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Blog / Beginner's handbook / What is Sublimation Printing and How Does it Work?

Beginner's handbook

What is Sublimation Printing and How Does it Work? Your Questions Answered

What is Sublimation Printing and How Does it Work? Your Questions Answered
Aleksandra Rosa

By Aleksandra Rosa

9 min read

Looking for a printing method that can produce vibrant and long-lasting prints?

Sublimation printing might be just what you need—it’s a popular choice for printing on fabrics, plastic, metal, ceramic, as well as glass.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the basics of sublimation printing, including how it works and the advantages it offers compared to other printing methods. We’ll also discuss the materials it can be used on and answer other common questions. By the end, you’ll have a full understanding of what sublimation printing is and why it’s a great choice if you’re running a print-on-demand store.

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What is sublimation printing and how does it work?

Sublimation printing is a digital printing process that uses heat and pressure to transfer dye onto different materials.

Here’s the full process:

  1. You print a design onto special transfer paper using sublimation inks

  2. Then, you place the paper onto a product and heat it with a heat press

  3. The heat turns the inks into a gas, and the material absorbs them

  4. As a result, you get a permanent, vibrant print that won’t fade or crack over time

Sublimation printing pros

Now that you know how sublimation printing works, let’s go through the pros and cons of this printing technique, starting with the benefits.

1. Vibrant and detailed printing results

What’s most exciting about sublimation printing is the ability to produce vibrant and detailed prints. Thanks to the high temperatures used in the process, the lines appear very sharp and the colors aren’t faded.

2. Print durability

An important thing to note about dye sublimation is that the ink isn’t just applied on top of the material. Instead, it’s absorbed right into the material, becoming an integral part of it. That’s why a sublimation print won’t fade or wash off, lasting much longer than a screen print or a DTG print.

3. Quick turnaround time

Another pro of sublimation printing is its quick turnaround time. Because the printing process is digital and doesn’t require creating a physical screen or plate, sublimation printers can quickly produce high-quality prints and require less manual labor than, for example, screen printing.

4. Variety of products

When it comes to the choice of materials, sublimation is versatile and gives you lots of room for creativity. You can make custom clothing, bags, mugs, mousepads, and more.

5. No order minimums

If you choose a print-on-demand service like Printful, you can order one-off sublimated products without worrying about meeting a minimum order requirement. This also gives room for experiments—you can test products to find the ones your customers like without investing too much into inventory.

6. Eco-friendliness

The final benefit of sublimation printing is that it’s a relatively eco-friendly printing process. Unlike traditional printing methods that use water-based inks and solvents, sublimation printing uses dry inks. The dry inks are infused into the material while being printed, resulting in minimal waste and reduced environmental impact. In addition, it reduces the amount of wasted ink by only applying it to the areas needed.

Sublimation printing cons

There are also some limitations to sublimation printing. Below we’ve highlighted 3 main disadvantages you should consider before committing to this printing method.

1. Material limitations

Note that sublimation only works on 100% polyester or fabric blends that contain a high percentage of polyester. The less polyester in your fabric, the more faded the prints. This is because the chemical properties of sublimation dyes require synthetic fibers to properly stick and create long-lasting results.

If you’re interested in cotton, silk, or leather garment printing, sublimation won’t be the right choice. Sublimation dyes simply won’t adhere to natural fibers or will quickly wash off.

2. Base color limitations

Sublimation’s only available for white or very light blank products. That’s because there’s no white ink in sublimation printing, and the sublimation inks can’t lighten the base color.

If you sublimate on a black fabric, the dye will technically transfer but you won’t be able to see the results. For example, printing a vivid magenta color on a black shirt will result in a black print with a reddish undertone.

3. White creasing

When sublimating on a ready-made garment, there’s a chance that some areas won’t get printed properly, leaving white streaks. This often happens around seams or due to accidental folding.

white streaks in sublimation printing

Source: Printful

To avoid this type of defect and achieve perfect seam-to-seam coverage, we use the cut & sew technique (also known as all-over printing) at Printful. First, your design is sublimated onto a piece of fabric. Then, we cut out patterns from the printed fabric and our in-house seamsters sew the final product together.

Check out our Sublimation Print-On-Demand Products blog post to find out more about the printing process at Printful.

What can you sublimate on?

Sublimation printing is suitable for a variety of materials, giving you plenty of product options. From apparel to mugs, and home decor to larger items like banners and signs—you name it.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the sublimation products we offer at Printful.

