Heated Discussions

A sheet of transfer paper occupies about as much space as a sheet of copy paper. Five hundred sheets of paper occupy the space of a single, folded sweatshirt or four to five folded T-shirts. If you want—and can sell—a couple of hundred T-shirts or 20 or so sweatshirts with preprinted images of frilly Valentine hearts, cuddly Labrador puppies or “Born to ’Board, Dude!” that you think you can customize with a namedrop, then stock your shelves with those finished preprints.

If, however, you’re unsure as to whether you will be able to sell all those boys size small, medium and large, preprinted … Dude!” tees that you purchased wholesale for $3.99 apiece plus shipping, you might not want them taking up limited, valuable shelf real estate over the next 15 months or so.

Instead, you know you’re usually so much better off displaying preprint samples in the showroom and having a catalog of your custom wearable designs handy, and stocking just enough blanks to hold you till you can phone in or e-mail your just-in-time order of girls- and ladies-sized pink T-shirts, or boys’ and teens’ 50/50 cotton/poly fleece hoodies, and using one of the $1.50-$2 transfers carefully stored in your labeled bins (or creating the truly personalized garment from your customers’ specially selected designs, which you’ve made into sublimated transfers and applied to the tee or sweatshirt they’ve chosen).

Three articles follow, all part of the triad of maintaining a solid transfer-decorating branch of your custom gift business. With the three parts of your in-house decorating system in place—transfer, garment and heat press—you’re ready and able to satisfy your most discriminating customers’ wearables needs.

Transfer Please: Heat Transfers

Maintaining a cache of stock designs, ordering just-in-time stock or custom transfers, and designing and printing their own sublimation transfers have been common practice with many retailers. Options almost are limitless, yet custom gift retailers possess their own business strengths and keen understanding of the markets they serve and, as such, choose those that work best for themselves and their clientele.

“It can be difficult to wade through because you have to figure out the pros and cons of every type of transfer—from turnaround time (varies from digital to screenprinted ones) to the substrate it goes on to the hand to the washability to the opaqueness, as well as whether it is to go on nylon, 100-percent cotton, 50/50 or polyester,” says Allan Tsang, consultant with American Eagle Transfer Inc., of Christian, Va.

Digital, Tsang says, works best on polyester and poly blends, and because of the nature of sublimated inks and dyes, white or light-color garments are most suitable, “although we have digital transfers for darks.” His company also provides washing instructions for digitally printed transfers.

The digital-transfer market, notes Aaron Knight, vice president of Geo Knight & Co., a manufacturer of heat presses, “seems to be the hottest. Inkjet and laser-based transfer papers, as well as sublimation transfer inks, all used for custom printing, are probably by far the highest volume used by custom gift retailers,” he says. “And for good reason: They can make the exact transfer they need, in the exact quantity they need, right away. This is the nature of their whole market.”

Heather McGarry, marketing/licensing specialist for Air Waves Inc., of Lewis Center, Ohio, agrees: “Although many custom gift retailers keep a line of stock transfers, mainly for novelty sales, I believe their main source of business would be the just-in-time transfer for their customer base, whether it be schools, businesses, events or organizations.”

Still, McGarry says that one of the more popular ways that specialty gift retailers customize products is by using namedrops. “Applying stock transfers and simply adding a namedrop—usually a location or event theme—makes it immediately customized.”

For Sue Wilcosky, business development manager at Transfer Express, of Mentor, Ohio, heat-applied stock numbers and letters also can be used for a variety of personalizations. For example, “add a name to a director’s chair in just seconds to increase its value,” she says. “Personalize a licensed shirt to give a sports fan that one-of-a-kind gift. The possibilities are endless—people love their names or team’s name on almost everything.”


Anything goes. Though holidays, sports and tourism-related designs have been the stalwarts of the transfer trade, because custom gift retailers provide the special service that gives customers exactly what they want, “these days, all transfers are in,” American Eagle’s Tsang says. “Contemporary and retro, and thick, shiny transfers are in.” And consider, too, such specialty transfers as puff, glow-in-the-dark and reflective. Plus, specialty digital papers “make digital transfers look glossy and shiny like the popular Hip Hop shirts you see.”

Wilcosky and James Ortolani, sales manager at Pittsburg., Kan.-based Hix Corp., another heat press manufacturer, offer these observations on some of the more typical genre of today’s transfers:

 Tourist/namedrop: This is the core business for plastisol transfers, especially stock beach designs. Photo prints, combined with clip art options add an exclusive quality (best used on white/natural garments).

