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1. What is dye sublimation printing?

What is sublimation printing? Pros, cons, & alternatives

What is sublimation printing? You've probably heard about silk screen printing and direct-to-garment printing (DTG printing), but you may not have heard as much about dye sublimation. This innovative method of garment production has become an increasingly popular option for online t-shirt retailers. It has some unique advantages over other production methods, but it also has some drawbacks. Knowing its strengths and limitations can help you decide whether it's the right method for your t-shirt ecommerce business.

In this guide, we'll walk you through what you need to know about dye sublimation printing as a t-shirt production option. First, we'll answer the basic question, what is sublimation printing? Then we'll explain how sublimation printing works and examine its pros and cons. Next, we'll compare sublimation printing with some leading alternatives, such as heat transfer vinyl (HTV), screen printing, and direct-to-garment printing. Finally, we'll answer some frequently asked questions about dye sublimation printing FAQs.

Note that here we'll be focusing on dye sublimation applied to garments such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies, but you also can use sublimation to print on other surfaces.

Main takeaways from this article:

  • Dye sublimation printing, also known as all-over printing (AOP) or dye diffusion thermal transfer (D2T2), uses a heat press to melt images from transfer paper onto garment surfaces.

  • Sublimation printing produces images with photographic quality, allows printing on all garment surfaces, creates durable designs, and supports short-run order quantities.

  • The dye sublimation printing process works best on polyester fabrics with light backgrounds, and it can be slower and more expensive than other methods.

  • Major alternatives to sublimation printing include heat transfer vinyl, screen printing, and direct-to-garment printing.

What is dye sublimation printing?

Dye sublimation printing is also known as all-over printing (AOP) or dye diffusion thermal transfer (D2T2). Sublimation printing uses a heat press to melt images from transfer paper onto polyester garment surfaces.

The resulting designs possess photographic quality, characterized by continuous tones and sharp detail. Dye sublimation printing has become a popular method of producing high-quality t-shirt designs on polyester garments. One appeal of dye sublimation is that it allows images to be printed on any part of a garment, including seams and zippers.

The dye sublimation printing process was originally developed by Sony to print photographs before it was adopted by the textile industry. At first, garment manufacturers thought the process converted printing dyes directly from solid form into a gaseous state, a physical phenomenon called sublimation, so this method became known as dye sublimation printing.

However, it is now known that the dyes actually become liquefied and then spread out (diffused) over the garment surface, so the process is more accurately called dye diffusion. Despite this, dye sublimation remains the more common name for this printing process.

How does the sublimation printing process work?

How does the sublimation printing process work

Dye sublimation printing uses a three-step process to create t-shirts and other garments such as sweatshirts and hoodies:

  1. The design for the garment is created as a digital file

  2. A printer prints a reverse mirror image of the design on transfer paper

  3. The paper is pressed to the garment with a heat press, melting the ink and transferring the design to the garment upon cooling.

Dye sublimation can use a variety of file types for printing. File types commonly used include EPS, PSD, JPEG, TIFF, PNG, SVG, and PDF. For best results, use images with at least 300 dots per inch (DPI) or the equivalent.

Sublimation printing uses special ink. You need the right type of printer to print sublimation ink. Inkjet printers that can accept sublimation ink often are used. Specialized sublimation printers also are available. Sublimation printers for mass production can be expensive, and many manufacturers rely on printing services to cut costs.

Dye sublimation printing uses special transfer paper with a polyester coating. The coating absorbs and stores sublimation ink so that it can be heated and transferred to the garment surface. You can store designs on sublimation paper until you're ready to print them on garments. This can be convenient if you don't know how many shirts you want to print and want to delay printing until you see how many you need. For example, you might want to take some transfer paper to a convention so you can print a quantity of t-shirts based on how many people visit your booth. This property makes dye sublimation useful for print on demand (POD) t-shirt production.

Sublimation printing pros

Sublimation printing pros

Dye sublimation printing offers multiple advantages for t-shirt retailers and garment manufacturers. These include:

  • Photographic quality

  • Design freedom

  • Durability

  • Suitability for small orders

These benefits have helped make sublimation printing a popular option for print on demand clothing ecommerce retailers.

Photographic quality

Because D2T2 printing was originally developed for photography, it produces images that look like photographs. Garment designs produced by sublimation printing display continuous tones for realistic color and sharp resolution. Dye sublimation can create beautiful t-shirt designs.

Design freedom

Dye sublimation allows more flexibility to print designs on any part of a garment surface, including seams and zippers. Because the D2T2 printing process diffuses melted inks, it doesn't require garments to be laid out as rigidly as other printing methods. This allows you to do all-around printing on areas such as seams and zippers that would be difficult to print on using other methods.


Dye sublimation produces fade-resistant, long-lasting designs. The sublimation process bonds melted ink dyes permanently with garment fabric. Designs won't crack, peel, or fade in the wash. Dye sublimation prints last as long as garment fabric.

Great for small orders

Sublimation printing provides production flexibility. It can be used to print designs on orders as small as single units. This makes it a great option for printing customized designs or a small quantity of clothing.

Sublimation printing cons

Sublimation printing cons

While dye sublimation printing offers numerous advantages for t-shirt and garment retailers, it has some notable drawbacks. These include:

  • Fabric limitations

  • Color constraints

  • Slower production process

  • Higher upfront costs

These potential downsides should be factored in when weighing sublimation printing as an option.

