Heat transfers provide a great alternative to a traditional print run in any screen printing shop. They allow printers to create smaller batches of customized apparel for customers, when it might be cost-prohibitive to fire up the screen printing press. A heat press and premade transfers also can be taken on the go to create event-specific apparel on location. While heat transfers are often faster and easier than screen prints, they do have one primary challenge: It can seem nearly impossible to create a heat transfer with a soft hand feel.

When current trends – and current customers – call for softer prints, can you create softer heat transfers that meet demand? The answer is yes; it just takes some special considerations, and softer heat transfers do come with some limitations.

Plan your design with hand feel in mind

Just like with creating a softer hand on a screen printed garment, creating a heat transfer with a softer hand begins with the image design. The larger a solid area of color, the harder time you’ll have creating a garment that has a soft hand overall. If you have control over the image you’ll be transferring, aim to maximize negative space as you design your transfer. You can create an image with a softer hand by distressing your image or by using smaller fonts, smaller lines and outlines of images and text rather than solid ones. While you can take steps to create a softer hand on any heat transfer image, beginning with an image that’s been designed with a softer hand in mind will help make the overall job easier.

Use hot-split transfers

No matter what your design looks like, the best way to create a softer heat transfer is by using a special hot-peel, or hot-split, heat transfer. Unlike the more common cold-peel transfer, hot-split transfers are applied and then peeled away immediately, while the transfer is still hot. Hot-split transfers peel away some of the ink and leave the remainder on the substrate. This creates a softer hand feel for two reasons. First, it leaves less ink on the garment. Second, these transfers don’t include a powdered adhesive like cold-peel transfers do. Their adhesion is based on the bond between the plastisol ink and the substrate alone. The omission of the adhesive makes the heat transfer feel softer. When you plan to use hot-split transfers, know that there are some limitations. The image will be less opaque — making it harder to see lighter inks on darker garments. The ink also will be more prone to bleeding than cold-peel transfers.

Stretch and repress your finished garment

Whether you’re able to utilize a hot-split transfer to get a softer hand feel or you’re trying to achieve a softer feel on a cold-peel transfer, there are a couple more tricks to giving your heat transfers a softer hand. First, after you’ve split or peeled your heat transfer, stretch out your garment. Another way to soften the image is to reapply heat to the image by placing it back in your heat press. Place a protective layer of parchment paper over your image and peel it away when it’s still hot.

It might pose some challenges, but you can enjoy the benefits and convenience of heat transfers with a softer hand feel. It’s best to start with an image that takes advantage of white space, use a hot-split transfer and exercise special care after the transfer has been made.