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Digital Technologies and the Apparel Decorator, Part I

In Part I of this series, we will look at the importance of integrating digital technology and the methodology of inkjet transfers. In Part II, we cover laser transfers, dye sublimation, heat-applied vinyl, and print-and-cut media. Finally, Part III dives into heat-set media and direct-to-garment inkjet as ways to empower your shop.

By Johnny Shell, Vice President - Technical Services, SGIA

We see confirmation everywhere of digital technology as evidenced by the technological developments in our industry over the past decade. The adoption rate of digital printing and imaging is very strong, but if your shop has not yet integrated digital, this series offers various digital technology choices that are available to the apparel decorator.

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  • Why Integrate Digital Technology?
    Why would a business consider integrating digital technology? Many of the popular decorating methods such as screen printing and embroidery are time-tested choices for the apparel market. However, markets inevitably change, fashion trends and consumer tastes change rapidly as well. What's "hot" today is old news tomorrow.

    People in today's culture thrive on expressing their individuality. Nearly gone are the days when it was common to see a "swoosh" mark, maple leaf or alligator on someone's chest. Distinctiveness rules in the current social environment, and people want something that no one else has.

    Coupled with this trend is that average run lengths are dropping as the big-box stores relocate high-volume work into shops with lower production and labor costs. In today's market, the public wants it now, if not sooner. A quick-order turnaround is the standard, not an exception, with today's customer.

    By taking these facts into consideration, many apparel decorators are staking their claim in new vertical markets and making notably higher margins as a result of mass-customization, something digital technology all too easily facilitates. Accommodating the short run is what digital does best. It can handle a one-piece order easily and cost-effectively. Asking for a run length of one piece at a reasonable cost in a screen or embroidery shop is similar to asking for the impossible. The associated costs and utilization of resources is not worth the investment unless a company charges a substantial price.

    Prior to Jumping In
    Before integrating digital, there are some unique points to understand. Digital printing technology and its developments never stand still. Platforms change rapidly and little time will pass between the time you buy into a solution and the subsequent introduction of new models and features.

    State-of-the-art is short-lived with digital and the adage about the personal computer, "it's usually out-of-date by the time you get it home," is true here. While digital printing technology doesn't move quite that fast, it isn't far behind. Picking a reliable system initially ensures you won't have to upgrade every time a new model is released. Reliability can mean a system that lasts two to three generations of model upgrades before new features require you to upgrade.

    You will need to upgrade eventually. Equipment can last several years without any problems, but as technology evolves, print speeds, finer resolutions and cheaper print costs evolve as well. This will make the old reliable system appear to be a Model T Ford in an age of flying cars.

    Another important concept to think about is creating multiple lives for the technology(s) you integrate. Considering lifespan and staying on the cutting edge, you may consider choosing a solution with the ability to decorate things other than apparel. Several of the technologies discussed here have the ability to decorate multiple product types. Custom apparel is a big market, but offering additional products will ultimately mean additional market share and an expanded customer base.

    Inkjet Transfers
    Digital apparel decoration methods take on many forms and some of the simplest include inkjet and laser transfer technologies, each relatively easy to use and understand. They also are perfect for small quantities and are fairly inexpensive when compared with alternative decoration methods in which photo-realistic images are required.

    Personalization is easily accomplished from any graphic application typically used in the industry (e.g., Photoshop, Illustrator, etc.). When high-quality paper and ink are used and the transfer is applied correctly, the image will last a long time. Early transfer technology suffered because of poor wash-fastness and image durability. However, advancements in paper, coatings and ink make today's inkjet and laser transfers a viable option for low-quantity, photo-realistic images.

    Inkjet transfers can be produced using aqueous dye-based printers as well as solvent and eco-solvent systems. Among the popular choices in aqueous systems are Epson, Canon and HP while choices in solvent and eco-solvent systems include Roland, Mimaki and Mutoh. Available widths range from 21.59-cm (8.5-inch) desktop models to 2.64-m (104-inch) wide-format inkjet devices.

