What is Sublimation Printing?

Sublimation printing is one of the most common ways to print images onto synthetic fabrics and materials – and for good reason. Not only does the digital print come out crisp, clear, and colorful, but the image will virtually never fade. Furthermore, sublimation printing is cost-effective for small batches, making it a favorite printing technique for personalized apparel like t-shirts and trinkets like mugs.

Sublimation printing process for fabrics in a flat bed

But what is sublimation printing, really? What types of products are printed with sublimation techniques? And what does the sublimation printing process actually look like?

In this guide to dye sublimation, we answer all of these questions, and more.

What does sublimation mean?

The word sublimate comes from the Latin for “to raise, lift, or exalt.” As a technical term, sublimation is used to describe any mass transfer process where a solid matter transitions to its gaseous phase without first passing through an intermediary liquid phase. The sense of “lifting” is relevant here because sublimation transfer always involves vapor. In addition to sublimation printing, another common process involving sublimation is freeze drying.

What is sublimation printing?

Sublimation printing, also known as dye sublimation printing, is a printing technique that involves applying a heat press to a sheet of transfer paper that has been printed with special solidified inks. Once heated, these solidified inks become vaporized into a gas. The gas then permeates the fibers of polyester textiles or other plastic materials, creating a perfect graphic.

To understand how sublimation printing is distinct, think about your typical home or office printer. In a typical inkjet printer, the ink is sprayed directly onto the paper as a liquid. The liquid ink then dries on top of the paper through a combination of air and heat, becoming a solid.

Sublimation printing is different in that it involves to steps. The first step looks something like inkjet printing: liquid inks are applied to the transfer paper, where they dry into a solid. But the second stage is what makes sublimation printing unique: the solid inks are then vaporized and transferred to the poly-material without ever passing through their liquid state again.

What materials can be printed through sublimation?

Sublimation printing only works on plastic substrates, like polyester fabric, rubber, and household plastics. You have likely seen sublimation printed t-shirts, bathing suits, athletic gear, shower curtains, wrist bands for events, flip flops, coasters, mugs, floor mats, mouse pads, and more.

sublimation printed cycling jerseys
Athletic wear like cycling jerseys are commonly printed via sublimated dye.

Sublimation printing does not work on natural textiles like cotton because the vaporized ink can pass through the garment fibers without bonding to them.

How does sublimation printing work?

Ever wonder how your favorite athletic jersey was made? Here is a step-by-step look into the process of sublimation printing for sportswear:


1. Drafting the design for sublimation prints

sublimation print design

In order to create a batch of jerseys with sublimation printing, the graphics for each individual part of each garment need to be designed. The jerseys will be sewn together from separate pieces of fabric: front, back, arms, and cuffs. A master layout containing the graphics for each part of each garment is created. This is the file that will be used to print the transfer paper.


3. Printing the design onto transfer paper with sublimation inks

printing sublimation transfer paper

Using a specialized digital printer, the design is printed onto a large ream of transfer paper using specialized sublimation inks. The inks are liquid within the cartridge, but are formulated to become solids especially quickly once printed.


3. The sublimation process

dye sublimation printing process with a roller

Once the transfer paper has been printed with the design, the ream of transfer paper is aligned with a bolt of polyester fabric so that the printed side is facing the fabric. The transfer paper and the fabric are then fed into a heated roller.

The sublimation process takes place within this heated roller. Through a combination of pressure and heat (between 350 and 420 degrees Fahrenheit), the solid sublimation ink on the transfer paper becomes so hot that it evaporates and diffuses before it even has a chance to melt. This intense heat also opens the pores of the polyester fabric, allowing the ink vapor to work its way deep into the fabric.

Once the heat has been removed, the pores of the fabric snap closed, capturing the ink vapors. The ink then quickly reverts back to its solid state within the fabric. As a result, the material has been permanently dyed with a full color, high resolution image.


4. Cutting and sewing the sublimated fabric

cutting and sewing sublimated fabrics together after printing

The result of this process is a long bolt of fabric that is dyed according to the predetermined design specifications. The transfer paper can now be discarded. The individual pieces of fabric are then cut out and sewn together to create complete garments.


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