A Memory You Can Touch

A week or two back I participated in PromoChat, a great discussion from PromoKitchen that happens every Wednesday at 3 p.m. EST on Twitter.    One of the questions in that particular week’s chat was how you could sell your products as keepsakes that would stand the test of time and still keep your customers coming back again and again.    My answer to that question was as follows:

Focus on the fact that you’re creating a memory or preserving a special moment with something people can hold in their hands and cherish forever. There are always more special moments that deserve recording.

One of the things that people selling sublimation forget is that it’s not just a way to put a name on a mug or a picture on a mousepad.   It’s also a method by which memories can be captured and keepsakes created.    Yes,  some of these items might be one of a kind keepsakes,  only special to the particular person that commissions the work,  but one of a kind generally comes with a premium price.

Humans are,  I think,  in some respect hardwired to be collectors.   Maybe it’s shot glasses or spoons.    Could be dolls or dice.   People have collections of postcards,  playing cards and scorecards.   The one thing that holds a collection together is that the particular items are linked to a particular memory.   It could be a memory of place that was visited.   It could be a memory of a much loved person who is no longer around.  Often it’s a memory of a time,  a wedding,  a baby’s first Christmas,   a graduation or a retirement.   The items we collect and keep and cherish may have no significance or value to anyone other than us,  but it’s our relationship to the items and the memories they symbolize that makes them valuable.

People who sell sublimation can often spend a lot of time debating what to make and how to sell what they make.   One of the things they can fail to take into account when figuring out what they’ll offer is what it is they’re actually selling.   Yes,  they’re selling cutting boards,  or water bottles or necklaces,  but they’re also selling memories  that can be touched and held forever.

Photos fade.  Paper degrades.  Letters and pictures and postcards eventually will become nothing but dust.  The mind forgets,  or gets filled with new memories.   You think you’ll never forget that adorable, perky, ears up alertness when your childhood dog wanted a treat,  or the beautiful sunrises at the cottage where your family summered when you were a kid,  but those memories will get less clear over time.    A sublimated keepsake freezes that memory, and gives it a physical form.  It’s something your customers can hold and hug and keep forever.

So when you’re selling sublimation,  remember that you’re selling more than a belt buckle,  or a puzzle or a keepsake box.   What you’re really selling is a aide-memoire,   a help in remembering a place or time or person that is special to the customer purchasing the item.   Memories can be fleeting or fade,  but a sublimated version of that memory will last forever.  And the best thing of all is that there are always new memories to be captured.

 

How to Create a Sublimated Patch

Sublimated patches can be a great option for many decorators.   This type of patch is able to support full color designs,  even those with gradients and fades.   Sublimated patches are a perfect option when wishing to add a photo to an item.   Tiny details that may not be easily duplicated in other decoration disciplines will often easily be handled by a sublimated patch.   Sublimating a patch also ensures that the color will last as long as the patch does,  since sublimation ink actually dyes the fabric to which it is transferred.  Clearly,  there are a lot of advantages that a sublimated patch can offer,  and one big decision that needs to occur,  how will your sublimated patches be made.

There are two options for creating sublimated patches,  buy them already made from a supplier,  like EnMart,  or buy or make blank patches of your own and then sublimate those.  Both options have pluses and minuses.

Buying  Sublimated Patches

When you buy an already sublimated patch,  it comes to you completely done.   All you have to do is put it on whatever item has been chosen for decoration.   So there’s not a lot of time involved,  other than the time to create the art,  place the order and then add the patches to the item in question when they’re received.   Artwork,  at least when ordering sublimated patches from EnMart can be fairly simple too.  While we prefer and request vector artwork,  we can work with something as simple as a .jpg.   One potential drawback of ordering premade patches may be minimum requirements.   At EnMart the minimum is 25 pieces per design, size and color combination.    If you’re doing a small job,  that may be more than you need or want to order.   Price can also be an issue when purchasing sublimated patches.   If you have sublimation capabilities,  you may have to crunch the numbers to see if making your own patches is more cost effective than purchasing them already made and sublimated.

Making Your Own Patch

The other option for creating a sublimated patch is making your own,  and there are two ways of doing this.   One is to buy blank patches already made,  and add a sublimated design to them.    The other is to make your own patches from scratch either with a sublimated fabric or choosing to sublimate the patches after they’ve been constructed.   There are costs and benefits for both methods.

