Decorate Athletic Apparel for a Profit

After making the tough decision about whether to jump into numbering and lettering on athletic apparel, the next tough choice is about how to get those letters and numbers applied. The simplest approach-given it's what you do day in and day out-is to direct screen print them and be done with it. But when you consider all the screens needed to print all the different number configurations from “00” to “99,” it's enough to make your head spin! It's at this point you realize that you need a better solution to perform athletic numbering yourself.

If you're serious about getting into decorating athletic apparel for a business, it is in your best interest to obtain a dedicated numbering system that appropriately complements your production requirements. Having the right equipment for the job is key in any business, and not doing so is like contemplating production embroidery with a single-head machine. Unfortunately, many screen-printing plants don't offer team numbering, simply referring the work to other shops as a way out. What's wrong I with this picture? They fail to realize that they're turning down work that has real profit potential, even with smaller team orders.

There are five reasonable methods of performing athletic numbering in house: paper or plastic stencils, screen-print numbering machines, screen-inside-a-screen systems, heat-applied graphics and computer-cut numbers. So let's briefly describe each in turn, in order to identify the correct approach for your needs.

Paper / plastic stencils

Paper and plastic stencils are still used by screen printers as a cost-effective approach to team numbering. Typically with this method, a 60-mesh screen is set up on the press. A shirt is loaded on the platen, a number stencil is placed on the shirt and the screen is lowered to come into direct contact with stencil and garment. Ink is then squeegeed through the screen and stencil creating the perfect printed number. Old fashioned but effective.

The downside is the fact that the method is slow and can be tedious when it comes to often causes these small middle spacers to shift. Paper stencils take getting used to and are not recommended for the novice.

Athletic numbering machines

There are two basic configurations of dedicated numbering machine: rotary and inline. Within these two formats there are numerous variations from one manufacturer to the next. Rotary numbering machines feature multiple screens set up in a circular format similar to a standard T-shirt printing press. Usually this type of machine has a dual upper deck to hold all the numbered screens 0 through 9 in two different colors.

With the in-line configuration, the platen moves back and forth on a rail, indexing under a long screen imaged with the numbers 0 through 9. Two color numbers are simple with this system. The inline machine holds a second screen with the second-color outline of all the numbers. After the outline is printed and flashed, the solid number is printed on top of this outline.


This system consists of a master screen with no mesh attached, and a series of smaller screens that are imaged with the numbers 0 through 9. The master frame I mounts onto a standard rotary printer. The I numbered screens are set inside the master frame-side-by-side on a support rail-to create the numbers from 00 to 99. The user simply loads a shirt on the platen, inserts the desired number frames into the master frame and prints.

Direct to garment printing

The newest trend in athletic apparel decoration is the use of direct to garment printers, or DTG. These printers can directly apply a design, name, or numbers on to garments without the need of preparing screens or other setups associated with traditional screen printing. While originally the technology was only capable of printing on white or light colored garments, the process has advanced to include a white ink which means shirts of all colors will work. One thing to keep in mind is that jerseys of 100 percent polyester have a difficult time accepting DTG inks.

Most newer systems are able to adjust names and numbers on the fly, so that the operator can quickly load a queue of files and print individual designs immediately, with almost no pause between. One drawback to DTG is the high price for entry into the market. Base level printers can start at around $ 20,000, while pro grade high production machines can cost over ten times that amount. Because of this, one option is to partner up with a reputable company that offers contract direct to garment printing for you. This way you will not be turning away orders, yet not worrying about the costs of trying to print yourself.

Heat-applied numbers

These are available in many different type faces, sizes and colors. Number sizes range from small 2 “numbers for sleeves I up to 4”, 6 “, 8” and 10 “numbers for chest and back prints-6” and 8 “numbers being the most popular sizes. The industry standard for many years has been die-cut vinyl heat-transfer numbers, and such are still widely used today.

Many screen printers print their own I cold-peel and hot-split numbers in house. After all, they have the equipment necessary to screen-print heat transfers, so why not pre-print numbers in house? Printing plastisol number transfers in house is the easy part, but trying to decide which colors to print for inventory purposes is another story. (You can't miss, though, by keeping some old standard black numbers in stock!)

Using a heat-transfer machine and heat applied numbers is a great solution for athletic and sporring-goods stores that don't have screen-printing capabilities, or for screen printers who do athletic decorating in low volume. The heat-transfer machine has been a staple in the sporting-goods shop for decades.

Computer-cut numbers

Numbers and letters can be computer cut from rolls of pressure-sensitive vinyl and vinyl-backed flock material. These vinyl and flock roll materials are attached to a carrier sheet to allow for the stock to be cut on a computer cutter, then the background (or “matrix”) is peeled (or “weeded”) away. This process leaves the number reverse reading and adhesive side up on the carrier sheet. The number is then placed on the garment and heat transferred. The nice thing about the computer-cut method is that the whole team can be entered into the computer, complete with players' names positioned above their numbers. This is a very clean and organized approach to team numbering, and reorders for one or two extra uniforms after the fact is easy with computer-cut numbers, compared to screen printing a “one-off” numbered garment.

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