery machine can increase production efficiency.

Not surprisingly, these kinds of embroidery machines became a total game changer in the cap market. Today, many decorated caps sold in retail stores are embroidered. As a side note, these kinds of embroidery machine upgrades have not only allowed cap decorators to offer embroidery on hats, they’ve solved the problems inherent in direct screen-printing on a curved surface.

Ultimately, adding customized headwear to your business is a great way to bring in new customers and to stay ahead of the competition. The slower winter months are a perfect time to gear up for customizing headwear just in time for spring and summer.

James Ortolani has 40 years of experience in the decorated apparel industry, specializing in hands-on, direct screen printing and heat-transfer production. For more information or to comment on this article, email James at