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1. Understanding sublimation printing

What is sublimation printing? How it compares to other methods

Aiming for distinction in a sea of sameness while running an ecommerce business? The quality and uniqueness of your products play a pivotal role in attracting eyes and encouraging clicks. Whether you're looking to refresh your current lineup or introduce new, eye-catching products, choosing the right printing methods can be a game-changer when it comes to developing merchandise that truly stands out.

It's no easy decision, with several printing methods, like sublimation printing, popping up in your research. Stick around as we take a deep dive into what sublimation printing is, how it works, and the pros and cons of this method. We'll also take a look at those other printing methods and evaluate how sublimation stacks up.

Although we'll delve into the details of sublimation, you'll find that direct-to-garment (DTG) printing is our top recommended method. But why? We'll get into that as well. So, sit back and read on to discover the ins and outs of these fascinating printing processes.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Sublimation printing produces vibrant, full-color prints and is ideal for detailed designs on polyester or polymer-coated items. The sublimation process requires a digital design, a sublimation printer, special inks, and paper and is typically used on polyester or similar substrates.

  • It offers high-quality, durable prints with edge-to-edge design integration and is efficient for large batch production. Its limitations include reduced effectiveness on non-polyester materials and dark fabrics, a significant investment in equipment, and a complex process.

  • Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing offers versatility in handling a range of designs, from simple logos to complex, full-color images. DTG is known for superior print quality, producing sharp, detailed, and color-rich prints.

  • DTG printing is more environmentally friendly than traditional methods, using water-based inks and having a smaller carbon footprint. It allows for rapid production and prototyping, making it suitable for quick turnarounds and on-demand printing.

  • Gelato's DTG capabilities offer creative and branding opportunities, making it an attractive choice for personalized and promotional materials.

Understanding sublimation printing

Sublimation printing stands out in the world of print for its unique process. Let's dive into what sublimation is and how it works to appreciate its distinct advantages fully.

What is sublimation printing?

Sublimation printing, or dye-sublimation printing, is a popular method for transferring designs onto fabrics and other surfaces. Its success lies mainly in its ability to produce vibrant, full-color prints that are exceptionally resistant to wear and fading, often used to decorate apparel, signage, and promotional products. 

But what makes sublimation printing unique? It's the scientific process behind it. The process uses heat to essentially bring ink and fabric together as one. This method turns solid ink into a gas, bypassing the liquid phase and solidifying it into the fabric, which explains why the dye remains vibrant even after multiple washes.

How the sublimation process works

How does the sublimation printing process work

The materials and equipment required for the sublimation printing process are: 

  • A digital design

  • A sublimation printer

  • Sublimation dyes

  • Sublimation paper

  • A substrate (the material the design will be transferred to)*

  • A heat press

*In the sublimation method, the substrates must be polyester or coated with a special polymer that accepts the sublimation dye. Natural materials like cotton do not work well with this printing method.

Let's delve into the mechanics of sublimation printing works:

  • Digital artwork creation: First things first, you'll need a design. This design is created digitally using design software such as Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Make sure the design is high-resolution to ensure the final printed product is clear and sharp. 

  • Printing your design: After the artwork is complete, it's time to print. But we're not printing directly onto the product just yet. Instead, the design is printed on special sublimation paper using a sublimation printer filled with sublimation dyes. 

  • Transferring your design: Now comes the magic! The printed sublimation paper is placed onto the substrate (the material to which the design will be transferred). Then, using a heat press, heat and pressure are applied. This causes the dye to convert into a gas without going through a liquid phase (hence 'sublimation') and permeates the substrate. 

  • Cooling: After a specific amount of time, the heat press is lifted, and the substrate is allowed to cool. The gaseous dye reverts into a solid and is permanently encapsulated within the material as it cools. This results in a vibrant, long-lasting design.

The advantages of sublimation printing

Sublimation printing pros

Sublimation printing offers several distinct advantages that distinguish it from other print methods. Let's take a closer look at what those benefits are. 

  • High-quality results: Sublimation is known for producing top-notch, vibrant images that resist fading over time. The colors are not just atop the material but are infused into it, giving an incredibly durable result.

  • Seamless design integration: Sublimation allows for edge-to-edge printing, which means designs can cover the entire product without any limitations on the print area (all over print). Its ability to capture minute details makes sublimation printing excellent for complex and intricate designs. Crisp lines and a nearly unlimited color spectrum make it a designer's dream. The designs created can be as subtle or as vibrant as needed.

