Digital Decorating:

Sublimation Ups the Ante

By Christopher Bernat, Contributing Writer

May 17, 2016

Though they aren’t focused on sublimation, several decorators who have added this decorating technique to their traditional screen-printing businesses have seen it grow faster and produce better margins than the more traditional processes their shops offer.

It seems like during the past three years, such businesses have enjoyed a series of “killer apps” that took the consumer and promotional markets by storm, and made sublimation a new buzz-worthy term for thousands of people. For the uninitiated, killer apps are great new substrates or print-concept combinations that have captured the imagination of the consumer and introduced a whole new facet to the printed apparel business.

Many sublimators have enjoyed the feverish demand from allover-printed (AOP) T-shirts and sweat shirts. This particular substrate/print-concept combination continues to be in demand, but has tapered off slightly from a couple of years ago. Now, this product category is being driven by superior graphics usage. Translation: The better the artist, the better the sales.

Hook ’Em with SPF
Since 2015, there has been a dramatic increase in sublimation for outdoor markets. From fishing tournaments and outdoor races of all types to beach yoga and surfing clubs, the combination of wicking fabrics and sun protection factor (SPF) seem to be driving consumer behavior. Sublimation being embedded into the fabric makes it a vastly superior decorating technology for segments where comfort and moisture management truly matter.

A big part of this segment’s growth has been the increased availability of sublimation-certified colors that work well with the process. Lighter coastal colors like sea grass, arctic blue and pearl grey; outdoor colors like sage; and bright tones like citrus can function well with sublimation. SPF is undoubtedly a growth engine for sublimation printers who focus on the outdoor markets.

Coming Down the Pike
Following are a few sublimation application trends that will increase in popularity in the second half of 2016:

An Arms’ Length of Value: If you live in the United States, it is hard to miss all the cool graphics on the gridiron, baseball diamond and even the pitch of the soccer field. While sublimation has taken the driver’s seat in team uniforms, it also is gaining ground with on-field accessories. Sublimated sports sleeves currently are trending, and not just for use on wearers’ arms. Soccer players now wear them over their socks and shin guards. Cheer squads also are adding them as a new dimension to their tournament uniforms.

Cooler Designs Prevail: Would your customers prefer a fabric that makes them cooler in the heat of summer? Advances in polyester yarn technologies are continuing and a new segment of technical fabrics are hitting the market. Companies like Mission Athletecare have been bringing cooling textiles to the athletic market for more than a year. These fabrics use a number of technologies to facilitate as much as a 30˚F reduction in surface temperature. Now, sublimation-friendly versions of these fabrics are coming to market in the form of cooling towels, neck gaiters and performance tops.

Cold-Climate Gear: Not all hot products are for high temperatures. The word on the street from several manufacturers is that sublimatable hand gear, such as gloves and mittens, are soon to arrive for the second half of 2016. Ski resorts, action sports brands and winter venues of all types are poised for a splash of color this year. These products will complement sublimatable fleece scarves and cold-weather neck gaiters.

The hand gear also will find itself on the sports field and in the stands. Crossover gloves currently are trending with college and professional football fans. Customized versions of these items are long overdue, so be on the lookout for them from your favorite sublimation suppliers.

Expand Your Markets
Because most new businesses fail, it’s important to remember that success requires discipline and awareness of consumer trends, as well as hard work and long hours.

One proven method for success is to constantly build a “company within your company.” Many sublimators and direct-to-garment printers have found new business by combining killer artwork, e-commerce marketplaces and print-on-demand (POD) capability.

Let’s face it; nothing is better than “zero decorated inventory.” Regardless of the order received, blank shirts and a reliable POD platform can answer the call.

Getting started isn’t easy; you must learn e-commerce, keywords and the best product-display techniques, and you have to tell the consumer a story about your products and designs. Every year, more and more commerce happens online. If you don’t engage this opportunity, you could find yourself and your equipment on the sidelines.

The good news is you already are dedicated to success. So dive into these new product innovations and bring them to new marketplaces. You may just find your business growing by 20%-30% a year.

Only time will tell what’s next. As the market for sublimation and its capacity for customization continue to grow, more apparel companies are trying to develop that next killer app for you and your heat press.

Christopher 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 more information or to comment on this article, email Chris at