The UK Garment and Gifts Printing Guide – So, you want to print Tshirts, Mugs or other giftware?


This is a guide for anyone who is considering starting a business (or adding a new sideline to an existing business) printing / decorating garments, mugs and/or other products. 

The reason we have produced this guide is that although we have our heat press guide, and our dye sublimation printing guide, we get a lot of enquiries from people who need more help understanding the processes so that they can decide which process or processes they need to be working with. 

They know that they probably need a heat press, they know what they want to do is probably some kind of transfer printing, but often this is as much as they know at that stage – and there’s quite a lot to it. 

We do always do our best to give this information on the phone or via email, but we find ourselves repeating the same advice so often, that we thought it would make sense to create this guide which explains the various processes, so you can decide which process or processes are the ones for you. 

There is no single “one size fits all” solution to garment and giftware decoration.

The most important thing we would like to get across initially in this guide, is that there is not just one garment and giftware decoration process, there are several – and which process or processes you need to be working with, will depend on the kinds of images you’re going to be working with, the kind of products you want to decorate, and other factors.

Sublimation Plus Laser Transfer

With one flat press, a dye sublimation printer, and a laser transfer printer, you can produce a wide range of printed products including Tshirts, polo shirts, hoodies, hi vis, bags, cushions, tea towels, wooden coasters, wooden placemats, glass cutting boards, oven gloves, napkins, bottle openers, keyrings, aluminium sheets, and much more.

Add an inexpensive mug press to the equation, and you can also then (with the same sublimation printer) produce ceramic mugs, bone china mugs, stainless steel travel mugs, espresso mugs, children’s mugs & more.

If you go for the Monster mug press, you can produce 10/11 ounce ceramic mugs, bone china mugs of various sizes, latte shaped mugs 12 ounce and 17 ounce, espresso mugs, plant pots, children’s mugs, ceramic eco travel mugs, stainless steel travel mugs, plastic travel mugs, aluminium water bottles, glass mugs, shot glasses, and more.

The Sawgrass Virtuoso A4 sublimation printer setup is the most popular dye sublimation printer we supply, for £429 plus VAT – this comes with the print rip VPM (Virtuoso Print Manager), and Creative Studio (online design software, it’s great!).

For laser transfer, we supply the SunAngel system which starts at £699 plus VAT,  which is a very inexpensive entry level to laser transfer.

Heat Presses

Most items including Tshirts and other garments, and other giftware such as keyrings, coasters, bags, cushions, tea towels, mousemats, and so on, are pressed with a flat heat press. 

Laser transfer printing requires a high quality flat heat press. So even if you’re starting out just with dye sublimation, hoping to add laser transfer printing at a later stage so that you can then also print onto Tshirts, hoodies etc., you would be well advised to invest in a high quality heat press. 

This isn’t a case of us just wanting to sell you one of the quality brands of heat presses we sell, it’s literally that budget heat presses (including the budget heat presses we sell) will not work properly with laser transfers. 

This is because creating laser transfers and then heat sealing them onto the garment, requires a heavy pressure, and also a very even distribution of pressure and yeat, and you just don’t get this with budget heat presses. 

If you’re only ever going to print via dye sublimation, then you’ll be fine with a budget heat press, as dye sublimation is a forgiving process when it comes to the heat press. If you’re going to be using laser transfer though, forget low cost heat presses. 

If you just don’t have the budget to invest in a good heat press, we would recommend investing in a high quality used heat press. Adkins Beta heat presses come up quite regularly for sale (look for Adkins beta or adkins beta maxi, also they’re re-branded as Xpres beta and as Magic Touch heat presses). Just make sure that you go for the Beta, and not the Adkins studio, as the studio presses are a budget press from Adkins that are not recommended for laser transfer. 

If you have the budget to go for a newhigh quality heat press, then we  would recommend Stahls HotronixStahls FusionGeo Knight DK20STransmatic TS-2M or a brand new Adkins Beta – these presses will be perfect for both dye sublimation and laser transfer.

Also see our heat press guide.

