If you’re in the business of creating eye-catching designs for custom t-shirts, hoodies, or mugs, you may have heard about sublimation and DTF (direct-to-film) printing. Both have gained popularity in recent years, offering amazing print quality.
In this blog post, we’ll do an in-depth DTF vs. sublimation comparison, explain how each printing method works, and what kind of products they’re best for.
From the technical steps behind the printing process to the benefits and limitations of each method, this is the guide you need to navigate the world of custom printing. Let’s dive in!
DTF printing, or direct-to-film printing, is a relatively new technique that’s growing in popularity because of its excellent quality and color accuracy.
This digital printing method is known to produce durable and vibrant prints. You can think of it as a technological advancement in digital printing, with a wider fabric suitability than the currently more popular direct-to-garment (DTG) printing.
The prints are made using special DTF printers to transfer colorful designs directly onto film, which is then heat-pressed onto the garment.
Here are the basic steps of DTF printing:
The design is printed onto a special transfer film with water-based inks
The ink on the film is then coated with adhesive powder
Next, the design is transferred onto the fabric using a heat press
Although the process includes multiple steps, t-shirt printing with a DTF printer is quick and takes just a few minutes.
Sublimation printing is a technique where the design is embedded in the fabric using heat and sublimation ink. The fabric is then cut and sewn together to produce the garment.
Sublimation printing is quite a lengthy process. Here’s how it works:
You print a design onto special transfer paper using sublimation ink
Then, you place the transfer paper onto the fabric and use the heat press
The extremely high heat turns sublimation ink into gas
Sublimation inks bind with the fabric fibers, producing durable prints
Let’s go over each printing method in detail so it’s easier for you to choose the most suitable one for your printing business. From print quality to fabric suitability, here’s how DTF printing compares to sublimation.
DTF printing quality is excellent. If you want to print photos, colorful designs, graphics, or art, it’s the way to go. The ink sits on top of the fabric, so it doesn’t lose any detail or vibrancy in the printing process.
The prints come out smooth and elastic, which ensures longevity. They can handle heavy use and many washes without fading color. However, the design may develop minor cracks if washed in very hot water.
Another thing to keep in mind is that DTF prints might seem stiff initially, but they’ll wear in after a couple of washes. Plus, the print is thin so that it doesn’t feel too bulky. In contrast, sublimation printing doesn’t create a raised print texture on the fabric, and is more comfortable to wear from the get-go.
Sublimation printing quality is also outstanding. You can print detailed images in multiple colors that will come out looking vibrant and sharp. The color is infused into the fabric fibers, so it doesn't fade or peel off, resulting in durable prints.
When it comes to print complexity, DTF prints are unmatched. You can print detailed, full-color designs, fine art, small text, and graphics.
But if you want to go for a large design, let’s say a photo, the DTF printing method might not be the one for you. DTF prints are not very breathable, which means that printing a large area makes the garment less comfortable for longer wear.
With sublimation printing you can also achieve detailed prints and produce designs of different complexity. It’s especially suitable for digital photos, pattern designs, gradients, and colorful artwork. Sublimation has a larger print area compared to DTF transfers, as it can cover the entire garment.
Sublimation printing works in a way that the printed image binds with the fabric (rather than sitting on top of it), providing vibrant and durable results. Since sublimation transfers dyes to materials, the finer details also come out looking sharp.
Both DTF and sublimation printing use the four primary colors for their prints (known as CMYK or cyan, magenta, yellow, and black). This means that designs are printed in bright, vivid colors.
What’s more, you can print gradients with both methods. But keep in mind that the DTF print’s base (finishing color layer) is white ink, which may affect the gradient or transparency of your design.
There’s no white ink in sublimation printing, but its base color limitations can influence color vibrancy. For example, if you sublimate on a black fabric, the colors will come out faded. For this reason, sublimation is usually done on white or light-colored garments. In contrast, DTF printing offers vibrant results on any fabric color.
One of direct-to-film printing’s main advantages is that it’s possible to print on various fabrics. This means polyester, cotton, fleece, nylon, and their fabric blends. The print isn’t tied to a specific material, allowing for more product options to print on.
Sublimation printing is best for light-colored polyester, polyester blends, or polymer-coated fabrics. If you’d like your design printed on natural fibers like cotton, silk, or leather, sublimation won’t be the right fit for you.
Sublimation dyes adhere better to synthetic fibers, so 100% polyester is the best fabric choice. The more polyester in your fabric, the more vibrant your prints.
With DTF technology and sublimation you can print on a wide product range. Since the DTF technology is a new-comer in the printing industry, you can currently use sublimation printing for a much wider range of items. Let’s have a look at what products we offer at Printful.
