Sublimation Printing: What Is It?By Shirtspace | Feb 18, 2017 | Updated Oct 23, 2020
Before becoming familiar with the blank t-shirt and screenprinting industries, I imagined that all printed t-shirts were created using a magical t-shirt making machine. You simply told the magical machine what you wanted, and voilà, there it was! It was as simple as that.
But, after my foray into the industry and a lot of education later, I realized that not only is there no such thing as a magical t-shirt making machine, but there are many processes used to create the printed tees that you see on the market today.
Among these is a process called dye sublimation printing. In this post, I’ll teach you what it is, how it’s done, and why it’s such a great option for t-shirt printing. Let’s dig in:
What is Sublimation Printing?
Sublimation is the process of printing sublimation ink onto sublimation transfer paper using a special sublimation printing machine.
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.
How Does Sublimation Work?
When the ink from your special sublimation transfer paper is heat pressed onto your substrate (t-shirt, fabric, mug, mousepad, keychain) and reaches a certain high temperature, the ink is transformed into a gas. This occurs because the heat not only releases the gas from the sublimation ink, but it also opens up the pores of the polyester, polymer, or polymer-coated item you’re 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.
Pretty cool, right? And it has some great advantages too.
Advantages to Sublimation Printing
One huge advantage to this process, if done correctly, is that the image you transfer onto your item won’t fade or disappear over time — so long as your substrate isn’t damaged. Not only that, you can look forward to an extremely smooth finish that’s quite soft to the touch given that the ink becomes one with the substrate. Science is so cool, right?!
Another major advantage to opting for the dye sublimation process versus traditional screen printing is that you don’t immediately have to turn down a customer when they ask you to print 4 shirts that consist of 37 colors each. Using this process allows for you to print full-color transfers and heat press them onto 100% polyester shirts instead of making and setting up 37 screens for a measly 4 shirts.
Limitations of Sublimation Printing
Now that I’ve hyped up the sublimation process, I should mention some limitations that come along with it.
First, this process can only be used on 100% polyester apparel or substrates that have a special polymer coating.
What does this mean for you? 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 substrates that are made for this exact process and have the polymer coating that is required to sublimate 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’re incredible!
One other limitation to keep in mind is that the sublimation inks used in this process are transparent. Because of this, you should plan on printing on white or light-colored substrates, as your image will not transfer properly onto dark garments. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news!
Sublimation: 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
- The final product is smooth and soft to touch
- Full-color printing is fast and easy
- Sublimation only works on polyester fabric or special polymer coats
- Not a great option for dark garments
ShirtSpace Has You Covered
If this is something that you think would elevate your current business and allow you to offer more to your customer base, I highly recommend sublimation printing. This process exists for a reason, it’s just a matter of if it’s a good fit for you and your business!
The flexibility and accuracy of this method are why ShirtSpace offers sublimation apparel to businesses like yours. If you’re interested in finding wholesale prices to get your next project started, check out our selection of sublimation t-shirts!