Need more help?

Many of our customers having read the above, will decide to start with either sublimation or laser transfer, and to add the other later – or to start out with both print processes if budget allows. If you’re still not quite sure however, there’s more info for you below which may help you to decide the best way forward for you.

What kind of business will you be operating?

This is a very good question because there are several different kinds of businesses under the umbrella of “garment and giftware printing”, and which processes you should be working with will depend on what kind of business you’re going to be operating.

Personalisation Printing

This means printing one off or small numbers of items with the customers own photo/design and/or text.

So a customer uploads a photo to your website, or comes into your shop or to your stand and gives it to you on a memory stick or shares it to you via whatsapp or dropbox, and you then print this photo onto the product(s) requested. 

It could be text only, for example, someone might want a handful of Tshirts printing for a stag do, or for a sports event, with single coloured text.

It will often be photographs or combinations of photos and text. You can also combine personalisation printing with your own templates, and this is something that the new Creative Studio software is great for, which comes with the Sawgrass Virtuoso printers, as it includes lots of templates which you can personalise with your customers text and images. 

Brand Creation

What you may be planning is creating your own brand, and producing products with your own designs, whether this is artistic designs, or comedy slogans for example. 

Brand creation differs from personalisation printing, in that you’re going to be producing various items (such as different styles, colours and sizes of garments) with the same designs. 

If you’re creating your own brand, you can do your own printing, but there is also the option since you’re going to be producing numbers of items using the same designs, to outsource either the whole production process or just the transfer printing. 

There are firms who specialise in producing custom transfers, using a range of different print processes. What this means is that you can have your designs ready on transfers, but do the finishing part (i.e. heat pressing the transfer onto the garment) when you have the order, which reduces the number of garments you need to stock.  

You also have the option of course to outsource the entire print process, but the issue here is that you have to invest in the entire printed garment, not just the transfer.  

For example, let us assume you’re planning of putting a range of garments with your own designs onto Etsy.  You could stock a number of transfers of each of your designs, and offer a wide range of different styles, colours and sizes without actually having to invest in all that stock and hope that it all sells.  

You could, of course, have the print process in house, this will usually make your printing costs less and help you to increase your margins, as the transfer printers will need to make a margin too, although in most cases a bulk transfer printer will have much lower printing costs and will have a wider range of  print processes open to them. 

Workwear & Schoolwear Production

Producing workwear and schoolwear (and teamwear / clubwear) is different to personalisation printing and own brand production, in that you will often be doing higher volumes of the same designs, but these designs will be your client’s logos rather than your own designs. 

It also differs in terms of the kinds of products you would be producing, and the process you would use.  Workwear and schoolwear is mainly about garments, and they’re often garments such as jackets/blazers, polo shirts & hi vis – and usually, the desired process would be embroidery. 

You can probably start to see now why it is important to know from the start what kind of business you’re planning on developing, for instance, if you’re going to be focusing on workwear and schoolwear, embroidery will more than likely be your core process. 

Promotional  Printing

This involves producing promotional products for businesses. Businesses often produce mugs, pens, bags, garments and various other items which they use to promote their business to potential or existing businesses. 

It’s a competitive market, the margins aren’t usually as good as they would be with personalisation, but the main benefit of the promotional market is the potential volume. 

Many of the promotional printing businesses are really brokers rather than in-house printers, and the bigger volumes will often be produced outside of the UK and imported. 

Now we’ve discussed the main business types in terms of your client-base, but there are other options when it comes to your business model:

In-house production

This simply means that you do all your own printing/production. For most people, printing in house would make the most sense, as you would usually have better margins, and more control over the process including the quality of the finished product. 

In-house finishing

This means that you would work with a transfer printer to create the transfers ready to be applied, and you’d create your own products in-house by doing your own heat-pressing, or whatever the finishing process is for that transfer process (heat pressing is the finishing process for most, but not all – for instance water slide). This is a fairly common option for brand production. 

