A Tale of Two T-Shirts

By Tom Chambers

Occasionally when people are researching sublimation and asking questions, I hear variations of this one:  “Can I sublimate cotton?”  While the short answer is “no”, as with most things, there’s more to it than that.

Usually some follow up questions reveal that the goal is to do sublimation onto sublimatable blanks, and to also be able to do cotton (or 50/50 poly cotton) t-shirts, because the cotton and cotton blend shirts are cheaper than higher quality, longer lasting polyester t-shirts, and they believe they need to create an inexpensive t-shirt to sell to a market that doesn’t want to pay much for it.  That in turn opens up a whole other discussion involving the differences between the two main types of t-shirts and their respective markets.

On the one side, you have polyester t-shirts with a comparable feel and look to cotton, that for a variety of reasons cost significantly more than cotton or blended cotton t-shirts.  However, most polyester t-shirts are of a much higher quality, will last a lot longer, and of course can be sublimated – which is permanent, and has no “feel” to the design.  Not to mention being able to accept full color photo quality artwork.  This more than compensates for the relatively small difference in price – but because of the higher price, you’d have to charge more for the shirt – effectively changing the target market.

On the other side, you have cotton and poly-cotton blended t-shirts.  These are available everywhere from a wide variety of manufacturers with a lower price per unit, and as a result, many decorators use these shirts to create inexpensive products that sell for a low price.  Unfortunately, you can’t sublimate them.  Or can you?  More on that later.

These two sides create a myth of two seemingly irreconcilable shirt types.  The truth is that each shirt is well suited for its own particular market and decoration method.  Cotton lends itself to mainstream, mass production, and discount markets due to the lower cost, whereas polyester is well suited to a completely different market that is willing to pay more for a higher quality, longer lasting shirt that can be decorated in full color photo quality graphics and customized very easily.  The shirt types aren’t irreconcilable – the two different markets are.

To put it another way, someone that wants a cheap $10 t-shirt isn’t going to pay enough for the sublimated polyester t-shirt to cover your costs plus enough extra for you, the decorator, to make it worth your time.  Likewise, someone wanting a nice custom full color t-shirt isn’t looking for something they can make themselves with some transfer paper from an office supply store, the ink in their home printer, and an iron.

It all boils down to knowing what your market is, and selling it what it wants.  Sometimes it’s one type of t-shirt, sometimes the other, and sometimes both.

But what if you are just starting out, and want to do both types and sell to both markets, without buying 2 systems?  There is a way.  Earlier I mentioned that you couldn’t sublimate onto cotton.  Technically, you can’t – it’s a scientific impossibility and it will never happen – but you can fake it.

So how do you achieve this wizardry?  It’s simple.  Take your sublimation system, with sublimation ink, and sublimation paper, print onto ChromaBlast transfer paper, and transfer to 50/50 poly-cotton t-shirts.  The sublimation ink will “sublimate” to the polyester part of the shirt, and the film from the Chromablast transfer paper will bond to the cotton part and carry the rest of the ink over that way.

It’s a hybrid type of transfer method that will let you use one system to print two different things, and works well when you are starting out until you get enough volume to justify a dedicated system for each.

Use your sublimation system and ink with sublimation paper to produce all those premium quality custom promotional items and polyester t-shirts that you can sell for top dollar, and use the same system and ink, with ChromaBlast paper, to produce those t-shirts you plan to sell at a lower cost.

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation. 

Sublimation and Multimedia Decorating

puzzle-piecesMultimedia decorating,  which is essentially decorating a garment or wearable by combining two or more decoration techniques,  is a popular way to add a lot of visual interest to a garment.  When people talk about multimedia decorating,  however,  they tend to talk about adding rhinestones to embroidery,  or combining vinyl with screen print.   Sublimation is often left out of the conversation,  which is sad,  because sublimation can combine quite well with a number of other decoration techniques to create a one of a kind garment for your customer.

