Laser transfer tips: pastels, gradients, and feathered edges

New year’s resolutions are supposed to bring greater happiness, or put an end to bad habits. We have a suggestion for  you. Instead of resolving to lose ten pounds or stop eating junk food, how about resolving to stop designing CMYK laser transfers with pastels and gradients? Nothing is more frustrating than designing a T-shirt transfer, getting approval from the customer, then finding out it won’t work because the self-weeding paper can’t handle the pale hues in your design. Only you can stop the cycle of frustration. We can help. If you’re ready to resolve to make this a better year for your T-shirt printing business, read on.

Self-Weeding Yes. Magic No

The laser transfer process used to decorate white, pastel, and gray shirts is so much fun because of the simplicity and effectiveness of the  “self-weeding” or “no weed” transfer papers. When used properly, they can make printing graphic Tees a breeze. But as wonderful as these papers are, they’re not magic. And they’re not equipped with artificial intelligence.  The paper doesn’t know what you and your customer want the design to look like. The polymer chemistry can only work with what’s on the paper, and a certain amount of contrast is required. The transfer polymer sticks to areas where toner has been printed and coats those areas to transfer the print to fabric. Un-printed areas are left blank. Hence the term, ‘self weeding’ transfer paper.  So if your printed image has crisp edges with good contrast between toner and un-printed white space, it works wonderfully. If you have feathered edges or large blocks of spot colors with pastels, be prepared for head-scratching or teeth-gnashing.  Resolve to avoid these pitfalls by designing within the capabilities of the transfer technology. Here are a few tips to help you do that.

Spot Pastels Don’t Work Well

Fig 1. A pale spot color like the on on top won't work. Darken it or add texture as seen on bottom.

Fig 1. A pale spot color like the on on top won’t work. Darken it or add texture as seen on the bottom half of the ring.

As noted above, spot colors with light, pastel values don’t work well. If a color is light enough, the paper may read some of it as toner and some as white space resulting in a blotchy transfer (Fig 1, top). You can fix this two different ways. The easiest is to simply darken the color. Getting past about 20% on the gray scale is a good idea. The thing we’ve noticed about the self-weeding paper is that it works better with pale hues when there is a gradient to a darker color or a pattern of some kind, like the greenish gray marble ring in our Vinson Tigers T-shirt Sample (Fig 1, bottom). The texture helps the polymer because there’s more contrast. And it helps the finished product look better because a textured or patterned color field helps hide minuet imperfections in the transfer. So if you must use a field of pastel, like light pink for a breast cancer fundraiser, try to add a gradient or some texture to break things up.

Fig 2: Using white toner and 2-step paper solves the pastel problem.

Fig 2: Using white toner and 2-step paper solves the pastel problem.

If you have an iColor or other white toner enabled printer, you can solve this problem by using a two-step self-weeding paper designed for dark garments. These printers and papers are excellent solutions for decorating dark apparel.  But the opacity provided by the white toner and adhesive paper also support correct color for pastels and gradients on white shirts. By the way, this works with non-textile applications like mouse pads too. So, if you’re still using a CMYK laser printer, maybe it’s time for an upgrade.

Color to White? Peel it right.

Fig 2. The shirt on the left was peeled white to color. The one on the right was peeled from color to white.

Fig 3. The shirt on the left was peeled from white to color. The one on the right was peeled from color to white.

The other design element that challenges self-weeding paper is a color-to-white gradient. At some point in that gradation from color to white space, you have a very light pastel hue. The paper has a hard time reading that. But there is a noticeable difference in quality  depending on how the transfer paper is removed from the garment. If you peel the paper beginning from the solid color toward the white space, you get a smooth transfer of toner. If you start from the white space, the pickup of the gradation to color is inconsistently read and the paper doesn’t weed it properly. The result is a blotchy gradient (Fig 2, left). The simple solution is to avoid using such gradients in your laser transfer designs. But if your customer insists, just remember to peel the transfer paper in the same direction as the gradation from color to white space. You’ll get a much smoother gradient on the fabric (Fig 3, right).

Dark Shirt Orders Need Clear Borders.

Fig 3. A clipping path and clear edges are required for white toner transfers on dark shirts

Fig 4. Clearly defined edges are required for white toner transfers on dark shirts

When using two-step papers for dark shirts and/or white toner, there is an additional problem. These designs must have clearly defined edges in order for the transfer to work properly, especially when white toner is involved.  If someone brings you artwork that includes a smoky background element, advise them up front that you can’t print that on a dark or colored shirt. Such designs will work on a white shirt with EnduraTRANS 1-Step paper.  But no matter what paper or printer you have, printing hazy images with a two-step laser transfer paper is an exercise in futility.

The art preparation process for OKI WT white toner transfers requires creating a clipping path around the image. The clipping path defines where the white under-base is added (Fig 4). You can’t create a clipping path around mist and angel hair.  The design process for the iColor Series is more forgiving. You don’t need a clipping path, but you do need clearly defined edges in so that the printer driver or TransferRIP software ‘know’ where to place the layer of white toner. If your customer insists on having smoke and gradients in their design, convince them to let you print it on a white shirt and use a one step paper.

This is not to say that laser transfer is bad. Far from it. It’s a very versatile and economical method of digital garment decoration. You just have to know the limitations of the self-weeding paper’s technology so you don’t end up designing something your process can’t deliver. Promise yourself that you will never again design a laser transfer with a pale spot color, that you will never peel a gradient from white to color, or accept and order for dark shirt transfers with swamp gas as the background element. Avoid those pitfalls and your life and work will be more pleasant and productive.

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