The Basics of Heat Transfer Printing for T-Shirts & Garments

July 10, 2018

Do you have an awesome idea for a t-shirt design, but don’t know how to get started creating your wearable art? Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a hobby designer, t-shirt printing can give you unlimited options for creativity.

One method you can use is called heat transfer printing. Different from screen printing, the heat transfer method provides some unique possibilities that can really bring your design to life.

Want to find out more? Read on!

What is Heat Transfer Printing?

Heat transfer designs, as the name implies, are created by applying a heat-activated material to a substrate. These materials have a temperature sensitive adhesive on the back that adhere to the garment of your choice through a heat press.

Designers use vectoring software to create a scale-able image. Much like the process of vinyl sign-making, the design is printed out on a vinyl cutter and then trimmed of excess material. This design is then placed against a t-shirt or other garment of your choice, and heated under pressure with a specialized heat press machine.

Another method of heat transfer is called sublimation. When the heat-activated material is pressed, it evaporates from a solid to a gas without entering a liquid state. The garment fibers, open from being exposed to heat, permanently absorb the gaseous dye.

Differences from Screen Printing

Screen printing, also known as silk screening, utilizes a system where inks are applied to a screen on top of a garment. These screens are entirely blocked off on the negative spaces, leaving voids only where the ink needs to be applied. Special screen printing inks are then squeegeed through the film of the screen, depositing layers of colors in the empty areas on top of the shirt.

Heat transfer, on the other hand, deals with the positive areas of an image. A design is cut out of a solid piece of transfer material, then the negative space is trimmed (“weeded”) away leaving only positive space to be heat-set onto a substrate.

Sublimation prints are the marriage between screen printing and traditional heat transfers. A sublimated print is screen printed onto a special film, instead of directly on a garment. The film is then heat-pressed onto your shirt.

Though they can produce similar results and may even be designed with the same computer programs, certain effects can only be made through heat transfer. If you’re looking for very fine details, metallic foil, or reflective print, these must be achieved through heat transfer.

How Do I Make My Own?

While you can certainly make your own heat transfer shirts at home with a few basic supplies and an iron, a professional-quality garment takes some specialized equipment. Some tools of the trade are:

  • Vector software: CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, and Inkscape are a few common ones. These interfaces allow you to create images that are not dependent on pixels, which means they don’t change in quality or become blurry when you scale them. The images are made up of mathematical equations that can be read by a plotter.
  • Vinyl Cutter/Plotter: A plotter is a large-scale, precise cutting machine. Fitted with a small blade, it translates your design and cuts through the layer of your heat activated material. Once you weed the excess away, your design is ready to be transferred.
  • Heat Press: This machine is what actually adheres your design to the substrate. Consisting of two heated plates, the garment and printed design are closed inside and exposed to variable heat and pressure for a specific time. You can set the intensity of these three variables depending on the requirements of the material your design is made from.

Ready to Get Started?

Ready to try your hand at t-shirt design? Heat transfer printing is a fun and economical way to go. Whether you want to create t-shirt advertising for your business or start your own clothing brand, the only limit is your imagination.

If you’ve got a great design idea but want to leave the printing to the professionals, we can help. Contact us at Gulfside Heat Transfers today!

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