Let’s start with embroidery.    One of the fun parts of machine embroidery is that it can be done with polyester thread.   Polyester is the material that can be dyed by sublimation inks.   So,  it is possible to embroider a design using white polyester thread,  and then to sublimate another design in color on top of the thread.    This also has the advantage of giving the design a bit of a 3-D effect,  since the embroidery will be slightly raised.   Another option is to sublimate the garment first and then embroider over portions of the sublimated design.   Either way,  combining sublimation and embroidery will add visual interest and definition to the finished design.

Next up is vinyl.   There are many heat transfer vinyls that will also work for sublimation.   Get some glitter vinyl and make a sublimated design that sparkles!   Another advantage to using vinyl is that a vinyl transfer can often be applied to fabric types other than nylon.   If you want to put a sublimated design on a cotton shirt,  put the design on vinyl and it can be added to the shirt without a problem and without loss of color.  Sublimating on vinyl,  particularly glitter vinyl,  could prove very popular with cheer and dance teams and certainly could add some sparkle to fashion designs.

Another option for a multimedia design using sublimation and another decoration technique is rhinestones.    Anyone who likes bling will already be aware of rhinestones and how they can be used to add sparkle and shine to garments.   Combining rhinestones with sublimation allows for full color prints embellished by rhinestones,  which give the design flash and a bit of height.   Rhinestones can be incorporated into the design by hand,  or through the use of a rhinestone template.

When considering which decoration techniques to combine with sublimation,  there are a few things to keep in mind.   One is that sublimation requires heat,  and relatively high heat at that.  Some inks or vinyls might not react well to the temperatures that sublimation requires,  so keep that in mind.   Another thing to remember is that the decoration technique chosen must compliment sublimation and work with the sublimated design.   The best multimedia pieces are the ones where both decoration techniques combine to make a design that is fresh and interesting.





The 5 Ws of Sublimation: What Can Be Sublimated

Note:  This post is the start of a series called the 5 Ws of Sublimation.  The traditional five Ws are who, what, when, where and why.    For the purposes of this series, however,  I’m changing the five Ws to who, what, why, which and when.   This post deals with what sorts of goods can be sublimated.

Sublimation is attractive to many people because of the wide variety of items that can be sublimated.   From garments to mousepads to coffee mugs to canvas bags,  sublimation offers decorators a vast array of options.   If you’re planning to add sublimation to your shop,  or already sublimate but are looking for more options for products you can offer,  here are a few categories of items that can be sublimated.

Drinkware– From latte mugs to beer mugs to the good old fashioned mug you drink from at the local diner,  there are a number of options when it comes to drinkware.   Coffee mugs are probably the most popular and the most well known sublimated drinkware option,  but there are also beer mugs and water bottles.   Travel mugs are another popular option.

Tags – Everyone likes to be able to identify their luggage or sports bag and many companies also have employees that wear name tags, so tags that can be sublimated are a useful item.   Whether it’s a luggage tag for your resident road warrior,  a personalized license plate for a company car,  or a name tag for the local restaurant’s newest employee,  personalized tags can sell very well.  You should also remember that pet tags can be best sellers too.

Key Chains – Key chains are another great product that can easily be sold to corporate clients.  The local car dealership would probably love to have key chains with their logo and company info to give out to new car buyers.   Key chains with little added extras like a tape measure would be a great giveaway for a hardware store.

I could go on and on about the many products, both hard goods and soft,  that can be sublimated,  but the reality is that almost anything you can think of can be sublimated,  provided it can withstand the heat and pressure necessary for sublimation,  and provided it has a poly coating.     Items that cannot fit into a traditional heat press can often be sublimated with a wrap and an oven.    Innovation and experimentation have led to many options for those who want to offer a wide variety of sublimated products.

The other item which must be mentioned when discussing what can be sublimated is, of course, fabric.    To get the best sublimated image,  you fabric should be 100% polyester and it should be a light color.  White is preferable for colors to be their truest,  but images are sublimated on fabric that is light grey,  light blue,  light pink and other light colors.   One popular manufacturer of performance wear and t-shirts for sublimation is Vapor Apparel.

