A Basic Guide to T-shirt Vinyl & Heat Transfer Film

Blog_BasicGuide_TshirtVinyl_header_300x264So you’ve been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and you’re thinking about starting up a custom T-shirt shop using heat press vinyl. Or maybe you’re already in the sign and graphics business and are interested in expanding to garment decoration.

In either case, you’ve probably wondered  how the imprinting process works and what you need to get started doing imprintables. Wonder no longer. We’re here to give you the scoop.

For simplicity’s sake, this article will deal with CAD cuttable T-shirt graphics, otherwise known as “T-shirt vinyl” or “heat press vinyl”.  There are digital print options too, including solvent printable films, dye sublimation, and ChromaBlast cotton decoration. But to keep it simple, this article will focus on heat transfer films you can use with your vector software and vinyl cutter.


Fabric Imprinting Hardware: almost the same as for vinyl signmaking.

Since both sign making and CAD T-shirt graphics are vector based processes, the essential hardware for making T-shirts is almost the same as that for making vinyl signs. You’ll need a personal computer, a cutting plotter or vinyl cutter, and some vector software. For a detailed list of some options in this area please refer to our Basic Guide to Vinyl Sign Graphics.

As an old Haitian friend of mine used to say, “almost chicken is not soup!” Meaning, there is an important difference in the list of essential tools for making T-Shirt graphics.

In addition to a vinyl cutting plotter, PC, and software, you’ll also need a heat press. If your production goals are modest, you can begin with a small inexpensive starter press like the Geo Knight JetPress JP12 or JP14. If you plan to hit the T-Shirt market like the Allies at Normandy, you’ll need something more robust. For more detailed recommendations on how to choose the right heat press, please refer to our post, How to Choose the Right Heat Press for Fabric Imprinting.

Fabric Imprinting Software: The same as vinyl signmaking.

Since you’re cutting out the “heat press vinyl” the same as vinyl for a sign, you use the same vector based software. You just reverse the image before cutting.  (see below)

The Fabric Imprinting Process
All graphics made for cuttable T-shirt transfer films must be mirrored

Fig 2: All graphics made for cuttable T-shirt transfer films must be mirrored before sending to the plotter.

Design and Cutting. Creating and applying letters on a T-shirt or jersey is almost the same process as making vinyl graphics.  Almost. Before you send a design job from your vector software to a vinyl cutter, the file must be reversed so that’s it’s a mirror image of the original design. (Fig 2). This is because of the way CAD heat transfer film is manufactured and shipped.

Think of it as upside-down vinyl. When you load the media on your plotter, the liner is facing upward. When you plot the film, you are cutting the bottom of the face film, not the top. Because of this, you’ll have to flip your design before you send it to the plotter.

Most t-shirt transfer films have only a single liner, but there are a few that have an additional liner (usually pink) to protect the film during transit. With these products, you have to cut away a section of that extra liner before you begin plotting or cutting the job.

Speaking of cutting, you may see references to something called a “flock blade”. Most thermal transfer film is very thin so you don’t need a special blade or a lot of force.  EnduraTex Hotmark 70, for instance, is only 50 microns thick (roughly 2mil) and can be cut with a standard 45 ° blade with about 75 grams of force. The same is true for Siser Easy Weed and most of our standard PVC and PU films. The exceptions are flock films like Chemica UpperFlock and Siser Stripflock, thicker metallic films like EnduraTex Bling, Siser Glitter,  and of course reflective heat transfer films like EnduraTex Reflex or Siser Reflect-All.  For these you will need a 60° blade and perhaps a little more force.

Weed it, Flip It, Press it, Peel it.

Fig 3: After cutting and weeding, place the graphic 'right reading' on the shirt

Fig 3: After cutting and weeding, place the graphic ‘right reading’ on the shirt

Once you’ve cut your graphic, weed it just as you would normal vinyl.  Once it’s weeded, you’ll have the clear liner showing the graphic on the bottom. Place the weeded graphic on the garment on your heat press so that it is now “right reading” (FIG 3). If you’re still looking at a mirror version of the image, it’s upside down and will stick to the heat press instead of the shirt, which will probably ruin your day.

Cover the film with a Teflon sheet or comparable layer to provide even heat distribution and prevent anything from sticking to the platen. Set the press for the recommended time,  temperature, and pressure for the material and close it.  Once you’re done pressing the film, wait the recommended amount of time and remove the liner. Sell and repeat.

Each thermal transfer film has its own recommended time, temperature, and pressure settings. These vital specifications can be found in our catalog or online on the product’s landing page in our shopping cart. For most films, we also offer a PDF document that has all of this information including washing temperature guidelines. In addition to that, we’ve created step by step tutorials for our top-selling EnduraTex films that show this entire process from start to finish. Here’s a link to the HotMark 70 tutorial. So there are lots of ways to get the info you need.

Heat Press Vinyl Supplies: Something for every taste.

