Sublimation Printing: All You Need to Know
Sublimation printing is ideal for printing on polyester and poly blends. This comprehensive guide explains why this print method is the best for printing polyester and any poly blends.
Sublimation printing works as an increasingly popular way of printing, but what's the fuss all about?
We know: this method is becoming more and more popular. But it's not that easy to fully understand how it actually works and when it's best to choose it over other printing methods. Sublimation prints are very clear and precise
This is the ultimate guide to how sublimation printers work. We tell you about this print method (we promise our copy won't get too techy), explain exactly what these printers do, when it's best to choose this print method and even cover its (very few!) downsides.
What is sublimation printing?
Sublimation printing is essentially a chemical process. This popular method might sound a bit scientific, but thanks to all things digitalised, it's actually way more accessible and easy to use than you'd think.
The sublimation printing process involves having to press or transfer a design from specialised sublimation transfer paper onto a piece of fabric using heat.
This is an excellent method of printing an image, pattern or design onto fabric with the aid of paper. This heat printing method results in a clear, crisp image that won't easily fade and that prints colours beautifully.
How does sublimation printing work?
The word ‘sublimate’ literally means ‘to change the form of something’. In the case of sublimation printing, this involves changing a solid dye to a gas.
In this kind of printing, we use heat transfer printing, (the heat is around 180 – 200°C) and follow this with pressure, which turns the dye into a gas. This gas absorbs into the fabric, leaving behind high-definition, long-lasting printing designs with incredible detail.
We use water-based dye sublimation printing inks for this kind of printing; these are more environmentally friendly than other inks used for press printing on fabric. We print these specialised inks onto the sublimation paper. This way, we press a mirror image on the paper.
The printer lines up the transfer paper exactly with the fabric. Then it applies heat, which changes the solid ink on the paper into a gas.
Once heat has been applied, the gas then absorbs into the textile. It bonds with the fibres of the fabric and embeds itself into the material. The result is a long-lasting print.
This press print process involves 100% of the ink dye absorbing into the specific sublimation paper. We guarantee that no dye gets left behind on the paper.
We call this technique dye-sublimation printing; it’s really a straightforward and cost-effective heat print method and an excellent choice for printed fabric using sublimation printing and paper to literally press the design onto the textile.
Which fabric is best for this type of printing?
Creating textiles, like any other trade, requires understanding a bit of science. As we already mentioned, this kind of printing involves releasing heat. The minimum temperature is 180°C and even though the exposure time to that amount of heat is less than a minute, certain materials can shrink in that heat.
For this reason, we mainly use these types of printers for polyester and polyester blend materials, as they are unlikely to shrink in the heat. We also make sure they have a white or light-coloured area to print on.
Printers using this heat printing method work well with the following textiles:
- polyester - high quality
- poly-blends - at least 40% polyester
Check out our fabulous selection to find the perfect textile for your project.
This covers a lot of needs, as you can create your own sweaters and hoodies, dresses, a T-shirt, shirt, or even socks, as long as you use a poly-blend material that can take a little heat.
Just avoid natural material such as cotton and silk. Unfortunately, natural material doesn’t absorb the ink dye as well as polyester and synthetic blends. This results in the design staying on the fabric’s surface, and it’s possible it will peel, fade or crack as time goes by. For natural material, it’s best to choose digital printing.
Why we use polyester fabric for the sublimation printing process
At maake we use sublimation printing on all polyester materials as well as on a number of man-made materials, because this printing method is economical and saves on quality. This makes it ideal for marketing tools like banners.
Synthetic materials we print with sublimation printing include synthetic polyester blends – and you can also add recycled polyester (rPET).
Choosing fabric before sublimation printing
When you choose a textile for this particular printing method, or any printing method for that matter, consider the effect you’re after. Polyester textiles are particularly good for patterns that require bold colours. Also, these colours don’t fade after every wash.
Taking this kind of printing into account choose your fabric wisely. Sample and test the design you plan to use on several textile bases to ensure the best result.
Make sure to compare the same print on each textile for colour intensity, impact, depth, and even scale.
A great tool to use is our sample book, which we have created especially for designers like yourself. It features all of the base textiles we offer. You can order a sample of your design on the textile of your choice to see exactly what the fabric will look like when it’s printed on.
Colour choices made easy
Your choice of colours is always a personal one, especially when you’re designing your own patterns. So it’s important to set up your design files with the correct colour settings to make sure that you get the results you want. When you upload a file for maake to print, it will give you all the information you need regarding colour settings etc.
Another very helpful tool is our Colour Atlas, a metre of fabric printed with over 2,400 colours and their colour codes. We created this Colour Atlas so that customers can see exactly how a particular shade will print. It also gives you an idea of the selection of colours we have available for you for printing on fabric.
The pros and cons of sublimation printing fabric
As you'll quickly see, there are plenty of advantages to sublimation printing, while the disadvantages are very few.
Pros of a sublimation printer
This is a very sustainable method of printing as no water is used.
- Once you've printed a design on the fabric, you'll see that the inks don’t fade or peel. This method produces a near-permanent print.
- Fabric printed with this printing method stays soft and breathable after printing.
- With this digital method of printing, designs are always detailed, clear and bold.
- Prints made using this kind of printer are durable and long-lasting.
- A high end printer used for this printing method produces photographic quality prints.
- We leave no ink dye behind on the transfer paper after printing. We use 100% of the dye in the printing process so that no transfer remains on the paper.
- You can print only as much fabric as you need, or a huge run, depending on exactly what you need. This is why many people prefer this method for small runs.
- The printer used for the this method creates intricate detail every time.
- Sublimation is a very long-lasting print method – prints outshine those produced using alternative methods.
- A huge advantage of this sort of printing is that you can literally print from one seam to the other. We call this sort of printing 'all-over printing’.
- One can also personalise and customise your clothing like a shirt or other products, as this print method is perfect for fabrics and designs where you can apply several different pattern variations.
- On this kind of printer you can even change the size and quality of an image you want.
The cons of this type of print process
If you're printing on clothing like shirts, dresses or skirts, don't use this particular method of printing if you're printing on natural fabrics like cotton and silk. Sadly, when you use sublimation printing heat on this textile, the transfer of designs will not be permanent. It’s best to use digital printing for those materials, perhaps inkjet printers with ink cartridges or screen printing.
- Designs using block colours aren’t ideal for this printing method.
- Single logos are also not a good choice for sublimation printers. As this print method ‘prints all over’, it will work out more expensive to print logo’s for garment displays.
- Sometimes the transfer paper moves during printing. We call this ‘ghosting’; by ‘ghost’ we mean that it gives the design a second image next to the original, or it may turn out blurred.
- Sublimation printing takes longer than other printing methods, as it requires an extra step, which is printing on the special transfer paper.
- This method of printing has to be done on a dedicated sublimation printer that can handle the special dye inks required and the transfer process.
- The print method is best for either white or light coloured fabrics. It is not suitable for dark shades; we suggest you use a digital printer for those colours.
- When you use this kind of printer to print, it cannot print or press the colour white.
- Colours of designs printed with this method tend to fade if they are exposed to constant sunlight. In most other cases, the printed designs are very long lasting.
The difference between digital and sublimation printers
Consider these important facts before you decide which print method to use on your textile. And if you’re unsure, check out our comprehensive blog on the subject, How to print on fabrics.
Remember: you need to choose the right print method depending on the items that you’re making for your business. Both processes are ways to print a design on textiles, but they do have some differences.
The main difference between these two print methods is that you can print on the top of any textile you like using digital printing, whereas you have to be careful when you use sublimation printing, as this method is best with polyester, polyester blends and some synthetic material.
Another point: digital printing does not require a heat press to transfer the design onto the fabric, like sublimation printing does.
For more information on the different types of printing, see our informative guide, The Most Popular Methods for Printing on Textiles.
Enjoy printing using the sublimation process
Now that you know what sublimation printing work involves and the fact that it requires a heat press, as well as this printing method’s pros and cons, you are probably considering giving it a go. The good news is, there's no need to invest in any machinery, as we provide this seamless service to you, heat press included.
We offer this printing method for all of our polyester prints! We promise: you won't have to learn how to use transfer paper! We take all the heat for you!
Let us print on fabric for you
If you have a small press at home, or even an iron to press with - you can buy sublimation paper as products once you upload your design.
This kind of heat press printing is phenomenal for producing precise fine lines and sleek details on textile products, and it's definitely one of the most impeccable print methods. As you can rely on us to provide the service to you, there's no investment costs or training needed.
You share your creativity and taste, and we'll get you the fabric to make the products of your dreams. It's advisable to pick a versatile poly-blend. We’ll transfer your design of choice onto your textile depending on the clothing or other products you are planning to create, perhaps a banner or other advertising material.
Sustainability and the sublimation process
Sublimation printing is an extremely environmentally friendly method of printing, which is one of the reasons that it’s so popular. We all want to lessen the harm we inflict on our planet, and by decreasing the amount of waste we produce and using less energy, we can do that. And that’s where printing fabric sublimation for clothing like dresses and shirts comes in.
When you use sublimation printing to print on fabric, you’ll also reduce the amount of water your printer usually uses and you’ll decrease the amount of energy and ink dye used in the print method.
Take a look at our up-to-date information on Sustainable Printing in the UK in 2023 right here.
maake uses sustainable innovation for printing
Traditional fabric printing uses a huge amount of water, energy, and waste. To produce the cheapest product, many mills ignore the massive impact they are having on our environment. However, at. maake we work daily to counteract the status quo and minimise our impact.
All our print methods including sublimation printing use 95% less energy than traditional printing. In addition, maake uses only 100% renewable energy sources. We make sure our textile printing is only powered by wind and waves. We are proud to say our production is eco-conscious and we use virtually no water in the printing method.
Learn more about the positive impacts that we make and our commitment to sustainable innovation and social responsibility here.
Before one prints, it’s time to shop
It’s time to shop with maake!