Sublimation printing is a fairly new method that creates super vivid and durable designs on fabric. This process uses heat to bond a special dye with synthetic fibers. But you can use a few special tricks to learn how to sublimate on cotton fabric, too!
One of the best ways to sublimate on cotton is to use heat transfer vinyl between the cotton and the dye. Applying special sublimation fabric sheets also offers a good workaround for sublimating on cotton. Printers also use synthetic spray coatings on cotton to help the natural fibers bond with sublimation dyes.
In this article, you will find out what makes sublimation dyes work. You will learn seven techniques for using sublimation printing on cotton. Finally, you will find tips for making your own spray coating for sublimating on cotton!
- Can You Sublimate on 100% Cotton Fabric?
- Sublimation Temperature for Cotton
- How to Sublimate on Cotton: 7 Methods
- Will Sublimation Wash Out of Cotton?
- Why is My Sublimation Ink Faded After Washing?
- Can You Sublimate on 50/50?
- How Do You Make Poly T Spray for Sublimation?
- Best Sublimation Paper for Cotton
- Best Sublimation Spray for Cotton
Can You Sublimate on 100% Cotton Fabric?
You cannot sublimate on 100% cotton by itself, but you can get around this by applying special treatments to the cotton to make the sublimation process work. These workarounds include using several kinds of heat-transfer vinyl or applying a special coating to the surface of the cotton before using a heat press to start the sublimation process.
So, why does sublimation not work on cotton? During the sublimation process, heat causes the sublimation dye to turn to gas. At the same time, heat also causes the synthetic fibers in polyester to open up, allowing the gas to slip inside.
When the synthetic fabric cools, the dye returns to a solid form, and the polyester fibers real shut, leaving the dye and the fabric chemically bonded at a molecular level.
This process-the actual chemical sublimation–is only possible between sublimation dyes and synthetic material.
When you try this on pure cotton, the design will look great at first. Cotton has a high natural absorbency, so the dye will soak in a bit and look nice. But the sublimation ink will wash out of cotton the minute it touches water because the chemical bonding process did not occur.
For a long time, printers and home artists had no choice but to skip cotton tees and hoodies because of this. But recent innovations in printing techniques have led to several simple methods for successfully sublimating cotton shirts.
This is great news because cotton fabric often feels much softer and more breathable than a synthetic such as polyester. For this reason, many t-shirt printers and small business owners prefer to print on cotton.
Sublimation Temperature for Cotton
Sublimation on cotton requires quite hot temperatures ranging from 360℉ to 400℉. Press time will vary. You can usually find recommended heat press times and settings on the package for your sublimation transfer paper.
Sublimating does require a heat press. You can use a small press such as the Cricut EasyPress, but an iron and ironing board will not apply enough heat and pressure to cause the chemical bonding to occur.
How to Sublimate on Cotton: 7 Methods
You can successfully sublimate on cotton using several different methods, but the key thing to keep in mind is that you need some form of intermediary between the dye and the cotton.
Many home artists like to use vinyl for this. You can also make or buy a special synthetic spray coating for cotton fabrics that works very well.
1. With VinylSpecial types of heat-transfer vinyl such as Siser EasySubli work as an excellent substitute surface for sublimating on cotton. Please note that you cannot simply sublimate onto any old HTV, though! With sublimation, you always need to find the right surface that contains polyester for the dye bonding process to occur.
- Create your digital design using a graphic design program of your choice.
- Place a sheet of Siser EasySubli in your sublimation printer and print the image directly onto the vinyl. Siser recommends using a Sawgrass printer and EasySubli ink for the best results.
- Next, insert the printed design into a Cricut or other cutting machine to cut out the outline of the design.
- Weed away the excess vinyl.
- Mask the vinyl by using a squeegee to gently apply a clear masking sheet. This allows you to lift the vinyl design and carry it to your shirt or cotton garment.
- Align the vinyl design on your shirt.
- Place a Teflon sheet over the design to protect it during the heat pressing.
- Set your heat press to 311℉. The lower-than-usual temperature works best on the vinyl surface.
- Press the design for just 15 seconds.
You will find some pros and cons to this method. The vinyl does have a somewhat stiff, raised feeling on the surface of the fabric, just like any other HTV application on cotton. But the sublimation process does work, and you can safely wash the shirt after using your heat press to seal the Easy Subli onto it!
2. With Glitter HTVBefore commercial products like EasySubli hit the market, home printers had already found a way to sublimate on cotton using white glitter HTV. You do need to like glitter to try this method, but the cool thing about it is that the tiny glitter particles on the surface of this heat transfer vinyl contain polyester, which lets the sublimation process take place!
- First, create, edit, or download an SVG design of your choice.
- Mirror the design, so it does not end up backward.
- Send the design to your electronic cutting machine, cut it out, and weed away the extra vinyl.
- Apply the glitter vinyl to your cotton surface according to the instructions on the vinyl packaging. Typically, you will use a heat press to seal the vinyl to the cotton at a temperature of 400℉ for about 60 seconds.
- Once the cotton cools, you can move on to the sublimation part of this method. If you have not already done so, print your design onto a sublimation transfer paper. You need a sublimation printer for this.
- Place the transfer paper with the printed side facing down, so it aligns perfectly with the vinyl cut-out on the cotton. You may want to use heat-safe tape to help keep the design aligned.
- Once again, set your heat press to 400℉ for about 60 seconds.
- You should now have a colorful, glittery design on your shirt!
The downside to sublimating on HTV is that you have to use that additional step of cutting and weeding the vinyl before applying the design to the cotton. But the big upside is that you can use this method on every shirt color. Actual sublimation only works on white or light-colored fabric, but you can also apply glitter HT to black or dark-colored fabric!
Plus, if you wanted to make a complicated design just out of HTV, you would have to cut out many pieces for each color of vinyl. This way, you can just apply ink onto white glitter vinyl to achieve a multi-colored design!
3. With Spray CoatingThe most popular professional method for sublimating on cotton is to apply a synthetic coating of some type to the surface of the cotton and then move on to the sublimation process. Popular coating sprays such as Poly T get good reviews, though you may find them a bit pricey.
You will use two applications of the spray during this method. The first removes the sizing from the cotton shirt, and the second creates a synthetic surface for the sublimation transfer.
- Start by spraying the shirt thoroughly until it feels damp to the touch.
- Set your heat press to 330℉ and place a cotton towel over the lower platen if you have a clamshell-style press. If you have a small press, place a cotton towel on your flat pressing surface.
- Spread a piece of parchment paper over the top of the damp shirt.
- Apply the press for 30 seconds Steam will come out as the spray removes the sizing from the cotton shirt.
- Next, apply a second coating of the spray to the shirt.
- Once again, apply the 330℉ heat press for 30 seconds to set the coating. You should feel a plasticky surface on the fabric after this cools.
- Place a piece of parchment or butcher paper beneath the cotton shirt. Align your sublimation transfer on the top of the cotton fabric, then place another piece of parchment or butcher paper on top of it as protection.
- Set your heat press to 385℉ and apply pressure for 70 seconds to allow the sublimation process to take place.
One of the challenges you may face when using a spray coating like PolyT is that the coating tends to attract dust. Even a minor fleck of dust or dirt will create a mark on your design, so try to work in a dust-free environment!
4. With Sublimation Fabric SheetsSublimation fabric sheets such as Forever Subli Light allow you to most closely mimic the appearance of actual sublimation on polyester fabric. These lightweight sheets do not create a thick barrier like HTV, making it look like the dye has actually sunk into the cotton fabric.
Plus, using these special fabric sheets does not require the complex cutting-out process used on HTV!
- Create or download a brightly colored vector design. Make sure you mirror the design before printing.
- Place the blank side of the fabric sheet face-down in your sublimation printer, and print the design onto the sheet.
- Prep your shirt by pre-pressing it for 15 or 20 seconds. This creates a smooth, wrinkle-free surface for your design.
- Align the printed fabric sheet where you want it to go on the shirt.
- Cover it with a piece of parchment paper or a silicone pressing mat.
- Press for 30 seconds using a temperature of 365℉.
- Peel the transfer away while still hot.
- Apply a finishing paper immediately and press once again for 30 seconds. You can get either matte or glossy finishing papers that help seal the design permanently.
The one catch to using these fabric sheets is that you must use very bright vector designs. They have to have a CMYK color value of at least 150%, which you can check on your printer. You need bold, vivid colors for this method to show up well.
5. On Dark Cotton
You can use white HTV glitter and Siser EasySubli to create bright, vivid sublimation designs on dark cotton. For step-by-step guides on how to use these two methods, read the sections above!
The cool thing about using a medium between the sublimation and the cotton is that it allows you to add a white background. This lets you apply colorful designs to dark or black fabric, which you cannot do when you sublimate straight onto polyester fabric.
6. With CricutThe best way to use a Cricut as part of the sublimation process is to cut out a white glitter HTV shape and then apply a sublimation transfer paper over the glitter.
If you want a bright, multi-colored design, you probably do not want to create it out of vinyl. You would have to cut out many tiny pieces in different colors of vinyl and then piece them together like a puzzle! This is why most printers use one, two, or three-color HTV designs if they want to use vinyl on a shirt.
But if you add the step of applying a sublimation transfer on top of the vinyl, you can use all the colors you want!
Check out these tips to get the best result when using your Cricut for sublimation:
- For a glitter look, use types of white glitter HTV that contain polyester. You can read the product descriptions carefully or purchase glitter HTV made specifically for sublimation.
- Alternatively, you can use Cricut’s special line of Infusible Ink products. You will need to buy supplies from Cricut, but this allows you to easily master sublimation on HTV.
- Other vinyl products like Siser EasySubli work great with specific printers like the Sawgrass models but will give excellent results as they are designed specifically for sublimation.
7. With SilhouetteThe Silhouette Cameo line works a lot like a Cricut machine, allowing you to cut out heat transfer vinyl shapes as a base for your sublimation printing on cotton. Brother makes the Silhouette electronic cutting machines, and they have a great reputation in the crafting world. Plus, they come with a very nice design product called Silhouette Software, where you can create your sublimation print designs.
- Once you have your design ready to go, you will leave one image full-color for printing and create a transparent outline for cutting. You can do this easily using the tools in the Silhouette program.
- If your design contains lettering, make sure you mirror it.
- Cut out the outline of the shape on white HTV using your Silhouette.
- Follow the directions on the HTV package to apply the vinyl to your shirt using your heat press.
- Print the color design onto a sublimation transfer paper using a Sawgrass sublimation printer.
- Set your heat press to 400℉.
- Carefully place the transfer on top of the vinyl with the printed side facing down.
- Smooth a Teflon protective sheet over the transfer paper.
- Apply the heat press for one minute.
Will Sublimation Wash Out of Cotton?
Sublimation will wash out of cotton if you try to seal the sublimation transfers onto untreated fabric. This happens because the synthetic sublimation dye cannot chemically bond with the all-natural cotton fibers.
But you can sublimate on cotton by creating a synthetic surface on top of the fabric. If you apply a coating spray to the cotton before sublimating or use HTV vinyl, sublimation will occur and the dye will not wash out of the cotton.
Why is My Sublimation Ink Faded After Washing?
Sublimation ink can fade after washing for several reasons, including bad transfer paper or incorrect heat settings. One of the main reasons to use sublimation printing is that it creates permanent, vibrant designs on fabric. The sublimating process bonds deep within the fabric, creating a more durable print than any other method on the market today.
But things can go wrong, leading to the ink fading away instead of maintaining this vivid and permanent hold on the fabric.
- Leaving a print in the heat press too long can cause fading. You may need to test out temperatures and timings on a couple of t-shirts to get the right settings.
- Cheap transfer paper can also create unprofessional or faded-looking prints. Make sure you use authentic sublimation transfer paper for this process.
- Finally, printing on untreated cotton or a 50/50 polycotton blend will also lead to a faded design.
Can You Sublimate on 50/50?
You can sublimate on 50/50 fabric if you want a somewhat distressed, vintage-style design. Using a blended fabric containing cotton and polyester is a popular way to get the best of both worlds in the printing industry. You get the sublimation ability of polyester while keeping the softness and breathability of the cotton.
But you should expect some fading to take place during the first few washes because any of the design touching the cotton fibers in the blend will wash away.
Because of this, you may find it more practical to sublimate on fabric blends that contain 65% polyester and just 35% cotton.
How Do You Make Poly T Spray for Sublimation?
You can make your own version of Poly T spray for sublimation using polyacrylic.
Poly T is a commercial product that is one of the most popular treatments used by anyone applying sublimation prints to cotton. It contains a polyester resin that will coat the cotton fibers and allow the dye to sublimate and bond to a synthetic surface.
The downside to this spray is that it often costs quite a lot, so many enterprising home artists prefer to mix up a DIY spray coating instead.
If you want to try making your own coating, try this recipe:
- Measure 8 oz of room temperature water into a disposable dish.
- Add two tablespoons of polyacrylic. You can find this at most home improvement or craft stores. Do not shake the can before scooping out the two tablespoons.
- Gently stir the water and polyacrylic together in your disposable dish or cup.
- Pour the liquid into a spray bottle.
Best Sublimation Paper for Cotton
Getting the best sublimation paper for cotton will help you create quality results no matter which of the seven methods in this article you decide to try!
Best Sublimation Spray for Cotton
While you cannot sublimate straight onto 100% cotton, you can create high=quality sublimation designs on cotton material by using HTV cutouts or by applying special synthetic spray coatings. One of the easiest at-home methods for sublimating on cotton is to cut out white glitter heat transfer vinyl, seal it onto the cotton, and then layer the sublimation transfer on top of the glitter vinyl. Using a spray coating on top of the cotton also gives you an easy way to bond sublimation dye to cotton.
You’ll need to use special products designed for sublimation to sublimate onto cotton. You can buy sublimation fabric sheets that work on cotton. You can also find sublimation vinyl that is receptive to sublimation dyes and will adhere to cotton.