Please keep in mind that sublimation cannot be done on dark garments.  There is no option for a white underbase when it comes to sublimation.   You should also keep in mind the fact that blended garments,  a poly/cotton blend for instance,  will give you an uneven sublimated image.   Some people like the distressed look that sublimating a blended garment can cause,  but for the best sublimated image possible,  it is always recommended that your fabric be 100% polyester in a light color.


How Do I Sell Sublimation?

Every time we do a trade show,  the question in the title of this post pops up at some point.    People are quick to see the potential of sublimation,  and to appreciate the wide array of things that can be sublimated,  the stumbling block seems to be knowing how to find people who will buy.  Finding customers for sublimated products is, in some respects like finding buyers for any product or service your business sells.  You have to network.  You have to provide good customer service.  You have to have good price and good products.   There are, however, a few details that can make selling sublimated products unique.

The first is the fact that not everyone is familiar with sublimation or understands what it is.   So, in order to sell sublimated items,  some education may be involved.   Most people probably see sublimated items every day,  but they may not know that the mug from which they drink their morning coffee or the key chain that holds their house keys was created with sublimation.   Given this fact,  when your company announces it now offers sublimated products,  it might be smart to go into a bit of detail about what you can do.   Tell people you can put their personal photos on a wide variety of objects.  Give them some idea of all the objects that can be sublimated.   It doesn’t have to be elaborate or lengthy,  just provide enough information to get someone in the door.

The second item may involve dispelling some of the myths about sublimation.   The biggest, of course,  is that sublimation only works on polyester garments,  which is fact,  but that those garments are like the polyester leisure suits of the 70s and will be very uncomfortable.    With the advent of manufacturers like Vapor Apparel,  polyester garments and performance apparel have becoming an appealing and comfortable clothing option.    Sublimation also offers a great alternative for decorating performance apparel,  which is often difficult to embroider as it is stretchy and hard to hoop.

The third step on the path to selling sublimation is realizing what can’t be sublimated.    If you are looking to put designs on dark fabrics,  sublimation is not your answer.   If you want to put images on items that are not 100% polyester or are not poly coated,  sublimation is not your answer.  Sublimated goods come in a wide variety,  and new items are appearing all the time,  but there are limitations.  Knowing those limits will help you offer the best service to your customers.

Finally, the last thing to remember is that selling sublimation is ultimately like selling anything else.  If you’ve been selling embroidery or screen printing or any other kind of product or service, you can sell sublimation.   The trick is to learn what sublimation can and can’t do,  so you can provide your customers with the information and education they need to make their buying decisions.

T-Shirts for Sublimation

When it comes to garments and sublimation,  many people still think of polyester they way they wore it back in the 60’s and 70’s.   Bright colored leisure suits,  shiny shirts with garish prints,  chemical clothes that almost looked like they could stand up on their own.   I grew up in the 70’s and my parents dressed me in some polyester nightmares,  so I know both how those clothes can look and feel.   They’re not very attractive and they’re not very comfortable.

Luckily for those people who sublimate today,  there are companies that have worked to make better, more comfortable polyester clothing.   Vapor Apparel is one such company.    They have worked to develop performance wear that is comfortable and durable, with trademarked moisture wicking technology.  Whether you’re simply wearing a sublimated shirt to be stylish,  or you want a shirt that will stand up to dirt, sweat and weather,  Vapor Apparel shirts combine both style and strength in one garment.

EnMart is proud to be a Vapor Apparel distributor.   We currently carry a selection of Vapor Apparel t-shirts, polo shirts and lady’s shirts.   New styles and colors are added on a regular basis.    EnMart has access to the entire Vapor Apparel catalog of products,  so if you find something on their site  that you don’t see on ours,  ask us about adding the item to our stock.   Our inventory of Vapor Apparel products is constantly expanding.


Summer Sublimation

It’s Summer in Northern Michigan which means it’s beach weather,  and picnic weather,  and hiking, biking and kite flying weather.  It is also perfect weather for summer sublimation,  or for sublimating items that people can use while they’re hiking, biking, swimming and all the rest.    If you’re thinking about how you can capitalize on the summer sublimation market,  here are a few ideas that might help.

