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Garment Printing




When it comes to apparel decorating, there are a lot of opportunities available and many markets to consider. Some of the biggest areas to concentrate on include healthcare organizations, service industries, schools, and government agencies. Each segment offers tons of opportunities for personalizing and decorating garments. No matter which market segment you choose to focus on, there is one market that you really should not ignore: the team market.

When it comes to apparel decorating, there are a lot of opportunities available and many markets to consider. Some of the biggest areas to concentrate on include healthcare organizations, service industries, schools, and government agencies. Each segment offers tons of opportunities for personalizing and decorating garments. No matter which market segment you choose to focus on, there is one market that you really should not ignore: the team market.

It doesn’t matter what season it is or what month the calendar displays, many sports are now played year round. Year-round play means year-round demand. Whether you’re talking baseball, softball, hockey, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, cheer, or volleyball; when teams are playing, then they need uniforms. It also means more spirit wear and more fan wear.

Techniques and solutions
If you’re currently only focusing on one technique, then get ready because there is a whole lineup of decorating possibilities available. Adding in new techniques is a great way to build up your offering and add to your bottom line.

Screen printing
Screen printing is one of the most popular options when it comes to embellishing and decorating uniforms. First, it’s extremely economical. Higher quantities equal higher profits. Screen printing is also less time consuming and quicker than many other processes. You can also apply it to different fabrics and textiles, from T-shirts to signs to promotional products. However, decorators may find themselves faced with a few issues when it comes to working with some of today’s high-tech fabrics (Figure 1).

Newer high-performance fabrics are extremely popular, but because they can be challenging to decorate, suppliers have begun to develop new techniques and new solutions that will work on a variety of fabric types. Many of the uniforms that you see feature polyester and nylon blends and weaves. Moisture-wicking fabrics and polyester garments are especially sensitive to high temperatures experienced during the drying process and can also have ink-migration problems. Fortunately, a number of different manufacturers have developed low-cure and low-bleed inks. Another option is to use an underbase to block the migration.

Getting ink to stick to nylon can be another challenge. The tighter the weave, the harder it is to get the ink to cure. Plastisol is formulated for cotton or cotton blends and for curing at 325°F. Because nylon can melt at that temperature, the best bet is to use a bonding catalyst. It will help the ink adhere properly and then it can be followed up with a pass through a low-temperature dryer.

Most important to remember is that nylon tends to shrink when it is heated up. A jacket holddown may be used to keep the jacket in place and help avoid shifting, especially if the garment has a shell.

Because screen printing requires different screens for every number and name, many decorators also find it easier to limit the colors and font choices. This also helps to keep costs lower.

Dye sublimation is becoming more and more popular, especially when it comes to decorating performance wear. Sublimation is a process that uses specialty inks or dyes to embed images into fabrics. In transfer sublimation, a digitally created image is printed onto special paper using sublimation ink. Then the paper is placed on the material and heat pressed. The solid particles in the dye transform into a gas and bond with the polyester polymers in the fabric before reverting back to a solid state and dying the fabric. The design remains extremely durable and won’t crack, peel, or fade.

Sublimation makes one of the best choices for decorating performance wear because it does not affect the breathability or the moisture-wicking properties of the garment. However, sublimation can only be achieved on 100% polyester fabrics, or materials that have been treated with a polyester resin coating. It’s ideal for soft substrates and 50/50 blend T-shirts. Because the dyes are less dense than other types of decorations, it is perfect for all-over prints, which are extremely prevalent in sports and fashion clothing. The only downfall is that white or light garments must be used because the colors do not appear as vibrant on dark-colored fabric.

Terry Wagner of Uniforms and More in Livonia, MI, says that he has seen a lot of growth in this area, that there are no color limits, and that customers love how lightweight the designs are. He applies dye-sub-printed graphics to a variety of apparel types, including performance T-shirts, long-sleeve compression jerseys, cycling shirts, and singlets.

Tackle twill and appliqué
Appliqué and tackle twill are often seen on professional and replica jerseys and on sweatshirts for school organizations. Tackle twill or appliqué is the sewing down of a number, letter, or other type of decoration that is created from different types of material and stitched together using embroidery. It is durable and long-lasting and can be made from fabrics such as twill, chino, felt, fleece, flannel, cotton prints, and more. Appliqué usually features thick stitching.

Tackle twill is the top choice of decorating for major sports teams. Tackle twill is made from a polyester fabric and woven into a twill-like pattern. A high-gloss coating is applied to give it a satin sheen. Tackle twill uses less thread because letters or logos are stitched down in a zig-zag pattern. While twill and appliqué can be more costly than other methods, they’re still among the most popular methods of decorating sports uniforms.

Distressed appliqué represents another look that has been made popular by leading retailers. It features a worn, vintage-like appearance. Distressed appliqué is created using a laser to specially cut the fabric, so that the edges purposely fray. The fabric is left uncoated and untreated, which allows the appliqué to continue to distress with each additional washing. While this look has been popular in the fashion market for quite some time, team dealers are taking lots of orders for distressed appliqué and applying it to team caps, sweatshirts, and other types of apparel.

Heat printing
Heat-applied letters and numbers (Figure 2) have been a staple in team decorating for a very long time. Heat printing is an easy and economical option that can be incorporated into any shop. There are a number of large manufacturers that sell die-cut letters and numbers, as well as custom-cut graphics, team names, full-color digital transfers, screen-printed transfers, and even appliqué.