    Inkjet transfer paper is specially coated with two layers applied to the paper. First, a polymer is applied that is designed to split from the paper to carry the ink to the garment. The second coating is an ink-receptive layer that captures the ink when it is jetted. The design is printed in mirror-image mode and the transfer is applied to the garment using a heat press. The heat causes the coating to release from the paper and bond with the shirt, essentially trapping ink between the coating and the garment's fibers.

    The durability of an inkjet transfer is considered to be average, but largely depends on the quality of the paper and ink formulation used. Paper sizes are available in a wide variety and include 21.5 cm by 28 cm (8.5 inches by 11 inches), 28 cm by 43 cm (11 inches by 17 inches), and 33 cm by 48 cm (13 inches by 19 inches).

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    When an economy-grade paper is used, image quality can degrade after only a few laundry cycles. Premium grade papers offer optimum coating passes and base sheet material to produce a quality transfer image; however, they come at a higher price. Economy papers will offer lower prices, but transferred images will not have the longevity and durability associated with premium papers.

    Premium papers typically hover between 50-75 cents per sheet, whereas economical papers are lower at roughly 10 cents per sheet. Don't buy on price unless image quality and durability aren't a concern. Although most OEM dye-based inks will suffice for inkjet transfers, specially formulated dye-based transfer ink improves image durability and is designed to withstand color degradation caused by the heat press, and will resist fading caused by laundering.

    Inkjet transfer users also are tasked with the additional step of trimming the transfer once printed. Trimming ultimately reduces the amount of coating that is transferred to the garment. Say you have a 21.5 cm by 28 cm (8.5 inch by 11 inch) page size with an image that covers roughly 75 percent of the page: If you put the entire page into the heat press, the coating will transfer even in areas where ink wasn't printed, which will leave a transparent frame equal in size to the perimeter of the page.

    Trimming around the printed image by hand reduces the clear window effect, but will leave a small amount surrounding the image. Some shops use vinyl cutters to trim around the image, which eliminates the clear window effect associated with hand-trimming. These units can remove any inner areas of the design where hand trimming can be difficult.

    Inkjet transfer will work on cotton, cotton/poly blends and polyester garments, so the majority of fabric blends can be decorated using this technology. When transferring, the heat press is typically set to 149C-190C (300F-375F) for 10 to 15 seconds. As with screen printing, dye migration is still possible when transferring to polyester and polyester blends. Special papers are available for solvent ink systems that inhibit dye migration and should be a consideration if decorating these fabric types.

    A basic shopping list for equipment and supplies includes:

    • An inkjet printer ($49-$2,000)
    • A heat press ($500-$2,000)
    • Transfer paper (40 cents-75 cents/standard letter size sheet)
    • Ink (5 cents-75 cents/transfer)

    As mentioned, OEM ink can be used for inkjet transfers. However, it is more expensive than specially formulated transfer inks. The 11 mL to 13 mL (.37 fluid ounce to .43 fluid ounce) OEM ink cartridge is approximately $12, or roughly $48 per set of four inks.

    Inkjet transfer ink typically costs $40 for 110 mL (3.7 fluid ounces) of ink, or $160 for a set of four inks. The cost difference is significant when you consider that 1 mL (less than 1 fluid ounce) of ink will usually cover 1 square foot.

    The use of inkjet transfers provides the ability to reduce inventories, maintain a relatively inexpensive cost per transfer and reduce the lead time required prior to printing. Some disadvantages include the need for trimming, the resultant "hand" that is produced, the image's durability when compared with other techniques and the clear window that appears when there is insufficient trimming. Additionally, extra materials must be used when decorating dark garments (see the section on print-and-cut media covered in Part II).

    The next article in this series explains key points in laser transfer technology as well as dye sublimation, heat-applied vinyl, and print-and-cut media.

    Check back soon for the next part of the series.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 3rd Quarter 2008 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2008 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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