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What Lies Beneath – Adhesive Transfer Paper

Posted: 11/10/2014

Adhesive transfers are next in our discussion of decoration using heat transfer processes. Also called a surface transfer, this process involves physical materials that are permanently applied using adhesives. An image is printed onto transfer paper, which is then applied to the surface of a garment using a heat press. The heat and pressure activate the adhesive on the back of the paper, causing it to stick. Think of it as welding the transfer to the product.

The construction of such papers is pretty basic. Because the ink will not be transferring off of the surface, the paper is engineered solely to accept and preserve the ink that is applied to it. The key ingredient is a heat-activated adhesive coating on the backside.

The adhesive transfer process is akin to applying an emblem. It’s vital that all excess paper be trimmed away so that only the contour-cut image is being applied. You’ll need an XY cutter if you are doing any substantial amount of production. We can’t overstate how critical it is that you trim your transfers to the boundaries of the print. Otherwise, you’ll have unwanted white edges peeking out once the transfer is permanently bonded to the shirt.

Early-age adhesive papers were pretty low quality in terms of image resolution and product longevity. It didn’t take many washings before the transfer begin to crack and peel. As a result, the process got a bad name. Over the years, opaque style papers have greatly improved, thanks to new technologies and processes. In fact, there are now stretchable versions that allow the image to stretch with the garment - an important factor in preventing premature deterioration of the transfer.

One of the key advantages of using an adhesive transfer is that it’s possible print the color white without white ink. Because the paper itself is white, you can use standard CMYK printers for production. Just leave the white areas of the design “open or knocked out” so that the background color of the paper (white) shows through. Since the paper is a permanent part of the image, you don’t lose the white areas when applied to the fabric.

Adhesive transfer also comes with its share of challenges. Much like with digital transfers, adhesive papers don’t necessarily work well on all fabrics; polyester is the biggest challenge. This process also affects the bulk and feel of your fabric. Since the transfer sits atop the fabric’s surface, it is much more noticeable than with digital transfers. Over the course of multiple washings, adhesive transfers may fade, crack and peel.

For sublimators, there are some adhesive transfer papers on the market that make it possible to print on to dark garments and even cotton. You first sublimate a special adhesive-backed transfer paper. The next step is to use a cutter/plotter to trim away any excess paper. Then the final product, which is basically an emblem, is applied in a two-step heat process. The sublimation is part of the physical transfer, not the substrate. This technique can be used with any of the Sawgrass sublimation printer platforms, though the Ricoh 3110 or 7100 being are ideal choices.

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Regardless of whether you work with digital or adhesive transfer, all papers are not created equally – and neither are the inks, printers and garments. Therefore you need to focus on all elements of the application in order to get the highest quality results. Also, remember to never sacrifice quality by trying to save a few meaningless pennies. It takes quality materials to make quality products, and transfer papers are no exception.

To learn more about sublimation and transfer printing contact a Sawgrass Dealer.