 College: Fraternities take advantage of custom plastisol transfers for all of their Greek events a nice niche for retailers. One caveat regarding using a college’s logo or mascot: Licensing is required for much of the printing in this market.

•  Children’s: Kids want to wear what everyone else is wearing, so this area continues to grow.

  Ethnic: Often associated with an event the group may be having that is important for attendees to have a shirt to show their association with the event.

•  Holiday: Holiday prints are steady. Many retailers have clients who give these out during the holidays. Flock holiday transfers do very well.

•  Sports: Big with heat transfer numbers for team uniforms. Sports comprise one of the biggest areas in screenprinted transfers—not only for uniform sales, but also for spirit wear and event prints.

•  Corporate: Corporate flock logos are popular for crests on golf shirts.

•   Music-related: This area is steady. Many smaller bands still sell “concert shirts” that were popular in the 1980s at their venues. People want to identify with a group they like. Also, school bands and choirs always need custom-printed apparel. Licensed pop and country plastisol transfers are also big business.

•  Events (10K runs, fraternity/ sorority, political, etc.): Next to sports, events of all types are a huge area for heat printing. Family reunions are huge and can often capture a double sell—those who are attending the event order apparel or gift items with their family reunion celebration noted; then a family photo is taken at the event with those shirts on and everyone buys something else with the photo print on it. At events, it’s common to see a portable heat press on site with custom plastisol transfers depicting the event.


Besides the impulse buying of a customized gift, holidays, sports seasons and special events such as birthdays and anniversaries often bring about sales in transfers. Of late, the fashion market is seeing an uptick in the use of flocking. And what happens in the fashion industry quickly translates into mass appeal.

“Flock transfers are at an all-time popularity level in the fashion world now,” Ortolani says, “The big fashion companies are using flock due to its 3-D plush look and feel. Customers like the 3-D fuzzy feel of flock transfers.” Hix found itself adding another complete flock production line “just to keep up with business,” Ortolani says.

Many custom gift retailers buy flock lettering kits and seasonal stock designs, Ortolani adds, saying flock letters, for example, “are perfect for personalizing garments while the customer waits.”

Custom flock designs and lettering can be ordered through a variety of heat-transfer specialists. Crests and pocket logos for school uniforms prove big sellers. Retailers can order by the sheet, say 10”x12” or 20”x24” and, just like any custom transfer they’d produce in house, have the designs ganged tightly onto a sheet for maximum return.

Further, Ortolani notes that while flock was developed primarily for such applications as heat-transfer designs onto textile fabrics, “it can also be heat transferred onto other substrates as well, like paper, wood and glass products.”

Other heat-applied transfers include rhinestones, “nail-heads,” appliqués, heat-seal embroidered patches and foil transfers.

“Genuine metallic stones and studs with the convenience and price of heat transfers are really sweeping the market,” says Air Waves’ McGarry. “They look great on every color of garment, including denim.”


As good salespersons, custom gift retailers look for the special hook that catches the fancy of the customer. Maybe you include the cost of customization in your sale package; maybe it’s an additional charge. Hix’s Ortolani suggests that by using your ability to quickly produce a transfer, you might say to the customer commenting on the sample teddy bear in your showroom, “For $2 I’ll add your child’s name to that stuffed animal’s sweater. It will only take a few minutes.”

Wilcosky notes that one of Transfer Express’ customers produced shirts for “all the guests at a wedding reception with a scripture quote and the couple’s name on them.”

Another money maker can be the application of reflective transfers that can be added to caps, backpacks, jackets, etc., for early morning and nighttime safety, especially during the shorter-day winter months.

Don’t forget the power of reality vs. virtual reality; that is, actual samples your customers can see and feel. “When they come in, make sure you have samples and catalogs to show them,” Air Waves’ McGarry advises. “Customers want to be able to feel and view the different processes. Don’t tell them ‘It feels like suede when applied’; have a sample of the product and allow them to feel it—put it in their hands.”

As Ortolani says, “Be creative and take advantage of all the heat-transfer options available to you. If one type of transfer doesn’t sell in your store, try the next. You will hit a popular media that will be a winner for you.”

Wise words.

