Sublimation printing uses dyes that turn into gas to create detailed and durable prints. But once you get your sublimation printer and dyes ready to go, you still need t-shirts to print on! This may leave you wondering, what are the best shirts for sublimation printing?
The best shirts for sublimation printing contain a large percentage of polyester. Polyester contains polymers in its fibers that bond with sublimation dyes during the heating process. Brands like Bella Canva, Gildan, and Next Level sell shirts that work for sublimation.
In this article, you will learn how sublimation printing works. You will discover the best fabric types for sublimation printing. Finally, you will find tips on the top brands that sell shirts for this kind of printing.
- What is Sublimation Printing?
- What Can You Sublimate On?
- Best Shirts for Sublimation Printing
- What Color Shirts Are Best for Sublimation?
- Can You Sublimate on Cotton Shirts?
- Can You Use a Cricut for Sublimation?
- Best Women’s Shirts for Sublimation
- Can You Wash Sublimation Shirts?
What is Sublimation Printing?
Sublimation printing uses heat and unique dyes to chemically bond ink particles with fabric fibers on a t-shirt. This new printing method requires some special procedures but results in super durable designs. This digital printing method also works great for detailed or intricate designs like full-color photos because it uses the CMYK color model.
To sublimate means to turn a solid into a gas without turning it into a liquid first. This unique chemical process is what makes the dye bond with polyester polymers.
Other printing methods such as printing or HTV designs create images that rest on the surface of the fabric. In contrast, sublimation printing bonds deep within the lower fibers of the material.
In sublimation printing, the absolute basics of the process look like this:
- Create or download a digital design and mirror it.
- Send the design to a sublimation printer.
- Insert a sheet of sublimation transfer paper.
- Print your design onto the transfer paper.
- Align the paper on a polyester t-shirt.
- Use a heat press to seal the design onto the shirt.
- Peel away the paper and view your vivid, full-color design!
One of the cool things about sublimation printing is that both professionals and home artists can use this technique. You have to invest in a sublimation printer and dyes, but these printers typically cost no more than $300-$1,000.
You can also easily master the basic process. A background in graphic design will help if you want to create your own custom designs, but you can also make use of free designs or just learn as you go!
Of course, sublimation printing does offer its own unique challenges as well. One of these is that you can cause printing issues such as ghosting or smudges in the image if you do not align the transfer paper just right in the heat press. Another is that this printing technique works on some materials but not on others.
What Can You Sublimate On?
You can use sublimation print transfers on polyester, other polymers, some types of ceramics and PVC, and many items with a polyester or polymer coating. You can apply sublimation transfers to everything from t-shirts to mugs to baseball caps. The trick is that the item must contain the right kinds of polymer to bond with the ink.
In terms of fabric, sublimation printing works best on 100% polyester. That said, it can also leave quality prints on fabric blends that contain a high percentage of polyester. This allows you to use shirts that feel softer or offer more breathability than 100% polyester.
Why doesn’t sublimation printing work on cotton or other types of fabric? When you seal a polyester t-shirt and a sublimation transfer inside a heat press, the press uses both pressure and heat to make the dye sublimate. The heat also causes the tiny polymers inside polyester fibers to open up, allowing the gaseous dye inside.
Once you remove the shirt from the press, the ink cools and turns solid, but it is still inside those pores! This is what makes the unique chemical bonding process possible.
This color bonding process adheres the dye to the fabric at a molecular level. It is what makes sublimation prints so much more durable than any other printing method ever invented.
But sublimation dyes will not bond with cotton fibers or most other fabric fibers in the same way. This means that if you try placing a sublimation transfer onto cotton using a heat press, the dye will rest on the surface of the cotton. It may look nice at first, but the minute you wash it, the colors will fade away and the image may crack.
On the other hand, some artists like using shirts made out of cotton and polyester blended together. This provides enough polyester for the dye to bond. It also leaves a vintage or faded-looking style where some of the dye washes away from the cotton fibers.
In some cases, you can print onto objects not made out of polyester. For instance, if you want to put a sublimation transfer onto a mug or a metal coffee cup, you can make it work–if you purchase a special blank mug that comes with a polyester coating!
