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What Is Sublimation Printing?

Do you want to order custom tees with a picture of your family for a special occasion or sell printed shirts as a home business? Either way, you will find yourself investigating the new method of sublimation printing. So, what is sublimation printing and how does it work?

Sublimation printing uses disperse dyes printed onto transfer paper to create a design. A heat press then translates the dye into a gaseous state that can bond with the substrate of fabric in a permanent design. Sublimation printing works on polyester and blanks treated with a polymer coating.

In this article, you will learn how sublimation printing works. You will find out what supplies you need to get started with this printing technique. Finally, you will learn how sublimation printing compares to heat transfer printing.

What Is Sublimation Printing

What is Sublimation Printing on Shirts?

Sublimation on shirts is one of the most popular new ways to print designs onto tees. This method creates detailed, vivid, and permanent designs. These prints won’t crack, peel, or fade over time like other printing methods.

Commercial sublimation printers can use largescale printers to print seam-to-seam on shirts. This uses sublimation to create the pattern and color of the fabric! This can save a lot of money as it bypasses the complex chemical and water-heavy process of dyeing the fabric yarns before weaving them into cloth.

In some cases, shirt manufacturers print the design and the individual shapes of the shirt pieces onto large rolls of fabric. Then separate machines cut out the pre-printed shapes and sew them together into shirts!

Of course, sublimation printing also has huge popularity as a way to custom-design t-shirts at home or as part of a small business. You do not need enormous commercial equipment to create professional-grade designs.

So, how does this fantastic new printing method work? Keep reading to find out!

How Does Sublimation Printing Work?

How Does Sublimation Printing Work

Sublimation printing starts by printing liquid disperse dyes onto a sheet of transfer paper and then uses a heat press to translate the solid dye into a gaseous state that can bond with the fabric fibers. This process of first turning a solid into a gas without melting it into a liquid is called sublimation.

This is where the printing method gets its name! Though actually, you will see the name shortened to “dye-sub” printing in the trade.

On the surface, you may think this method sounds like the old-school heat transfer method of decorating t-shirts. And in some ways, it is!

You still print a design onto the transfer sheet, though you use a special kind of paper for sublimation. You also still need heat to seal the image onto the shirt.

But there, the similarities end, as you will see if you take a quick look at the science involved.

Sublimation printing only works with special synthetic inks called disperse dyes. For this method, you must also use polyester fabric or blanks coated with a polymer. This is because of what happens during the heat press part of the process.

Intense heat causes the pores inside the polyester fibers to enlarge. It also causes the dye on the transfer paper to change from a solid state to a gaseous state. In its gaseous form, the dye can travel deep into the wide-open polyester fibers.

When the fabric cools, the dye returns to a solid state. But at this point, it has become embedded beneath the surface of the fabric and bonded to the individual fibers of the polyester.

In simple terms, sublimation printing causes the dye to become part of the shirt! This is what makes it such a permanent and durable technique.

This is a huge contrast to old-school heat transfer designs, which rest on the surface of the material. When you sublimate a design, it bonds with the substrate of the fabric!

What is Sublimation Printing Used For?

What is Sublimation Printing Used For

Sublimation printing has many uses, including custom t-shirt prints and seam-to-seam clothing printed on commercial roller printers. It also works well for decorative mugs, tiles, or even wooden plaques.

A few popular sublimated items include signs such as vinyl banners for business events, canopies, and outdoor banners. Photos printed onto canvas for display almost always use sublimation these days. Plus, dye-sub works well for an endless array of home decor items such as wall plaques, kitchen or bathroom tiles, or even some types of flooring!

It works well for small orders or custom designs because it does not need any special setup to switch from one design to another. You create new transfer paper prints for each new design you want to apply, and then use a heat press to seal the design to the blank!

In contrast, screen printing needs a complex creation of new stenciled screens for each new design. But sublimating allows a lot of flexibility and can scale up or down for different sizes of orders.

Plus, sublimation printing easily allows full-color designs using the CMYK model. Most printers and digital images work off of this four-color model. You can also easily sublimate detailed images such as color photos with precise results.

Commercial printers often create shirts in which a photo image covers the entire surface of the garment. You might have a beach scene that runs from the hem to the collar of a tee. Or you could design a smiling kitty that fills up the whole front of a tee from sleeve to sleeve!

Again, this easy method of printing images differs from the old-scale model that only allowed a photo to go in a square on the front of a shirt.

Types of Sublimation Printing

The two main types of sublimation printing break down into basic or spot printing and full or seam-to-seam printing. But you could also classify different types of sublimation printing based on the kinds of inks used, as this can also vary.

Spot or basic sublimation printing uses the method of printing a design onto a transfer sheet. The application of heat then induces the sublimation process. This transfers the design from the paper to the blank.

This technique only provides images as large as the transfer paper used. Most small businesses or home printers will use this method.

Full or seam-to-seam sublimation printing uses much larger commercial equipment. It prints the full design onto the fabric before the manufacturer cuts out the pieces of the garment. This means that a design can cover every inch of the shirt or garment.

All sublimation printing must use disperse dyes. These consist of ground-up dye particles suspended in a solution that never dissolves them (this is what disperse means). This special synthetic dye can bond with the synthetic fibers in polyester.

That said, you can find some variation in the types of dyes used within this disperse dye classification. Aqueous or water-based disperse dyes typically get used in smaller printers, such as home-use desktop models. Commercial roller printers with wider heads may use solvent or alcohol-based disperse dyes.

Finally, some printers will also break down types of sublimation printing by the kind of blank used. These include knit vs woven fabric or ceramic or plastic items.

What Do I Need to Do Sublimation Printing?

What Do I Need to Do Sublimation Printing

In its most basic form, you need design software, a printer, the right dyes, the right paper, and a heat press to do sublimation printing. One of the amazing things about this method is that you can scale it up or down for a home business or a giant commercial business. It just depends on what equipment you buy!

  • Design software helps you create or edit the image you want to print. For example, you could use Adobe Photoshop or Inkscape to craft the perfect image, logo, lettering, or meme. Some printers or design programs also call with a crucial tool called a RIP, or raster imaging processor.
  • A RIP helps your printer translate the screen colors of your design into the CMYK model of color blending used in your printer. This rasterizes or translates a computer vector image into a bitmap file that the printer can more easily understand.
  • To print with sublimation inks, you will need to buy a sublimation printer or upcycle an inkjet printer for this purpose. Popular brands of sublimation printers include Sawgrass and Epson SureColor. Of course, on an industrial scale, you would use a very different printer with the ability to print out entire rolls of fabric at one time!
  • You can find sublimation dye cartridges or refill bottles like these quite easily. For small printers, you can get a full CMYK set for around $25, though commercial printers will need more dye that costs a lot more.
  • Please note that sublimating only works if you use these special synthetic inks! Regular inkjet printer ink can’t undergo the process of translating from a solid to a gaseous state and will not bond with the polyester fabric.
  • For spot or basic sublimation printing, you need a type of transfer paper like this as the first part of the printing process. Sublimation paper will not add a layer on top of the fabric like old-fashioned heat transfer paper. For this reason, you need specially designed paper for the chemical bonding process.
  • You also need special blanks to print onto, either made out of polyester or coated with a special polymer coating. Sublimation works great on ceramic, vinyl, wood, or glass surfaces that have received this polymer coating. Of course, knit or woven polyester fabric makes an excellent surface for sublimating!
  • One of the key factors in good sublimation is a quality heat press. If you plan to make home crafts, you could settle for a tiny hand-held model like a Cricut EasyPress. But in most cases, you will want at least a simple clamshell-style heat press that allows you to heat an entire t-shirt in one go.
  • You may also want to invest in smaller items like lint rollers to make sure you do not get any fuzz in the middle of your designs. The heat-resistant tape will also help hold the transfer paper in place in the heat press.

Sublimation Printing Process Step-by-Step

Benefits of Sublimation Printing

One of the best ways to understand how sublimation printing works is to visualize the sublimation printing process step by step.

  1. First, you need to create or edit a digital image. The quality of your final product depends on the quality of the original graphic design.
  2. As a pro tip, if you plan to work with photos, you may want to invest in a graphic design tool like Photoshop. If you want to create vector images from scratch, you may want to try Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, or one of the dozens of other graphic design software packages you can buy these days.
  3. Next, you print the image in reverse onto sublimation transfer paper or sub paper. Make sure you place the white side of the design face-up into the printer.
  4. Two quick sidenotes here: first, most design software gives you the option to mirror the image or turn it into a reverse of its original design. This matters because otherwise, any lettering will come out backward! Second, you can easily tell which side of the sub-paper should face up because the manufacturer places lettering, a logo, or words on the reverse side.
  5. When your design prints out, you may see that the image looks faded. You will notice this particularly if you plan to sublimate a full-color photo image. Don’t panic, as this should happen!
  6. Next, prep the blank by cleaning its surface or ironing a fabric surface to ensure it remains wrinkle-free. You should also use a lint roller to clear away any dust or fluff that could mess up your image.
  7. Apply the print transfer face-down onto the blank. For fabric items like a polyester tee, you may want to use heat-resistant tape to make sure the transfer paper does not move around.
  8. Set your heat press to the desired temperature, usually around 400℉. (You can’t use a steam iron, a hair straightener, or any other less-professional tool for this process. You need a heat press that can get hot to sublimate dye!). The transfer paper packaging usually tells you what temperature to use.
  9. The timing also matters a lot when using a heat press. Again, check the transfer paper package to see how long you should apply the heat press for the best results. (For most shirts and items such as mousepads or vinyl signs, you will use short times ranging from 30 seconds to one minute).
  10. Finally, remove the heat press, or open it up if you have a clamshell-type model. Let the printed shirt or item cool down, and then peel away the transfer paper. Now you can see your vivid sublimated design!

Benefits of Sublimation Printing

The benefits of sublimation printing include its versatility, durability, and vivid designs. But like all printing methods, sublimating printing has both pros and cons.

Pros:

  • One of the biggest advantages of sublimation is its versatility. You can easily make small custom orders by printing out just one, two, or twelve transfer papers of the same design. Or you could make one design and then customize it by changing the lettering within the image to include a person’s name or a special message.
  • Another key advantage is that you can easily include a great deal of detail in your designs. You don’t have to worry about using just one or two colors, as you do with HTV or screen printing images. You also don’t have to worry about cheap or faded designs like you might with DTG printing.
  • Of course, for your customers, the biggest reason to choose sublimation over other types of printing is that the designs last so much longer. They have excellent durability and longevity.
  • In some ways, sublimation printing has an eco-friendly model. It can bypass the water-heavy dyeing process often used to produce fabric for clothing.
  • Finally, you can easily master sublimation without years of practice or tons of special tools!
Cons:
  • One of the drawbacks to sublimation printing is that it only works on polyester. You can sublimate onto blended polycotton if the polyester content is high enough. But the cotton will create a slightly more faded design.
  • If you want to sublimate onto hard objects like a coffee mug, you have to buy special blanks that come with a polymer coating over the surface. The good news is that you can easily buy pretty much any kind of blank, from a mousepad to an outdoor canopy, with that special coating these days!
  • Of course, sublimation relies on manmade polyester. Polyester comes from petroleum by-products. This means the whole process can have a negative ecological impact.
  • Another problem with sublimation printing is that it only works on a white surface. You could also print onto light-colored shirts if you do not need pure white to show up within the image.
  • Finally, you do have to buy a certain amount of specialized equipment to get started with this printing method. You need, at last, a sublimation printer, polyester blanks, the right disperse dyes, and a heat press to create a print.

Sublimation Printing at Home

You can easily get started with sublimation printing at home by purchasing basic tools such as a sublimation printer and heat press. Sublimation printing offers the easiest at-home method with professional results! You do not need thousand-dollar printers like you do for DTG printing or a ton of space for screen printing.

Honestly, the biggest stumbling block is often mastering graphic design software. This matters a lot if you want to create your own custom images. The good news is that you can find lots of free, helpful tutorials online these days to help you understand graphic design concepts.

How Long Does Sublimation Printing Last?

Sublimation printing will usually last as long as the object or garment it is printed onto! The sublimation process causes the dye to bond within the substrate of the fabric or deep into the polymer coating on a hard object. This means that the design will not rub away, fade, or crack and peel with time.

Eventually, of course, any shirt or items will wear out. But you should not worry about the design fading before that happens!

Some printers state that a design should last ten years. This varies a lot depending on the type of item in question, though. A t-shirt will last longer with fewer cycles in the washing machine, for example. An outdoor banner may become weathered sooner than ten years.

Can a Regular Printer Print Sublimation?

Sublimation Printing Process
You can use a regular printer to print sublimation transfers if you upcycle the regular printer significantly first. You cannot use the regular inkjet or laser printer as these products do not print using sublimation dyes. So, in theory, you can use an HP or Epson printer for sublimation, but you have to set it up correctly first.

The caveat is that only a printer that uses piezoelectric or pressure-based technology that does not use heat will work. Some inkjet printers use heat to set the ink onto the page. You absolutely cannot use these types for sublimation.

How do I turn my printer into a sublimation printer?

  1. Start with a brand-new printer, so you do not need to worry about cleaning old ink out of its insides.
  2. Buy refillable cartridges if the printer does not already include them.
  3. Fill the empty refillable cartridges with sublimation inks, using a separate syringe for each of the four colors.
  4. Put the printer through four or five cleaning cycles to make sure it works correctly.

What is the Difference Between Sublimation Printing and Regular Printing?

The biggest difference between sublimation printing and regular printing is the physical state of the ink. Regular printing applies liquid ink. Sublimation applies a gaseous form of ink that bonds inside the fabric.

Inkjet printers printing onto paper, DTG printers applying ink to the fabric, and even screen print screens all apply liquid ink. Sublimation uses heat to translate the dye straight from a solid to a gas state, allowing the chemical bonding process to occur.

Which is Better, Sublimation or Heat Transfer?

Heat tranfer printing

Sublimation creates more colorful and longer-lasting designs than heat transfer. Sublimation offers better quality than heat transfer designs. But heat transfers cost less to produce, so this method provides a more cost-effective option.

Plus, you can apply a heat transfer to cotton and other types of fabric rather than just polyester.

The biggest disadvantage of heat transfer images is that they sit on the surface of the fabric or material. Sublimation designs bond beneath the surface and will remain vivid and unfaded for much longer.

The biggest advantage to using heat transfers instead of sublimation is that you do not need extra equipment. For sublimation printing, you have to buy a special printer and inks.

But sublimation printing creates much higher-quality designs. It has quickly gained popularity because of this.

Can You Use a Cricut for Sublimation?

You cannot sublimate using a Cricut machine per se, but you can use lots of Cricut tools to help you create sublimation prints.

First, you can use Cricut DesignSpace as your graphic design tool to create and edit images for your prints. This works especially well if you want to add lettering to an image! Plus, if you already have access to DesignSpace, you will not have to shell out for a pricey software package.

You can also use certain types of Heat Transfer Vinyl for sublimation. You may recall that sublimation only works well on white or light-colored material. If you want to put a sublimation design onto a black tee, you can get around this using HTV.

All you have to do is transfer the design onto a special polymer-coated HTV. Then heat-seal the HTV onto the black shirt.

Finally, for small-scale home projects, you can use a Cricut EasyPress. It’s true that an Easy Press does not work well for larger designs. But until you want to invest in a pricier and larger heat press, it will do!

Best Fabric for Sublimation Printing

Best Fabric for Sublimation Printing

The best fabric for sublimation printing is 100% polyester, with no exceptions. You can try sublimating onto polycotton, but you will find your design quite faded after one or two washes. This is because the disperse dyes will not bond with the cotton fibers in the fabric, leaving only about 50% of the image intact!

If you like a faded, vintage look, you can give this a try. But overall, you should stick with 100% polyester for the best results.

Sublimation for Beginners

One of the easiest ways to get started with sublimation for beginners is to purchase a starter pack that comes with most of the tools and items you need, plus handy instructions!

Sawgrass UHD SG500 Starter Pack

Sawgrass UHD SG500 Sublimation Printer Starter Bundle with Easysubli Inks, Sublimation Paper, Tape, Blanks, DesignsSawgrass set the standard for the first sublimation printers, and this pricey starter pack offers almost everything you need, from a standard printer to Easysubli inks, transfer paper, and blanks!

The blanks provided in the kit include a keychain, an ornament, and a mousepad for your first practice run.

The only thing missing from this impressive starter pack is a heat press, which you will have to purchase separately.

A-Sub Sublimation Paper Ink Bundle Kit

A-SUB Sublimation Paper 125gsm and Sublimation Ink Bundle Kit for Heat Transfer on Tumblers, Tee shirt, Mugs,etc. to Personalize your Holiday GiftIf you want just the basic ink and transfer paper supplies as a beginner kit, this high-quality set will get you started!

This package comes with 100 sheets of A-sub paper and the full CMYK set of ink, in 100 ml each.

Of course, you will need expensive tools like a printer and a heat press as well as this kit. But the kit takes all the guesswork out of choosing the correct paper and ink as you begin!

Conclusion

Sublimation printing is one of the newest methods for textile printing. It uses a two-part process of printing synthetic dyes onto a transfer paper and then using heat to translate that solid dye into a gaseous form that can bond inside the fabric pores to create a permanent design. Sublimation printing creates vivid and long-lasting images.

To start with sublimation printing, you need a sublimation printer, synthetic ink, and special transfer paper. You also need polyester or polymer-coated blanks and a heat press to seal the design onto the blank.