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Blog / Beginner's handbook / Sublimation vs. Screen Printing: Which One’s Better?

Beginner's handbook

Sublimation vs. Screen Printing: Which Method Is Best for Your Business?

Sublimation vs. Screen Printing: Which Method Is Best for Your Business?
Jana Magonova

By Jana Magonova

9 min read

Let’s see . . . You create designs and want them printed but can’t decide between sublimation and screen printing. And the printing process and fulfillment techniques are different for each. 

Sublimation vs. screen printing: which is better, and how can you choose? Which method will fit your designs, your brand, and your business? If you’re eager to get your questions answered, keep reading.

Both techniques are widely used to create stunning prints on apparel and accessories. But each has benefits and downsides. 

For example, sublimation printing is better for on-demand production, while traditional screen printing makes more sense for bulk manufacturing.

Other differences between these techniques:

  • Sublimation is perfect for printing garments from seam to seam, while screen printing is best for printing a small design on a garment.

  • Sublimation printing embeds the ink into the fabric, while in screen printing, the ink sits on top of the fabric.

  • Sublimation is usually only printed on polyester while screen printing is mostly done on cotton.

And that’s only the beginning. Let’s dive in to learn more about each method.

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Sublimation printing: what it is and how it works

Sublimation, also known as heat transfer printing, is a technique where the design is embedded in the fabric using heat and ink. In the print-on-demand world, it’s the go-to printing method for creating all-over print products as it allows printing on fabric from seam to seam.

Sublimation printing is somewhat of a lengthy process. First, the design is printed on a special transfer paper. Then, the paper is fed into the heat press machine and combined with the fabric. Due to extremely high heat, ink from the paper binds with the fabric fibers.

Sublimation is best for printing on light-colored polyester, polyester blends, or polymer-coated fabrics. That’s because the sublimation ink binds with synthetic fibers better. Sublimation is also used to print home & living items like blankets, mugs, laptop sleeves, and gaming mouse pads.

Screen printing: what it is and how it works

Traditional screen printing, or silk screening, is much different from sublimation printing. While sublimation is an almost fully automated process, screen printing is mostly done manually.

In this printing process, the ink is pushed through a mesh stencil (also known as a woven screen) onto the fabric using a squeegee. 

If you choose to print your designs with the screen printing technique, a special screen must be made for every design element. Because of that, it’s best to have simpler designs with one or a few colors, as each color is applied separately, layer by layer. 

The more colors in your design, the more ink is used to print it. Using a lot of ink for designs will create a thick layer of paint on the garment. That’s because the ink doesn’t soak into the fabric but stays on top of it. This creates interesting ink textures that can be a nice touch to your design. 

 screen printing process

Source: Unsplash 

Sublimation vs. screen printing: what are the differences

Let’s go over each printing technique in detail so it’s easier for you to choose the best one for your brand.

Print quality and durability

Sublimation print quality is outstanding. You can print fine lines and details in multiple colors that will be vibrant and sharp. Since the color is embedded into fabric fibers, it doesn’t wash out easily, and it doesn’t crack or peel. A sublimation print is durable and long-lasting.

preview play-button

Screen printing also provides fantastic print quality. The colors are just as vibrant and sharp. However, screen printing doesn’t support colorful designs like photos. Screen printing can still be your go-to technique if your designs contain just one or a few colors. Keep in mind that the ink doesn’t sink into the fabric as it does with sublimation. The more colors you print on the garment, the thicker the print will be. 

Since the ink sits on top of the garment, screen printing can be less durable over time than sublimation printing. After many washes, the ink may crack and peel, and the colors can fade. 

Print complexity

Sublimation printing supports designs of different complexity. You can go for detailed printing, like patterns, gradients, colorful artwork, or digital photos.

Screen prints, on the other hand, are better for bold designs that contain one or a few colors. Remember: each differently-colored element requires a separate stencil, which is time and labor-intensive. The more detailed your design is, the more stencils you’ll need, and printing each item will take much longer.

The complexity of the process also means that screen printing isn’t the best choice for designs with gradients. Although color-blending screen printing, which can produce gradients, is technically possible, it’s a more complex and not a widely available method. So, in this case, other printing methods will work better.

Number of colors

When it comes to colors, sublimation prints support designs and gradients with multiple colors. Since sublimation is usually performed on light-colored fabric, all whites in your design may be blank spaces on the fabric.

As we’ve discussed, designs with one or a few colors work best for screen printing. Each color has to be printed separately, which takes more time to print the garment. But screen printing can be done on different fabric colors—you can use that to your advantage.

Special effects

Silk screening will be your only option if you want to add some pizzazz to your designs. For example, you can add glitter to your artwork or other inks for different effects. You can use specialty inks like gold or silver to create interesting textures or eye-catching designs. There are also inks that produce a cracked or cork texture or a leather effect. 

screen printing specialty inks

Source: Stylus Apparel

Sublimation uses four primary colors (known as CMYK or cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to print all designs. Unfortunately, sublimation printing doesn’t support specialty inks and other extras like glitter, so screen printing would be the better option in that case.

Fabrics and materials

Sublimation is most suitable for printing on light-color polyester, polyester blends, or polymer-coated fabrics. Sublimation also is a good fit for materials that contain nylon, spandex, neoprene, lycra, and others. You can sublimate cotton, but heat transfer printing is better adapted to synthetic fabrics. 