Brokering

This means you do the selling, take the orders, and you work with other printers to produce the goods. This would usually work for bigger volume production, and you’d need the bigger volumes as brokering margins are usually small, but the set up costs are also small as you don’t need the equipment.  

As we mentioned above for instance, many promotional printers are brokers rather than doing their own in-house printing. 

If you’re going to be brokering, what you need is good relationships with printers, and good selling skills – along with a good working knowledge of the various printing options so that you know the best way to deliver what your clients are requesting.

It’s not as simple as “I want 1000 Tshirts”, the client will usually have a very specific requirement and it’s up to you to match these requirements with the correct print method and printer for the job. You won’t need to invest in equipment, but you’ll need to invest in marketing, and in sample production.

Drop Shipping

This is similar to brokering, but where it differs is that drop shipping works for one off’s and small quantities also.  So you’ll take the order, pass this to your drop ship partner, and they’ll deliver for you. 

The benefit of drop shipping is you don’t need to invest in the equipment, and you don’t need to put the time and effort into producing the goods. 

The negative side of drop shipping is that you don’t have control over the printing and the quality of the products produced, and your margins will be much smaller as the printer will need to make a margin too. 

Drop shipping can be a good way to get started without investing in equipment, if you can find the right drop ship partner, and if drop shipping works for your business model. For example if you’re thinking of running a shop or a market stall, then drop shipping wouldn’t be suitable as you’d want the ability to produce the goods the same day or even while the client waits (if you’re brave enough).

So now you hopefully have a much better understanding of the various different types of production and the different business models. 

The key is, when you’re starting out, to know where you’re going. If you know now exactly what your business model is after reading the above, then that’s great – but if you’re thinking along the lines of maybe all or some of the above, you’d probably be best advised to put more time into deciding exactly where to focus. 

We often hear from people who have a very vague idea of what kind of business they’re going to be running, and the problem with this is that if you don’t know clearly what kind of business you’re creating, you don’t know who your customers are, and you can’t know how to best approach your marketing. 

Printing Processes

There are various different print processes, and as we mentioned earlier, there is no one size fits all solution to cover all products and image types.  There are many variables, and many different processes depending on these variables.

As mentioned earlier, there is one very popular combination of processes, which is dye sublimation and laser transfer, which would allow you to print onto a wide range of garments and giftware – using a Sawgrass Virtuoso dye sublimation printer, and a SunAngel laser transfer printer, along with a flat heat press – and a mug press if you want to also produce mugs and related products. 

Dye sublimation printing is incredibly versatile. You can start off with a relatively inexpensive dye sublimation startup package and be producing a wide range of gifts, including products made from wood, glass, ceramic, plastics, metals and fabrics.

When you start looking at sublimation it may initially look like a one size fits all solution, but when you start getting into the details you realise it’s not. Dye sublimation works only on man made fibres, it doesn’t work directly onto 100% cotton garments for example, and it’s only for white or light substrates, you can’t sublimate onto a dark blue or a black Tshirt or hoody for instance.

Each process has it’s pros and cons, and which one is right for your business depends entirely on you and your plans.

What will be your core process?

Most garment & giftware production businesses start out with one main core process which suits their needs the most initially but usually will grow from there by adding other processes as strings to their bow as they go along, widening the range of their abilities.

For example, you may be starting a business focusing mainly on workwear, schoolwear, teamwear and clubwear – in which case your core process will probably be embroidery.

But then you may have enquiries from schools and corporate clients to produce other items such as mugs, coasters, tea towels, bags and so on – so you may at this stage add dye sublimation as a string to your bow. 

The universal piece of equipment is the flat heat press. Other than embroidery and water slide transfers, the majority of other processes require a heat press.  So if you start out with a dye sublimation printer and a flat heat press, for example, you could then add laser transfer printing, flex / foil printing, garment film cad cut, and so on, using the same heat press.

We’ll start off with a brief introduction to each process, so you can figure out which is going to be your core process to begin with:

Dye Sublimation Printing

Dye sublimation is the main process that we supply blanks, consumables and equipment for. The heat presses we supply will work for all heat transfer processes, but when it comes to print/transfer processes, our main focus is dye sublimation.

