One of the most recent trends in the custom apparel world is sublimated socks. It started with the Nike Elite, a line of colorful socks marketed toward athletes with expensive tastes. The visual appeal and premium price of the Nike Elite socks created a surge of consumer demand and new opportunities for garment decorators. Innovative decorators are meeting that demand with custom decorated socks using dye sublimation. Sublimating socks presents unique challenges. As part of their ongoing effort to serve the sublimation industry, Vapor Apparel has met the challenge with their SubliSock product line. What's special about Vapor Apparel Sublisocks? How do you decorate socks on a heat press? What does the profit picture look like?

Vapor Apparel SubliSocks

Like all of their products, Vapor Apparel SubliSocks are made for high quality Dye Sublimation. They're 95% Polyester and 5% spandex with a superior white point and high thread count that produce good image quality with Sawgrass sublimation ink. But Vapor Apparel didn't stop there. They went a step further and solved one of the vexing problems with sock decoration by offering a bulk insert that stretches the sock so that you can press it front and back without any unseemly white seams. And they offer complete instructions on the process including this handy video.

How to Use SubliSocks

As noted above, one of the common problems with decorating socks is figuring out how to get complete coverage. If you simply lay a sock flat on a heat press and press the font, then flip it over and press the other side, you'll have two white streaks on either side of the sock. The other problem is the fact that socks are intended to stretch over the calf. So decorating a flat sock invariably leaves the inside of the ribs untouched. Vivid color on an empty sock looks somewhat less impressive when it's worn.


Fig 1: Place the sock on the insert to size it and determine the bleed.
Fig 1: Place the sock on the insert to size it and determine the bleed.

Vapor has devised a simple but clever solution to both of these problems in the form of a bulk insert that stretches the sock over a large flat jib (Fig 1) The inserts come in two forms: straight or hockey stick style. When the socks are stretched over the insert, the ribs are exposed to the dye so that the decorated sock looks rich and colorful, even when worn. The other benefit of the jig is the ability to pinch the sock around the edges after the first side is sublimated so that the second step covers the rest of the unprinted area; no white seams. Here's a quick summary.

1) Design the image with a bleed about 1" wider than that of the jig. Print two copies of your design, one for each side.

2) Stretch the sock over the jib and lay it on the transfer sheet inside the bleed. Tape it in place.

3) Place the jig in the heat press (Tip!) Place a sheet of Kraft Paper or copy paper under it to prevent the overprinted area from sublimating the heat press table. Press for 30 seconds at 370°F. Also leave the top of the stick outside the heat press. This makes it easier to quickly remove it and flip the sock for step two.

4) Remove the jig f rom the press, and pinch the edges of the sock to pull the printed area over the edge of the insert. This removes any unprinted fabric from the equation. Place the jig on the second print, sublimated side up. Tape it down.

5) Place in press cover again with kraft paper top and bottom, and press the second side. Remove and presto. Sublimated Sock. (Gloves are recommended for handling the jig after pressing. The stick gets pretty toasty. Removing the sock with bare hands can be uncomfortable).

More Sock Sublimation Tips

Design for Size: Many of the Sublisocks available are too large for a desktop inkjet printer (Vapor Apparel offers SubliSocks in several sizes ranging from Ladies 4- 6 to Mens 10-13 shoe size). The inserts themselves are almost two feet long so even a tabloid size printer is insufficient for decorating the entire length of a full size tube sock. So unless you have a 24" dye sublimation system, you'll probably need to adjust your design to leave unprinted areas of the sock. For these samples, we designed a gradation from white on the bottom of the image that fades the design in above the ankles. It's an attractive effect and it fits on an A4 or letter-sized sheet of transfer paper.


Fig 2: Complex patterns may be a problem. Note change in color from print stage to sublimation stage.
Fig 2: Complex patterns may be a problem. Note change in color from print stage to sublimation stage.

Design for Simplicity: Be wary of complex patterns that have to be perfectly aligned. Sublimating the sock in two steps and adjusting it around the insert can cause variations from front to back. Some patterns work better than others. Chevrons can be done, but the finished product won't be exactly seamless. Set customer's expectations accordingly and you shouldn't have a problem (Fig 2)

Ribs: The socks are part spandex and they are designed to stretch. When they do, the ribs will be visible and your saturation will suffer somewhat. The bulk insert stretches it some, but not fully. Again, set customers's expectations accordingly. Ugly Prints: Don't freak out if the print looks dull and unattractive coming off the printer. Remember, it's sublimation. Some colors - especially greens - don't look right until they're sublimated (See Fig 2). Finish a transfer, then adjust your artwork or PowerDriver settings if necessary.

SubliSocks with Laser Transfer?

One of the appealing attributes of laser transfer is the ability to simulate sublimation. An OKI LED printer can be used to decorate most of the same items as a dye sublimation system. What about Sublisocks? We tested a pair of Vapor SubliSocks on our OKI 711WT printer using the standard self-weeding EnduraTrans FHC Paper. To get a fair comparions, we used the same design as the one we sublimated on a RICOH SG3110DN and the same SubliSocks and bulk insert. The final outcome was very similar, but the toner decorated socks aren't quite as soft. The toner feels a little heavier on the sock than sublimation and just a little plasticky. The overlapped edges are more apparent with the toner transfer than the sublimated version.

If you're going to add sock decoration to your laser transfer repertoire, you might want to design socks that don't require wraparound color. Think cartoons and logos. The laser advantage is the ability to use standard white cotton socks, which may be more economical. So experiment with cotton socks. Speaking of laser and its advantages, you might be wondering if an OKI WT user can decorate dark socks using EnduraTRANS F2 or Forever Dark papers? That would be pretty cool, wouldn't it? Stay tuned.

A Profitable Niche Product

Whether you're using a laser transfer system or good old dye sublimation, all this flipping and pinching sounds like a lot of trouble. Why bother? Because custom socks are in demand and profitable. The initial wave of demand was generated by the Nike marketing machine. Nike Elite socks made landfall at $28.00 - $40.00/pair. The tidal wave of exclusivity and caché has passed, but Nike left a lot of consumer demand in its wake. Here's what the opportunity looks like today.

  • Lesser known and boutique brands sell online for around $12.00 - $15.00/pair.
  • The cost of six Vapor SubliSock tube socks is only $20.95(link to shopping cart). That's only $3.49/pair.
  • The ink cost using Sawgrass SubliJet-R is about 64¢ per print or $1.28/pair.
  • The paper Cost with EnduraTrans 500FD or 500VC is a mere pittance 12¢/sheet or 24¢/pair.
  • Your total cost is only $4.99/pair. That leaves a gross margin of $7.00 - $9.00/pair.

If you can crank out ten pair a day, that's enough to keep you in beer and skittles. Sell 20 pairs a day and you'll be a pretty well heeled garment gal. Stylish sublimated socks are a 'thing'. Because they're cylindrical and stretchy, they pose some unique design and application challenges. Those are easily overcome with the Vapor SubliSock and Decorating Kits. A wide format printer is an advantage but desktop users can put a toe in the water with smaller socks or smart design. The $40.00 Nike Elite wave has passed, but the remaining demand is still enough for most hard-working decorators to make a good margin on a custom decorated product.