Besides fabrics, sublimation is also used to print designs on ceramic and enamel mugs and cork-backed coasters.

sublimation on mug coasters

Source: Printful

Screen printing is more suited for cotton and cotton blends because the ink adheres better to such fabric fibers. 

Silk screening is also often used to print on paper. Using specialty inks makes it possible to screen print on metal, wood, plastic, and other materials.

Eco-friendliness

Sublimation is a good choice if you’re looking for an eco-friendly fulfillment method. Sublimated products that are created on-demand to eliminate overproduction. Also, the sublimation ink is non-toxic and eco-friendly, and sublimation doesn’t require a lot of water compared to other dye transfer techniques. 

Plus, waste is kept to a minimum during the production process. For example, Printful’s all-over print products are cut & sewn in-house. The leftover fabric scraps are used to create scrunchies and headbands, reducing fabric waste as much as possible.

Alternatively, when you screen print products for your brand, you’ll likely have to order in bulk to get the best price per item. This may result in leftover stock and product waste if your items don’t sell. What’s more, plastisol inks that are most commonly used in screen printing process are toxic and not biodegradable. Screen printing does support water-based inks that are more eco-friendly, but you’ll have to do your research—not all suppliers use these inks.

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Quantity 

When it comes to the number of items you can print using sublimation, it’s perfect for both small and large orders. That’s why sublimation is one of the most popular methods among dropshipping companies, as it’s easy to use this printing technique for as many or as few items as you need.

However, screen printing is more suited for bulk orders. That’s because each shirt is printed manually using stencils made specifically for your design. So you want to make a larger order (at least 25 pieces) as the price per t-shirt or other garments will be better in bulk. 

screen printing in bulk

Source: Unsplash

On-demand fulfillment

Sublimation is a better choice for on-demand fulfillment as it’s possible to order just one item. On the other hand, screen printing is not a popular technique in on-demand production.

For example, if you use Printful to sell custom t-shirts with sublimation designs, your item gets made only when someone orders it. That’s because digital printing allows producing one-off designs quickly and effortlessly. Screen printing requires special stencils for each design, making on-demand fulfillment difficult.

So, if you’d like to offer screen-printed designs on your store, ordering and printing products in bulk will be more cost-effective.

Upfront investment

Betting on selling all your stock is a risky business. When you sell sublimated on-demand products with Printful, you don’t need an upfront investment. That’s because your products are fulfilled only when your customer orders them. You get money from your customer, pay Printful for the item your customer ordered, and keep the profit.

With screen printing, you’ll likely need to invest in products before you sell them. That’s because when you order in bulk, you typically have to pay for the whole batch upfront. The problem is that your money is tied up in inventory, and you may be unable to sell all your items. If you end up selling screen-printed products at a larger discount just to unload stock, you won’t take in as much profit.

Sublimation vs. screen printing: which one is best for your business?

After comparing both sublimation and screen printing techniques and discovering their advantages and limitations, let’s see which method suits your business model best.

Sublimation printing: is it for you?

Sublimation printing is an excellent option if you dropship the products you sell. For example, if you sell products manufactured on demand, sublimation printing is more suitable for your business. It’s one of the most popular printing techniques offered by print-on-demand companies like Printful.

Since sublimation supports selling different quantities of products, you can print as many products as you need, whether one or a hundred. Printful also offers discounts for bulk orders.

When you consider printing methods, keep in mind how you want your designs to look on products. Sublimation can print detailed multicolor artwork, photos, and patterns from seam to seam. If you want your designs to cover a garment fully, sublimation printing is the best choice.

Last but not least, think about the garments you want to sell. Sublimation is best for polyester fabric and such fabric blends.

sublimation process

Source: Printful

Screen printing: is it for you?

Generally, screen printing is not a technique that print-on-demand companies offer. Still, you can try to find a company willing to screen print and ship your orders under your brand.

Remember that fulfilling just one or a few products with this technique is not cost-effective. The best price per item is when you order in bulk.

Screen printing is a good choice if your design is simple and consists of just one or a couple of colors. You’ll like this printing technique if you like the feel of ink on the garment. You can also add extra flair with glitter or specialty inks to make your designs more eye-catching.

Finally, remember that screen printing holds best on cotton and such fabric blends.

screen printing in action

Source: Unsplash

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Sublimation vs. screen printing: answering your questions

Here are some frequently asked questions if you’re looking for quick answers on whether sublimation or screen printing is better.

Sublimation or screen printing? 

The choice is yours. You’ve learned about sublimation and screen printing, their differences, benefits, and disadvantages. You’ve also learned what type of products, designs, and fulfillment methods are best for each printing method. Now, it’s time to choose which technique fits your business model the best!

Either way, don’t be afraid to experiment with different printing methods. After all, your design ideas deserve to be turned into reality. 

Learn more:

Happy creating (and printing)!

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By Jana Magonova on Mar 20, 2024

Jana Magonova

Senior Content Writer

Jana is a Senior Content Writer at Printful with a background in creative writing and content marketing. She draws inspiration from all things creative and has a deep love for all things written, be it a book, a script, a quote, or a joke.

Jana is a Senior Content Writer at Printful with a background in creative writing and content marketing. She draws inspiration from all things creative and has a deep love for all things written, be it a book, a script, a quote, or a joke.