If you choose to buy a blank patch,  you will have less of a minimum than you would if you were purchasing a sublimated patch,  assuming you made your purchase from EnMart.   Our blank patch minimum is 10 pieces per size and color combination.  The time invested in production would also be shorter,  as you would only have to print your design and then press it on the patch.    One issue with this method is the fact that designs that go all the way to the edge of the patch would probably not work too well.   Another is the need to purchase extra patches in case you make a mistake.

On the other side of the coin is making your own sublimated patches from scratch.   Here you would need to cut the patch,  create some sort of border,  and also create the sublimated design and add it to the fabric.     This would most likely consume the most production time.  It is also a method that may result in something that looks the least like a professionally merrowed patch,  although that may not matter.    The plus side of this method is that you can make as few or as many patches as you need.

Keep in mind, for either of these options,  you would also need to have a sublimation printer and inks and paper in order to create a sublimation transfer.     That is a cost that needs to be included when calculating what method is the most fiscally sensible for your business.  Creating your own patches may seem to cost less,  but has hidden costs in supplies and labor.

Ultimately the best method for creating sublimated patches is the one that makes the most sense for you.    If you’re working with large volumes and often repeat designs,  than having someone else produce the patches may make the most sense.   If you’re working with short runs of a few pieces,  and only need sublimated patches on an irregular basis,  then making your own could be the best option.    Remember,  the best option is the one that makes the most sense for you and your business.

How to Choose a Sublimation Paper

Way back in 2010 we did a 2 part series detailing everything you needed to know about choosing a sublimation paper.   Eight years later (doesn’t time just fly) it seemed like a good idea to summarize some of what was in that series in an effort to help a new group of sublimation printers make their paper choices.   The original posts are still very relevant and worth reading in full, so if you’re inclined,  please take a moment to read Part 1 and Part 2.    If you’re short on time,  this summary will give you the basics.

To begin,  let’s talk about the three categories into which we at EnMart divide sublimation paper.  Our categories may be different than those other suppliers use,  but our experience has shown these category designations to be accurate, so they’re the ones we use.   In our experience, sublimation paper is either

  • High release
  • Low or Standard Release
  • Hybrid (combines properties of both)

High Release paper typically requires less time to press to release the majority of the ink onto the substrate.  This type of paper tends to work well for soft goods and may provide slightly superior color transfer.   One of the main issues with this paper may be smearing,  as high release paper tends not to dry quickly.   You may also experience “blow out” on hard goods like ceramic tiles of FRP key chains,  as the dye may be released so quickly that the harder materials can’t absorb it fast enough.    High release paper may also be more prone to curling, printer jams,  humidity and other environmental issues.

Low or standard release paper is pretty much the opposite of high release paper.   It dries quickly,  so smearing issues are minimal.   This type of paper works very well with hard goods and has little instance of “blow out”.   A potential drawback of low release paper is that it takes far more time in a press to draw the dye out.   Extensive time in a heat press can cause damage to or yellowing of coatings or fabrics,  but shortening the press time could result in colors that are less vibrant than desired.   On the positive side,  low release paper does tend to be resistant to jams and other environmental factors.

Hybrid paper,  as the name implies,  combines the qualities of both high and low release papers.   Some hybrid papers are more on the high release send of the spectrum while other are similar to low release paper.   The goal with this type of paper is to capitalize on the good points of both the other types of paper while minimizing the down side.   Based on our experience,  hybrid papers tend to be the best for all around use on all substrates.

If you’re wondering what type of paper Mpres Paper,  the sublimation paper that EnMart sells is,  it’s a hybrid paper.  The time required in a heat press is closer to the high release end of the spectrum,   but it mimics the low release papers in it’s capacity for quick drying to eliminate smearing, and the excellent release of color.   This is the paper that our parent company,  Ensign Emblem uses to create sublimated patches every day.     It’s been battle tested and proven worthy and we highly recommend it.

