Adding customized designs to t-shirts, mugs, phone cases – you name it – is easier than ever with today’s printing technology.
Two popular methods for decorating garments and accessories are sublimation and heat transfer printing.
At a glance, they seem very similar – both use printed transfer paper applied with heat.
But when you look closer, there are some major differences between these two processes.
Understanding the contrasts will help you determine the best approach for your needs.
In this guide, we’ll do a deep dive into dye sublimation versus heat transfer printing and also tell you what’s the difference between Sublimation and Heat Transfer Paper.
Sublimation vs Heat Transfer Paper
|Heat Transfer Paper
|Whites and light colors
|Polyester and polymer-coated
|Noticeable ink layer
|No weeding required
|Most need weeding
|High initial investment
|Low initial costs
The main difference is sublimation dyes the shirt fibers while heat transfer leaves an ink layer on top.
Sublimation gives high-quality, long-lasting prints but only on light polyester.
Heat transfer is more flexible for different fabrics and colors but print quality is lower.
Pick the method that fits your business needs best!
How Does Sublimation Work
Let’s start by looking deeper into the sublimation process:
Sublimation printing uses specialized inks containing dye particles that vaporize when heated.
To print a design, you first print it in a mirrored form onto sublimation transfer paper using an inkjet printer. This paper has a coating that holds the dyes.
Next, you position the printed transfer sheet against a polyester garment or polymer-coated blank like a phone case or cutting board.
A heat press applies intense heat and pressure, which binds the paper to the item.
The combination of heat and pressure causes the dye particles in the ink to transition directly from a solid to a gas.
This vaporized dye permeates the polyester fabric or polymer coating and solidifies again within the material.
Because the printed design essentially “becomes one” with the shirt fibers or case material on a molecular level, the results are extraordinarily vibrant and durable.
The colors won’t fade or crack over time. And the print has a smooth soft feel since there is no ink layer sitting on the surface.
Sublimation creates that sought-after high-end apparel people love to wear thanks to its photorealistic prints that stay vivid wash after wash. It provides professional-grade decoration for poly garments or giveaway products.
How Heat Transfer Printing Works
Heat transfer printing takes a different approach by applying ink onto a surface rather than dyeing the fabric itself. There are two main methods – inkjet and laser heat transfer:
With inkjet heat transfer, you print your graphic or photo onto specialty transfer paper using standard inkjet inks and an everyday home printer or office printer.
The ink used here is water-based liquid ink.
After trimming away any excess paper (a process called weeding), you position the transfer sheet on a t-shirt or other garment.
A heat press is used to transfer the ink layer from the paper directly onto the fabric.
The process for laser heat transfer is very similar.
The difference is you print onto transfer paper using a laser printer and toner instead of inkjet ink.
Some laser papers are designed to be “self-weeding” so no trimming is needed before pressing the image onto the clothing.
The result of both methods is a printed design sitting on top of the fabric rather than embedded within the shirt fibers.
Let’s look closer at the key distinction between the methods.
Comparing Ink and Process Differences
When reviewing sublimation versus heat transfer, understanding the ink and process variations is crucial:
Sublimation uses a specialized dye-based ink that vaporizes when heated and bonded with polyester.
Heat transfer uses standard inkjet inks or laser toner that stay solid and sit atop fabric.
The sublimation dyes actually become part of the garment as a gas temporarily. Heat transfer leaves the ink layer only adhered to the surface.
Because of the dye process, sublimated prints have unparalleled vibrancy and longevity. Heat transfer offers more flexibility but lower durability.
Keep these core differences in mind as we dive into the specific pros and cons of each method.
Benefits of Sublimation Printing
Let’s explore the biggest advantages of using a dye sublimation process:
1. Photorealistic Print Quality
Since the dye integrates at the fiber level, sublimation creates truly photorealistic prints. Even tiny details and gradients come out perfectly. This makes it ideal for replicating photographs, complex designs, and anything needing precision.
2. Limited Only by Imagination
The stunning print quality means you’re limited only by your imagination. Sublimation brings creative visions to life flawlessly. Vibrant illustrations, landscapes, abstract patterns – nothing is off the table for sublimating.
3. Long-Lasting Durability
With sublimation, the print quality remains pristine even after years of washing and wearing because the dye does not simply coat the shirt – it becomes part of the shirt. The colors stay true and designs remain intact.
4. Smooth Soft Feel (“Hand”)
No ink layer sits on the surface with sublimation so the prints have a smooth “hand” or feel. There is no vinyl-like plastic feel on the fabric that you typically get with transfers. It’s soft and natural.
5. Self-Weeding Process
Sublimation paper only releases the printed dye onto the garment so no trimming or weeding of the paper is required first. The transfer is one simple step.
For professional-quality apparel decorating on polyester goods, sublimation can’t be beaten thanks to its photo-realistic images, unlimited creativity, soft hand, and durability.
Limitations of Sublimation Printing
Despite its many benefits, sublimation does come with a few restrictions:
1. Works Only on Light Garments
The biggest disadvantage is sublimation will only work properly on white or very lightly colored garments. The dye needs a light base to show true colors.
Although there are some methods to sublimate black or dark-colored fabrics too but the result won’t be as vibrant and that are achieved on light colored fabrics.
2. Limited to Polyester or Polymer Coated Blanks
Since the process relies on dyeing synthetic fibers, sublimation also only works on polyester fabrics or polymer-coated blanks. Natural fabrics like cotton are not options.
3. Higher Startup Costs
There is a significant upfront investment needed for a dye-sublimation-friendly printer, sublimation inks, transfer paper, and a heat press. The costs are higher than heat transfer.
4. Can’t Beat Embroidery Look
If aiming for an ultra-high-end embroidered look, sublimation may still fall slightly short of the dimensional texture of decorated embroidery.
While offering unmatched print quality, sublimation does require working within color and fabric limits. It’s also pricier to start up.
Benefits of Heat Transfer Printing
While it doesn’t replicate the high-end effects of sublimation, heat transfer printing offers its own set of advantages:
1. Works on All Fabric Colors
Unlike sublimation, heat transfer prints work on light and dark colored fabrics since the ink sits on top of the shirt rather than needing to dye the shirt. This flexibility is the main appeal.
2. Wide Range of Fabric Options
In addition to both light and dark shirts, heat transfer ink adheres to all types of fabrics like 100% cotton, polyester, nylon, rayon, and blends. You’re not limited only to synthetic material.
3. Lower Startup Costs
To start printing with heat transfer, all you need is transfer paper, a basic inkjet or laser home printer, an inexpensive heat press, and some blank garments. The startup costs are very low.
4. Good for Simple Spot Color Designs
While you won’t match the photorealism of sublimation, heat transfer works well for simpler designs like logos with spot colors and minimal blending.
Limitations of Heat Transfer Printing
Here are a few of the biggest drawbacks of using heat transfer paper:
1. Lower Overall Print Quality
Heat transfer struggles to replicate the photorealism and sharpness of sublimation printing. The results may not look consistently professional.
2. Shorter Print Lifespan
Due to the ink sitting on the garment surface, it will begin to crack and fade after 25-30 washes in most cases. The longevity is lower.
3. Feel and Hand of Transfers
There is a heavier hand or plastic-like feel with transfers since you are essentially adding an extra ink layer on the clothing that can feel unnatural.
4. Can’t Print on Uncoated Hard Goods
Heat transfer papers don’t work well on non-fabric items like mugs or tiles that lack a poly coating for the ink to bond to.
5. No Metallic or Fluorescent Colors
The standard inkjet and laser printing process can’t replicate the striking metallic, neon, or fluorescent dye colors possible with sublimation.
While heat transfer wins on flexibility and costs, you’ll need to work around print appearance and fabric limitations to achieve quality results.
Which Method is Right for You?
Choosing between sublimation and heat transfer comes down to a few key factors:
- Desired print quality – Sublimation for photorealism, heat transfer for simplicity
- Target fabrics and colors – Sublimation on light polyester, heat transfer broad fabric options
- Print durability needs – Sublimation for long-term use, heat transfer shorter lifespan
- Startup budget – Heat transfer more affordable initially, sublimation for long-term investment
- Print intricacy – Sublimation for highly detailed reproduction, heat transfer for simpler designs
|If you need…
|Photorealistic, intricate designs
|Simple spot color designs
|To print on dark/colored garments
|To print on a range of fabric types
|Maximum print durability
|Affordable startup costs
|To print highly detailed logos/photos
|To print geometric shapes or icons
By weighing your specific business goals against the pros and cons of each process, you can determine if dye sublimation or heat transfer is the right deco method for your needs.
Which Is Better Sublimation Or Heat Transfer?
Sublimation makes very colorful, realistic prints that last a long time. But it only works on light polyester fabric. Heat transfer can print on more fabric types and colors. But the prints may fade faster. There’s no “better” – it depends on what you need to print!
is sublimation paper the same as heat transfer paper
No, the papers are different. Sublimation paper works with special ink that turns to gas when heated. It dyes the fibers. Heat transfer paper uses normal ink that stays solid on top of the fabric. The papers match the different inks.
Can You Use Heat Transfer Paper For Sublimation?
No, you can’t use regular heat transfer paper for sublimation. It won’t work right since sublimation needs special dye ink and paper. Stick to sublimation paper with sublimation ink and printer.
Is Heat Transfer Printer Same As Sublimation?
No. A sublimation printer uses special sublimation inks. A regular heat transfer printer uses normal ink. You need the right ink for each paper and process. The printers are designed for different inks.
Does Sublimation Work On Cotton?
No, sublimation does not work on cotton fabric. The gas dye only bonds to synthetic fibers like polyester. It will not dye or stick to natural fibers like cotton. You need polyester for sublimation.
When exploring printing methods, sublimation and heat transfer both have unique advantages.
Sublimation excels at colorful photorealistic prints with unbeatable vibrancy and durability. Heat transfer offers the flexibility to print on various fabric colors and materials at an affordable startup cost.
The right technique for you depends on weighing factors like desired print quality, fabric options, precision, and budget.
By understanding the key distinctions covered in this deep dive, you can confidently choose either dye sublimation or heat transfer to meet your business goals.
Whichever method you select, you’ll be able to create eye-catching customized garments and products.
With the proper supplies and preparation, your innovative designs will come out picture-perfect every time. The possibilities are endless!