Heat Me With Your Best Shot: Garments

The substrate’s the thing. All-cotton, polyester and polyester blends, nylons and spandex garments in knits and wovens all take well to transfers. Thus, all variety of tees, denim shirts and jackets, mesh football jerseys and the popular and now highly affordable micro-fiber athletic sportswear that wicks away body moisture make good candidates for transferred images.

At American Apparel in Los Angeles, Mark Smalley of marketing production notes that the fine-knit ring-spun cotton surface of the apparel maker’s garments for women, children and men offers a good canvas for transfers. The fabric also is “intentionally lighter in weight” but “remains just as opaque as heavier fabric.” Transfer designs for cotton fabrics typically are made from plastisol inks, but heat-applied appliqués, flocks and rhinestones definitely have their place, especially with customized gift wear.

Moreover, the style, the fit and the overall fashion look that depart from the standard traditional-cut T-shirt let custom gift retailers, at once, combine the fashionably tailored sportswear look found in boutiques with the added touch of personalization that turns the garment into a one-of-a-kind wearable.


And from where are the fashion trends coming?

“Juniors seem to be leading the pack in sports apparel,” says Mindy M. Anastos, marketing coordinator for L.A. T Sportswear, of Ball Ground, Ga. “They set the trend for all age groups from infants to adults.”

Anastos observes that for sports apparel, “items with fashion accents—stripes on the sleeves, raglan shoulders and ringers—seem to be growing in popularity.” Importantly, she adds, “It’s not enough for custom gift retailers to sell a nice garment with a great embellishment. They now need the garment to be fashionable in its own right.”

L.A. T Sportswear, like American Apparel, trends the junior market, both in its colors and styles. And comfort, of course, remains an important facet; with women and juniors, sleeveless cuts continue to be strong for the spring and summer.

While typical design placement for transfers has long been found on the front or back of T-shirts, American Apparel’s Smalley notes how the fashion a la mode shifts design locations. “From what we have seen,” he says, “many of the current placements include the sleeves, upper back and also placement on the left or right lower sides.”

Sue Wilcosky, business development manager for Mentor, Ohio-based Transfer Express, points to the fad of placing designs “on the rear of shorts and sweatpants, and prints on the hoods of hoodies.” She also notes that image size “is dictated almost exclusively by customer preference—some can’t have it big enough, while others prefer a print that is barely there.”

Shorts, agrees Allan Tsang, consultant with American Eagle Transfer Inc., of Christian, Va., remain popular, and work well for today’s transfer designs; he notes, too, that today’s more durable transfers hold up well on the popular ribbed fabrics that are more elastic in nature and that, in the past, would have prompted some transfers to crack.

And the shift in casual corporate wear that replaced starched white shirts and ties with placket shirts has allowed good screenprint transfers to capture some of the market once owned exclusively by embroidery.

“Golf-style shirts with the company logo are very popular and inexpensive using heat printing,” says Transfer Express’ Wilcosky. “With a gang sheet (a print with multiple items on the same sheet) pricing is very reasonable, and many company employees will purchase three to four shirts each from a corporate store that can be serviced by a gift retailer.”


For the color palette, pink continues to be strong for women, juniors and girls; you see it in all styles and fabrics. Browns and pastels for both sexes “are growing in popularity,” L.A. T’s Anastos notes. Even more are such standards as collegiate colors so, take note of the colors of all your area teams, for even if you don’t have a garment sporting those colors, a clever retailer can customize a white or light-color tee with a full-color sublimated transfer.

Furthermore, says Anastos, “having infant and toddler wear in collegiate colors can help the custom gift retailer tap into that local market. Parents and grandparents love to adorn kids in their college colors, and they are a great store draw and a great add-on purchase.”

Heather McGarry, marketing/licensing specialist at Air Waves Inc., Lewis Center, Ohio, notes that although white and black T-shirts remain the staple of the decorated-garment industry, “people are requesting more vibrant and new colors” such as poppy and blue haze.

There are few custom-decorated-garment markets that cannot benefit from the use of transfers.

“Heat transfers,” says American Eagle’s Tsang, “are more popular than ever these days because of their versatility and relative inexpensiveness.”

The Heat is on: Heat Presses

One of the most important and often used machines in your store is the heat press. Combined with the stock and custom transfers you have on hand or produce from your sublimation printer, the heat press affords you one of the major profit centers of your business.

