Digital Decorating:

Extremely Intelligent Sublimation

By Christopher Bernat, Contributing Writer

May 27, 2014

Sublimation is elevating its game and finding its way into the mainstream with its own unique space. This decoration method is taking on a more retail-centric approach, while also gaining ground with designers who — until now — resisted synthetics in the cotton-dominant T-shirt market. It now is entering into submarkets; in turn, the world of sublimation is becoming more diverse and sophisticated, and trendsetters are emerging.

Polyester has lost its negative reputation as a leisure suit fabric, growing in popularity during the past 10 years as a breathable fabric that wicks moisture away from the body and moderates temperature. These characteristics are valuable in many athletic and active lifestyle markets. Coupled with the increased popularity of SPF-protection gear for those trying to avoid the sun’s harmful rays, these factors are increasing the market for polyester. This fabric has grown in popularity to such a degree that the Cotton Council is directly marketing against it in an attempt to stem its repute. That is a major change from 10 years ago.

Some of you may have retail-branded clients, and a select few of you may even have retail brands of your own. However, most of us are slugging it out in the retail custom shirt market. It’s you versus the group down the street. The concepts and products in this article can become difference makers as you move through 2014 in search of new revenues and more customers.

Many people will insist you can only print on white with sublimation. From their perspective, they may be correct. But in apparel, that rule should be discarded. Fashion is color. The “Color of the Year” is unveiled every year with systematic praise.

When you walk into a store, you don’t see white T-shirts everywhere — or do you? Of course, it depends on where you shop, but aside from the cotton undershirt section of TJ Maxx, retail likes color, not the lack thereof.

The good news is that there are colored blank garments for sublimation. They have been around for some time but are only now catching on in the marketplace. Embrace them and retail margins can be yours as part of the reward. It’s what the retail brands are doing.

As you can see here, colored shirts for “spot hit” sublimation are ready for prime time. From fashion runways to the fishing and outdoor retail markets, color is no longer an exception — it is the standard.

If you want to get into the retail markets, then you have to do a better job than the competition at consistently delivering a perfect product that is easy to display. Part of that is ensuring you do a great job with your heat pressing.

The solution that relies on four basic factors — the correct heat press, temperature, foam and pressure:

The Correct Press: If you are going to make money with sublimation, you need to have good equipment. You need a swing-away heat press, which is critical for even pressure.

The Correct Temperature: Your temperature could range from 365˚F-390˚F. Rarely does the 400˚F sublimation standard make sense with apparel.

The Correct Foam: The Vapor foam kit was developed to help sublimators repeatedly make the perfect press. It relies on three simple principles:
1. Your artwork should be smaller than your foam.
2. Your foam should be smaller than the edges of your paper.
3. Use light pressure.

The Correct Pressure:  It is recommended that you compress the foam by one-third to one-half. This is the best way to ensure a quality transfer without scorching the garment or press lines appearing.

Accessories are perfect for sublimation, as they often serve as color accents. Since they can add a pop of color to an outfit, people remember accessories. They also can be “that cool thing” that sticks out at the office or a social event. Design-focused sublimators with strong internal creative skills can maximize this opportunity.

Socks that rock: Using hashtags, search #customsocks or #sublimation on Instagram and you will find results showing numerous lines of sublimated socks. This trend, which started on basketball courts, is spreading like wildfire to other sports, such as lacrosse and soccer. We also see them crossing over into the dress sock market. Custom socks are all the rage with West Coast commuting cyclists and are starting to show up around the office, too.

Gaiters take a bite out of the sun’s rays: Coastal markets are fanatical about the sun and protection from it. The gaiter is a piece of tubular fabric that has multiple functions. It can be worn over the face to prevent sun exposure, which can become worse from water reflection. It also can serve as a “do rag,” scrunchie and more. Sublimation is the ideal decorating process for this accessory because it can deliver edge-to-edge printing.

Scarves that won’t starve for attention: Yes, it is summer. But remember to think about sublimation for the fall and winter. It will be cold again before you know it and your customers will be looking for something new to grab their clients’ attention. A scarf could be the item that does just that.

Decorate your future forward: If you combine the power of sublimation-friendly shirt colors, precision pressing and the latest in accessories that are suitable for this decoration process, it will be hard for you not to have a positive impact with your customers in the months ahead. As the retail world embraces sublimation, we can learn from its expertise in trends and finishes. One of these is sure to have a positive impact on your bottom line in 2014.

Chris Bernat is chief revenue officer at Vapor Apparel. He is a current SGIA board member, and he speaks and writes on sublimation and mass customization for SGIA, the Imprinted Sportswear Shows, FESPA and Dig South. For more information or to comment on this article, email Chris at