Apparel

Shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, leggings, dresses, swimsuits, and lots more. When it comes to garment printing, sublimation has one crucial advantage—it allows you to cover an item seam-to-seam. If you don’t want to put your design in a box due to a limited printing area, sublimation erases this type of constraint. 

preview play-button

Accessories

Looking for statement accessories to accompany your apparel designs? We’ve got options for you:

Mugs

We offer four different mug types, all of which are created using the sublimation method. The design is first printed onto transfer paper using dye sublimation inks through an inkjet printer. Then, the paper is carefully placed around the mug, and heat and pressure are applied to transfer the image onto the mug.

printful mugs

White Ceramic Mug with Color Inside

Home decor

Whether you’re looking to add a pop of color to your living room, a cozy touch to your bedroom, or a stylish accent to your office, there are plenty of home & living items to explore:

Sublimation compared to other printing processes

Sublimation vs. Screen printing

Sublimation and screen printing are both popular methods of transferring designs onto fabric, but they have several key differences:

  • Number of colors. With sublimation, your design can contain an unlimited number of colors. Screen printing is limited to one or a few colors.

  • Material. Sublimation works best with polyester and other synthetic fabrics, while screen printing works on natural materials such as cotton, linen, and rayon.

  • Print area. Sublimation is ideal for creating seam-to-seam prints on garments, while with screen printing you’ll always be constrained to a smaller printing area.

  • Setup time. Sublimation requires less setup time and is better suited for printing custom one-off products than screen printing.

Find out more in our complete guide to Sublimation vs. Screen printing.

Sublimation vs. DTG

Wondering how sublimation compares to DTG printing? Here’s how to tell the difference between the two:

  • Material. Sublimation’s only suitable for polyester and polyester blends. DTG works best on 100% combed and ring-spun cotton but can also be used on cotton blends.

  • Base color. Sublimation’s limited to white or lighter-color materials. DTG produces vivid prints on any fabric color.

  • Print area. Sublimation has a larger print area compared to DTG, as it can cover the entire garment. DTG print area’s limited to the size of the platen of the printer.

  • Setup time. DTG is faster than sublimation because the DTG printer prints directly on a garment and you can skip the transfer paper and heat press process. With DTG, there’s also no need for cutting and sewing the garment after printing.

How to prepare a design file for sublimation printing

Here’s the thing: in order to get those amazing, vibrant sublimation results, you’ve got to make sure your design file is all set. That means finding a great image, converting it to the right format, and double-checking that your colors and resolution are on point.

Learn more: Step-By-Step Guide to Creating Eye-Catching Sublimation Designs

If you’re new to digital print file prep, here’s everything you need to know to nail your print files:

File format: We accept PNG and JPG file formats. Your files should be in high resolution (150 DPI or higher) to ensure the best print quality.

Color Profile: Use the sRGB color profile to ensure that your design looks just as great printed as it does on screen.

Size: Make sure your design is the correct size for the product you’re ordering. You’ll find the exact dimensions in the File guidelines tab under each product. If your design is larger than the print area, it’ll be scaled down, so be sure to check the print size before uploading your design.

printful file size guidelines

An example of print file size guidelines you can find under each Printful product

Bleed: For the best results, use full-bleed images that span across the entire document. If your design only covers a portion of the print area, don’t forget to make the background transparent and submit the image in PNG format.

No white borders: Sublimation printing requires the transfer paper to be in full contact with the product, so any white areas in your design will show up as the color of the product. To achieve a full-color print, make sure there are no white borders or areas in your design. 

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Bonus: Did you know that Printful’s Design Maker offers tons of ready-made sublimation designs? You can print them as they are or use them as a background for your custom design elements. Here’s how you can find them.

Once you’ve chosen a product, head to Design and click Background fill.

how to apply patterns in printful design maker

Under Graphics, Patterns, and Premium images, you’ll find a ton of creative visuals perfectly suited for all-over printing.

how to apply patterns in printful design maker

Pick one and it’ll be applied to the product. Voila! 

how to apply patterns in printful design maker

 

Sublimation FAQs

Something’s still unclear? We’ve prepared bite-sized answers to the most common questions about sublimation.

That’s all about sublimation printing

Now that we’ve answered the most common questions about sublimation printing, it’s time to go ahead and design your first sublimated product.

So, check out our product catalog, whether you’re a business owner looking to sell custom products or an individual eager to create a unique item. You’ll find over 70 products, from activewear and swimwear to hats, bags, and mouse pads to choose from and make your design ideas come to life.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Do you have any experience with sublimation printing? Feel free to share in the comments section. And have fun creating your own custom products!

author

By Aleksandra Rosa on Feb 13, 2023

Aleksandra Rosa

Aleksandra is the editor of the Printful Blog. Coming from a background in communication studies, she's passionate about all things marketing. In her spare time, she runs her own print-on-demand business.

Aleksandra is the editor of the Printful Blog. Coming from a background in communication studies, she's passionate about all things marketing. In her spare time, she runs her own print-on-demand business.