There are hundreds of companies that do a great job with custom printing. If you found us through a web search, you probably saw a bunch of the other companies as well. But when you started searching for a company to print custom athletic wear, especially if it’s only 1 or 2 jerseys that aren’t white, you probably couldn’t find many options. The difficulty in making these jerseys is due to current printing technology and the materials the jerseys are made out of.
The miracle material that took over the athletic apparel industry is polyester. Before the 1950’s, most athletic clothing was still made with cotton. While cotton breathes easily, there are a number of problems with using it as an athletic material: the biggest being that it holds moisture. That means that while you’re working up a sweat, your clothes are bogging you down while making you feel like you’re wearing a sponge. The moisture also turns the garments into breeding grounds for bacteria and body odor.
Polyester has advantages over cotton since it’s strong, both dry and wet. It is considered to be easy-care since it can be washed, dried quickly, and resists wrinkling. It also holds up well in use due to has high resistance to stretching, shrinking, most chemicals, abrasion, mildew, and moths.
The double-edged nature of this wonderful material is that since it doesn’t absorb things well, that means it’s much tougher to decorate with the normal water-based inks that cotton goods are decorated with.
Apparel printing can be broken down into the method of printing (machinery) and the ink being used. The most common print technique is screen printing. This is where a fine mesh screen is placed on top of the garment and ink is pushed through. The problem with screen printing is that it’s extremely labor intensive to set up so it only works on large batches. If you’re ordering 20+ items, this could work, but definitely not recommended for small batches. Most screen printers also only print one color at a time so the cost for a design goes up substantially if it has multiple colors.
The second most common method for printing custom athletic wear is sublimation. This uses a special ink that’s absorbed into plastics, but it requires a lot of resources since the machines to print are expensive and in order to have anything but a white shirt as the base, you also need to print all the pieces of the clothing then cut them out and sew them together. So with this method, you not only need fancy equipment, but a tailor/seamstress to put everything together as well. Most fully sublimated clothing is outsourced to other countries since the costs are so high in terms of machines and labor, but this also means that you have to order large quantities to make it worthwhile and you have to wait weeks to get the items shipped.
If a company offers sublimation with no minimums and fast turnaround, most times it’s “spot sublimation.” This just means that they can print a specific area on a white garment, but can’t print colors throughout the entire thing. There’s nothing wrong with this, it just means you can’t get a colorful jersey, only a colorful design on a white jersey.
Direct to Garment printing is essentially using a modified inkjet printer to print directly on the shirt. This is the best method for producing individual items since there’s not a huge setup involved as there is with screen printing. The problem for athletic goods is that this uses thin or water-based inks and, as mentioned earlier, polyester doesn’t absorb ink at all. The only way around this is to spray the jersey with a special chemical to allow the ink to stick to the top. Even then, since the ink isn’t embedded into the jersey, it shows cracking easily and doesn’t have the same durability as other methods.
Finally, transfers are methods of using some sort of adhesive to glue a design to the jersey. Most of these are done with very thin sheets of vinyl that are either individually colored, or have images printed on them. These are applied with high heat to melt the adhesive into the fabric. The only equipment needed is something to cut the vinyl and something to melt it to the shirt. With a low cost of equipment, you’ll find many sellers that do single or double color designs on places like Etsy. For full color designs, you need special printing equipment to print onto the vinyl before cutting and transferring it so the costs are much higher.
Vinyl transfers you have great durability so these are often used for names and numbers that go on jerseys, but the feeling is like a sticker is put on top since that’s essentially what’s happening. They can’t breathe and they don’t allow for fading designs into the fabric color or having very intricate designs that aren’t a part of a big block of vinyl.
We’ve developed a hybrid option that transfers the design onto the jersey without having to print it on a vinyl base first. It uses the best parts of both the screen-printing and DTG printing put together. Designs use a plastic-based ink like screen printing, but it does so with a technology that keeps it only a few microns thin so they can bond with the fibers of the jersey much better. There’s a small amount of adhesive used to temper the bond, but it doesn’t require a whole sheet of vinyl like standard transfers so it doesn’t feel like a sticker.
We’ve also developed our system to add very tiny holes or lines throughout the design if there’s large areas of ink so the jersey will still feel extremely soft and can breathe properly. This way, you don’t have to worry about what type of design you want. You don’t have to limit the colors, the size of the design, or the background color of the jersey that it’s printed on.
To summarize, there are 5 main methods used today to decorate custom athletic wear: