Sublimation printing, also known as “all-over printing” or dye-sublimation, is the hottest new trend in the print industry. What makes it different, and why are people so excited about it? How is it different from screenprinting and direct-to-garment printing?
If you design anything that goes onto printed products, you need a full understanding of the exciting benefits and opportunities with sublimation printing. It can take your designs and your business to the next level, all for a fraction of the cost of other printing types.
What Is Sublimation Printing?
People in the garment printing business have been hearing a lot about dye sublimation printing. Although sublimation printing seems to be everywhere we look, the process is somewhat unknown to many people. The first thing to understand is that this isn’t a complex printing method. It’s actually the simplest way to imprint a design onto a garment, provided you have the right equipment.
How Does Sublimation Printing Work?
Sublimation refers to the process through which materials change from solid to gas without it first becoming liquid. So with sublimation printing, the ink becomes a gas and fuses with a polymer. Then, it turns back into a solid. Essentially, in dye sublimation, you convert ink to a solid by using heat to transfer the dye onto various materials, including fabric, metals, and plastic. By transferring the ink using heat, the fibers in the material open and the dye becomes chemically bonded to the product. To clarify, other forms of printing basically create a layer on top of the garment, whereas, in dye sublimation, the dye becomes part of the fabric.
In sublimation printing, image reproduction is possible on any rigid or flexible substrates with receptive surfaces. The product has to be able to withstand the pressure, heat, and dwell time that’s necessary for image transfer.
The process begins with a reversed image printed onto special paper, designed for dye sublimation. That image is then taped with a heat sensitive tape to the product that is essentially its canvas. Then, the item goes into a heat press. In most cases, the image transfers to the product in less than a minute.
Sublimation Printing vs Other Methods Of Printing
There is no shortage of arguments out there as to which printing method is best. However, it all depends on your fabric and your design. In most cases, your design will dictate your method. Before you can wrap your mind around how amazing sublimation printing is, it’s helpful to take a look at the other popular printing methods.
Also known as silk screening, screen printing is one of the most widely used printing methods. First, you create a screen for every color you want to use. Then you pour ink onto the different screens by color. Next, you use a squeegee for pulling ink through the screen onto the garment. Finally, repeat for each color. You have to then use a dryer to cure the design.
Screen printing is popular largely because you can get started for small investments as long as you can use a manual press and only a few colors. This process produces good quality and long-lasting prints. Once you have your screens made, it’s inexpensive to print more shirts. That makes it ideal for mass production.
However, there are disadvantages to screen printing. It’s not cost-effective to do small batches of shirts because the cost of creating the printing screens can be expensive. Printing one t-shirt is completely unrealistic. It would be a huge waste of money.
Furthermore, you have to wash and store your screens, and this makes screen printing the messiest printing option. Also, screen printing equipment is larger than the equipment needed for other printing methods, so it’s not something you can do in a space-limited environment.
Direct To Garment Printing (DTG)
In direct to garment printing, inkjet technology prints designs directly onto a garment, canvas, or other textile substrates. With direct to garment printing, you can print extremely high-quality full-color photographic prints. The process works by first pretreating the shirt. Then, the shirt is loaded to the printer. Next, you open your graphic in special software and click print. The garment then has to be heat pressed for one to three minutes to cure it.
Direct to garment printing is great for one-off products because it prints one t-shirt at a time. This is why it’s possible to order only one t-shirt of a particular design like you can do on sites like Teespring. Also, direct to garment is the way to go if you want the popular style of a white design or lettering on a black t-shirt or other colored t-shirts.
There are numerous disadvantages to direct to garment printing. The bottles of ink are expensive and require lots of storage space. Furthermore, the printer is a pain to maintain. You have to run 15 to 30 minutes of cleanings every single day, which can also be expensive because you have to use ink to run a cleaning. Next, there’s a higher learning curve than in sublimation printing. Also, you can’t print on polyester or promotional items like bags and cups. Finally, getting started with direct to garment printing is cost prohibitive. A good DTG printer will set you back $15,000 or more.
Equipment For Sublimation Printing
You have to have special equipment for sublimation printing, but it’s generally not expensive. First, you’ll need design software if you don’t already have it. Also, you’ll need a heat transfer press, sublimation dye, and a sublimation printer.
Software For Sublimation Printing
To do any sort of printing, you’ll need some sort of design software. Most designers use CorelDraw or Adobe Photoshop. Alternatively, you can use programs like Adobe Illustrator. There are also specialty software programs that you can use for dye sublimation, including CreativeStudio.
For dye sublimation, you’ll need a special sublimation paper. Furthermore, you’ll need some heat resistant tape if you’re going to be printing on mugs, caps, or tiles. That will keep your image from moving around during the transfer process.
Dyes used in dye sublimation are safe. Because printers generally use CYMK printing, they used less dye. The sublimation ink is a gel printed on the special paper. It’s made of solid color dye particles ground into powder and suspended in a special liquid carrier. During the heating process, the gel turns into a gas and then back into a solid. Dyes are generally available in bulk bags, bottles, and cartridges.
Because of the special inks used in sublimation printing, you’re limited to special printers, made for this process. Experts in the industry recommend Ricoh printers.