  • Material and product versatility: While predominantly used on polyester and polymer-coated substrates, sublimation printing can still be used across various products. This includes apparel like jerseys and t-shirts, hard goods like mugs and phone cases, and even unconventional items like flags and display fabrics.

  • Efficiency and speed: Once the setup is complete, sublimation printing can rapidly produce large quantities, making it cost-effective for large batches. The printer can replicate the design multiple times with consistent quality, reducing unit costs.

The limitations of sublimation printing

Sublimation printing cons

Despite its unique features and remarkable benefits, sublimation printing does come with its own set of limitations. Understanding these can help you choose the most suitable printing method for your business.

  • Material limitations: Not all materials are a good fit for sublimation printing. The process works best with polyester-rich materials. It can produce a faded or vintage look on cotton and simply won't adhere properly to certain types of fabrics or items.

  • Color constraints: Sublimation printing has some limitations when it comes to color production. You're less likely to achieve vibrant colors on darker surfaces like a black shirt, and it may also struggle to reproduce the exact shades of specific colors.

  • Cost: Equipment for sublimation printing can be pretty expensive. Sublimation printers, heat presses, and even specific sublimation dyes - all these tools require a significant initial investment, which may be out of reach for smaller operations.

  • Complex process: This technique involves several steps, from printing the image to transferring it to the final product. This complexity can increase the chance of mistakes, particularly for beginners. Certain process aspects, like managing heat and pressure, demand attention and skill.

So the real question becomes—is there a better alternative to sublimation printing that can deliver high-quality, versatile results without these drawbacks?

How does sublimation compare to other printing methods?

When comparing sublimation printing to other methods, several factors must be considered. The main contenders are traditional methods like screen printing, heat transfer printing, and the increasingly popular direct-to-garment printing. 

Sublimation vs. Screen printing

screen printing process

Screen printing, or silkscreening, has been a traditional printing method for centuries. It involves creating a stencil, or 'screen,' and then applying layers of ink onto the printing surface. Each color is applied using a different stencil, one at a time, combined to achieve the final look. The ink in screen printing is applied thicker than in digital printing, which results in brighter, more vibrant colors, especially on darker shirts. 

  • Quality and versatility: While sublimation and screen printing deliver high-quality, vibrant results, their flexibility varies. Screen printing requires a separate screen for each color, which may limit its effectiveness for complex, multi-colored designs. Conversely, sublimation produces detailed, full-color images without requiring numerous screens.

  • Cost efficiency: With sublimation, the cost remains consistent regardless of design complexity. Screen printing, however, sees rising costs with the addition of colors and screens. Consequently, sublimation often emerges as the more economical option for smaller orders or designs featuring a broad color palette.

  • Material limitations: Sublimation's primary limitation is its polyester and synthetic fabrics restriction. Screen printing, in contrast, boasts versatility, accommodating a wide array of materials, including cotton, nylon, and even non-textile surfaces like glass and metal.

  • The durability factor: Durability is a key differentiator here: sublimation prints integrate into the fabric, offering enhanced resistance to wear and tear. Screen printing, while producing robust and vibrant prints, may experience cracking or peeling over time due to the ink resting atop the fabric.

Sublimation vs. Heat transfer printing

heat transfer screen printing process

Heat transfer printing involves transferring a design onto a substrate using heat and pressure. This method can be as simple as iron-on transfers created with an inkjet printer or more advanced processes like heat transfer vinyl. The printing process is relatively straightforward - a design is printed onto heat transfer paper, then pressed onto the material using a heat press. 

  • Quality and versatility: Both sublimation and heat transfer methods can yield vibrant, high-quality prints. However, sublimation stands out for its ability to embed ink directly into the material, offering a more integrated finish. This makes it ideal for complex, multi-color images. Heat transfer, while adaptable to various substrates, often produces a print that adds a distinct layer atop the material.

  • Cost efficiency: Sublimation provides consistent cost-effectiveness, irrespective of design intricacy. In contrast, heat transfer printing can vary in expense, particularly for designs that demand multiple colors or layers, positioning sublimation as a more cost-effective solution for intricate, colorful designs in smaller batches.

  • Material limitations: Sublimation's limitation lies in its applicability only to polyester and polymer-coated materials, excluding natural fibers like cotton. On the other hand, heat transfer printing excels in its compatibility with various materials, including cotton, polyester, nylon, and beyond, broadening its use across various product types.