Sublimated shirts –  We talk about it so often,  but a lot of people forget that sublimation ink dyes the fibers,  it doesn’t sit on top of the fabric like a screen-printed design would.    If the temperature is high, a performance apparel shirt that breathes and has a comfortable feel against the skin would be a great choice for wearing to the beach, on a hike or just around the house.   The light colors suitable for sublimation are also great colors for summer shirts.

Tags – Summer time is also travel time,  and whether that travel is for a vacation or for an away game,  everyone needs to have their baggage identified.   Luggage tags and sports bag tags are great ways to make sure the baggage for every summer excursion is clearly marked and ready to arrive safely at its destination.

Keeping Hydrated – Around here we have people hiking the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes and around the lakeshore,  and inevitably someone forgets to take water and ends up in trouble.   If they had a monogrammed water bottle,  there wouldn’t be any problem,  and all the hikers and bikers could have their favorite beverages with them on every trip.

Car Flags –  Summer is the time for driving with the windows down,  the music pounding and all your flags flying.   Car flags are a great way to show  allegiance to a particular team or cause,  and summer is the time to fly those flags!

Clipboards – For some reason,  every memory I have of summer camp features someone with a clipboard.  Whether it’s keeping track of bunk assignments or setting up the line-up for the big end of the week softball game,  every camp needs a clipboard or two.

Canvas bags –  Beach bags,  a bag to carry your produce home from the Farmer’s Market or the farm stand,  or a bag to carry your water and snacks while you watch a parade,  a sublimated canvas bag can come in very handy.   Corporations that sponsor events might also want to use these bags as giveaways to attendees.

If people having summer fun are part of your target market for your sublimated goods,  remember that your customers may not know what they need until you show them.  Remember also to think outside the box,  offering a unique keepsake for a festival,  or a fun item for a road race may be what gets you the sale.


Using Sublimation to Create Walking Billboards

If you run any sort of business,  you know that one of the main things you need to do is keep your name in front of potential customers.    The more people who see your name the more likely it is that some of them will remember it and call you when they’re in need of the services you offer.    The problem is that keeping your name in front of your potential customers can be a challenging and sometimes expensive task.    What you, and your customers who run their own businesses, need is a relatively easy and expensive way to make sure your logo and business name are seen consistently, without spending a fortune to make that happen.   Fortunately for you,  and your customers,  sublimation is already a part of your business life.

If you want to keep your business name in front of potential customers,  one way to do it would be to sublimate that name on a t-shirt or polo shirt.  If you come up with a unique graphic and/or a cool slogan for your business,  complete strangers will advertise your business and pay you for the privilege of doing so.    There are reasons why restaurants and a lot of other shops have their employees wear garments with the company logo and name on them.  One, of course, is to make employees easily identifiable and to promote unity.  Another equally valid reason, however, is that every employee walking around in a company shirt is an advertisement for the company.

If you need temporary identification and advertisement,  say if you’re selling items at a festival or fair, or exhibiting at a trade show,  or if you want to identify individuals as part of a group,  but don’t want the cost of buying garments,  another great way to create a walking billboard is a name badge.  A sublimated name badge is a great method of identification and the larger sizes have room not only for a name but for a company logo and slogan as well.  Best of all,  name badges are temporary and can be removed once the event is over.

Let’s not forget that many people who work for your company,  particularly if they travel,  may carry bags or luggage on a regular basis.  If you don’t tag those items with some kind of company identification,  you’re missing a great chance to advertise.   Luggage tags can be sublimated and added to any kind of bag that needs to be easily identified.   The tags serve a dual purpose in that they make the bag easily identifiable as well as creating an identification with your business.

Finally,  we can’t neglect to mention the granddaddy of all walking billboard creators,  the sublimated emblem.   A sublimated patch is basically like putting a full color advertisement on an employee’s garment.  Since sublimated patches can be created using photographs,  you can put intricate artwork and logos on the patches.     These patches are also durable and hold their color,  so your walking billboard will be bright and eye catching for a long time.

Fill in the Blank

When you start with a blank canvas,  whether it literally is a blank canvas, or a blank screen or a blank garment or mug,  there is usually at least one moment of  “oh no, what do I do now?”  that occurs before you start.   People who are familiar with this phenomenon often try to combat it by keeping a stash of ideas on hand.   While that’s a great idea,  the trick then becomes building that stash of ideas so they’re ready and waiting when you need them.   Today I thought we could talk a little bit about where and how to find ideas and inspiration.

One way to find inspiration for your sublimation projects is to see what other people are doing.  Visit Sawgrass and check out their webinars.    Check out a forum like T-shirt Forums of the Apparel Decorators Forum.     Look for videos online that will teach you how to sublimate a new product or will show you a new technique.  While we would never recommend copying what someone else is doing exactly,  seeing what other people are doing is a great way to spark your own creativity.

Another way to find inspiration is to take a field trip.  Erich Campbell mentioned this option in a post he wrote for Stitches earlier this year.    He recommends going to the mall,  and it’s good advice.   You can spend time seeing what sorts of sublimated products are out there,  and you can also see what other decorators are doing with them.   As an added bonus,  going to a place with multiple stores allows you to get an overview of a variety of trends.   Keep in mind field trips can also be to places like museums or simply to a nearby lake or woods.  The aim of a field trip is to get some new images and textures to add to your library,  so take a field trip to whatever place you find most inspiring.

Perhaps the best way to figure out how to fill that blank is to experiment.  Find artwork you like and test it out on various blanks to see how it looks.    Buy some cheap polyester fabric and sublimate various designs before you put them on the more expensive blank items.  Find a sublimated item that you really like the look of,  and try to duplicate that effect or look on a blank piece of your own.   While it’s true there will probably be a bit of product waste,  and certainly spend some time on this endeavor,  the result will be an enlarging of your sublimation options and a bigger fund of ideas from which to draw next time a customer wants something spectacular but doesn’t know exactly what they want to do.

Vapor Performance Apparel Now Available!

EnMart is proud to announce the addition of  Vapor Performance Apparel to our product line-up.  Vapor Apparel manufactures high-quality performance wear specifically engineered for the sublimation, digital decorating, screenprinting, and embroidery markets.  With a multitude of sublimation friendly colors and popular garment styles, you won’t find a better garment option than Vapor Apparel.

If you’re looking for a basic t-shirt to sublimate with a logo or graphic,  you can’t go wrong with Vapor Apparel’s Basic  Short Sleeve T-shirt.   This classic t-shirt has a 5.9 oz. weight, is 100% spun polyester and offers advanced poly-performance fiber technology.  This tee also delivers a look and feel even better than cotton with superior moisture wickability.   It is available in white,  ash heather,  blizzard blue, alpine spruce and terra mesa.

Those looking for a slightly more dressed up, but still classic look,  might prefer the Basic Performance Polo.   This is a perfect option for business casual dress,  golf and other sportswear and retail outlet uniforms.   Available in 5.9 oz. weight, 100% spun polyester with two-needle double-stitch split seams and four-thread over-lock hem seams.  Currently offered in white, blizzard blue, sand and steel.

For the ladies,  who might want a slightly snugger and more feminine cut to their shirts,  EnMart offers Vapor Apparel’s  Ladies Classic T and Ladies Babydoll T.   The Ladies Classic T has a 6.5 oz. weight and is 100% Polyester.  This t-shirt features a relaxed fit with scoop neck and cap sleeves and is available in lavender and white.  The Ladies Babydoll T offers a more fitted look.  It comes in a 6.5 oz. weight fabric and is 93% Polyester and 7% Spandex for a stretch factor.  In regards to fit,  please note this style runs smaller compared to conventional cotton t-shirt sizes.

For those who are interested in other items from the Vapor Apparel catalog, please note that other sizes and colors are available from EnMart but are not currently listed on our website.  As always, we will entertain requests to stock additional items. Due to limited demand, other sizes and colors are currently considered “Non-Stock”, and can be special ordered by request in multiples of 6 or 36 (30 for 2XL and larger sizes).