Dye sublimation printing requires heat to transfer a dye onto substrates such as fabric, promotional posters, paper, cardboard and other similar materials. This method of printing can also be used on apparel and sportswear, ceramic tiles and even skateboards and cars.
Dye sublimation printing got its name because it was first believed that the dye went through the solid and gas states without undergoing a liquid stage. When that proved to be incorrect, it was too late to change the name due to its popularity. The term dye diffusion is the factually correct term.
Benefits of dye sublimation fabric printing
If you are interested in digital textile printing on polyester fabrics, then you can use sublimation fabric printing. Items undergoing this printing method have more photo-realistic, vibrant colours.
Digital artists and digital printers use this printing style to preserve how their art looks physically when exported from a computer.
What prints and what doesn’t in dye sublimation printing?
The standard custom printed fabric for sublimation printing is white polyester fabric. In the case of hard substrates, items with a polyester coating are ideal. And yes, you may have seen coloured garments with sublimation decoration. You can print light colours, but since fabric sublimation inks are transparent, the graphic will take on the garment colour.
For instance, if you print a blue ball on a light-yellow polyester garment, the resulting ball will be a shade of green. So, if a colour shift is not important, you can print light-coloured, 100% polyester fabrics as well.
You also can print on a blended fabric, such as 50% polyester/50% cotton, but be aware that sublimation inks only will bond with the polyester. The finished print will have a washed-out, retro appearance, but there are decorators who print and sell such items. Of course, the higher the polyester content in the blended fabric, the better the finished print will appear.
Sublimation on cotton garments, even if they are white, is not an option with sublimation inks, as they do not adhere to the fabric.
Sublimation printing on finished garments of digital prints sometimes can show white voids where the fabric was folded and, therefore, not decorated. These white areas in the image, usually around seams, are referred to as “smiles” by some industry professionals. They are more acceptable in the fashion marketplace, as long as your customer understands the process and the chance that they may appear.
How long do digital sublimation prints last?
The inks that are used turn into gas when brought under heat, then combine with the fabric to leave a permanent print. The effects are permanent and less prone to fading as the ink is embedded into the substrate (fabric) rather than simply laying on top like a normal print.
What is a dye sublimation printer?
Sublimation uses inkjet printers, known as dye sublimation heat transfer imprinting printers, to print transfers using sublimation inks, also referred to as disperse dyes. These fabric sublimation printers are basically inkjet printers that use a piezo print head to vibrate the ink onto the release paper.
This paper is designed to “carry the ink” and then release it onto the substrate as it turns into a gas during the heating process. The overall printing process is done at lower temperatures, but at higher pressures.
“Dye sublimation printers are continuing to become faster and more precise. One major improvement we are seeing is with their print head technology, which allows for faster print speeds at higher resolutions,” notes Darci Jeffrey-Andersen.
“Previously, it was necessary to slow the printer down to a four-pass or six-pass print speed to produce smooth, even prints with no banding issues. Now, we are achieving the same level of quality with only a two- to four-pass.”
Dye sublimation printing vs screen printing
Screen printing only prints on the fabric; the colour does not penetrate inside the fabric. Because the ink is transferred onto the fabric during the screen-printing process it will start to show signs of wear after many washes.
With sublimation fabric sublimation printing, on the other hand, the dyes are transferred into the fibres of the garments. The effect of this is that with sublimation printing you have a print that will last as long as the garment and your print will not fade or crack.
Another big advantage of sublimation printing is that moisture management material (for example on the athlete in the image below) stays breathable even after the print is completed. With screen printing, the process seals the fabric, and this is not preferable when it comes to sportswear where you will sweat more under the printed material.
Sublimation fabric printing also allows you to print your garment from seam to seam which will provide you with more options when deciding on the design of your garment. The most amazing feature of sublimation printing is that your design is only limited by your imagination. The result is a garment with photo quality colours and finish.
The screen printing process only allows you to print one colour at a time, making it difficult and impractical to use too many colours. Screen printing would be more practical if you have a simple design and not too many colours.
Many new sublimation-specific wearables are coming into the marketplace and consumers’ love of poly-performance apparel continues to grow. Aside from a wide range of t-shirts and sweats, options include towels, shorts, headwear, socks, bandannas, infant wear, hoodies, beanies, compression sleeves and more.
It now allows anyone, with virtually no art knowledge or experience, the opportunity to create custom made trendy decor products and fashion items. The advantage of the dye-sublimation digital print technology is that items undergoing this printing method have a more photorealistic appearance and vibrant colours.
Small production runs with unique designs and innovative finished garments are easily achieved with dye-sublimation digital printing. This decoration method continues to gain popularity with new production technologies and ready-to-print substrates. So let’s print!