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Maximizing Digital: Print-and-Cut Heat Transfers

Digital means many things to different decorators. As a term in our industry, it is commonly associated with the boom in either wide-format digital print imaging or with direct-on-garment printing. Either way, digital is leading-edge and contains many technologies.

By Josh Ellsworth, General Manager, Stahls CAD-CUT Direct

One key technology with multiple uses is the digital print-and-cut process for fabric embellishment.

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  • It is hard to imagine a magazine, convention, roundtable or journal without the frequently mentioned imaging term "digital." Digital means many things to different decorators. As a term in our industry, it is commonly associated with the boom in either wide-format digital print imaging or with direct-on-garment printing. Either way, digital is leading-edge and contains many technologies. One key technology with multiple uses is the digital print-and-cut process for fabric embellishment.

    A Little History
    Many years ago, vinyl cutting equipment crossed over into the apparel decorating sector from its sign making roots. The opportunity for a polyurethane- or PVC-based film product to be coated with heat-activated adhesive and mounted to a clear plastic carrier allowed decorators to "cut" a graphic, weed away the unwanted material, and heat seal a decoration to their fabric of choice. At the time, this innovation was groundbreaking and it still provides millions of opportunities for sales as an alternative to screen printing. At its simplest, vinyl-cut film for apparel is best suited for decorating jobs yielding fewer than 24-36 pieces, while screen printing provides a more cost-effective approach at higher quantities.

    In more recent history, innovation in equipment designed for the sign industry has provided another opportunity for fabric embellishment. The advent of wide-format digital printers, specifically a print-and-cut workflow, poses a new exciting opportunity: To print and cut a white- or clear-based film mounted to a paper backing and prepare it for heat application to a fabric. Just as digital printing revolutionizes the way signs are decorated, the same is happening in fabric applications, from bags to T-shirts. It provides a more cost effective approach than screen printing for multi-color graphics at quantities less than 24-36 pieces.

    The Print-and-Cut Workflow
    The specifics of the print-and-cut workflow for fabric embellishments change based on the printable heat transfer media that is selected. Most commonly, an opaque media is used for decorating dark fabrics, while a transparent media is used for light fabrics. For either application, the art set-up process is similar: Create the art in a vector graphics program, assign a custom spot color to the vector lines you want the cutter to recognize and execute a cut.

    The other parts of the design will be printed with CMYK inks (more on this later). After the designs are printed and cut, the unwanted material is pulled to leave the design behind on a paper or plastic carrier. At this point, a special heat transfer masking material is applied with a squeegee or laminator to lift the image away from the carrier and expose its heat-activated adhesive. Then, the image is positioned on the fabric of choice and heat is applied with a heat press. After application, the masking material is lifted away.

    Heat Transfer Media Technology
    Much like sign making and screen printing, there are specific inks and media types for specific purposes. The fabric marketplace is diverse and so are the opportunities for customization. Before a fabric can be decorated, a compatible adhesive must be selected - one that can adhere to the textile and provide durability through wash cycles. Manufacturers of print-and-cut heat transfer media produce basic options for cotton and cotton/polyester applications. Also available are media types with adhesives intended specifically for synthetic fabrics such as polyester, nylon, spandex and polypropylene. Once the fabric compatibility is confirmed, you can begin to shop for specific features.

    Thicker media yield a rugged, durable result for certain contact or extreme sports applications. Thinner, softer media suits T-shirts or performance apparel nicely. Some may prefer glossy media, while others prefer matte finishes. Also available are choices for achieving special effects such as metallic, puff, glitter, reflective and glow-in-the-dark. With such a wide variety of choices, even the most complicated fabrics can be used.

    Ink Technology
    Print-and-cut heat transfer media is available in the widest range of options for use with solvent- or eco-solvent-based printers. When printing media, it is important to select the proper profile from the RIP software to achieve desirable color reproduction. Often, a generic "heat transfer media" profile is available as a standard choice in RIP software programs, but it is always wise to ask your supplier if they have a specific profile available to install that is specific to your printer model and software program.

    With solvent printing, the following inks are standard: Cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Certain printers offer six color cartridges to widen the color gamut by adding light cyan and light magenta. In addition to these six colors, solvent printing recently introduced white and metallic ink, which presents new possibilities for fabric decoration. We have not yet seen all the possibilities with these inks, but they will have an impact on the way heat transfer graphics are produced.

    In addition to solvent printing, thermal printing is an option, to a lesser extent. Units such as Gerber have been used for years to create heat transfers for apparel; however, the selection of thermal compatible media types is limited. Much like metallic and white solvent inks, newer, completely different ink technology is also on the rise, such as latex inks. Certain heat transfer media types are already being used in conjunction with these printers. Regardless of the specific ink technology used, almost every printer and ink type used for wide-format printing will have an option available for heat transfer applications.

    Common Application Types
    There are literally hundreds of achievable applications with heat transfer print-and-cut media. Some businesses invest in the technology for specific purposes and others select print-and-cut for the diverse range of sales opportunities it presents. Regardless of the intent for the equipment and process, most find themselves accepting jobs they wouldn't have been able to complete before.

