Sublimation Shirt Printing: A Beginner’s GuideBy ShirtSpace | Aug 23, 2019 | Updated Sep 12, 2023
In the world of custom apparel, sublimation shirt printing has emerged as a popular choice for creating vibrant and long-lasting designs on clothing. Whether you're a budding entrepreneur or simply interested in creating unique personalized shirts, this beginner's guide will walk you through the ins and outs of sublimation shirt printing, from understanding the process to its pros and cons, the equipment needed, and the latest trends in this exciting field. If you’ve been wondering, “What is sublimation printing on shirts?” — you’ve come to the right place!
What Is Sublimation Shirt Printing?
Sublimation shirt printing is a technique that allows you to transfer intricate designs, patterns, or images onto fabric using special ink and heat. Unlike traditional printing methods that sit on the fabric's surface, sublimation printing penetrates the fabric's fibers, resulting in vibrant and durable designs that won't crack or fade quickly. Where most prints affix to the top layer of fabric, sublimation ink soaks into the fabric, like dye used for tie-dye.
But that’s not the end of the story. Sublimation occurs because the heat and pressure combine to transform solid ink into a gas. This also opens up the pores of the polyester, polymer, or polymer-coated item you are heat pressing onto. Once your sublimation printer presses the transfer paper onto your item and then releases your pressure, the temperature is allowed to cool, at which point the sublimation ink turns back into solid form and the pores permanently close — thus encapsulating the ink within the polymer coating of your substrate. This is an alternative to traditional inkjet transfers in that sublimation ink actually becomes a part of the substrate (or the t-shirt surface) you print on, whereas inkjet transfers use a carrier sheet to print the ink on top of the shirt or item. Pretty cool, right?
Sublimated ShirtSpace logo print on the Gildan G420L Woman’s T-Shirt.
How Does Sublimation Work?
So, now that you know the scientific explanation, how does sublimation printing work compared to other popular printing methods? The sublimation process for shirts involves turning a solid ink into a gas without passing through a liquid phase. Here's a simplified breakdown of how the whole process works from start to finish:
Printing: The design is printed onto a special transfer paper using a specialized sublimation printer and sublimation inks.
Transfer: Place the transfer paper with your design face-down on the shirt, ensuring a secure fit. You might even want to invest in thermal tape so your print does not shift.
Heat Press: Apply heat and pressure while maneuvering the heat press machine. This causes the sublimation ink to turn into a gas and permeate the fabric, permanently embedding the design into the shirt.
Cooling: Allow the shirt to cool before removing the transfer paper, revealing your vibrant, full-color design.
Advantages Of Sublimation Printing
Vibrant Colors: Sublimation offers brilliant and long-lasting colors, making it ideal for intricate and colorful designs. Printing a handful of full-color designs is easier than ever compared to the preparation, set-up and breakdown required for methods such as screen printing or HTV.
Durability: The designs are part of the fabric, making them resistant to fading, cracking, or peeling.
Breathability: Sublimation doesn't create a heavy layer on the fabric, ensuring the shirt remains comfortable.
All-Over Printing: Sublimation allows for edge-to-edge printing, covering the entire shirt with your design.
Smooth Finish: Sublimation prints are soft to the touch, given that the ink becomes one with the fabric. You could run your hand over the design while blindfolded and have no idea the shirt had a print! It’s like magic!
Image Source: Gildan
Limitations Of Sublimation Printing
White or Light Colors: Sublimation works best on white or light-colored shirts so that the ink will be visible. Darker-colored shirts do not show sublimation prints very well. A workaround for this issue is that many decorators will bleach a white window on the chest of a dark-colored shirt. More on that to come.
Initial Cost: The equipment and inks required for sublimation printing can be expensive upfront.
Hard Goods Limitations: Unfortunately, you won’t be able to pick up closeout mouse pads from Office Depot or an adorable coffee mug from Target to use for your upcoming gift exchange. But don’t fret — there are plenty of products that are made for sublimation printing and have the polymer coating that is required to print onto. One incredibly helpful and knowledgeable company that not only offers sublimation support but sells the equipment you need and the substrates you want, is Condé. They are incredible!
Sublimation Shirt Printing: Pros And Cons
As you can see, the dye sublimation process is a pretty cool one with lots of pros and a couple of cons. Here’s a quick summary:
|The image doesn’t fade or disappear
|Sublimation only works on polyester fabric, polyester blends, or special polymer coated materials
|The final product is smooth and soft to the touch
|Not a great option for dark garments unless you plan on bleaching first
|Vibrant, full-color printing is fast and easy
|Not everyone loves polyester. Some prefer the look and feel of cotton-heavy clothing
Tips for Picture-Perfect Sublimation Prints
Test, Test & Test Some More: We always recommend buying a couple of practice blanks to test techniques and materials before completing a wide-scale printing production.
Avoid Unwanted Ink Transfer: If you plan on printing a run of tees using sublimation printing, meaning a handful of shirts with the same print, be sure to clean your heat press plates before printing another project afterward. Since the ink used is turned to gas through the sublimation process, ink residue can easily transfer to the platens and accidentally ruin your next printing project.
Ensure Your Heat Press is the Correct Temperature: Use a digital thermometer to be sure that the temperature that your heat press is reading is accurate. If the temp isn’t right, your print will not turn out well.
Use a Cover Sheet: Use parchment paper, or other non-coated butcher paper, to create a protective barrier between your design and the shirt platen. This will protect your machine and your shirt. Teflon sheets are popular with other printing methods, but create moisture, which you do not want with sublimation printing. Because of this, it’s best to avoid Teflon cover.
Buy Quality Products: “You get what you pay for” does not always ring true in all situations, but with apparel decoration, this is oftentimes the case. Invest in great materials, and you will have great results!
Practice Makes Perfect: The more you practice, the better you will do!
The Internet is Your Friend: There are endless tutorials and how-tos on how to sublimation print at your fingertips on YouTube, TikTok and more!
Image Credit: Andrey Popov of Getty Images
Can You Sublimation Print On Any Shirt?
While sublimation printing works best on 100% polyester shirts, there are some blended fabrics that can be used. However, the results may not be as vibrant or durable. It's essential to choose the right shirt material to achieve the best results. Always aim for a garment with at least 60-65% polyester to sublimation print on it. This isn’t to say that you can’t get away with printing on a piece of clothing with less polyester, but keep in mind that the less polyester, the more faded and worn the print will look. Another blend that you can sublimate on besides cotton/poly blends is polyester and viscose, which are available from top blank apparel brands such as Bella+Canvas and Next Level.
What Equipment Is Needed To Make Sublimation Shirts?
To get started with sublimation shirt printing, you'll need the following equipment:
Sublimation Inks: Ink cartridges designed for sublimation printing.
Heat Press Machine: To apply heat and pressure for the sublimation process.
Transfer Paper: Specially coated paper that holds the ink for transfer.
Polyester Shirts: Ideal for vibrant sublimation prints
Computer and Design Software: For creating and editing your designs.
Sublimation Printer (Optional): Specialized for sublimation inks if you want to skip heat pressing and print directly to the garment using a machine, similar to DTG printing, but with the same sublimation look and feel that you know and love!
Trends in Sublimation Shirt Printing
The world of sublimation shirt printing is constantly evolving. Here are some trends to keep an eye on:
Eco-Friendly Inks: The industry is shifting towards more environmentally friendly sublimation inks.
Personalization: Customized and personalized designs are in high demand.
Athletic Apparel: Sublimation is popular for sports and activewear due to its durability and breathability.
Retro and Vintage Designs: Nostalgic designs are making a comeback in sublimation printing, especially when printing on a garment with a lower polyester count, which gives a vintage, worn-in look.
