What is Sublimation Printing? | Printing Terminology 101

Sublimation printing is a method that uses heat to transfer dye onto materials such as fabric, plastic and more. Sublimation is the process in which a solid transitions to gas form without turning to a liquid state.

Sublimation printing is a popular method for printing high-quality images onto a variety of fabrics and items as the display features no resolution loss when comparing to the original image. With an image as clear as the source, a product made using the sublimation process will sustain its quality throughout the years.

What is sublimation printing?

Sublimation definition: Sublimation is a chemical process where a solid turns into a gas without going through a liquid stage.

Sublimation printing, also known as dye sublimation printing, is a popular printing method for transferring images onto suitable materials. Typical printing methods involve a step with water, where the solid turns to water before a gaseous state. Sublimation printing does not involve the liquid step but goes right from solid to gas due to a chemical reaction (like dry ice).

How it works

This typically involves the use of a digital printer to produce images on sublimation transfer paper with sublimation ink. The sublimation paper is then placed into a heat press with the material and exposed to high temperatures of about 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. This is when the ink and transfer material turn from solid to gas. Once they are in a gas state, they permeate the fibers of the material.

When the heat is removed from the transfer paper and substrate, the ink that has permeated the fibers solidifies and is locked permanently into place by the transfer material. Not only does the heat release the gas from the sublimation ink, but it opens the pores of the material you are transferring the image to. Once the pressure and heat are released, the sublimation ink returns to its solid state and the fabric pores close, trapping the ink inside.

Sublimation best uses

This printing method is best used on products such as polyester apparel in white or light colors or hard surfaces with a poly-coating, such as coasters, mugs, mouse pads and more. 

Sublimation printing's unique method using solid ink makes it better for the environment. Click To Tweet

Sublimation vs heat transfer paper

The sublimation process and heat transfer paper process are very similar, though there are differences that may not be apparent upon first glance.  

What is heat transfer paper?

Heat transfer paper is a special paper that transfers printed designs onto shirts and other materials when heat is applied. This process involves printing a design onto the sheet of heat transfer paper and using either an inkjet or laser printer. To transfer the design to the fabric, you place the printed sheet on your fabric and press it with a heat press. Once you have pressed it, you can peel away the paper and the image adheres to the fabric.

Transfer paper

Sublimation transfer paper
The sublimation process uses sublimation papers to transfer the design to the fabric, resulting in the image becoming a permanent part of the fabric.

Heat transfer paper
Heat transfer paper is a special paper used to transfer printed designs onto a fabric with the application of heat. While sublimation results in the image becoming a permanent part of the fabric, heat transfer results in the image becoming an added layer on top of the fabric.

Printing fabrics

Sublimation printing fabrics
The sublimation process can only be used on 100% polyester material or materials with a special polymer coating. Sublimation is best for white or light colored fabrics. This may seem like a limited option, but polymer coated products can include coasters, mugs, mouse pads and more.

Heat transfer paper fabrics
The heat transfer paper process can be used on both cotton and polyester fabrics as well as both dark or light colored fabrics.

Cost

Sublimation
The sublimation process can be quite pricey when you add up the cost of materials involved. Not only do you need to invest in sublimation paper, essential software, and products that you can sublimate, but you also need a heat press.

Heat transfer paper
The heat transfer paper process is one of the least expensive methods for starting out. You’ll need access to an inkjet or laser printer, a heat press (an iron can work), heat transfer paper, and the products you’d like to use.

Sublimation printing is a method that uses heat to transfer dye onto materials such as fabric, plastic and more. Sublimation is the process in which a solid transitions to gas form without turning to a liquid state.

Color capabilities

Sublimation
Sublimation can print full colors which is great for transferring images or logos with specific colors.

Heat transfer paper
With heat transfer paper, you are restricted to the capabilities of the printer you use. Your final image may not be as vibrant as it would be with sublimation.

Durability

Sublimation
With the sublimation process, the ink becomes part of the fabric as opposed to a layer on top of it. The resulting transfer lasts much longer than heat transfer paper results.

Heat transfer paper
Heat transfer paper results in the image creating another layer on top of the fabric. You can feel the additional layer and it can become faded and cracked over time, especially with washing.

Sublimation vs screen printing

What is screen printing?

Screen printing is a method that consists of pushing ink through a woven mesh stencil onto the garment. The stencil is created though coating the mesh screen with an emulsion and allowing it to dry.  An original image is created on a transparent overlay, where the areas that will let ink through are completely opaque. This is then placed on the screen

and the mesh is exposed to ultraviolet light, hardening areas exposed to the light and allowing the blocked areas to be dissolved and washed away.

The areas that are washed away are the spaces that the ink will go through to create the design. The ink is then pushed by a fill blade or squeegee over the screen to flood the open holes in the mess Then, as the blade is pulled back over the mesh, the ink is pushed through the mesh onto the garment.

Printing fabrics

Sublimation printing fabrics
The sublimation process can only be used on 100% polyester material or materials with a special polymer coating. Sublimation is best for white or light colored fabrics. This may seem like a limited option, but polymer coated products can include coasters, mugs, mouse pads and more.

Screen printing fabrics
Screen printing can be used on almost any material, though it is easiest to apply on flat surfaces and is most commonly used on shirts.

Cost

Sublimation
The sublimation process can be quite pricey when you add up the cost of materials involved. Not only do you need to invest in sublimation paper, essential software, and products that you can sublimate, but you also need a heat press. Sublimation is best for small orders due to the cost and time it takes to produce an item.

Screen printing
For large batches with a single color and simple design, screen printing is the way to go. A special screen stencil has to be made for the design, so the more garments the better to make it worth your while. The setup for screen printing is costly and time-consuming, resulting in many printers establishing an order minimum for screen printed jobs.

Design

Sublimation
Though both processes are capable of reproducing the finest of details and photorealistic images, the sublimation process achieves this in an easier manner.

Screen printing
Screen printed items require a special stencil for each design. The more intricate and colorful the design, the more stencils needed for a single garment. It’s best to keep your design simple if you are going with the screen printing method.

Printi’s sublimation printing services

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Jackie Vlahos is the Content Specialist at Printi. She is an expert in design, marketing and anything in between. When she's not blogging her life away, she can be found with a camera in one hand and a coffee in the other.

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