As noted above, there are different types of t-shirt transfer materials available.  We now stock over 20 different cuttable heat transfer films hundreds of different colors and patterns. Obviously, a complete examination of all the varieties in the sprawling SignWarehouse…warehouse is beyond the scope of this post.  To simplify the choices, let’s group them in the following categories: PU and PVC films, hot and cold peel, special fabrics, and special effects.

PU vs PVC. Polyurethane films are the desired medium for t-shirt transfer graphics. These PU products tend to be thinner and more stretchable so they feel like part of the garment. This soft “hand” is what makes them so perfect for apparel graphics. In addition to their softness and conformability, PU films are CPSIA or OekoTex Standard 100 compliant. They’re kid safe. Our CAD-cuttable polyurethane films include EnduraTex Resolve Plus, Style, Starlight, Chemica  HotMarkQuickFlex, AllMarkFashion, GalaxySiser Easy Weed, Easy Weed Extra, and more.

PVC T-shirt films are generally thicker and less expensive. Being thicker means they’re less flexible and don’t quite have as soft a hand as PU. And, as mentioned above, they’re not considered  to be as safe for young children who may mouth the garment and its applique. So PVC films should only be used to decorate garments for adult wearers. Our economy CAD-cuttable PVC options include EnduraTex Resolve and Chemica FirstMark.  Resolve costs about 30% less than comparable PU-based material which makes it a good solution for your customers with tight budgets.

Hot or Cold: The amount of time needed for the adhesive to cure before the liner is removed can be an important factor in productivity. Traditional heat press films need to cool to room temperature before the liner is removed. This allows the adhesive to fully bond to the fabric. If you’re applying multiple colors, especially in layers, this wait time can be frustrating. For these more complex designs, a hot peel product saves time. Our hot peel transfer films include Siser Easy Weed, Easy Weed Stretch, and Chemica QuickFlex.

Fabric Imprinting - Diamond Pattern - Fig5

The diamond pattern embossed on the liner marks this as a heat press film for special fabrics so that you don’t accidentally apply it to cotton shirt.

Film and Fabrics: Since these products are all designed to be worn, one has to consider whether a particular film is suitable for the intended fabric. This is not a complex as it sounds. With few exceptions, standard PU and PVC films are compatible with cotton, polyester, cotton and polyester blends, and acrylic fabrics. Fortunately, that covers the bulk of what’s sold for casual and sports apparel. However, these films are not suitable for all garments. The time & temperature requirements may damage some fabrics or the adhesive may not hold well. For special fabrics like nylon, leather, and Lycra Spandex, different films are required. We stock two such products: Chemica AllMark  and Siser Easy Weed Extra. These work well and are high quality PU films.

You will also find that these films have a diamond pattern embossed in the liner. This is designed to mark it as a film for special fabrics so that you don’t accidentally apply it to cotton shirt (Fig 4).

Bring on the Bling:

Fig 5: EnduraTex Glitter is a very popular 'blingy' heat transfer film.

Fig 5: EnduraTex Glitter is a very popular ‘blingy’ ultra-metallic heat transfer film.

So far all we’ve talked about are standard spot color graphics on garments. These are great for most common applications like softball jerseys. But if you stroll through any department store, you’ll find that there is a huge demand for more eye-catching apparel. Some call it “bling”. We call it a business opportunity. There are lots of heat transfer materials that have extra punch. Use these to add metallic and fluorescent colors, glitter, patterns, or holographic effects to your custom garments.
Of all the blingy heat transfer films on the market, the ultra-metallic glitter-flake films seem to be the most appealing. We stock EnduraTex Bling, and Siser Glitter. Since these are 12mil (350µ) materials with lots of metal flake, it’s a little harder to cut and weed than a standard T-shirt vinyl. Please review the instructions before you try to create your first glitterized custom T.

For a slightly less metallic effect that’s easier to cut and feels lighter on apparel, try EnduraTex  Starlight or Chemica Galaxy. For a super soft chrome effect, try EnduraTex  Shine, Chemica Metallic or Siser Easy Weed Electric.

No mention of “blingy” shirts would be complete without a reference to rhinestones. We do offer several equipment and software packages for rhinestone decoration and have more on the way. Making rhinestone decorated garments requires special software and supplies. Rhinestones can be used as accents with heat transfer films, but they must be applied directly to the fabric – around the heat transfer film – not on it. The stones will adhere to the “T-shirt Vinyl” but only temporarily. They tend to come off in the wash. They can however, be applied directly to sublimated polyester or cotton printed with Sawgrass ChromaBlast ink. Click here for a more detailed report on these combinations.

Supplemental Supplies: In addition to the hardware and a good line of standard and specialty thermal transfer film, you’ll need a few other supplies. Get a pen and paper handy. Ready? Okay, you need a safety ruler, a Teflon sheet and some weeding tools. And a T-Square It or Logo It will help you get the appliqués on straight. Got it? Good! Now get out there and make some cool shirts!