For many T-shirt sellers, screen printers and online retailers, offering designs with dozens of colors used to be an expensive endeavor. Today, the solution to lot’s of colors is a CMYK heat transfer. We’re going to learn about Unlimited Color transfers and how to use Pantone colors to make your print have the best color.

While many custom heat transfer manufacturers brand their full color transfers with fancy names, they are all made using some type of CMYK. So what the heck does CMYK mean?

Image of Pantone Color Bridge Book

CMYK is an acronym for a printing process of transparent inks. Each letter stands for the ink color.  The letter “C” stands for Cyan.  The letter “M” stands for Magenta.  The letter “Y” stands for yellow and the letter “K” stands for the “Key Color”, which is Black.

Without going too deep into printing color theory, this article is meant to give you a few tips and explain why certain art requirements are needed, when placing a transfer order using the Unlimited color option.

Disclaimer, printing with CMYK will not give you the ability to match an exact Pantone color.

Unlimited Color Transfers – Which graphic software is recommended

There are a handful of graphic design programs which you can purchase or in most cases, subscribe with a monthly fee.

We recommend graphic programs which are capable of creating and editing vector graphics. Graphic Design software such as Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw and Affinity Designer are all capable of handling and creating a vector graphic.

Vector files are preferred for several reasons. The main reason is a vector graphic is scalable without any loss of clarity. If you enlarge a 3” x 3” vector file to 9” x 9”, the image will remain sharp and print clearly at any size.

Unlimited Color Transfers – How to get started with your graphic

Before you place your custom transfer order, there are a few steps to follow before you begin.

Let’s begin with what size your document is and how many colors are in your design. 

Begin by selecting the option to create a new file. This example using Adobe Illustrator.

Step 1

Create  a new file, then enter the document size for width and height and change the color mode to CMYK. Be sure to toggle the measurement to inches. (see image 01-01).  If you forget this step, you can also change your document settings under the file menu by clicking on document set up and then click on color mode to change to CMYK.

Step 1 Create a new document in Adobe Illustrator
Adobe Illustrator – Create a new document and select color mode

Step 2

Now that your document is set with size and color mode selected, you can place your artwork on the page. You may need to adjust the size of your graphic to fit within the document’s edge.

Select the image by clicking it and and select the “transform” button from the drop down menu. You can either drag the corner of the artwork bounding box or enter the size you want in the width or height.  Be sure you have the “chain” selected to resize the art in perfect proportion.

Unlimited Color Transfers – Checking Transparencies

Step 3

Now let’s check your graphic for transparencies. By default, your page is colored in white. If the image has any areas which are “knocked out”, such as a distress pattern, you will need to check this. To turn off the transparency grid from the window menu or by the shortcut.

When the transparency grid is turned off, you will see the “checkerboard”. This will show you if you have any white in your image. In this example, there is no white and the distressed areas are “knocked out”.

Checking Transparencies – Turn on Transparency Grid

Unlimited Color Transfers – Selecting Pantone Color Swatches

Step 4

Since we’re printing our transfers using CMYK, we will need to check our colors. We recommend using swatches from the Pantone color bridge (coated) set. To check your colors, you will need to open the swatches from the dropdown menu. When you open the swatches, you may find many colors which are not in your specific art file. To only show the color swatches within your design, click on the “hamburger” menu. Then select all unused colors and click the “trash icon to delete them. (see images below)

Unlimited Color Transfers – Recolor using Pantone Color Swatches

Step 5

The next step is a tip to ensure you’re using Pantone Colors in your design. Adobe Illustrator will allow you to recolor your artwork with Pantone colors within your artwork. The software will evaluate the percentages of CMYK for each color and choose the closest Pantone color based on your images color values.

Begin by selecting under edit colors which is under the Edit Menu. Then select “Recolor Artwork”.

First Select your artwork and then edit colors with Recolor artwork

Next select the “Advanced Options” button. Then click on the dropdown button which usually defaults to “none”. Once you click on this you will have the option to select from the Pantone Library sets installed on your application.

Select Advanced Options
Click on drop down window and select color books

From the “Color Book” options, select the Pantone Color Bridge Coated option.

Your artwork will now be “recolored” automatically, using swatches from the Pantone color bridge coated library. You can check your “Swatch” palette and you will notice each color has a specific pantone color assigned to the art.

Swatches are now converted to Pantone swatches

Unlimited Color Transfers – Checking line thickness

Now that you have your colors chosen correctly, we will need to point out a few areas which may affect your transfers. CMYK inks are transparent by nature. If you plan on using a CMYK or Unlimited color transfer on a dark colored garment, a white backing ink must be added. 

For reasons of opacity, we must lay down enough white ink to block the dark colored fabric from showing through the white ink. Since we are screen-printing the transfers, the mesh which allows more ink must be used. For this reason, we have certain specifications on line thickness.

Line thicknesses are measured using Points. Although the CMYK printing uses very high screen mesh which can hold small dots and lines, the white backer does not.  

The line thickness specifications for CMYK or unlimited color transfers must be no less than 3 points. For some designs it will require you to alter the art file to make it meet the specification. 

The method to check is relatively quick. After you become more familiar with what works and what  will not work, you will become a master in a short time.

Here is a quick way to check your design for link thickness.  In Adobe Illustrator, open your “layers” pallet and create a new layer. Drag it on top of your existing artwork layer. Then lock your artwork layer so you don’t move anything by mistake.

Next you will need to select a stroke color. Try to choose a color that is not in your design. First change your stroke weight to 3 points. Then look for areas which may have thin lines. You may need to zoom in to get a good idea of the line as compared to the rest of the artwork.

Change the stroke weight to 2 points and choose a new stroke color. Now draw lines near areas which look to be less than 2 points. Keep in mind, if you have a distressed area, some areas will surely fall below the 2 point minimums for negative space. If you’re not concerned about the areas filling in, that’s okay. 

Once you have checked the areas for line weights and you have your colors selected using Pantone Color Bridge swatches, you will be ready to place your order.