The sublimation process differs from inkjet and screen, and is capable of bringing out the most vivid colors.
If you’re wearing a T-shirt with a design on it, that design could have been produced in a variety of ways. If it is a custom design, such as your name and a number on it, it may have been printed with either sublimation printing or inkjet. However, if it is a concert shirt that was printed in sizable batches, then it was most likely screenprinted. Sublimation printing is particularly known for its vivid colors and complex designs.
Sublimation printing is not to be confused with either inkjet printing or screenprinting, although it is a digital process. It is a dye-based process and is one of the most common approaches to producing apparel with designs on it. It uses its own type of printing, and while many leading inkjet printing manufacturers also produce sublimation printers (like Epson in October, 2022 and January, 2023), there are significant differences in the processes.
The Process of Sublimation Printing
The process of sublimation printing begins with the artwork being printed onto sublimation paper using sublimation ink. It is not a direct printing process. Once the garment or other item is placed on a jig, the design is pressed on using a heat press, turning the ink into a gas and transferring it onto the item being printed, most often and article of clothing. The item either has to be polyester or have a polyester-based coating.
Once the ink touches the fabric, it returns to a solid state. Essentially, the ink is permanently fused onto the clothing. That differs from heat transfer, in which the ink is transferred as a liquid onto the article of clothing, and thus can crack or peel over time.
Sublimation printing can be used for more than clothing though. It can be used wherever fabrics are needed, including signs and home decorations, as well as non-textile items such as mouse pads, and can be printed on aluminum, glass, plastic and more. It is particularly good for transferring an image from a photo or a logo onto a gift item.
Sublimation Printing Compared to Other Processes
There are significant differences between dye sublimation printing and screenprinting, beginning with the process of screenprinting itself, which requires individual stencils for each color and is thus limited to simpler designs and much fewer colors. Heat transfer is a screenprinting process which we discussed above.
Screenprinting requires a flat surface, eliminating the possibility of rigid surfaces such as cups., though these have to be treated with a polyester coating first. Screenprinting is printed using one color at a time, which also impacts the designs being created, and is best for one- or two-color designs. Since screen uses pigments, the colors are stable on cotton and other fabrics.
There are also differences with inkjet printing. Inkjet inks are printed in a liquid state, while sublimation inks start as a solid and then become a gas when heated.
Benefits and Disadvantages to Sublimation Printing
There are plenty of benefits to sublimation printing. Because the ink is now part of the material, it won’t peel off or crack like other processes. Unlike screenprinting, sublimation printing is customizable, as you are making the design whatever you want it to be, then transferring the design onto the clothing. That makes it ideal for small orders or even individual items. It is a more costly process though.
Interestingly, sublimation printing is primarily limited to polyester-based materials. Cotton-based materials will absorb too much ink, and the results aren’t good. Heat damages other fabrics, such as silk. Another disadvantage is that sublimation printing can’t be used to produce textures, as sublimation is one layer fused into the product.
Because of their unique composition, sublimation inks are pretty much in a category by themselves. There are two main types, aqueous-based dye sublimation inks and solvent-based dye sublimation inks, in which the ingredients are suspended in water and oil, respectively.
There are major differences between sublimation inks, screen inks and inkjet inks, beginning with the basic composition of the inks themselves. Sublimation inks are dye-based, while inkjet inks can be either dye-based or pigmented and screen inks are pigmented. Sublimation inks are most likely not going to be compatible in an inkjet printer.
Another huge difference is that sublimation inks are a solid when the printed process starts, and heated into a gas when applied, thus being fused onto the item. Fading isn’t a problem. Screen inks are printed in thick films using a mesh stencil, while inkjet inks are low viscosity as they have to be jetted through the nozzles on the printhead.
One limitation to the sublimation ink process is that there are no white-based sublimation inks. White inks can help a design pop. However, sublimation printing only works on white or lighter colored items. Even with that, sublimation printing is considered the choice for complex, vivid designs.
Author: Ink World Magazine