Dye sublimation works by printing an image (flipped in reverse) onto a sheet of sublimation paper. Unlike with transfer printing processes, the print is only on the paper temporarily – once it’s heat presses, the paper is thrown away. 

The reason for this is that the sublimation “ink” that we print with, is dye particles held in a water based solution – so the paper is just a holding paper, which holds the image in place until it’s sublimated. 

Sublimation is a chemical process which means to go from a solid into a gas without going through the liquid phase – it’s the same process used to make dry ice, and to freeze dry instant coffee. 

The printed sublimation paper is put onto the blank product, which must have polymer molecules in the surface (for instance, a polyester or mixed fabric with a high polyester mix, or a ceramic or wooden item for example which is specially coated for dye sublimation. All our dye sublimation blanks are either made from polyester, or are poly coated.

When heat pressed, the dye particles turn into a gas and then bond with the polymers present in the blank item, and the bulk of the dye that was held in the paper, becomes one with the polymer molecules on the blank item. Which means that the image leaves the paper, and is now in (not on) the surface of what was a blank item. 

Dye Sublimation Pros: 

  • Very high quality, vivid photographic prints. 
  • Print graphics/photographs and text at the same time. 
  • Very simple process, print then press. 
  • No difference in feel/hand between the printed are the blank areas of the item/substrate. 
  • Incredibly durable, in fact when it comes to garments, the likelihood is that the print will long outlive the item. (Durability on coated items such as mugs depends on the quality of the coating, which is why we only stock orca coated dishwasher safe mugs).
  • Relatively cheap printing process 
  • Wide range of sublimation blanks available in the UK

Dye Sublimation Cons:

It’s a dye process, so you can only sublimate onto white or light coloured items. You can’t print white, therefore the background needs to be white or light. There is media you can use in order to sublimate onto dark items, but since this means you’re going to be using a transfer, it may be better to go down the transfer printing route instead if you plan to transfer onto dark garments.

Polymers are required, and there are no polymers in natural fabrics, which means you can’t sublimate onto 100% cotton. Since many garment decorators prefer to use cotton garments, and there’s a much wider range of 100% cotton garments available, this is a major sticking point for sublimation when it comes to garment decoration. Yes there are 100% polyester garments, and special sublimation Tshirts made of fabric which has a polyester outer, but if garments are at the core of your business, dye sub probably won’t be the core process for you.

Heat is required – at least 170C, so the item to be pressed needs to have a sticking point of at least 170C. There are plastic items that would work for sublimation if it wasn’t for the fact that they would melt at anywhere near this temperature.

In short, if garments are an afterthought for your business – if you’re thinking mainly of producing mugs, coasters, iphone cases, tote bags, tea towels, and various other gifts but you may have the need occasionally to produce a T-shirts for Stag/hen parties or fun runs – then dye sub may be the main process for you. 

If it’s the other way around, garments are at the core of your business and other items such as mugs, coasters, mousemats and so on are an afterthought, then one of the other processes are probably going to be at the core of your business, but you may want to add sublimation as a string to your bow.

Laser Transfer Printing

This involves printing onto transfer media and then heat pressing the transfer onto the garment. 

We supply the SunAngel laser transfer printing system, which is a fantastic laser transfer printing system for garments.

The main difference between transfer printing and dye sublimation, is that with transfer printing you’re printing a transfer media and then applying the media to the garment or substrate. With dye sublimation, you’re dying the image directly into the surface of the substrate, and the paper itself is just there to hold the image in place.

Unless you’re getting into screen printing,  or using ready-made transfers, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up using laser transfer (probably in addition to dye sublimation, rather than stand-alone), so we’ll focus mainly on laser transfer, but keep in mind that you can produce the transfers via screen also if you were wanting to get into screen printing, but we’ll discuss screen printing later on. 

The main process with laser transfer printing, is the popular no-weed transfer media that you can print in full colour due to the fact that printers such as the SunAngel printers have a white toner.