When it comes to clothing, sublimation is the go-to t-shirt printing method for custom shirts with all-over prints. At Printful, you can find shirts in different fits and styles, including sport jerseys, crew necks, tank tops, crop tees, and rash guards.
Sublimation is also perfect for sportswear items like swimwear and leggings to rock bold prints and vivid colors. You can take your pick of one-piece swimsuits, bikinis, trunks, sports leggings, biker shorts, and much more for sublimation printing.
Although DTF print products are more limited, you can currently use the DTF process on apparel items like the Unisex Denim T-Shirt, the Lightweight Zip Up Windbreaker, and the Recycled Tracksuit Jacket.
Sublimation printing is a versatile method that gives you lots of room for creativity. It’s often used to print home decor items like blankets, custom mugs, cork-backed coasters, laptop sleeves, gaming mouse pads, and more.
The DTF printing method isn’t currently available for any of the home decor items, but stay tuned for updates in the future.
If you’re looking for a printing technique that suits print-on-demand production, both DTF printing and sublimation are suitable options. It’s possible to print just one item or make a bulk order, so it’s a good fit with the on-demand production model.
Since there are no order minimums, it’s easier to experiment with new products and design ideas without stocking inventory.
Both techniques allow printing one-offs, so you won’t have to worry about unsold stock and overproduction. If you’re looking for a sustainable fulfillment method, DTF printing is an ok choice. The inks used in direct-to-film printing are water-based and non-toxic, so they’re regarded as more environmentally friendly than the traditional printing methods that use solvent-based inks.
However, sublimation is a more eco-friendly option than DTF printing. Sublimation uses dry inks which are infused into the material while being printed. In contrast to other dye transfer methods, there’s minimal waste and water consumption during the production process. Plus, sublimation reduces the amount of wasted ink by only applying it to the areas needed.
When it comes to minimizing fabric waste, Printful’s all-over print products are cut & sewn in-house. The leftover fabric scraps are then used to create accessories like scrunchies and headbands.
DTF printing and sublimation are both good on-demand fulfillment techniques. It’s possible to order just one or multiple items, and the cost won’t change.
For example, at Printful, direct-to-film and sublimation print products are only made after you or your customers order them. There’s also discounts for bulk orders, which is a nice deal if you’re looking to produce multiple items.
You won’t need an upfront investment if you partner with a print-on-demand (POD) company to sell direct-to-film or all-over print products. That’s because your items are made only when a customer orders them. You get money from your customer, pay for the product, and keep the profit.
If you want to print designs by yourself, be prepared to spend a lot on printing equipment, like sublimation printers or direct-to-film printers. In addition, you’ll need to source blank products, get special inks, and take care of shipping. It’s a large upfront investment, so it might be cheaper to dropship products with your designs using a POD provider.
After exploring each printing method in depth, it’s clear that both provide amazing results and suit different businesses with on-demand production. However, sublimation printing and DTF printing have different characteristics which can enhance or detract from your design. Let’s recap both techniques.
DTF technology will be a good fit for your business if you want to sell items made of polyester, denim, fleece, or other heavy-duty material. With DTF printing, you can make the most of various fabric types, print on dark and light garments, and not rely completely on polyester-blends.
This technique is worth trying out if your designs are detailed and colorful. DTF prints have excellent color accuracy, and the results are vivid, sharp, and durable.
DTF printing is also fairly quick to do compared to sublimation, which reduces production costs. Before deciding to sell items with DTF prints, it’s a good idea to test it and order one for yourself. You could also compare the same design fulfilled with other techniques.
Sublimation printing is a great option if you’ve chosen to dropship the products you sell because it’s one of the most popular printing techniques on offer.
For garment printing, sublimation allows you to print detailed, colorful artwork, photos, and patterns from seam to seam. If you want your designs to cover a garment fully, sublimation printing is the best option.
When branching out to selling accessories and home decor items, you can’t go wrong with this method. From mugs to coasters and blankets, sublimation printing is a popular technique for getting vivid results on different surfaces. Plus, it’s an eco-friendly choice.
In this post, you’ve learned about DTF vs. sublimation printing methods, their advantages, differences, and the type of products each method suits best.
If you still can’t decide which one’s right for you, just try both! Don’t be afraid to experiment with each technique on different products to find the method that’s a good fit for your designs—be it a hoodie with all-over print or a denim t-shirt with a detailed DTF print.
Have you tried either of these printing methods? Share your experience with us in the comments!
Sandra is a freelance writer and educator with a background in art and communication. She holds an MA in Art Museum and Gallery Studies, and in her free time enjoys reading, museum visits, and outdoor adventures.