 

The Right Way

For some things,  there is a right way and a wrong way.   When you’re loading ink cartridges into your printer,  there’s the right way,  the way that causes the cartridges to fit snugly into the printer and dispense ink in the proper manner, and the wrong way,  any way that doesn’t cause that to happen.   For most things,  however,  there may be a variety of ways that are the right way,  or which lead to completion of a desired goal.   Sometimes it’s not how you get there that matters,  but the fact that you made it to the end and accomplished a successful result.

So,  why,  given that we’ve just said there may be many right ways to accomplish a particular goal do we often say there are things we don’t recommend?  Aren’t we contradicting our own thesis?

Not really.   When we say that we don’t recommend proceeding in a certain way or using a certain product we’re giving our opinion based on our years of experience.    EnMart and our parent company,  Ensign Emblem,  have been involved with inkjet sublimation pretty much since inkjet sublimation existed.   We’ve seen it evolve and change over the years,  and we’ve been introduced to new products and new printers and new ways of doing things.   Some have worked and been beneficial.   Others have not.

Whenever we dispense advice on this blog,  we’re giving that advice based on the knowledge we have available.   We have sublimation experts on staff who give us the benefit of their years of creating sublimated goods.   Some posts offer you the benefit of our trial and error,  so you don’t have to try the same things yourselves.   Our goal is always to provide the best information we can,  based on what we know and have experienced.

We’re aware that our experience won’t be everyone’s experience.   If you try something and it works for you,  then you should certainly keep on the path you’re on.   The only thing we’re attempting to do is to give you the benefit of our years of experience and the wisdom we’ve gained over those years.   The one thing we’ve never done is claim our way is the only way.   The best way for you is the way that works for you,  full stop.

Still,  if you’re interested in our thoughts about some of the methods and products used in sublimation,  here are some posts it might be helpful to read.

Think Ink

Cobra Ink.   No name ink from China.  Sawgrass Ink.   When it comes to sublimation,  it seems like there are a lot of choices for the ink that can be used,  but that’s a bit misleading.  Yes,  there are a number of inks that advertise themselves as sublimation ink,  but not all of them work the same way in your printer.   An ink that isn’t high quality can cause nozzles to clog,  print heads to break and designs to print with reds that aren’t red and blacks that look gray.   The quality of the ink you use matters,  for a couple of reasons.

The first is the fact that calling sublimation ink by the name ink is a bit of a misnomer.   Sublimation ink is made up of a carrier fluid that carries dye solids.     Because of this,  sublimation ink has a high viscosity and, at times,  more trouble going through standard inkjet print heads.   Keep in mind,  this is not in all cases.   We have countless examples of customers who have printed successfully for years with their Ricoh 3110 or 7700 printers.  Still,  sublimation ink does have an increased potential to cause problems when used in a standard inkjet printer.  One of the reasons that the Virtuoso Printers were created was so they could be designed specifically to meet the special needs of sublimation ink.

Another issue that can create problems for sublimation printers is refillable cartridges.   When it comes to printer systems,  there are generally two types,  a closed system and an open system.   A closed system is one in which the cartridges are prefilled and installed directly into the printer.   In this type of system,  there is no opportunity for dust or other contaminants to mix with the ink.    By contrast,  an open system,  one where ink from bottles or bags is poured into refillable cartridges offers the opportunity for air bubbles or contaminants to mix in with the ink.   The result can, at worst,  be damage to the print head.

Those of you reading this,  after even a cursory glance at the sublimation section of our website,   will probably notice that we carry Sublijet Ink and Virtuoso Printers and may,  as a result,  conclude everything we’ve said up to now is biased,  but you’d be wrong.    EnMart,  or EnMart’s parent company, Ensign Emblem,  has been working with inkjet sublimation practically since the process existed.    We were instrumental in bringing inkjet sublimation to the industrial laundry and rental uniform community.   After years,  even decades,  of sublimating emblems,  and occasionally making mugs and mousepads and shirts,  we understand how sublimation works,  and we know that the products we sell will provide the best finished goods,  because we use them too.

Finding the Value

When asked what the hardest thing is about sublimation,  I often smile,  because the hardest part of running a business selling sublimated goods,  or running a business selling any decorated goods isn’t what most people would think.   It’s not figuring out what equipment to buy.   It’s not finding good suppliers.   It isn’t even learning to use the new equipment and supplies and becoming skilled enough to turn out exceptional product.  The hardest part of running a decoration business,  in my opinion anyway,  is finding the value in what you make.