Industrial Heat Transfer Press
Watch this fascinating short video that shows the entire process of laying garments on the transfers and running them through the industrial heat press.
Alternatively, you can use a small heat press if you’re working out of a small shop.
What You Can Do With Sublimation Printing
This type of printing isn’t just for t-shirts. You can do dye sublimation with any number of apparel items as long as they’re synthetic materials. Leggings, swimsuits, dresses, socks, and sweatpants all work well for sublimation printing.
However, it’s not just for fabric and clothing. Almost anything made of synthetic materials is printable. For example, many print shops print on coffee mugs, hats, cell phone cases, bags, pens, and more. You can even use dye sublimation for products for the home and wallpaper fabrics. However, keep in mind that you can only do sublimation printing on items specially prepared for dye sublimation.
Furthermore, you can use dye sublimation to print on treated hardboard, compressed wood is cut into different shapes. Also, you can use sublimation for glass cutting boards and ceramics.
Advantages Of Sublimation Printing
First and foremost, dye sublimation produces vivid, bright designs, printable over the entire fabric. That gives designers the freedom to be as creative as they want, and gives customers a quality of garment that simply isn’t available in other types of printing. However, there are more advantages to dye sublimation than just how beautiful the resulting garment is. It’s incredibly eco-friendly. Moreover, the garments are more comfortable with unsurpassed quality. Furthermore, the dye sublimation process is amazingly fast.
A point often overlooked, dye sublimation doesn’t create the additional waste that other methods of printing do. In fact, it creates no waste at all and is actually the most sustainable and environmentally friendly printing option available for garment printing. On the contrary, screenprinting uses a lot of water in design, while dye sublimation uses none because the dye turns directly into a gas from a solid.
Since dye sublimation creates zero waste, inks and dyes won’t get into water systems, something that will happen with other dye processes.
Besides being friendly to the environment, you should note that there are links between textile dyes and cancer. Dye sublimation, since it produces no waste, eliminates that risk.
Because the dye in the dye sublimation process becomes part of the fabric, it’s more comfortable. As we mentioned in a previous section, the dyes used in other forms of printing basically make a layer on top of the fabric. In dye sublimation, the dye becomes a part of the fabric. Essentially, you’re changing the color of the fabric. Consequently, this makes for a very comfortable shirt that feels soft and is breathable.
Particularly, a tri-blend of 50 percent polyester, 25 percent cotton, and 25 percent rayon create a very soft and comfortable t-shirt.
Because of the extreme softness of this process, dye sublimation is ideal for making graphic garments for babies and children. That includes baby onesies, which are very popular with customers.
The main benefit that most companies look at is the sheer quality that you get with dye sublimation. It results in printing that has photo quality and no loss of image clarity or resolution. The results are amazing and generally will meet the needs of even the most discerning clients.
Furthermore, with dye sublimation, since the ink actually becomes a part of the fabric, there is never any risk of cracking and peeling. Your prints will last as long as the garment lasts. You won’t get the grunge look that you often get over time from other types of printing.
Last, with dye sublimation, you can use unlimited colors, unlike in screen printing or direct to garment, where the more colors you use, the pricier your product.
Temperature Guidelines And Sublimation Times
The time it takes to make dye sublimation products is astonishingly fast. For polyester apparel, it takes 35 seconds to transfer the dye to the fabric. For cell phone covers, it takes 45 seconds. Polymer-coated plastics take 75 seconds, while metals take 60 seconds. Wood takes only 75 seconds. The longest time required to print using dye sublimation is when you print on ceramics, which takes up to four minutes.
The Cons Of Sublimation Printing
Because of the heating process involved, you can only do sublimation printing on polymers or synthetics. You can’t print on natural fiber products, such as 100 percent cotton t-shirts, for example. However, you can print on a 50/50 cotton and polyester blend. Conversely, the higher the percentage of polyester, the better quality print you’ll get because the dye will only bond with the polyester fibers.
While it’s technically possible to print onto cotton t-shirts, the results won’t be as beautiful and bright and the garment will look dull and fade over time. Additionally, some nylons won’t withstand the heat involved in dye sublimation.
Another downside is that it’s very challenging to print onto dark garments because there is no white sublimation ink. The only way to do so is by using dye sub dark, a polyurethane transfer sheet that’s actually a white one-color product. Once the design is printed on it, it transfers to the product with heat. This process isn’t optimal when compared to the usual dye-sublimation process, but it’s a workaround. However, multiple washes over time cause the design to crack and fade. The best solution is to simply print on white or light colored garments.
Furthermore, while the entire dye sublimation process is eco-friendly, polyester isn’t. A workaround for this is to use recycled polyester.
Last, some commercial customers complain that with dye sublimation, you don’t receive volume discounts. This process isn’t ideal for large orders.
Sublimation Printing: Yay Or Nay?
With all of the benefits of sublimation printing we’ve covered here, there is no question that if you have the equipment available to you, this is the way to go. Certainly, there are benefits to other types of printing, but none compare to dye sublimation. Dye sublimation is fast, clean, eco-friendly, and results in a softer, more comfortable garment. The pros of dye sublimation definitely outweigh the cons. Yay or nay on sublimation printing? A resounding yay.