What’s the Best Printing Method?

question-markYou have a shirt – or a tote bag – or a mug or mouse pad – and you want to put a design on it.  You also have,  since this my scenario,  access to several methods by which you can print these items – a direct to garment printer,  a screen printing press and inks and a sublimation printer and inks.   The question many people would ask at this point is the question in the title;  which of these options is the best printing method?   The answer we’d give you?

That depends.

There are several factors which will determine what printing method works best,  and there is no single method that will always be the best option in every situation.  Determining the print method that should be used requires knowing things about the substrate your going to print as well as understanding the properties of the machines and inks you’ll be using to make the print.   If you understand both the substrate and the process you’ll be using to print it,  you’ll make the best choice and produce the best print – both for the substrate in question and for your customers.

So,  that said,  what should you look at when deciding which method to use?

First,  look at fabric type.   Fabric type can make a difference because certain fabrics won’t work well with certain printing disciplines.   Sublimation,  for instance,  only works on polyester.   It can be done on polyester blends,  but only if a distressed look is the end result.    On the other hand,  screen printing on polyester can be problematic because of dye migration,  which means the ink bleeds into the fabric.    Some of this can be avoided by using an underbase,  but it should be considered.    If the fabric is cotton,  sublimation is out,  as it won’t work on cotton.   Screen printing or direct to garment printing would work,  it just depends on the sort of finished look the customer desires.

Second, color is another issue.   Sublimation does not offer a white ink option – so it only works on light colors.    If the goal is to sublimate a dark shirt,  about the only option would be to sublimate a lighter piece of poly fabric and attach it to the shirt.  Direct to garment printing and screen printing both allow for the printing of a light colored underbase,  over which a colored print can be laid,  so they’re often better options for dark colored garments.

Third,  hard goods have different rules.  If the substrate to be printed is not a garment,  the printing choices become somewhat more limited.   Should the item in question be blank that is coated for sublimation, then sublimation would clearly be an option.   In some cases,  posters for instance,  screen printing might be an option.  Screen printing can also be done on things like can coozies and certain types of water bottles.    Direct to garment printing,  as the name implies, is generally confined to wearables.

Obviously,  this is a basic overview,  but it offers a bit of insight into printing methods and how to determine which one will work in a given situation.   The main thing to remember is that each printing method will have strengths and limitations,  and knowing those strengths and limitations will ensure that you offer the best option to your customer when the time comes to print.





Decoration Intimidation

The first title for this post was sublimation intimidation,  but I soon realized that the problem doesn’t just lie with sublimation,  it could involve a heat press, or an embroidery machine or a direct to garment printer or almost any piece of equipment that can be used for decoration.    The issue I want to discuss today is the fact that new equipment and new decorating practices can often seem intimidating and that taking the first step and just getting started is often the most difficult part of the whole process.    I think almost all of us have experienced this form of intimidation at one time or another.  The question we need to answer is how to get past the intimidation factor and move on to successfully using your equipment.

The first thing to remember is that your equipment is tougher than you think.   Yes,  it is possible to break a machine or a printer,  but that probably isn’t going to happen if you push a button or send a print job.   Most manufacturers or suppliers will also send printed instructions or direct you to a website which can help you with set up.    There is also always a tech support option if you get really confused.   Before you do anything else,  you have to take the machines out of their boxes or crates and get them running.   A machine you’ve spent good money on that never gets used certainly isn’t going to be a good return on your investment.

The second thing to remember is that you will screw up.   You’ll print something backwards.  You’ll put something on the heat press the wrong way around and get ink on the platen.  You’ll sublimate something for too long or for not long enough and end up ruining a blank.    Mistakes will happen,  but they aren’t the end of the world.   EnMart sends practice fabric with our sublimation systems precisely because errors happen, and it’s always best to  build a mistake fund into your budget,  that way you can make mistakes without impacting your bottom line.  It is also a good idea to not take any rush jobs until you’re familiar with and secure in your ability to operate your equipment.  Nothing screws up a learning curve like deadline pressures.

Third,  remember that there are resources out there to help you learn how to use your equipment and be successful at whatever decorating discipline you choose.   There are blogs like this one.   For sublimation and ChromaBlast system owners,  Sawgrass has a variety of education and technical support information on their website.  Many suppliers will offer videos or instructional downloads for the machines or supplies they sell.   There are also forums and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter which provide a place to ask questions and find help.

What it comes down to in the end is being willing to work past the intimidation to give something new a try.   You did the research,  you decided what decoration discipline you wanted to add to your business,  you purchased the necessary equipment and supplies,  and now you’re too intimidated to take the stuff out of the box.   You’ve already made a monetary investment,  now make an investment in courage and in time.   After all, equipment that’s left in a box only generates revenue for the person who sold it.

Sublimation, Direct to Garment and Transfers

Since we deal with sublimation,  and are becoming known as rather knowledgeable in that field,  and since we also create and sell screen print transfers,  we often get calls from people looking for garment decoration options.  Sometimes they want to know how a particular garment they’ve seen or been asked to duplicate was decorated.  Other times they’re simply looking for the most cost effective or easiest way to decorate a garment.   We once did a post that compared ChromaBlast to other cotton decoration techniques,  but I don’t believe we’ve ever covered the differences between sublimation and other techniques.  I thought I’d correct that today.

Let’s start with the one we deal with most often, sublimation. This type of decoration can be used on 100% polyester garments,  and can also be used on mugs, mousepads,  booksmarks and a variety of other items.  The only requirement is that the item be either 100% polyester material or be 100% poly coated.    The sublimation process bonds the ink to the garment or the coating,  so there is no hand.  The print literally becomes a part of the substrate.   Sublimation works only with light colored garments or items,  and cannot be used to create white images or for printing on dark colors.   In order to create a sublimation transfer,  you need a printer for which sublimation cartridges or inks are made,   sublimation ink,  and sublimation paper.

Next we’ll look at direct to garment printing.  Like sublimation,  direct to garment printing requires a special printer and special ink.   As the name implies,  direct to garment printing is done directly to the garment,  there are no transfers.  Direct to garment printers tend to be more expensive than sublimation printers,  and there may be more of a learning curve when it comes to learning how to use the printer.   Some direct to garment printers can be used to print white and create prints on dark colors.   These printers are, generally, on the higher end of the price scale.   Direct to garment prints must be cured with a heat press,  and will have a bit more hand than a sublimation print.

Finally, let’s consider screenprint transfers.   These transfers are created from screen print ink,  and are sealed to the garment with a heat press.  There is a distinct hand to a screen print transfer.   These types of transfers are often used for the names and numbers on sports uniforms.  Because they are transfers,  they can be made in any color and used on any color fabric.    They can also be heat sealed to any type of fabric,  the only requirement is that the fabric you’re using can stand up to the heat of a press.   Screen print transfers can be custom created or, in the case of things like numbers or letters can be purchased from stock.