Custom Gear Label Options
By Jesse Ables
Written 7 January 2015
Updated 8 April 2017
So you started a tactical gear company and have a logo designed, and now you want some fancy labels to sew on your gear. What are your options?
Woven labels are a common and aesthetically pleasing choice. They're a staple on most tactical products, with some (like LBT's gold and silver labels) becoming renowned. The main drawbacks of woven labels are the high minimum order requirements and cost per piece, especially for Berry compliant labels, which can be off-putting for start-up gear makers. Further, the cost can limit the number of label sizes one can afford, leaving you with a less than ideal label size.
Woven label with silver thread. Note the beautiful appearance.
What about those nifty paper-esque labels you see sewn on military issued gear? While not as durable or pretty as woven labels, they are a more affordable option. Short of paying a setup fee and ordering thousands of printed labels from a manufacturer, what are your options?
Type VI Labels
First, let's talk about those nifty "paper labels," what are known as Type VI labels. Covered by specification MIL-DTL-32075, Type VI labels are the standard sewn labels found on military issued clothing and equipment. Though paper-like, they're actually made of polyester or a polyester/cellulose blend and are usually printed in bulk by flexographic, letterpress or offset printing. These print methods provide the most durable results but none are feasible for in-house printing by the average tactical gear maker. Fear not: there are at least a few options at your disposal.
Standard Type VI label.
Laser Printable Reemay
Laser Printable Reemay sheets (commonly referred to as just "Reemay" or "Reemay paper") are by far the most feasible option for the start-up gear maker. Made of a polymer coated, spunbond polyester, Reemay can be printed on home laser printers (both monochrome and color) and provides a durable, permanent label that can withstand sewing and washing. It is available in white and several tactical colors. Reemay will typically not withstand dry cleaning.
It must be noted that only one type of white Reemay sheet is intended for laser printing. Colored Reemay sheets that are advertised as being laser printable can be printed with the correct settings, but the end result will not be as durable as with white Reemay. Don't let this discourage you from using colored sheets - you can make them work if your printer gets hot enough during printing.
The biggest issue with all Reemay is getting the laser toner to properly adhere to the sheets. Heat is key: Using the hottest temperature setting is crucial for a lasting printed label. Below are some general tips for getting the best possible result.
- Ensure the latest, manufacturer recommended printer drivers are installed.
- Use a high resolution image, ideally one that matches the maximum resolution of your printer. (In our experience, a label printed with a 600dpi image will be more durable than one printed with a 300dpi image.)
- Print on the smoothest side on the sheet.
- Load each sheet individually in the manual feed tray.
- For white Reemay, use the hottest print settings that do not cause the sheet to curl excessively and jam while printing. If available, use the "Archive Print" mode, as this will increase heat and slow the printing process to help prevent jams (similarly, the more common "Quiet Mode" seems to perform largely the same function).
- For colored Reemay, use the hottest print settings available. This may take some trial and error to find, but generally the label and cardstock paper settings (or equivalent) at the highest print resolution produce the most heat. If available, use the "Archive Print" mode.
If the toner smears, it's not getting enough heat during printing.
Though Reemay was difficult to find by-the-sheet, C.N. Clark Company now stocks Reemay in a variety of colors with a low minimum order requirement. CN Clark Company can also perforate Reemay sheets to any label size, allowing labels to be printed and popped out without cutting.
White Reemay Sheets
These sheets are thinner than their colored counterpart and may not be suitable for printing at the highest heat setting (i.e. thickest/heaviest paper setting), as the sheet may crumple and jam the printer. White Reemay labels are the most durable of the laser printable color options and is the only one recommended for high-wear applications, such as on garments. The thinner white sheet handles lower temperature printing better than colored, so if you're unsure of the temperature capabilities of your printer, choose white Reemay.
Colored Reemay Sheets
For lower wear applications - anywhere the tag is not likely to be bent excessively - or where a tactical color is required, colored Reemay is a good option. Both white and colored Reemay provide similar surface abrasion resistance, but colored sheets do not withstand being bent or creased as well as white sheets. The best applications for color labels are inside backpacks or other gear, or externally on areas not subject to heavy wear.
White and colored Reemay after identical wear cycles.
Thermal Transfer Stock
Another option for in-house printed labels is thermal transfer stock. This is one of the standard methods used by tactical gear manufacturers as it yields a more durable product than laser printable Reemay and, with the right equipment, requires less effort to print. Thermal transfer labels will withstand abrasion, washing and dry cleaning.
Thermal transfer printed label. Note the pixelation.
There are two big downsides to choosing the thermal transfer option: cost and print resolution.
- The required industrial thermal transfer printers can be exceedingly expensive - above $2,500. Further costs include thermal transfer ribbon (a special type is required, which CN Clark Company carries) and the label stock, which is typically sold as 167 yard rolls. If other label colors or widths are desired, additional roll stock will need to be purchased. Luckily, used thermal transfer printers can be found relatively cheap, as low as $200 for a 406dpi printer.
- The quality of the print is dependent on the resolution of the thermal printhead, and the most common resolution is a wanting 203dpi. A 609dpi printhead (often advertised as 600dpi) is ideal but difficult to find second-hand. Unless only text is to be printed, a 300dpi printhead should be considered the lowest acceptable resolution, with 406dpi or 609dpi preferred. Thermal transfer printers can only print black.
You'll need one of these industrial thermal printers. Not cheap.
Again, resolution is key. The below image is an example of two 1.5" x 1" labels - one printed with a 203dpi printhead and other a 406dpi printhead. Though the text clarity is adequate on both labels, the logo quality suffers at the lower 203dpi resolution.
Example of 203dpi (left) and 406dpi (right) thermal transfer printed labels.
Most laser printable Reemay sheets (not white) can be printed with a dot matrix printer. I can't speak for the quality or durability of this print method, but with 360x360dpi (24-pin) dot matrix printers available for relatively cheap, it's an option worth mentioning.
Reemay is a registered trademark of Fiberweb, Inc.