Heat-transfer materials come in a wide range of options and can be applied to different substrates based upon their desired outcome. Recent advancements in materials are now breathing new life into this technology. There are materials designed to block dye migration, to create special effects, and for durability, breathability, reflectivity, and just about anything else you can imagine.
Dealers can create their own custom designs using a vinyl cutter and rolls of heat-transfer vinyl, as opposed to ordering stock designs from a manufacturer. While ordering from a manufacturer is convenient and easy, cutting what you need yourself saves time and money, and it allows you to offer on-demand customization services.

Custom transfers are another option in heat printing. Suppliers can create custom screen or digital transfers that decorators just have to heat to apply. Digital transfers are created using eco-solvent or thermoresin print/cut systems to print full-color images, fills, or effects directly onto specialty media, which is then heat-applied onto the appropriate material or substrate.

The use of rhinestones (Figure 3) has been popular in the fashion market for quite some time. Cheerleading and dance-apparel markets really seem to be embracing the trend, as well. Decorators are creating custom rhinestone designs for practice wear, warm ups, T-shirts, camp wear, sports bras, socks, and even shoes. Fans are also doing their part to make the bleachers sparkle with T-shirts, jackets, and hats featuring blinged-out logos and team names.

Grace Fuentes, owner of Sparkling Ice Rhinestone Design in Maricopa, AZ, has decorated with rhinestones since she was a kid. Two years ago, she started her own home-based business with a vinyl cutter and a heat press, featuring custom rhinestone designs.

“Soccer moms are really my biggest clients,” she says. “I create designs for a number of different types of corporations and businesses, but I find that rhinestone fan apparel is very popular, and it’s a trend that just keeps growing. The reaction that I get from clients when they see their finished design is priceless!”

Fabric and color trends
Traditionally, teams were limited to using school colors. However, there is a definite trend toward using more diverse colors on uniforms (Figure 4). Female athletes, in particular, are demanding more unique designs and eye-popping colors. Decorating with heat-transfer vinyl is a great option because it comes in a wide range of colors, which makes it easy for dealers to create one-offs featuring bright neon colors or soft pastels as alternatives to traditional school colors.

“It’s no surprise that recreation leagues, high-school teams, and boosters are slowly moving away from traditional color choices, both in ink and the garment itself. Professional and collegiate sports have led the charge towards unconventional and loud color combinations in recent years,” says Leann Farmer, of Blue Cotton. “I was struck by how many times I saw a Seattle Seahawks jersey or Baylor jersey in my Twitter feed this year due to their eye-catching uniforms. The bold use of lime green for Seattle’s football jersey and Baylor’s blindingly bright florescent-yellow basketball uniform struck up a conversation in social media, for sure. People tend to love it, or hate it.”

Trends in uniforms and sportswear are driven by professional and college sports. High-school and other team markets experience a trickle-down effect.

“As one would expect, we’ve seen Blue Cotton customers follow in the elite athletes’ footsteps and begin purchasing brighter garments and ink colors. Softball, tennis, recreation basketball leagues, and even high school teams have chosen bright neon garments with a simple black ink, or a mixture of their traditional school colors and black ink,” Farmer says. “Luckily, jersey and garment manufacturers anticipated this trend and brought new, bright, and bold color options to the market for 2013. The trend for teams and leagues has been to retire 100% cotton apparel in favor of blends and performance gear, especially as more cost-effective options of wicking apparel have become available.”

Decorating athletic-team uniforms can become a staple or a core part of any sport goods or T-shirt store. While it’s important to know trends, it’s also a good idea to be familiar with uniform-decoration rules and regulations. Whether you’re working with the coach, athletic director, athlete, or parent, they are all counting on you to know what can and can’t be applied to a uniform or jersey. Because league rules may vary, be sure to check with the appropriate league or organization with which you’re working.

Government legislation also places requirements on products used to decorate children’s apparel. The Consumer Product Safety Information ACT (CPSIA) mandates that products, which will be worn by children under the age of 12, be below the minimum requirements for lead and phthalates or be lead- and phthalate-free. When decorating for this market, it’s important to verify that the uniform and the decorations are CPSIA certified. Many manufacturers of sports lettering and materials will provide a CPSIA certificate to decorators upon request.

Custom opportunities
Now that you’re familiar with some of the most popular techniques for decorating uniforms, let’s talk about some available customization opportunities. Decorating uniforms really is just the beginning. Coordinating bags, travel gear, socks, hats, armbands, headbands, footwear—if you can customize it, teams will buy it. In addition to offering apparel, many decorators are becoming full-service providers by offering banners, graphics, window decals, and custom helmet decals. Get to know your customers, learn their buying habits, and then provide them with custom solutions to meet their needs.

Many vendors also offer online uniform builders that take customers through the entire uniform-decorating process. They can upload art, select designs, choose from different styles of apparel, and then place their order. It’s an easy and convenient way to score repeat business.

While uniform trends are often driven by professional and college sports, fashion trends often drive things like fan wear. Male and female players require different uniforms and often want different decorations, too. Staying abreast of trends and being familiar with the latest styles is very important when it comes to this business. Knowing what’s in and what’s out will keep you on top of the game when it comes to decorating team wear for your customers.

Cara Cherry is a freelance writer located in Michigan. Her industry experience includes more than five years working for a well-known manufacturer of materials and equipment for garment decorating. In addition, she has serves as a marketing and public relations consultant for several different companies and is a member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). She has written articles for various industry publications and can be reached at


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