Finding the value of a decorated product sounds pretty easy,  at first.  Common sense says you take the cost of the materials,  multiply it by the cost of your time,  and add a certain percentage for overhead.   You should probably also do some market research to figure out what others in your market are charging and what customers are accustomed to paying.  With all those data points covered,  it should be easy to set a price.

Sadly,  setting a price is often more complicated than that.

One thing that complicates pricing is education,  or the lack of education among the customer base.  People who buy decorated personalized goods like the fact that they’re one of a kind,  or can be customized,  but they don’t often understand what goes in to making the goods they love so much.   When people say “500 for that family tree quilt, that’s outrageous!” or “I can get a printed mug at the dollar store for less than this!”,  they’re not being cheap or mean,  they’re just being uneducated.   As decorators,  part of our job is to help customers understand what goes into making the products they buy.   Once they understand,  the majority of customers will also come to understand why you charge the prices you do.

Another obstacle to proper pricing is often the attitude of the person creating the product.  Many creators dismiss their work as a hobby,  or think they’re not really in business because their shop is in the basement.   Often,  people who do this sort of work get told that it’s just something they do for fun or something anyone could do,  if they had the time.   The result is a craft that is made to seem less valuable and,  if the creator of the goods believes this sort of thing,  a craft that is sold for less than it’s worth.    Remember,  if you don’t stand up for the value of your work,  no one else will.

Competitors can also throw a wrench into a pricing scheme.   The old saying “A rising tide lifts all boats”  is a saying for a reason.   If all the competitors in a market work to keep prices reasonable for both the customers and the business,  then everyone gets a fair deal and the businesses make what they need to make to stay open.   All it takes,  however,  is one company in the marketplace making their selling proposition low prices and the playing field changes.  Customers,  especially those who have not been educated about the value of decorated goods,  will often be attracted to the lowest priced option,  and other businesses may lower their prices to compete.   Before you know it,  customers are getting lower quality goods from businesses that aren’t making enough money to do better.   Don’t fall into the lowest price as a unique selling proposition trap.   Make good products and charge what they’re worth,  regardless of what the rest of the industry is doing.   In the end,  quality products and service will win the day.

How to Sell on Social Media

Almost every business wants social media to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,  the place that helps generate leads and turn leads into sales with almost no effort at all.   There are classes and books and webinars and seminars about how to make big bucks with Facebook or Twitter or Instagram,  and most of them won’t say the one thing that you really need to know.   The best way to sell on social media is not to sell at all. 

While that sounds like some kind of zen saying,  in reality it’s anything but. It’s a truth that most people want to ignore,  because selling,  putting up a whole line of posts advertising your goods,  or entreating everyone to come look at the latest product in your store or simply blasting people over and over again with a plea that they shop with you seems easier and faster and certainly less work than what actually helps you make sales.

The truth is that finding true customers,  those customers who will buy from you again and again and who will help promote your business,  takes time and effort.   The first step in the process is creating a social media profile that does a lot more than just sell.   A good profile gives some backstage access to how your business runs.   It spotlights your skills and expertise.   It offers education on how the decoration processes you use work,  and ideas for how your customers can benefit from those processes.   It sells,  but subtly,  never screaming but softly whispering how your products and services can benefit your customers.

The next link in the chain is building your company’s reputation and building trust with the other members of your social media community.   This means helping simply for the sake of helping,  and making connections because you have things in common,  or because you can learn from each other,  not because you see everyone else on social media as a mark,  someone to whom you can sell.  Studies have shown that people tend to buy from people and companies that they trust.   Building trust among the members of your community will lead to sales and most likely long lasting relationships.

Another handy social media function that a lot of decoration companies neglect is the ability to present your customers with ideas for what they could purchase from you.   Pinterest is great for this.   Create idea boards for specific customer categories to which you’d like to sell.   Want to sell to local schools?   Create innovative spiritwear designs and showcase them on a spiritwear board.    Have a certain hobby or activity that you really enjoy?  Create themed garments centered on that hobby and put them up on a board.   Pinterest is aspirational,   and along with the people looking for 10 ways to decorate their kitchen,  or six fun summer activities for kids,  there are people looking for shirts for their family reunions or hats for their over 50 baseball team.    Be the place where the find what they’re looking for.