  • The durability factor: While heat transfer prints may initially captivate with their vibrancy, they are susceptible to wear, such as cracking or peeling, particularly after multiple washes. This aspect highlights sublimation as the preferable method for enduring, long-lasting prints.

Sublimation vs. Direct-to-garment printing 

direct to garment printing process

Direct-to-garment printing utilizes inkjet technology to directly apply detailed, vibrant designs onto various materials. This method shines with its ability to efficiently handle intricate, full-color images. Besides apparel, DTG printing can be applied to a broader range of items like canvas and housewares, marking its versatility beyond traditional clothing items.

  • Quality and versatility: While sublimation is known for producing high-quality prints, Direct-to-government printing elevates these attributes. DTG excels in reproducing intricate, multi-colored designs, offering exceptional resolution and color fidelity across various fabric colors, including darker shades. This method's versatility extends beyond sublimation's preference for light-colored polyester, as DTG effectively handles a variety of materials such as cotton, blends, and more. This adaptability makes it well-suited for a broad range of products.

  • Cost efficiency: DTG printing stands out in its cost efficiency for small to medium-sized orders, especially those featuring complex designs. Contrary to sublimation, which may incur higher costs for extensive print areas, DTG ensures consistent pricing, irrespective of design complexity. This feature makes it an attractive option for custom and personalized printing projects.

  • Material limitations: A key advantage of DTG over sublimation is its capability to print on an expanded array of materials. While sublimation is typically limited to polyester and similar fabrics, DTG beautifully adapts to cotton, blends, and some non-textile materials. This flexibility offers businesses more significant opportunities to diversify their product lines beyond just apparel.

  • The durability factor: When it comes to longevity, DTG prints, with appropriate care, rival the durability of sublimation. The inks used in DTG penetrate deeply into fabrics, ensuring vibrant designs resist fading over time. This lasting quality and material versatility position DTG as a premier choice for businesses aiming to offer high-quality, enduring products to a wide-ranging customer base.

Why choose direct-to-garment printing?

As an ecommerce store owner, selecting the right printing method for your merchandise is a monumental part of defining your brand and appealing to your customer base. Direct-to-garment printing emerges as a superior choice, especially when compared to sublimation printing, for several compelling reasons:

  • Expanded product range versatility: While sublimation is restricted to polyester and polymer-coated materials, DTG allows for a much broader product range. This extended versatility enables you to broaden your product offerings and appeal to a more extensive customer base.

  • Superior color and print quality: DTG printing stands out for its ability to reproduce vibrant, high-resolution images and intricate designs with precision. It excels in color accuracy and detail, even on darker garments, where sublimation printing may fall short. This aspect is crucial for ecommerce, where visual appeal directly influences customer decisions.

  • Ideal for small orders and customization: One of the main advantages of DTG is its suitability for small batch orders and customized products. This aligns perfectly with the growing trend of personalization in ecommerce. Customers seeking unique, personalized items can be easily accommodated with DTG printing, offering a competitive edge to your store.

  • Sustainability and eco-friendliness: DTG printing is more eco-friendly, using water-based inks and producing less waste. This aligns with the increasing consumer preference for sustainable and environmentally responsible products, enhancing your brand's reputation.

Scale your ecommerce business with DTG printing and Gelato

direct to garment products

Ready to take your ecommerce store to new heights? Sign up for Gelato today and unlock the full potential of DTG printing and print on demand (POD). POD allows you to offer a wide range of designs without the need for inventory, reducing overhead costs and risks associated with unsold stock. Embrace the opportunity to diversify your product offerings, meet customer demands for personalization, and grow your business with confidence.

Partnering with Gelato for on-demand printing opens up a world of possibilities, enabling you to create:

  • Apparel: T-shirts, hoodies, and sweatshirts can be personalized with unique designs, perfect for fashion statements, branding, or promotional activities.

  • Accessories: Items such as aprons, hats, and phone cases can be customized, adding a personal touch to everyday items or creating unique promotional merchandise.

  • Wall Art: Transform artwork into stunning canvases, posters, and more, offering a personal and artistic touch for homes, offices, or as gifts.

  • Bags: Customizable tote bags and backpacks can be tailored to specific designs, ideal for personal use, retail, or as promotional tools.

  • Drinkware: Personalize drinkware like mugs and water bottles, great for individual use, corporate branding, or as part of a merchandising range.

