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Transfer printing is a broad term used to describe any sort of technique where the design is first printed on a non-textile surface so it can later be transferred onto a different one – hence the word ‘transfer.’ Most transfers are done with a kind of vinyl which is later sealed (much like a sticker) onto the T-shirt using a heat press.

 

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the final product from other techniques like screen-printing which is why some wonder why we should choose transfer in the first place. At times, this technique might seem like it has an unnecessary extra step — especially when compared to processes which print directly onto the garment — but, as we will come to learn, there are several benefits to transfer printing.

Where does vinyl T-shirt printing come from?

Transfer Printing was first developed to embellish ceramics, not clothing. The technique was born around the 1750s in England and quickly spread to other parts of Europe where it caught on.

Back then, the process involved a metal plate or roller that was engraved with a decorative element. The piece would have its surface covered with ink and later pressed or rolled over the object to be decorated. It wasn’t an easy procedure (or fun) by any means, but it was still quicker than hand painting and the result was similar enough.

Why we choose transfers over other techniques:

Due to its versatility, transfer printing can be the right answer to many different types of jobs. And as with everything in life, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

On the good side

It’s fairly simple, the equipment is relatively inexpensive (especially when compared to DTG printers) and it can reproduce high quality, complex images. It is also one of the best techniques to use for full-colour prints.

Great for Personalisation
Due to its quick process and setup, this technique is perfect for personalising the same garment numerous times with different designs. For example, the kits of sports teams. These need the same type of T-shirt printed several times but with different numbers and name for each of the players.

Great for Bold Choices
We’re not exaggerating when we say that transfer paper comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. There is pretty much an endless amount of options when it comes to effects and colours. Worth noting are fluorescent tones which are hard or impossible to achieve with other printing techniques. Also, transfer paper comes with effects such as flock and glitter, among others.

Inexpensive
It is also a good choice when the design is simple but the units are not enough to justify the setup costs of screen printing. Generally speaking, transfers are cheaper than DTG in most cases.

Attention to Detail
Because the design is printed on paper before it is transferred to the fabric, this technique is much better at replicating designs with small details. Because fabrics have much bigger pores than paper — it tends to make designs look ‘muddier.’

Durability
Vinyl is a very durable material. It can withstand many years of washes and wear. This is why it is one of the preferred materials when personalising sportswear.

Good for small businesses
Heat transfer machines are relatively cheap, easy to use, lightweight and don’t take up much space. This kind of printing can be done on demand, eliminating the need for holding stocks or large print runs. Just print when people place orders, as opposed to printing, keeping garments in stock and hoping you’ll receive hundreds of orders. This can be beneficial for start-ups offering small quantities of specially designed T-shirts as there are virtually no extra costs involved.

Benefits:

  • Designs that are printed on paper are easier to store away
  • Production times are much shorter than DTG
  • The technique doesn’t require high skill and has low reject rates
  • Certain effects and textures can only be produced with a transfer
  • It is easier to print complex designs directly on paper than on fabric
  • The equipment needed for transfer printing can be inexpensive
  • The equipment doesn’t require much space either
  • There are practically no setup costs
  • There’s a great variety of effects and textures from fluorescents to metallics and even velvet

Important Stuff

It is slower than other procedures, it’s got limitations onto which types of fabrics it can be printed; those sensitive to high temperatures are a no-no, and there might be some restrictions on the reproduction of darker shades.

Disadvantages
Not practical for large quantities
Not as flexible when it comes to printing on different kinds of materials
Each design must be cut one by one