Today’s heat presses, though similar to their relatives of the past, provide better engineering for even and consistent heating, digital controls, accurate thermometers and timers, pressure adjustments and heat-resistant pads. Simply following the usage instructions for both the heat press and the transfer, an ideal customized gift product is assured.

Still, questions on use arise. “One of the most important tech support calls for transfer application we get as a heat press manufacturer concerns pressure,” says Aaron Knight, vice president of Geo Knight & Co. Inc., Brockton, Mass. “Many times the customer does not even realize that is why they are calling.”

Knight says it’s the clamping technique—or the lack thereof—that often leads to problems in the transferring process. “It is very common for a user to not understand that a heat press must actually be clamped—locked in place—where the linkage actually clicks and snaps into a locked position,” he says, adding that new users “often lower the head and let it rest on the product, without actually clamping it down.” At times, he continues, the press is “set too light, so it’s extremely easy to lock the press, with one hand, without much effort. The biggest issue in a successful transfer application is making sure the user clamps the press with a firm, two-handed click/clamp of the press. Beyond that, following the standard guidelines of the transfer paper or transfer application will do just fine.”


A basic heat-application guideline for using flock transfers (see accompanying article, Transfer Please: Heat Transfers) comes from James Ortolani, sales manager at Hix Corp., of Pittsburg, Kan.: “Apply the transfer to the garment with a heat-transfer machine set at 350 degrees F for 10-12 seconds, with light pressure. Some flock transfer systems are hot-peel and others are cold-peel.” Note: “Always follow the manufacturer’s flock printing and flock application guidelines.”

For standard plastisol-type prints, Sue Wilcosky, business development manager at Mentor, Ohio-based Transfer Express, provides the following, especially for novice heat-transfer users: “After aligning the garment on the press, position the transfer (inkside against the substrate), and “close your machine and press 4-10 seconds, depending on the type of print.”

The basic clam or swingaway type of heat press occupies an area of about 2 ft. x 3 ft., and “it is the only upfront investment needed to add heat printing to your product line,” she notes.

Thus, when it comes down to the basics, reminds Allan Tsang, consultant for American Eagle Transfer Inc., of Christian, Va., “there are just three things to remember: the recommended heat (check with temperature gun), the pressure (best with swing arms if applying digital transfers) and the application time.”

Knight says that gift retailers sometimes disclose the specific jobs they have coming in “that initiate the heat press purchase.” But, in general, the heat press buyer knows what he or she wants to do with the machine. That is, they’ve done much of their homework and seem to understand what they want from the press. Knight credits the manufacturers and suppliers “of the blank papers and supplies, helping direct them in their needs for their specific applications.”


Applying the transfer seems an easy enough assignment. It helps, however, to be sure you’ve wedded the right transfer with its companion substrate. What fabric content (e.g. all-cotton, poly/cotton blend, all-poly, nylon) works best for the various kinds of transfers? The answer, says Knight, “totally depends on the transfer paper.”

“T-shirt transfer papers with the thermal wax medium will work with poly, cotton, blends, etc. Sublimation inks, of course, only work with 100-percent polyester [substrate] or a 100-percent poly pre-spray on cottons/blends.”

Both hot-peel and cold-peel transfers afford the retailer with solid opportunities. Traditionally, cold-peels had been employed on such garments as team jerseys and sweatshirts where a heavy layer of ink was called for. (Peeling a transfer cold allows for more ink to be deposited on the substrate. A hot-peel leaves a softer-hand print on the garment, as some of the ink remains on the transfer paper.) But today, as Tsang notes, “thick, shiny transfers are in,” so a cold-peel might be called for. “Cold-peel works well on darks and hot-splits work very well on lights,” he says. “For dark and lights, we will recommend a high opacity hot-split.”

And why not go mobile? If you have more than just yourself running your retail location, you might try your hand at setting up at, say, an important local sport event, encourages Wilcosky. “Heat printing can be set up at events for instant selling with no extra inventory,” she says. “We have a number of customers who do baseball, basketball and wrestling youth tournaments with great success. They order a couple of different styles of prints for the event, plus white shirts in various sizes. They press the print as ordered—even customized with, say, “Champions,” a player’s number or position.” And if a team has just won a tournament, “everybody on that team will buy a shirt to celebrate the victory—including the parents.

”“Personalization sells,” says Wilcosky. “In seconds you can apply a screenprinted transfer—what could be easier?”