Cornish printshop, Advertees set up a new dye sublimation printing operation last year to produce all-over prints for independent fashion brands. We spoke to Steve Brown about the company’s entry into the dye sub T-shirt printing market.…
Is this the right time to investigate all-over dye sublimation printing, or to go the whole hog and invest in a wide format dye sub set-up for your printshop? Advertees asked itself the same questions last summer and answered with an unequivocal ‘yes’.
“We’d started to see a lot of all-over dye sublimation prints appearing at that time and many weren’t necessarily done that well,” says Steve Brown, Advertees’ owner. “There weren’t many options for customers requiring only small quantities, (up to 150 shirts), and the printing was limited: for example, the type of heat presses people were using often didn’t go to the end of the sleeves, so the sleeves were being left blank. We just felt there was a need for somebody to do something a little better for those people who weren’t ordering big numbers from the big producers.”
Epson printer launch
The timing of Advertees’ entry into the dye sub market was also influenced by new equipment options – specifically the launch of the Epson F6000 printer (supplied by iSub). Steve comments: “Epson introduced the F6000 mid-range machine last year. We use Epson printers for film production on the screen print side and they’ve proved very reliable, going on for years and years. So as soon as Epson launched an affordable dye sublimation printer we went for it. It’s been brilliant. We had a few teething problems – getting the right amount of ink down for the type of work we do – but once they were sorted the machine has run every day with very little maintenance.”
Steve adds that dye sub printing is relatively quick to master as unlike screen printing each print uses the same process, regardless of the complexity of the original image or design.
According to Steve, another reason for Advertees opting to enter the dye sub market was the company’s reluctance to invest in d2g technology, “because of the maintenance of the machines, the washfastness and the ‘million other issues’ that go with d2g! We keep looking and we’re pretty sure d2g is getting there – slowly – but it’s a huge investment and it doesn’t feel as though it is there yet for us. It needs to be available on a screen printing carousel, basically,” is Steve’s view.
The Epson F6000 is complemented by a twin-head Monti Antonio flatbed heat press. This is capable of transferring edge-to-edge prints onto a 2XL T-shirt. The twin heads allow the operator to set up the next shirt while a shirt is being printed, which has a big impact on production speed. “It takes time to minimise creases on the finished shirt,” Steve explains. “Often not enough attention is paid to creases, but they can be reduced dramatically with care and attention. The twin-head press allows the operator to take the time to get it right.”
Whereas dye sublimation printing has traditionally been associated with the sportswear market, Advertees set out from the beginning to target its dye sub printing service at the same market serviced by its established screen printing operations – namely, small independent fashion brands. The company also limits its service to printing onto pre-made American Apparel T-shirts. “We think American Apparel have the best cotton-polyester mix T-shirts on the market,” says Steve. “We would like to offer cut and sew as well – it’s a possibility for the future – but it needs thinking about and we need to find the right textiles.”
Steve reports that virtually every initial enquiry is for sublimation prints onto 50/50 tees.
“People want the all-over design, but they don’t want polyester, they want as much cotton content as possible. Quite often, though, they end up on a 100% polyester shirt because they want their prints to be as close as possible to their original image. There’s a lot of customer education that’s needed, otherwise people are disappointed. People are coming to us because they haven’t received any advice and have ended up with a product that they’re really not happy with. Once they have tried the polyester T-shirts they are fine with them, they like them. The 85/15 shirt is a good option and good to wear – it feels like cotton. It manages to reproduce a reasonable ‘black’ and as long as it’s washed without fabric softeners it retains its breathability.”
He adds that one of the main challenges has been educating customers on how to handle the large file sizes involved in dye sub work. “The files are big – there’s a dramatic jump up from the file size in screen print. When an image is covering an entire shirt it needs to measure 1 m x 1 m at 150 dpi, and you need a different file for every size of shirt.”
Saving the original image at 300 dpi results in a further large jump in file size, but Steve advises that the higher resolution makes a noticeable difference to the quality of the final printed image.
He comments: “We encourage customers to adopt Dropbox, Wetransfer and so on for sending files. There’s plenty of options out there, but not everyone is aware of how to use them. The same goes for graphics software. As the sublimation process attracts a lot of ‘non-professional’ customers, we like to point them towards GIMP (www.gimp.org/). This helpful open-source image editing software is a free alternative to Photoshop and allows anyone to open our artwork template files and send in artwork to print T-shirts.”
(The Advertees templates can be downloaded from: www.advertees. co.uk/templates/85-15pc-psd-sublimation-templates.zip.)
More customers, ordering smaller runs, on jobs that require multiple large graphics files has required extra investment in Advertees’ own computer systems to accommodate the amount of data being handled. “We’ve handled more data on the dye sublimation side over the past 12 months than we have on the screen print side throughout its entire history!” says Steve.
He adds that the time spent working with and advising customers is higher for dye sub than screen printing, and this factors into the cost of the dye sub printed shirts. “Cost is the main limitation of the process, along with the initial resistance to polyester shirts. It is expensive: double the cost of a d2g print and triple the cost of a screen printed shirt. But it gives customers the option of ordering a one-off or short runs. People are getting around the higher costs by ordering one-offs and putting them up on website, say, for pre-order. We’re also finding that people are using the shirts to complement an existing screen printed range. And the good thing is you’re unlikely to ever walk down your high street and see someone wearing the same shirt!”
Steve adds that while all-over prints may be a phase, Advertees has as much all-over printing business as it would like at this time and the company expects demand for this service to continue to build slowly over time. “There’s a lot yet to happen with digital, so it’s difficult to predict the future for all-over dye sublimation printing, but we expect it to always be a big part of what we do,” he concludes.