What this means is that instead of printing with a laser printer onto a white garment film, and then using an optical cutter to cut out the unwanted white bits in the background, and then going through the painstaking weeding out of these bits – you just print the image onto the media, and the bits in the background that aren’t required, just stay on the backing sheet.

So for instance, if you want to print a full colour photo onto a black Tshirt, or a logo design or a graphic onto a hoody or a polo or hi vis vest, you just print this onto a media such as Ultratex or Ultrabrite 4, and then press this onto the garment. There are various other laser transfer papers on the market too which are compatible with the SunAngel laser transfer printers

This isn’t the only kind of media you can use with laser printers, however. There are various other media types that you can use, including printable garment film or flex. This works by simply printing the single coloured flex in black, and the area that has been printed, ends up being the transfer – so it’s not the black print that ends up on the garment, but the other side, the metallic foil.  This means you can create silver or gold (and various other colours) transfers onto garments. 

Screen printing

Most people have heard of screen printing. A screen is produced for each colour of the design, and then the ink paste is squeegeed on, one colour at a time, and then dried. 

Screens are covered in a heat sensitive emulsion, and the design is printed in black onto a transparent film, then placed onto the screen and exposed under a light or on top of an exposure unit.

The emulsion that isn’t covered with the design hardens, and becomes the mask, while the area that the design was, doesn’t harden and is washed off. So when you squeegee the ink over the screen, the ink is only applied to the none-exposed area, which is in the shape of your design.

The most time-consuming aspect of screen printing is producing the screens. You’ll need to make a screen for each colour of each design, and this can take up to around an hour per screen including the time it takes for the emulsion to dry and for exposure.

The positive thing about this, however, is that most of the production time is drying time and exposing, so you can expose several screens at the same time if you have enough gear, in only a slightly longer time that it would take to do one. 

The printing is actually very quick, especially if it’s single colour – even multiple colour screen printing is super fast if you have a multi head screen carousel (100-300 Tshirts per hour is possible depending on the number of colours and the print size).

Pros of screen printing

  • Very cost effective for bulk printing of the same design.
  • Very fast printing speeds of 100-300 tshirts per hour (you would struggle to produce the same quantity per day with most other processes).
  • Various inks available such as plastisol, or water-based inks (depending on the look and handle required).

Cons of screen printing

  • Time-consuming in terms of set up, which usually rules out screen printing for one-off and personalisation printing.
  • A fair amount of equipment required: screens, carousel, exposure unit, flash dryer, squeegees, washout area or booth – although a certain amount of this can be made via DIY.
  • Messy process, don’t get involved in screen printing if you don’t like getting your hands dirty ;-).
  • Can be a smelly process, depending on the inks used.

Pre-made transfers

If you’re not doing personalisation printing, and you’re going to be transferring large quantities of the same designs, the best approach for you may be to get transfers made. You order the transfers from your printer, and then just press them as and when you need to create more stock.

Pros of pre-made transfers

No investment in printers, and none of the associated effort and cost relating to printing in-house, such as maintenance and repairs.

Speed – there’s no printing involved, just grab the garment, whack on the transfer and press. 

Flexibility. There are transfer printing companies who have several print technologies, meaning they can produce the best transfers for your particular application. You will find transfer suppliers who can provide you with plastisol transfers, distressed look hot-split transfers, digitally printed transfers, screen printed or digitally printed water slide transfers, foil transfers, solvent printed transfers & cad cut garment film transfers.

Cost, if buying in bulk. If you’re doing high quantities of the same designs, you’ll find some of the bulk custom transfer processes to be particularly cost-effective, especially those that are screen printed.

Cons of pre-made transfers

It’s really only suitable for producing quantities of the same design. It’s not a suitable solution for personalisation printing where you would be printing only one or two of each design for example and requiring them quickly. 

We do realise there’s a lot of info here, and this isn’t even all of it – if we were to try to include all the possible print processes, this would turn into an encyclopedia, but hopefully, this has introduced you to at least the most common print processes.

If you need further help, just give us a call on 01625 876949 – or email info@subli.co.uk

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