What Is Sublimation Printing and How It Works

Danica Mae Allibang

9 mins read

3 sublimation printing t-shirts, one with a dog, one with a tiger, and one with a margarita

With its high-quality and vibrant prints, dye-sublimation continues to be one of the most widely adopted printing methods, especially in the garment industry. Also known as sublimation printing, the process is becoming more popular in other areas such as interior decoration and print on demand merch, from phone cases to mugs.

But how does sublimation printing work, exactly? In this complete guide, we’ll take you through the process step by step so that you have a clear understanding of how this printing method works and what benefits it can offer your business. Let’s begin!

Main Takeaways

  • Definition and Application: Sublimation is a digital method that transfers dye onto materials like fabric and plastic using heat, popular in garment and interior decor industries.
  • Process: Involves printing on transfer paper and using heat to turn ink into gas that bonds with the material, integrating the design.
  • Material Suitability: Best for polyester, polymer, or coated items. A special polymer coating is required for other materials.
  • Advantages: Produces vibrant, durable prints suitable for various products, including non-fabric items like mugs.
  • Limitations: Cannot print white; effective only on light-colored and polyester-based materials. Specific equipment and a learning curve are needed.
  • Comparison with Other Methods: Offers better durability and design integration than screen printing, DTG, and heat transfer, which face material and durability limitations.

What Is Sublimation Printing?

Sublimation printing is a digital printing technology that involves transferring dye onto materials such as fabric, plastic, or paper using heat. Unlike traditional printing methods, sublimation printing allows the dye to become part of the material rather than sitting on top of it.

In sublimation printing, special inks are used which have the ability to turn into gas when heated. As the ink turns into gas, it bonds with the fabric or other substrate, and this is how the image is transferred.

The Sublimation Printing Process

A large format, Mimaki sublimation printer producing a vibrant floral pattern on fabric

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of the process, shall we?

As mentioned, the sublimation printing process involves the use of special inks which are transferred to the substrate using heat and pressure.

When printing a shirt or garment, for example, the first step is to print the design onto transfer paper using a sublimation printer. This print is then placed on top of the garment, and both are placed into a heat press.

The heat press applies pressure and, of course, heat to the design; this is what activates the inks and causes them to turn into gas. As the inks turn into gas, they bond with the fibers of the garment, and this is how the image is transferred.

Once the printing process is complete, the garment is allowed to cool so that the inks can solidify and set. And that’s it! Your item is now ready to use.

Which Materials Can You Print On With Sublimation?

Image showing three examples of materials for sublimation printing: a polyester fabric label, a polymer phone case, and a clear plastic cup, each labeled with their material type.

There are dozens of items you can dye-sublimate. However, there two key criteria that must be met in order for sublimation to work:

  • The item must be made of a polyester, polymer, or plastic material.
  • The item must have a smooth surface.

If the item you want to print on meets both of these criteria, then you can print it with sublimation. However, if the item that you chose isn’t made of any of the mentioned materials, there’s no need to worry. You make them ready by adding a special polymer coating to the surface which will allow the inks to bond with the item.

Some of the most popular items printed with sublimation include:

And so much more!

Designs That Work Well With Sublimation Printing

Designs meant to stand out and be noticed are ideal for sublimation printing. This is because the process allows for bold, vibrant colors and high-quality prints.

This is why oftentimes, it’s the top choice for sports teams who want their team and sponsors’ logos to really pop. It’s also popular among artsy individuals who like to play with a lot of color in their designs.

Designs That Don’t Work With Sublimation Printing

One limitation of sublimation printing is that it cannot print white. So, if your design has any white elements, they will remain the color of the item you’re printing on.

This is because the method uses the CMYK color model which doesn’t include colors that can blend to produce white. If your design has elements that need to be white, you can either choose a different printing method or have it printed on a white item.

Pros and Cons of Sublimation Printing

Still not sure if sublimation printing is right for you and your business? Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons:

Advantages of Sublimation Printers

Versatility Across Materials

  • Ideal for Various Products: Perfect for expanding into diverse merchandise such as mugs, plates, and keychains.
  • Broad Design Possibilities: Capable of printing on firm or rigid surfaces, enabling a wide range of product offerings.

Quality and Durability

  • Vivid Color Output: Produces high-quality prints with bright, vibrant colors.
  • Long-lasting Results: Designs are durable, resistant to fading and can withstand multiple washes, ideal for long-term use.

Efficiency in Production

  • Quick Learning Curve: Once accustomed, it’s straightforward to print numerous designs in a single day.
  • Streamlined Process: Directly dyes the fabric, eliminating the feel of the ink on top of the product.

Disadvantages of the Sublimation Technology

Material Limitations

  • Selective Fabric Compatibility: Works only on polyester, polymer, or coated materials, not suitable for natural fabrics like cotton, linen, or wool.
  • Challenges with Dark Fabrics: Ineffective on black or dark-colored materials; attempts to use transfer paper on these fabrics often yield suboptimal results.

Equipment and Cost

  • Initial Investment: Requires specific equipment such as sublimation printers and heat presses, which may be costly.
  • Ongoing Material Costs: Sublimation inks and transfer papers can add to the operational expenses, impacting overall profitability.

In-house Sublimation vs Print on Demand

In-house substitution vs print on demand: A comparison between producing items internally and outsourcing to a print-on-demand service. Woman scanning a bar code for a delivery package.

Thinking sublimation printing might be the right method for you? The next step is to decide if you want to do in-house printing or outsource your sublimation printing needs to a print on demand (POD) partner.

What You Need for Sublimation at Home

If you plan on doing in-house sublimation printing, there are a few things you’ll need:

  1. A sublimation printer – You’ll need a specific type of printer that can handle the high temperatures required for sublimation printing. Sawgrass sublimation printers, built specifically for the process, may prove to be more durable than inkjet printers when used.
  2. Sublimation inks – You’ll also need to use sublimation inks in your printer instead of regular dye-based inks. These inks can withstand the high temperatures required for sublimation printing without evaporating or losing their color.
  3. A heat press – A heat press is a machine that applies pressure and heat to your design, bonding the inks to the item you’re printing on.
  4. Sublimation-friendly blank products – As we’ve mentioned, not all materials can undergo sublimation printing. Make sure you use items specifically made for the process, such as mugs, keychains, and mousepads.
  5. Paper for the heat press – You’ll also need sublimation paper to protect your design and help it transfer onto the product more easily. A polymer coating on this paper helps the inks bind to the items being printed.

How POD Sublimation Works

That’s quite a lot, right? If you don’t have the time or space to invest in all of this equipment, another option is to partner with a print on demand (POD) company that offers sublimated products, like at Awkward Styles.

Aside from taking care of the whole printing process for you, POD companies also handle the shipping and fulfillment of your orders. This means you can focus on running your business and leave the print production to us.

All you need to do is to connect your store to our platform and upload your design files. Once you place an order, our dedicated team of print experts will print, package, and ship your products to your customers—all without minimum order requirements.

Pros and Cons of Doing Sublimation Yourself vs POD

Still not sure if you should do in-house sublimation or partner with a POD company? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each option.

In-House Sublimation Printing

  • Control Over Quality: Manage every step of the printing process for optimal quality assurance.
  • Flexibility: Print products on demand without waiting on third-party schedules.
  • Customization: Ability to experiment and customize prints extensively.
  • Upfront Investment: Significant initial cost for purchasing sublimation printers, presses, and other necessary equipment.
  • Space Requirements: Need ample space to house equipment and store products.
  • Learning Curve: Time and effort required to master the use of equipment and the sublimation process.

Print-on-Demand Sublimation

  • Ease of Use: The POD company handles all aspects of printing, reducing complexity for you.
  • Cost-Effective: Eliminates the need for investing in and maintaining expensive printing equipment.
  • Variety and Options: Access to a wider range of products and advanced printing techniques.
  • Expert Handling: Professionals print products, ensuring high-quality outcomes.
  • Less Control: Reduced direct oversight over the printing process and final print quality.
  • Dependence on Provider: Reliance on the POD company’s timelines, product availability, and printing capabilities.

Sublimation Compared to Other Printing Methods

Sublimation printing offers a unique and versatile approach to placing designs on a variety of products. However, it’s not the only game in town.

Here’s how sublimation stacks up against some of the most common printing methods:

Sublimation vs Screen Printing

  • Durability: Sublimation excels in durability. The ink becomes part of the fabric, resulting in a design that won’t crack, peel, or fade easily. Screen printing uses ink that sits on top of the fabric, making it more susceptible to wear and tear.
  • Material Suitability: Sublimation works best with polyester fabrics or polymer-coated items. Screen printing offers more versatility, working well on cotton, synthetics, and even blends.
  • Cost: For small orders, sublimation can be more cost-effective. Screen printing requires upfront setup costs for screens, making it more cost-efficient for larger quantities.
  • Design Complexity: Both methods can handle intricate designs, but sublimation allows for full-coverage printing, seamlessly integrating into the fabric.
  • On-demand Printing: Sublimation shines for on-demand production due to its digital printing nature. Screen printing requires creating screens for each design, making it less ideal for single items.