Bleaching and Then Sublimation Printing: To solve the problem of not being able to print legible designs on dark-colored apparel, savvy decorators have found a solution. You can first bleach a window where you would like to print your design and then heat press it onto the lightened portion. If you plan on bleaching and then subbing, we recommend a CVC t-shirt with at least 60% polyester for best results.
All Over Prints: We have been seeing more and more tees that are completely printed via sublimation printing, as seen below.
Image Credit: Katherine Mihailova from Pexels
Now Sub Away!
Sublimation shirt printing is a versatile and exciting way to put intricate designs and logos on clothing. While it has its limitations, the vibrant colors, durability, and breathability of sublimation prints make it a top choice for custom apparel enthusiasts. So, whether you're starting a clothing business or looking to create one-of-a-kind t-shirts, sublimation printing is a technique worth exploring in-depth.
Other Blogs We Think You’ll Love:
Diana Cataffo04/15/2023 03:18 am
What do you consider the best printer and heat press to get started?
ShirtSpace04/17/2023 03:31 pm
Hi, Diana. Many of our customers start with the Cricut Easypress 2 for sublimation printing. You can order the prints from someone, or if you want to invest in creating your own, Epson is always a go-to name brand and offer a variety of printers at different price points, depending on your needs. There are also a number of wonderful blogs available where decorators list their reviews on the best printers and presses. Thank you for taking the time to read our blog!
Pam04/01/2023 07:10 pm
Great article! Clear and easy to understand, even for people like me, who had no knowledge about this topic. Thank you!
ShirtSpace04/03/2023 03:56 pm
Hi, Pam. Thank you for your kind words and for reading our blog.
Mary Bigley 03/02/2023 11:31 pm
Can printing be done on 50% cotton 50% polyester?
ShirtSpace03/03/2023 04:43 pm
Hi, Mary. You can absolutely print on 50% cotton/50% poly garments. Just make sure to be mindful of your heat settings because synthetic garments like polyester burn/melt easier than cotton. Thanks for reading our blog!
Nicole Ni10/13/2022 07:10 am
Great article, as you wrote in your article: Dye sublimation printing is not recommended for dark clothes, but I don't know if you have any understanding of heat transfer technology, using special heat transfer paper can perfectly complement the heat Disadvantages of sublimation, if you want to know more about sublimation and heat transfer, you can click here:https://asub.com/product-category/t-shirt-transfer-paper
ShirtSpace10/13/2022 04:37 pm
Hi Nicole! Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!
Nicole Ni10/17/2022 03:19 am
You are Welcome
Ashleya03/31/2022 08:01 pm
Hey!I am a worker in printing industry from California. I was needing some important Information about printing. You are covering the information of sublimation printing. Nice and Easy to read your blog, thanks for sharing with us. Keep sharing good and informative post. https://www.printerflash.com/what-is-sublimation-printing/
ShirtSpace10/13/2022 04:28 pm
Hi Ashleya! We are so excited to hear you found important information in our blog. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment!
Jeorge02/24/2022 06:48 am
Sublimation printing has more pros than its cons.
ShirtSpace10/13/2022 04:28 pm
Hi Jeorge! Thank you for reading our blog and taking the time to comment!
Sublimation Printer12/18/2021 11:36 am
Your article is honestly unique and creative. I sincerely appreciate your creativity. I am very happy to get this article. The creativity that you have expressed here is extraordinary. A sublimation printer is a machine used to print sublimation. Read more about this at https://revenuebyblogging.com/sublimation-printer/
ShirtSpace10/13/2022 04:36 pm
Hi! We are so excited to hear how much you appreciate and enjoyed our blog! Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment!
Motivatebox08/27/2021 11:31 am
ShirtSpace10/13/2022 04:35 pm
Hi! Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment!
RIGHTEOUS 01/14/2020 12:40 am
hi im interested in getting a sample , what is the minimum requirement to place an order?
ShirtSpace10/13/2022 04:34 pm
Hi! We are happy to inform you that you that there is not an order minimum on our website https://www.shirtspace.com/. Thank you for reading!