Explore our entire product catalog

Join forces with Gelato, a leader in local, on-demand production on a global scale. With the world's largest network for production on demand, Gelato facilitates the creation of personalized products in 32 countries. This enables creators and ecommerce sellers like you to scale your business and reach customers more rapidly, all while reducing waste, costs, and carbon emissions.

Sign up for Gelato today and become part of a community that's reshaping the future of ecommerce, one print at a time.

Sublimation FAQs

What is sublimation?

Sublimation is a printing process where sublimation ink is transferred onto a substrate (like fabric or a coated material) using heat and pressure. In this process, the ink undergoes a phase transition from a solid form to gas without passing through a liquid state, directly bonding to the material's fibers. This results in highly durable, vibrant, and detailed prints. Sublimation is commonly used for printing on polyester fabrics and various polymer-coated products, making it popular in custom apparel, signage, and promotional items.

How does sublimation printing work?

Sublimation printing uses a three-step printing process. A digital file is created to supply the design to the printer. The sublimation printer prints a reverse mirror of the design onto special transfer paper with a polyester coating. A heat press then presses the paper to the garment, melting the ink so that it diffuses into the fabric as it cools. This process permanently binds the ink with the fabric so that the design remains intact no matter how much the garment is used or washed.

What is an example of sublimation?

A typical sublimation example is a custom-designed polyester t-shirt featuring vibrant, full-color graphics. The design is first printed on sublimation paper using sublimation ink and then transferred onto the t-shirt using a heat press. The heat turns the ink into gas, which then bonds with the polyester fibers, resulting in a sharp, durable image that is part of the fabric itself.

What are dye sublimation printers?

A sublimation printer is a specialized printing device that uses sublimation ink to create images on sublimation transfer paper. These sublimation printers are designed to produce high-quality, detailed graphics that can be transferred onto polyester fabrics and polymer-coated substrates. Unlike regular inkjet printers or laser printers, dye sublimation printers use a process where the ink directly transitions from a solid to a gas under heat, creating vibrant, long-lasting prints.

What is the difference between sublimation and regular printing?

Sublimation printing and regular printing use different methods, machines, and materials. Sublimation uses a unique process requiring a specialized printer to melt sublimation inks onto transfer paper to be applied to polyester-based surfaces. It is used for printing on materials such as t-shirts, coffee mugs, and phone cases rather than paper.

What is sublimation printing vs. Cricut?

Cricut is a digital cutting machine that can be used for various purposes, including sublimation printing. Cricut sells Infusible Ink transfer sheets that can be used for sublimation printing with a Cricut device. However, you can only use Cricut's designs and colors, making Infusible Ink a more limited option than regular sublimation printing.

What is sublimation on a t-shirt?

Sublimation on a t-shirt is a digital printing process where sublimation ink transforms into gas under high heat and pressure, bonding permanently to polyester fabric. This technique results in sharp, vivid, full-color images embedded into the fabric, making them durable and resistant to fading.

Can Cricut do sublimation printing?

Cricut machines, while not designed for sublimation printing themselves, complement the sublimation print process. They are often used for cutting intricate designs from sublimation transfer sheets printed using a dedicated sublimation printer, aiding in creating detailed and customized designs.

Is sublimation good for printing?

Sublimation is an excellent method for printing, particularly favored for its ability to produce vibrant, high-definition, and long-lasting prints. It's especially effective on suitable materials like polyester fabrics and polymer-coated items, offering superior print quality that doesn't crack, peel, or wash away.

What is needed for sublimation printing?

Sublimation printing requires specific equipment and materials: a sublimation printer, special sublimation ink, sublimation transfer paper, a heat press to transfer the ink onto the substrate, and polyester or polymer-coated items to print on. This setup allows for the creation of high-quality, custom-printed sublimation products.

What paper is used for sublimation printing?

Sublimation printing uses specially designed sublimation transfer paper, which is made to hold sublimation ink effectively. This paper releases the ink under heat, facilitating the transfer of the design onto the substrate, ensuring clarity and vibrancy in the final print.

What software is used for sublimation printing?

Graphic design software such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, or CorelDRAW is commonly used for sublimation printing. These programs allow for the creation of detailed, high-quality designs, which can then be printed onto sublimation transfer paper before being transferred onto the final product.

What is the best fabric for sublimation printing?

The ideal fabric for sublimation printing is 100% polyester, as it offers the best vibrancy and durability for the prints. Polyester blends can also be used, but the image may have a more faded, vintage appearance, as the sublimation ink is less effective on non-polyester fibers.


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