Sublimation vs. DTG (Direct-to-Garment)

  • Print Feel: Sublimation creates a smooth, barely-there feel on the fabric. DTG printing leaves a slightly raised, plastisol-like texture on the garment.
  • Material Suitability: DTG works well on a wider range of fabrics, including cotton and blends. Polyester or heavily polyester-blended materials are the only ones that can undergo sublimation.
  • Color Vibrancy: Both methods can produce vibrant colors. However, sublimation often achieves a deeper, richer look due to the dye integrating with the fabric’s fibers.
  • Washability: Both methods offer good washability, but sublimation generally holds up better to repeated washing without fading.
  • Setup Cost: DTG printers have a lower upfront cost compared to sublimation printers.

Sublimation vs. Heat Transfer Printing

  • Process: Both methods use heat and pressure to transfer designs. However, sublimation uses a special ink that transforms into gas, while heat transfer uses pre-printed vinyl or plastisol applied with heat.
  • Durability: Sublimation offers superior durability as the dye becomes part of the material. Heat transfer vinyl can crack or peel over time, especially with frequent washing.
  • Material Suitability: Sublimation requires polyester fabrics, while heat transfer can work on a wider range of materials, including cotton.
  • Print Look: Sublimation creates a smooth, integrated design. Heat transfer may have a slightly raised, plastisol feel depending on the vinyl type.
  • Cost: For small quantities, sublimation can be more cost-effective. Heat transfer vinyl is generally less expensive, but the cost per print can be higher for larger orders.

FAQs About Sublimation Printing

Got more questions you want answered about sublimation printing? We have the answers for you right here.

What Is Sublimation Printing?

In sublimation printing, you use special inks that turn into gas when heated. As the ink becomes gas, it bonds with the fabric or other substrate, transferring the image in this way.

Can a sublimation printer print white?

As mentioned, sublimation inks are transparent, so a sublimation printer cannot print white. However, you can get around this by printing on white paper and using a white transfer paper.

Are sublimation and heat transfer the same thing?

These two processes may look very similar but they are in fact, quite different. In sublimation printing, you transfer the ink onto the product using heat and pressure. When the product cools down, the ink permanently embeds into the fabric.

In heat transfer printing, the design sticks only to the surface of the product and does not embed into the fabric. Additionally, you must use a special kind of paper for the design to transfer properly in heat transfer printing.

Can you sublimate onto anything?

While it’s possible to sublimate onto a variety of materials, there are some that work better than others. The ideal substrate for sublimation printing is polyester fabric or polymer-coated items like mugs, phone cases, etc. Products made with materials like cotton will not work as well because the fibers do not absorb the ink properly.

When it comes to rigid substrates, only those you coated with a polymer will work, since the ink needs something to grip onto for the transfer.

What are the limitations of sublimation?

Since sublimation is a printing process that uses heat and pressure to transfer ink onto a product, there are some limitations to what you can do. For example, products that cannot withstand high temperatures or materials that do not absorb ink are unsuitable for sublimation printing. Additionally, you can only perform sublimation on white or light-colored products because the inks are transparent.

What’s the difference between sublimation printing and digital printing?

The printing processes differ primarily in how the design is transferred onto the product. In sublimation printing, the design becomes almost permanently embedded into the product through the use of heat and pressure. In digital printing, the product is directly printed with the design using inkjet or laser printers. A digitally printed design will not be as durable as a sublimation print as it can peel or fade over time.

Ready To Get Started With Sublimation Printing?

And that concludes our crash course on sublimation printing! We hope this article has answered any questions you had about the process and that you’re now ready to start your own sublimation printing projects.

Do you want to start sublimation printing today without the hassle of setting up your own printing operation? We’ve got you covered. At Awkward Styles, we offer a wide range of sublimation-ready products you can print on to add your own personal touch. Just upload your design, choose your product, and we’ll take care of the rest!

Affiliate Disclosure:

This blog contains some affiliate links. We may earn a commission if you use these links to buy something (at no added cost to you).

Start Your
Print On Demand
Business with
Awkward Styles

Sign up for free

Related articles