You can find specially prepared blanks for sublimation from many online sellers and at some craft stores.
Best Shirts for Sublimation Printing
While sublimation prints show up most vividly on 100% polyester, you can successfully use this printing technique on several fabric blends as well.
100% PolyesterThe best shirts to use for sublimation printing are 100% polyester. This type of printing requires the type of chemical bond that it can only make with the polymers inside polyester fibers.
There are a lot of advantages to using 100% polyester shirts. First, polyester costs much less than natural fabrics like cotton or linen. Manufacturers make polyester out of a petroleum by-product and turn plastic into fine filaments that they feel like soft thread!
Second, polyester garments make up more than 60% of the entire clothing industry in the world because this fabric costs so much less to produce. This means that you can find any type of polyester shirt you might want! For instance, many sports team uniforms and athletic wear feature 100% polyester fabric.
The downside to polyester is that you may find it less soft to the touch. It also has less breathability than cotton and could feel hot or clammy in some environments. For these reasons, some artists and business owners prefer to use blended fabrics that mix other fibers with polyester.
Finally, most 100% polyester shirts work great with sublimation prints. But in some cases, special coatings or treatments applied to the fabric can interfere with the sublimation process.
TriblendsYou can sublimate tri-blend fabric quite successfully, but it sometimes requires some trial and error. Every different fabric works best with a different temperature and exposure time in a heat press. This means that you will have to pinpoint the timing for your tri-blend to get it just right.
That said, many printers offer sublimated prints on tri-blend material despite this. If you have ever worn a tri-blend shirt, you know how soft it feels! This makes tri-blend tees the best sublimation shirts that feel like cotton.
Tri-blend fabrics contain a mix of three different fabric fibers. Popular variations on the three-fabric mix include cotton, polyester, and some type of rayon.
This material has an ultra-soft and flexible feel and often comes in a thin, silky weave. Tri-blend shirts often cost a bit more than plain polyester, though. This is because the additional fibers cost more and because manufacturers need a separate process to create tri-blend yarns.
But if you like soft, comfy shirts that feel like they drape over your skin, you may want to try sublimating on tri-blend shirts!
Keep in mind, though, that the 25% or so of cotton fibers in the fabric will not hold dye. This means that even on the best tri-blend material, you may end up with a less vivid or distressed-looking print.
65% Polyester 35% Cotton
In most cases, you can sublimate pretty well onto a 65% polyester and 35% cotton blend. Polyblends incorporate just two different fiber types, such as a 65% polyester and a 35% cotton mix. The rule of thumb with sublimation printing is that the higher the polyester percentage, the more vivid the print.
This means that a sublimation print on 65% polyester and 35% cotton will look brighter and more detailed than the same print on a 50/50 blend of polyester and cotton. But it will not look quite as bold, solid, and colorful as a print on 100% polyester.
That said, many artists intentionally create a distressed or vintage style by using sublimation prints on a polyblend.
Instead of spending hours designing your digital image to look distressed, you can just print it onto a polyblend. The dye will bond with the polyester fibers but fade away from the cotton. This will automatically give you an artsy vintage appearance!
Heathered 65% Polyester
Depending on the texture you want in your sublimated design, you can also print well on some heathered fabrics. Of course, these shirts should contain at least 65% polyester!
Heathered material weaves together two different types of fibers or two different colors of the same fiber. This creates a flecked or speckled design within the fabric. You see this style a lot in grey t-shirts, for example.
This kind of fabric will look good behind a solid or boldly colored print but could interfere with a more delicate image.
50/50 Polyester and Cotton
Technically, you can sublimate on a 50/50 blend of polyester and cotton, also sometimes just called polycotton. At first, a print made on 50/50 will look bold and colorful. However, the first wash will bleed away 50% of the dye, as the cotton fibers will not hold onto the color.
For this reason, you should only sublimate on 50/50 fabric if you want a super distressed or faded look. Of course, vintage or distressed shirts have a big market and remain very popular, so you may prefer this style in your prints!
What Color Shirts Are Best for Sublimation?
