Printing on apparel isn’t a new concept—from its humble beginnings in AD China to the screen printing revolution of the 20th century, people have been putting images and designs on fabric for as long as they knew it was possible. But as technology has advanced across industries, so have the processes of printing on different types of fabric. In our industry, you’ll see techniques that fall into two categories: Analog & Digital.
Analog printing techniques are the ones that many people have known for a long time: Screen printing & Heat Transfer.
When printing on apparel using screen printing, the printing process involves creating a stencil, which is used to apply layers of ink to the material. On most other apparel, if you’ve got multiple colors, multiple stencils (or screens) can be used to apply the design. But when you’re printing on socks, you can only use one ink color, which can limit design capabilities.
Screen printing allows vibrant colors and can be low cost depending on the design, but due to the process, the design just bonds to the outside of the material. This means the design can have a shorter lifetime, and cracking can occur over time. One thing to remember is that screen printing usually requires minimum orders, which can make it difficult (or less cost-effective) to have smaller quantity orders.
In certain instances, like adding grip to socks, screen printing has certain advantages. For example, at Pacific Manufacturing, we use thick stencils to add grip to the bottom of socks and on the inside of no-show type socks.
The heat transfer method is another lower cost method of printing. Heat transfers utilize printing onto a special transfer paper, which is then applied to the sock with a heat press. The design bonds to the outside of the sock, creating a vibrant, detailed look. Heat transfer is the most versatile type of printing, allowing varied color and great detail in designs. It’s the method used for reflective heat transfers, multi-color, and floor changing heat transfers.
While this process allows multiple colors and the colors are vibrant, printing by heat transfer is the least durable option. The design merely bonds to the outside of a sock, which leads to a shorter lifespan due to shrinking, warping and cracking.
There are two types of techniques when it comes to digital printing on garments: Direct to Garment & Sublimation.
Direct to Garment (DTG)/360 Printing:
DTG printing is a newer digital method of garment printing that works a lot like the desktop printers you’re used to using with your computer. Instead of utilizing transfer paper or screens, this method prints your design (no matter how many colors), directly on the fabric. The result is a highly detailed, more permanent design. Instead of sitting on top of the fabric, this method allows the ink to sink in.
When it comes to printing on socks, this method is also known as 360 printing. That’s because the socks are placed on a tube, then the design is printed on the sock while the tube is spinning. Since there aren’t any places the printer misses, it can result in a truly seamless design. It also means the sock is stretched before printing, which results in less saturation when the sock is being worn. It can also slightly distort the design when the sock is hanging in a retail setting.
In small batch projects, DTG is the lowest cost option for printing on fabric, though in larger batches, it may not make sense. There aren’t any volume discounts, which you’ll gain with other printing methods, and the process can be slower.
Sublimation is a digital method of printing that achieves what’s called a “seam-to-seam” design. The design covers the full sock, but does leave lines on the seams where the process can’t cover. This happens because your design is first digitally printed onto a special paper, which is then heat pressed onto the sock.
When the heat press is applied, the ink actually turns from a solid into a gas, which is then absorbed into the polyester material, resulting into a more permanent design. Read: longer-lasting designs, soft-touch socks, and no cracking.
The reality is that each of these types of printing can be considered “best” in certain situations. You’ll want to consider what type of material you’ll be printing on, the cost you’re willing to pay, the quantity and the end product you’d like to achieve. For different projects, you may want to use different types of printing.
Take a peek at this handy chart when you’re not sure which process is best for your project: