What is Sublimation Printing?
Sublimation printing works by transferring an artwork or design from sublimation paper onto a piece of material using pressure and heat between 350 – 400 degrees Fahrenheit (177 – 204 degrees Celsius).
This printing method has increased in popularity over the past few years because the end product is high quality. In addition, the feel and look of the printed area are consistent with the material on which it’s been printed.
What is dye sublimation?
Scientifically, sublimation is the transition of matter from a solid-state directly to a gaseous state without passing through a liquid form.
The dye sublimation process uses the science of sublimation. Heat and pressure are applied to a solid, turning it into a gas through an endothermic reaction without passing through the liquid phase. As a result, the ink (dye) solids change into a gaseous state and are infused into the fabric or material before becoming solid again.
However, this process was later understood to not be sublimation but diffusion instead. This is because it was found that there was some liquifying of the dye before it turned into a gas.
Nonetheless, the names “dye-sublimation” and “sublimation” continue to be used to identify the process.
Sublimation printing process
This printing process requires sophisticated, specialized equipment that accurately measures and applies gaseous ink to infuse the ink into the fabric.
After choosing your design, you use a sublimation printer to print it out onto special paper. You must use this special sublimation paper to transfer the dye onto the fabric.
The paper is then pressed against the fabric/material with high heat and pressure using a heat press. The dye is then transformed into a gas and is infused into the fabric. The high heat in the process opens up the fabric’s pores, and the applied pressure cools it down, returning the dye to its solid form.
After the fabric has cooled, the paper is peeled off gently, leaving the design on the material.
Sublimation t-shirt printing
Sublimation printing is a good choice for t-shirts. It produces prints that last very long and can withstand many washes. They also look clean and part of the fabric. They don’t look like stickers the way products of other printing methods look.
Sublimation printing fabric
For all of this printing method’s advantages, it isn’t ideal for cotton t-shirts. However, it works well with polyester and polyester blend garments.
The polymers present in this fabric easily open up when exposed to heat due to its gaseous form. The dye then enters the material through the open pores and gets locked within when the fabric cools after the printing process is completed.
If used on cotton, the fabric integrity will be altered, and the image will not be permanent.
Other fabrics that can be used for this printing method include nylon, rayon, spandex, and acrylic. These often have some cotton blended in them to add comfort to the wearer of the t-shirts.
Is sublimation print good?
So what are the advantages of sublimation printing? Here are a few to help you make an informed decision on whether this is the suitable method of printing for you.
The output from sublimation printing is often quite good and vibrant. Colours pop a lot more and the achievable DPI in print is impressive.
The designs from sublimation printing are more durable than those from other printing forms since they are embedded in the fabric. The design will not fade or peel and can be washed countless times without worrying.
Quick and convenient
The initial design and printing process is quicker than other methods because of the technology involved. However, the heat press part, needs to be monitored to achieve similar quality with each press.
The sublimation printing method allows you to customize and adjust each image before printing. This gives flexibility and the ability to easily correct errors before the final print.
Disadvantages of sublimation printing
Wonderful a form of printing as this is, it isn’t without its drawbacks. So, consider these drawbacks before you dive in with your hard-earned cash.
Doesn’t work well with cotton
As mentioned earlier, cotton isn’t an ideal fabric for this printing method. The fabrics don’t open up as well as they do with polyester, which affects the quality of the output. The durability of the design is also an issue with cotton, as it fades fairly quickly.
Colour mismatch can be an issue
Computers display designs in RGB mode, whereas the printer will print your design in CMYK mode. Unfortunately, this means what you see on your computer screen sometimes isn’t what you get on the final print.
Ghosting is a common problem
Ghosting occurs when the sublimation paper shifts during the pressing process. This will result in a light fade beside it or a blurry end product. Extra care, therefore, needs to be taken to ensure that the ink is dry and the right amount of pressure is exerted during the pressing process. This issue often lessens with experienced sublimation printers.
Sublimation printing requires the right printers and heat presses. Unfortunately, good, efficient ones are often expensive, and this cost is usually transferred to end-users who want to print custom t-shirts.
Sublimation printing vs. heat transfer
Heat transfer is similar in certain ways to sublimation printing. Both involve designing on a computer, printing out the design, and heat pressing the said design onto the t-shirt.
There are, however, several differences to consider when choosing between the two:
T-shirt printing via heat transfer paper is one of the least expensive methods. You will need a laser or inkjet printer, a heat press, heat transfer paper, and the shirts you'd like to print on to get started. A starter heat press will cost about $300.
Sublimation has a higher start-up cost than heat transfer paper, but that cost has greatly decreased in recent years. Additionally, the special dye, printer, and the heat press will cost significantly more than the heat transfer setup.
The ink becomes part of the fabric with sublimation rather than adding a layer on top. This results in a transfer that is better in both durability and feel. However, heat transfer paper adds a layer on top of the garment. This additional layer can be physically felt, is less durable, and can fade and crack over time with numerous wash cycles.
Type of fabric
Sublimation only works with polyester fabrics. Polyester blends can also work, but you get the best results (bright and vibrant colours) if you print on 100% polyester.
Additionally, because sublimation adds no extra layer on top of the fabric, the material also needs to be white or very light-coloured for your transfer to show.
You can decorate on light and dark-coloured cotton, polyester, and cotton-poly blends with heat transfer.
Sublimation printing vs. silk screen printing
A graphic is printed with silkscreen ink on a garment through a screen with screen printing. The design is a layer on top of the garment, and each colour has to be “screened” individually.
Similar to the previous comparison, cost, fabric type, and durability are the main points of contention.
The cost of silk screen printing is significantly lower if you print bulk orders. However, it can get expensive rather quickly if you print only a few t-shirts especially if the print involves multiple colours.
Comparatively, multiple colours are a lot cheaper with sublimation printing because of the computer design.
As mentioned earlier, sublimation printing only works with synthetic fabrics such as polyester and polyester blends (minimum 65% polyester).
On the other hand, screen printing is great for 100% cotton, cotton-blend, polyester, and polyester blend materials.
Like heat transfer, with screen printing, the ink is placed on top of the fabric and is therefore susceptible to wear and tear. While they may last longer than heat transfer printing, the designs often crack, peel, and/or fade over time.
With sublimation printing, the designs will last for a long time because the ink is in the fabric, not on top.
Sublimation printing design
One of the best things about this form of printing is the flexibility of design. Colours can be mixed in the design process to produce complex prints. The involvement of a printer makes the production of the design possible.
Designs like complex logos and pictures are all possible with this method. This makes it ideal not just for t-shirts but also for other items like hats, socks, cups, smartphone covers, posters, to mention but a few.
Complex possibilities of sublimation printing.
Pic source: iStock by Getty Images
Sportswear is a great candidate for this printing method because the fabric is almost always synthetic.
Is sublimation printing expensive?
With the assortment of equipment needed and the multi-step process, dye sublimation printing was once expensive and intimidating. The equipment cost has since been reduced, but it is still higher than printing methods like screen printing and heat transfer.
The biggest contributor to this high cost is the printer. For home and hobbyist use, the printers start at about $300 and go up to $600.
Larger mass production printers can go up to $10,000. However, these printers are considerably cheaper than they used to be. This trend suggests that they will continue to get cheaper.
Other requirements include a heat press and printing paper, which adds significantly to the cost. A well-made heat press can cost from $150 to $500, and the sublimation paper used for the printer can be worth over $100, depending on how much you need.
Is sublimation printing permanent?
Yes, sublimation printing is considered permanent as it can last a long time. This is especially so for items such as t-shirts.
Sublimation printing Malaysia
Sublimation printing has gained popularity in Malaysia, especially for sportswear.
If you’re looking for high-quality sublimation printing for your sports team or ready-made sublimation tees, check out Arora Sports. We are a wholesale t-shirt and sportswear supplier that can custom your desired apparel from scratch. In addition, our team of experienced designers can help you if you need a unique design printing for your event, logo embroidery for your uniform, or personalized apparel.
Let us know what you need and choose from numerous materials and colours. We also do one-off designs meaning that you’ll have something uniquely yours!
Sublimation printing, also known as dye-sublimation printing, has come a long way. The equipment has gotten better and, more importantly, cheaper. We recommend it to anyone who wants to print t-shirts and other garments, caps, cups, etc. Hobbyists and business people alike.