    Team Uniforms
    Print-and-cut is changing the way team uniforms are decorated. The ability to print a multicolored number or special effect number on a single layer of film is intriguing. This application is providing opportunity as an alternative to standard heat transfer vinyl layering as well as an alternative to screen printing.

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    Performance Apparel
    A popular application for print-and-cut is performance apparel. These garment constructions pose unique challenges to a decorator that print-and-cut heat transfer media solves. Stretching and fabric adhesion are strengths of certain media types on the market. The ability to print, cut and heat apply simplifies the process. Consistency from garment to garment and the lack of pre-treating positions this as a preferred solution over direct-on-garment printing.

    T-shirts & Fleece
    T-shirts, sweatshirts, polo shirts and other cotton/poly-based applications are a natural fit for this process. If the design contains multiple colors or is a four-color process candidate, print-and-cut provides a solution for lower quantity orders. Most will select a thin media for these applications to maintain softness on the finished garment.

    Bags & Promotional Products
    Tough to do jobs such as bags, can cozies and fold-up chairs are also ideal fits. These items - constructed of denier nylon, denier polyester and polypropylene - can be difficult to screen print and often impossible to accommodate with a direct-on-garment printer. The challenge is not only in the fabric type, but also in the range of shapes and sizes. With print-and-cut, compatible adhesives exist that apply to these fabrics with low dwell times and low temperature ranges. Heat presses can meet the challenges of applying transfers to these items without melting them.

    Jackets are often overlooked as an opportunity for decoration. Many of the media options compatible with bags and promotional products also work on jackets. The low temperature adhesive technology ensures that the item won't melt and keeps it simple to customize a low quantity.

    Shelter business such as awnings, umbrellas and tents are another area within the possibility of print-and-cut heat transfer media. To accommodate these items, consider an oversized heat press or breaking the application up into sections. These orders often call for one piece to be decorated. With print-and-cut this is both possible and profitable.

    Complete Solution Opportunity
    While print-and-cut heat transfer media is not a "solve all solution" for a shop, it presents a compelling case for its versatility. When exploring sales opportunities, logic suggests that a good growth strategy is to sell more to current customers, and a large format print device allows for this. In addition to all of the heat transfer fabric applications, consider the following add-on sales.

    Large-format printers are capable of printing direct to banner material. Banners can be sold in many markets, including schools or sports teams. Couple the sale of team uniforms with a championship banner. Also consider selling banners to complement the tent graphics created for an outdoor event.

    With print quality capable of 1440 by 1440 dpi in some cases, printing posters and or photo quality prints is not a problem. As with the previous school/team example, consider printing posters to hang in the gymnasium or for players to break through when they run out of the locker room.

    It is impossible to go into all of the opportunities available for signs. The print-and-cut device is capable of printing multicolor signs for nearly any application.

    Stickers and Decals
    Whether for a football helmet, a cheerleader's megaphone, a car window, a dirt bike or a bumper sticker, printing stickers and decals is an easy add-on sale to most apparel orders.

    Floor Graphics
    With the right media and the proper laminate, floor graphics can be printed and installed onto virtually any flooring surface in schools, stores or on the sidewalk.

    Wall Graphics
    Very popular, repositionable wall graphics are ideal for kid's rooms, offices, locker rooms or any wall.

    Window Graphics
    Much like wall graphics, window graphics are easily achievable with the proper media, ink and print profile.

    Canvas Prints
    A high margin opportunity, printing directly onto canvas material for photos poses new chances to add-on sales.

    Selecting Equipment Based on the opportunities available with digital printing and cutting, there are a lot of considerations when selecting equipment. One of the most important decisions is the width of the printer. Units are sold in widths ranging from 30-64 inches or larger. As a business, examine the markets detailed and consider which are within the realm of possibility for your shop.

    Digital heat transfer media comes in roll sizes ranging from 15-59 inches wide. Large manufacturers, or those committed to a mass customization model, often purchase the media in the widest width possible to realize printing speed efficiencies in peak season. On the other hand, smaller, low volume decorators prefer a 15-inch width for easy handling and maximum material usage on single piece orders. When discussing non-apparel applications such as banners, posters and wall graphics, a printer with an actual print area of 48 inches or larger is almost always preferred. Examine the pros, cons and opportunities for heat transfer applications and add-on applications and make the decision that is right for you.

    Harnessing the full power of digital printing starts with understanding the capabilities of your equipment and then turning those capabilities into new opportunities. Whether the leap into digital is in your past or your future, the possibility of maximizing your digital printing equipment is an ongoing endeavor that can reap rewards.

    Josh Ellsworth is general manager of Stahls CAD-CUT Direct. He has been in the industry for 10 years and has helped implement apparel customization solutions in some of the largest manufacturers in the United States. Josh speaks regularly at industry trade shows and continues his educational efforts online at, or contact him at:

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