Finally,  successfully selling on social media requires thinking about who your target customers are,  and where they can be found.   It means not simply asking all your friends and family to like your page,  but going out and finding the people who want to buy what you have to sell.   It means building your follower count slowly and strategically,  with a clear goal always in mind.   Selling on social media is most successful when you’re talking to a group of followers who need what you have to offer.   Being strategic and smart about how you build your page’s follower network will take more time and effort,  but will result in connections with a group of people who want to buy what you have to sell.

Sublimation Hints and Help

Like most decoration techniques,  sublimation does have a learning curve,  although it’s considerably less steep than some other decoration options.   Still,  if you’re just starting out,  or even if you’ve been creating sublimated goods for a while,  there are probably things you don’t know that could help you create sublimated items a little faster and a little better.   Every once in a while we like to do a sort of round-up post where we list some sublimation hints and tips,  in the hope of assisting our customers in their quest for the best possible sublimated product.

Cool, man! A basic step in the sublimation process is letting items cool.   Make sure the transfer paper is removed quickly when the item comes off the press,  and make sure items are laid out separately and not overlapped when cooling.   An item like a sublimated mug can be cooled in a room temperature bucket of water.   Make sure the water is not too cold,  as that could cause the mug to crack.

Humidity is the Enemy! Moisture can make a mess of your sublimated supplies,  so it’s always good to make sure humidity is kept to safe levels.   Protect your sublimation paper from humidity by keeping it in a plastic bag,  or a resealable bin.   If you’re worried the paper you’re using is too moist,  set it on your press for a few seconds.  The warmth will help remove excess moisture from the paper.   The pre-press technique can also work for garments.   Also,  using a cover that absorbs moisture,  like newsprint, in place of Teflon can help eliminate moisture problems.   Just make sure to change out the absorbent cover sheet after every press.

The Heat is On! One of the most common issues that cause sublimation failure is a heat press that isn’t heating up to the correct temperature.   Yes,  the gauge may show the proper reading,  but the actual temperature of the press can vary widely.   Make sure to test the temperature of your press frequently,  using either a heat gun or temperature test strips,  to make sure the press is actually heated up to the required temperature.

Stick to It! Heat tape is probably one of the most underrated items in your sublimation arsenal,  but it’s a must have for every shop.   Use it to keep your transfers securely positioned on your blanks.   Make sure not to tape across the image area,  instead securing the transfers on the sides.    Another useful item is a strong adhesive tape,  which can be used to secure sublimated images onto things like pendants or belt buckles.

Primary Colors! Anyone who prints on an inkjet printer knows about nozzle checks,  but they might not be as familiar with primary charts.   A good primary chart will show solid blocks of color without any lines or gaps.   Running a primary chart and a nozzle check is definitely a good idea if you haven’t used your printer for a while.   For details on how to run a primary chart from your Virtuoso printer,   visit this blog post from Sawgrass Ink.

 

What Is A Sublimated Patch?

californiaSealSometimes,  when you ask a “what is” question,  you’re asking it in a larger way –  inquiring into the meaning of a particular object or thing.   Other times,  you just want to know how something is made and how it can be used.   This post deals with one of those times.

One of the popular items we sell is our sublimated patches.   These patches are a great option for hats,  for backpacks and jackets,  for anything that needs a logo or decoration,  but is too awkward or bulky for embroidery or screen print.   They’re also a terrific workaround when artwork has a lot of colors, gradients or fades,  making it difficult to reproduce correctly with other decoration techniques.   Since sublimation is a digitally printed method of decoration,  it can create photo quality prints which can then be transferred to an emblem.   The most complicated and colorful artwork can be printed with ease.

Blank Patch Construction

All patches from EnMart are made of 100% polyester twill.   The twill is die chopped into the size required.   Before the patches are chopped,  all fabric is laminated with a layer of pellon and a layer of backing,  either sew on,  which is a fabric backing or heat seal which is an industrial strength adhesive.    One the fabric is chopped to the necessary size,  it is merrowed with merrow floss – which is 100% polyester as well.     These patches are designed to withstand an industrial wash and dry,  so they are durable and will most likely last as long as the garment to which they’re attached.