Fabric limitations

Sublimation printing offers fewer fabric options than some other printing methods. Dye sublimation inks only bond with polyester and other polymers. For garment printing, this makes sublimation suitable only for fabrics made from polyester or a polyester blend, not for natural fabrics such as pure cotton. This gives sublimated garments the drawbacks of polyester, such as lack of breathability, tendency to cling, and irritability for some wearers.

Color constraints

Dye sublimation inks show up best against light backgrounds. This can make it challenging to print on dark fabrics. If you want to do sublimation printing on dark t-shirts, you need to take extra steps, such as adding a white base layer.

Slower production process

Although dye sublimation printing can apply designs to individual shirts quickly, each garment must be pressed individually. This can make sublimation printing slower for large-scale production than methods such as screen printing.

Higher upfront costs

Sublimation printing can generate high upfront expenses if you own your own equipment. The process requires special inks, transfer paper, and printers. The ink can dry upon exposure to air, clogging printers and requiring maintenance or replacement.

Top alternatives to sublimation printing

What are some of the leading alternatives to sublimation printing? Three of the top options are:

  • Heat transfer vinyl

  • Screen printing

  • Direct-to-garment printing

Each method has its own best uses, pros, and cons.

Heat transfer vinyl printing (HTV printing)

Heat transfer vinyl printing is also known as iron-on printing. Like sublimation printing, it transfers designs to garments indirectly. Instead of using polyester, HTV uses plastic-based vinyl sheets. Each sheet has colored, removable tape on one side that can be cut and shaped as desired. The other side is covered with an adhesive that activates upon heating. The sheet is applied to a garment with an iron or a heat press and then the tape is peeled away, leaving the image on the fabric.

Heat transfer vinyl printing is easy to do, inexpensive, and allows design flexibility. This makes it a popular choice for beginners. However, cutting designs is time-consuming, the vinyl coating creates stiff designs, the heating process requires fabrics that won't melt, and HTV designs don't display well against dark backgrounds. HTV printing is most widely used for placing letters and numbers on sports jerseys.

Screen printing

Screen printing also is known as silk screen printing. It creates designs by squeezing ink through a screen mesh partly blocked off by a stencil. A separate screen must be created for each color to be printed. The screen and garment get run through a special printer. After printing, heat is used to seal the design.

Screen printing has several advantages that once made it the most popular t-shirt printing method. It produces vivid colors for simple designs. It leaves durable designs that can survive repeated washings. It's cost-efficient for large quantities of t-shirts.

However, screen printing has some drawbacks that have made direct-to-garment printing an increasingly attractive alternative. It requires long preparation to set up stencils and screens, making it less efficient for small-scale printing. It can't handle complex designs with multiple colors or fine details as well as other methods. It wastes ink and materials, making it less eco-friendly than DTG printing methods. Screen printing is best used for bulk orders of hundreds or thousands of t-shirts.

Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing

Direct-to-garment printing uses a printer to take digital designs and apply them with water-based inks directly to garments such as t-shirts. This makes DTG distinct from methods that transfer ink indirectly to garment surfaces using media such as transfer paper or screens.

DTG offers many advantages that have made it popular with ecommerce retailers who sell print on demand t-shirts and other types of garments. Because DTG uses digital files, it can print any color in high resolution, and it can print orders of any quantity, making it perfect for print on demand t-shirts. It works well with most common t-shirt materials, including cotton, polyester, and cotton-polyester blends. Its inks sink right into the fabric for a smooth, soft finish. It uses water-based inks that are environmentally sustainable, and it can be applied to organic cotton, making it eco-friendly.

Direct-to-garment printers are costly, but this can be offset if you work with a POD service. DTG works best on cotton or cotton polyester blends, and sublimation may look better on polyester fabrics. T-shirts printed through DTG are less durable than screen-printed shirts. Overall, direct-to-garment printing is the most cost-effective and environmentally sustainable option for print on demand t-shirts printed on cotton or cotton polyester blends.

Create beautiful custom apparel with print on demand

Dye sublimation printing lets you create vivid, high-resolution, durable designs on polyester fabrics. You can use sublimation for all-over printing designs to offer patterns that cover garments from front to back, including seams and zippers.

While dye sublimation works great on polyester, if you want the flexibility to print on cotton or cotton polyester blends, direct-to-garment printing can be a better option. DTG offers a sustainable way to produce high-resolution, complex designs with a smooth, soft finish. You can produce any quantity you need, from a single order to dozens or hundreds of garments.

Gelato provides reliable DTG print on demand services so your online store can offer custom t-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, and other apparel. Gelato uses the world's largest POD network with local production centers in 32 countries, minimizing carbon emissions so you can provide customers with eco-friendly ecommerce shopping. Sign up for Gelato print on demand services to start providing your customers with quality DTG t-shirts, hoodies, and sweatshirts.

Sublimation printing FAQs

Can any printer do sublimation?

No, you can't do sublimation with a regular printer. You need an inkjet printer that can handle sublimation inks or a special sublimation printer. You also need special ink and transfer paper.

What is the difference between sublimation printing and regular printing?

Sublimation printing and regular printing use different methods, machines, and materials. Sublimation printing uses a special process that requires a specialized printer to melt inks onto transfer paper so they can be applied to polyester-based surfaces. It is used for printing on materials such as t-shirts, mugs, and phone cases rather than paper. No, you can't do sublimation with a regular printer. You need an inkjet printer that can handle sublimation inks or a special sublimation printer. You also need special ink and transfer paper.

How does sublimation printing work?

Sublimation printing uses a three-step process. A digital file is created to supply the design to the printer. The 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 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 machine. However, you can only use the designs and colors Cricut provides, making Infusible Ink a more limited option than regular sublimation printing.


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