The best color shirts for sublimation are white or light-colored shirts. You can sublimate onto black or dark-colored shirts, but you have to use a special process like applying a layer of white heat-transfer vinyl beneath the image to make this work. Otherwise, the image will not show up well against the dark material.
Another factor to consider is that your printer cannot print white ink! Sublimation printers use a CMYK model. This means that your printer mixes primary colors together to make any color of the rainbow. But if you need a spot of white in your image, you have to leave negative space in the design for the white fabric to show through.
Sublimation designs often look very nice on light-colored materials like yellows, pinks, or pale blues. But you will have to keep in mind that this means that any negative space in your printed design will show through in that color!
Finally, you also need to test out how any colored shirt handles heat. Some brightly-colored shirts, especially in neon colors, will fade or discolor when exposed to the heat in a heat press.
Can You Sublimate on Cotton Shirts?
You cannot sublimate on cotton shirts effectively. Cotton does not react with sublimation dyes in their gaseous form in the same way as polyester does. This means that cotton cannot trap and hold the color to bond with it on a molecular level like polyester can.
You can use shirts that contain cotton, though! For instance, a polycotton blend with 65% polyester and 35% cotton makes a popular choice for sublimation prints. This material maintains the softness of cotton but has enough polyester to keep the sublimation print looking bright and colorful.
Can You Use a Cricut for Sublimation?
You can use Cricut products as part of the sublimation process, or you can use Cricut’s new line of “Infusible Ink” dyes and products for a very similar process to sublimation.
First, Cricut’s Design Space gives you a simple, useful digital arena to begin learning how to draft your own sublimation designs. If you already have a Cricut, you may want to consider using this tool instead of purchasing expensive graphic design software.
Second, Cricut recently launched a line of products designed to use with something the company calls “Infusible Ink.” This allows you to create products in a method that is quite similar to sublimation on t-shirts, mugs, and other sublimation blanks!
And of course, Cricut also has several nice mini heat presses on the market. If you want to try sublimation prints at home without purchasing a pricey clamshell-sty;e what press, you may want to check out an EasyPress from Cricut!
Best Women’s Shirts for Sublimation
The best women’s shirts for sublimation contain a large percentage of polyester and come in colors that can withstand the temperatures in a heat press without discoloring. Popular brands that market shirts specifically for this kind of printing include Bella + Canvas, Jerzees, Gildan, and Next Level.
Of course, all of these brands sell lots of different kinds of shirts. You should always read a product description and make sure the shirt contains a good percentage of polyester before trying to sublimate on it!
Can You Wash Sublimation Shirts?
You can wash most sublimation shirts without any negative effects. Sublimation prints are some of the most durable types of fabric printing available! They will typically last as long as the fabric itself.
It is always best to follow the care instructions that come printed on the manufacturer’s label inside the shirt to avoid damaging the fabric or the print, though.
You can also keep these tips in mind:
- If you buy or make a sublimation print shirt that contains some cotton in the fabric, you will lose some of the colors in the print the first time you wash it. This happens because the dye will not bond with the cotton fibers in the fabric.
- All clothes remain vivid and nice for longer when you wash them in cold or cool water.
- Try turning your tees inside out before washing them. This will help prevent any unnecessary friction on the printed design.
- Don’t use bleach, fabric softener, or stain removers on a sublimated print. The chemically bonded dye could have a negative reaction to these chemicals.
- Sublimation shirts should not go to a dry cleaner. Again, they might react in a bad way to the chemicals used in dry cleaning solvent.
- If possible, store your tees in a cold, dry place, preferably hung on wooden or plastic hangers.
The best shirts for sublimation printing contain a large percentage of polyester. This is crucial because sublimation dyes need to chemically bond with the polymers inside polyester fibers. This chemical process does not work with natural materials like cotton.
You can successfully sublimate on fabric blends such as polycotton or tri-blends containing a large amount of polyester, though. These blends can give you the best of both worlds by offering the softness of cotton but keeping the vivid hues of sublimation prints on polyester. Just make sure the fabric contains at least 65% polyester.
Have you ever tried the sublimation printing process? What kind of shirt worked best for you? Leave a comment below to let us know!