What is Sublimation printing? Why is it so loved?

Sublimation is a fabric printing process in which images are printed using special ink on special transfer paper with specialized machines, and then they are heat pressed into the fabric. It results in printing high-definition intricately made designs on fabric which is permanent. The method can only be used on polyester or polyester blended fabrics.

sublimation printing

In sublimation, the dye “changes from solid state to a gaseous state, without going through the liquid state.” ; in lay man’s terms (one who is interested in customizing fabric with his own images), it is getting the desired image permanently penetrated onto your fabric. 

Supplies and equipment needed for Sublimation printing

The process of sublimation printing is not complicated as such, but you need some extra supplies. If you do not have any of these, you cannot do sublimation printing. The sublimation printed design is made on a special paper and it is created with the help of a sublimation printer.

printers needed for sublimation printing- either sublimation printers or inkjet converted to print with sublimation inks

1. Sublimation Printer

Sublimation ink printer is the first thing you need. Mimaki, Mutoh, and Durst are popular sublimation printer brands. If you are interested in doing a lot of projects using sublimation, you may want to buy a sublimation printer –  But buying a specialized dedicated printer for sublimation can set you back by around 2000 dollars or so.

What most people do is to  convert an inkjet printer to one that does sublimation printing. They buy an inkjet printer (the most recommended brand for this is the Epson printer) and turn it into a sublimation printer. The old ink of the inkjet printer has to be completely flushed out, and then the sublimation ink is filled in it – it is not easy, and nor can the result be guaranteed.

Once an inkjet printer is converted, you will have to use it only for sublimation purposes.

2. Sublimation Paper

This is paper on which the design is printed.The sublimation printing paper should be compatible with the sublimation printer. Sublimation or transfer paper is the name given to this sort of paper.  

If you do not have the printer material i.e., if you cannot print it at home, you can get this done at a shop with a suitable sublimation machine.

3. Computer & RIP Software

Some sublimation printers come with software that helps you set up what will be printed. These programs are known as RIP software, which stands for ‘Raster Image Processor.’ This feature is not included in all printers, but it can be purchased separately

If you are using inkjet printers and making your own design you will need software for that. Create or find a high quality digital design.

If you are going the shop route for creating the sublimation printout, you can create your own design in programs like Inkscape, pixabay and convert the file to a suitable format (like SVG format) and then transfer it to the shop to be printed. You can use self-taken or downloaded photographs or high-resolution images from a design program.

4. Cutting Mechanism

If you want to cut out the negative spaces, you need cutting equipment, whether it’s a knife or a rotary cutter, or a circuit machine. Some cutting machines have multiple options in one system to meet a variety of purposes. 

5. Heat Press

A heat press is needed to set the ink. 

6. What to print on?

White or light-colored polyester and polyester blend garments or poly-coated surfaces.  I have seen sublimation done on fleece blankets. The only criterion is that there be polyester fibers. (You can also do this printing on ceramics, rubber and plastic)

But you should also ensure that the polyester content is more than 60 % – otherwise, the dye will fade with subsequent washes. I would suggest at least a 70/30 polyester mix. 

Sublimation Printing process

Step 1: Get your design printed. Ensure that you have printed a mirror image of your design. You’ll need to mirror the image to avoid having the image appear backward on your shirt. Also ensure that the design is only as big as your heat setting machine. 

Step 2: Set up the sublimation printer with the sublimation inks. Sublimation printers function similarly to ordinary printers, with the exception that they require special sublimation ink. The four fundamental ink cartridges of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink are still used.

Print your design onto the sublimation transfer paper by inserting it into the printer.

You have the option of using the transfer immediately or save it for a later date.

Step 3: Remove any lint, dust, or wrinkles from the fabric surface before starting the transfer process. 

Step 4:The printed paper is kept on the fabric face down (ie the printed surface should be touching the fabric). Use a heat-safe adhesive tape to ensure that the transfer paper doesn’t move.

A special heat press machine is used to apply heat and pressure. In these machines the heat is above 175 celsius. This heat opens up the fibers of the fabric and allow the dye to penetrate deeply. 

heat pressing the design on the fabric so that it will adhere and last

The ink on the paper turns to gaseous form (vapor)and latches onto the fabric. They penetrate the fibers of the fabric and bond there permanently. Remember that you have to get it right on your first go- you do not get a second chance; so do this thoroughly, carefuly.

It is very important that the paper is kept firmly on the fabric. If the fabric shakes when you press or move even slightly, you might get blurred images, not the laser-sharp detailed print you are expecting.

In industrial set up bolts and bolts of fabric is printed this way in one single run.

Advantages of sublimation printing

Best thing about Sublimation printing is the clear sharp detailed images it yields on fabric and other substrates.

The next is its longevity – that is one very important feature. If you are using the correct surface for this printing, the effect is permanent – so long as you wash it with care and also maintain it properly. When compared to heat press stickers readily and cheaply available this printing lasts very long

Disadvantages of sublimation printing

The disadvantage is that it is costlier. If you want to do a lot of printing, the screen printing is still the most cost effective method. The heat press printing method needs just a common inkjet printer and a heat press paper. Sublimation printing requires special costly printer and paper. Even getting it done at the printers is relatively expensive. But the clear colorful designs compensate for this for many. And converting inkjet printers to suit sublimation printing turn it all around. 

And then the most striking disadvantage – you can only use fabrics with polyester content. When making bags, wall hangings, placemats etc this is of no issue. But when it comes to clothes, people may prefer to have natural fabrics like cotton next to their skin. As sublimation printing process needs a high polyester content, this may put off many people. 

Related posts : Different ways to print on fabric; T-shirt printing methods

Some more questions answered.

Is a Sublimation printer affordable? Is it worth it?

Sublimation printers are specialised machines used in large scale textile units – they are largely non-affordable for ordinary printing purposes. If large scale printing is needed it is better to use a screen printing method.

Can you start a sublimation business at home?

There are many people who operate such businesses at home using inkjet printers with sublimation inks and papers. They just need to buy an affordable heat press machine as extra investments. Sublimation can be used to personalise a lot of items that you use regularly. They are used as gifts, as memorablia.

Do you need a cricuit machine to do sublimation printing?

No, it is just an added advantage.

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Author: Sarina Tariq

Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.
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