Adding Sublimation

Sublimation is the process of printing artwork onto sublimation paper,  creating something called a transfer.   The printed image is then transferred, using heat,  to polyester fabric or a poly coated item.   Sublimation only works if sublimation ink,  paper and polyester fabric or a poly coated item are used.

When we sublimate the patches,  we create the sublimated images first,  then die chop and merrow the patches.    For those who want to purchase blanks and do the sublimation themselves,   both the patch fabric and the merrow can be sublimated,  although we make no claims about how well the merrow thread will sublimate.  If the blank patch being sublimated has heat seal backing,  put a piece of Teflon under the patch when pressing the image.   The adhesive on the patch can be easily peeled off the Teflon and,  once cooled,  can be sealed to a garment without issue.

What About Artwork?

As with any decoration technique,  great artwork leads to a great finished product.   Vector artwork is always preferred,  although our Design Department can work with .jpgs and pdf files if necessary.   The thing to keep in mind is that quality artwork,  high resolution,  which can be resized up or down without loss of crispness or integrity,  will produce the best prints and the best final product.   EnMart’s sublimated patch costs do not include a separate artwork charge unless we have to redraw or extensively manipulate the submitted artwork to create an acceptable finished product.   In those cases,  there will be an art fee charged.

Where To Use Sublimated Patches

Sublimated patches are a great accent for almost any item.   They’re particularly useful for items that are perhaps tougher to embroider or screen print,  either due to size or construction.    Hats are one item that work well with sublimated patches.   Backpacks and totes are another.   A sublimated patch can be a great option for a uniform or corporate wear,  particularly if the garments might change owners regularly,  as patches can be removed.   Sublimated patches are also great brand building tools,  as they allow the addition of branding to almost any item of apparel.     Keep in mind that the ability to withstand high heat is not necessarily a qualification for the use of a sublimated patches,  even though the standard backing on a sublimated patch from EnMart is a heat seal backing.   This in no way precludes sewing the finished patch on the item to be decorated.

Common Questions About Sublimation

Getting started with sublimation is really pretty simple,  but there are some common questions that people always seem to ask.   Since,  we know,  from talking to customers,  that people who are thinking of getting into sublimation do a lot of research online,  it seemed like a good idea to answer some of these common questions in a blog post.   So that’s what we’re going to do.

Common Question #1:  What does it cost?   First of all,  there are the costs of buying the equipment and the inks and the blanks and heat press and paper you’ll need to get started.    Often you might be able to find a package that will allow you to buy those items bundled together at a discount.     So that’s your initial cost to get set-up and ready to print.   What many people forget or calculate incorrectly,   are the costs that come along with setting up a business.  Overhead,  salary,  electricity,  heat,  all those things have to be considered when figuring out what having a sublimation business costs.   Sawgrass has done a terrific post on this subject for those who want more detail.

Common Question #2:  What should I charge?  A perennial problem for people who do creative work is figuring out what to charge.   Some use a formula,  their cost times a certain amount.   Others add up all their expenses and then figure out how much they need to make per hour to cover their overhead costs and salary.   One issue that can occur,  whatever formula used,  is that the business in question is charging less than the market will bear.   Leaving money on the table is never a good idea,  so make sure you know your market and what sort of prices your competitors are getting.   You can read more about how to set your prices in this post.

Common Question #3:  Is sublimation hard?  This is a question that can be answered in a couple of different ways.   One answer is this:  when compared to other decoration disciplines,  sublimation probably has the smallest learning curve and the shortest time from set-up to production.   Another answer is this:  Sublimation does require at least a basic knowledge of graphic software,  a comfort with working with a heat press and the ability to conceptualize designs.   For most people, sublimation should be pretty easy to learn and do.   The big trick is avoiding sublimation intimidation and getting yourself to take the first steps and try decorating some blanks.

Common Question #4:  How many items can I print per kit of ink/pack of paper?  Honestly,  if there’s a common question we dislike intensely,  it’s this one,  because of all the variables involved.   Things like your printer settings,  the size of the items being sublimated,   and other factors that will vary from shop to shop make it hard to give a precise estimate.   Generally,  we decline to speculate,  simply because it’s often assumed that what we’ve said is written in stone and not our best guess.