What’s Sublimation Printing? A Quick Start Guide

August 18, 2022
Nicole Rollender
A submlimation machine printing a pink floral pattern

If you’re looking for a long-lasting, full-color way to decorate your t-shirts, look no further than sublimation printing. Also called dye sublimation, this printing method is one of the best out there. With sublimation, you can print any colorful design on your t-shirt (including photos), and it’ll never fade, crack or peel. Your sublimated graphic will be as vibrant as the day you printed it! Don’t worry: If you’re new to sublimation printing, we’ll share everything you need to know how to dye sublimate your blank t-shirts like a pro.

Sublimation Printing Guide

Lots of people love the idea of graphic t-shirts, and dream of designing their own with custom designs and personal photos. Does that sound like you? If you’re nodding yes, we bet your next question is: How do I decorate my shirt with that amazing sunset beach photo from my last trip to the islands? T-shirt sublimation printing is one of the best imprinting methods around to create high-quality designs.

Get ready to learn about this amazing t-shirt making technique, so you can sublimate t-shirts to wear and sell. Part of your secret to success depends on following the correct steps to sublimation print a t-shirt and choosing the right types of t-shirts to decorate.

What’s Sublimation Printing?

Let’s start with the basics: Sublimation printing is a decorating method to print custom designs on t-shirts. Also known as dye sublimation, it’s popular because of the high-quality, full-color results it produces. T-shirt sublimation uses a heat source to print images and text onto the fabric. In fact, when you use heat with a sublimated design, the ink or dye actually sinks into the t-shirt material, becoming a permanent part of the fabric.

Sublimation shirt printing starts with printing your design onto a special heat transfer paper. Then you use heat—between 300 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit—and pressure to permanently transfer your image onto your shirt, usually made from 100% polyester or a high-poly-content blend. When you heat the sublimation transfer, the ink “disintegrates” into the fabric. It’s almost like a science experiment because the heat changes the solid ink particles to a gaseous state as they meld with the fabric. Since your design becomes “one” with the fabric, your graphic doesn’t fade, crack or peel over time like other printing methods. 

You can order your sublimation transfers from a service. If you want to do everything at home or in your shop, you’ll need a special sublimation printer to create those transfers. You won’t be able to use your regular office printer since it uses inkjet cartridges meant for printing on paper. A sublimation printer uses special dye sublimation ink that turns into a gas or vapor when you apply heat to it.

While sublimation produces vibrant-colored designs like heat transfers and screen printing, there’s one main difference: Heat transfers and screen prints sit on top of your t-shirt fabric, so if you run your hand over your design, you can feel the print. When you touch a sublimated design, all you feel is the fabric. While all of these methods should survive many washes and wears, sublimation is considered the longest lasting.

One other thing to know: You can heat transfer and screen print a wide range of t-shirt materials, but sublimation is typically suited to 100% polyester or poly blend fabrics that are white or light colored. Otherwise, the design will wash out or majorly fade on the first washing.

Sublimation printing is a perfect choice for custom smaller order runs, while screen printing works better for higher volume orders. Sublimation (and heat transfers) offer you the luxury of including as many colors in your design as you want, without extra setup time. By contrast, with screen printing, the more individual colors you add, the longer and more complicated the setup and application process. That’s why screen printing is ideal for orders in the hundreds of t-shirts.

Sublimation printing keeps increasing in popularity because it results in such vibrant, long-lasting graphics. However, like every other decorating method, you need to fully understand the process so that you don’t do it incorrectly. For example, if you don’t follow the right steps, you might get designs that have white creases or “ghosting” patterns. If that happens, and you’re printing t-shirts to sell, you’ll lose time and money. Our best advice is to start with a simple, smaller design to test out the sublimation printing process.

How Sublimation Works

Now that you know what sublimation printing is, you’re probably wondering how it works. Here’s a basic runthrough of how you get that great beach sunset or a full-color photo of a new band onto your bright white t-shirt.

Step one: Gather the supplies and equipment you’ll need to sublimate a t-shirt at home.

Here’s the basic list we recommend if you want to create dye-sublimated shirts at home or in your t-shirt shop:

  • 100% polyester or polyester blend t-shirts
  • Online design software
  • Compact sublimation printer
  • Sublimation paper Heat press

Step two: Create your digital design.

You’ll create your t-shirt design in an online design software program of your choice. Depending on your experience level, you might opt to use a free program like Canva or invest in a paid program like Adobe Photoshop.

Step three: Print your sublimation transfer.

Now that you’re happy with your t-shirt design, it’s time to print it out onto your sublimation transfer paper. It’s important to have the right sublimation printer, sublimation transfer paper and ink to achieve optimal results. 

Step four: Apply your sublimation transfer to your t-shirt with heat.

Now, it’s time to use your heat press to transfer your design to your blank t-shirt. Using high heat and pressure ensures that the ink bonds with the polyester fibers in your t-shirt fabric. Follow the instructions with your heat press or transfer paper, but generally you’ll apply heat between 300 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 to 35 seconds, depending on the fabric’s polyester content. The heat turns the ink on the transfer to a gas, and then as it cools, it permanently bonds with the fabric. That’s how you get a vibrant, long-lasting design.

Step five: Remove the transfer paper from your t-shirt.

Once you’ve finished pressing your shirt, release the press and carefully peel away the transfer paper from the t-shirt. If you’ve used the correct time-temperature-pressure ratio, you’ll see your vibrant t-shirt design on your garment.

If you’ve desired to create t-shirt graphics that make a statement (and last a long time) sublimation is an efficient way to do it.

Pros and Cons of Sublimation

Sublimation Pros and Cons

Pros Cons
Low-cost decorating method for custom prints people will love Designs can experience white creasing or ghosting effects if done incorrectly
Produces high-quality, longer-lasting vibrant designs Can’t print white as a color in your design
Efficient printing method that results in higher profit margins Can only be printed on polyester or poly blend shirts, in white or light colors
  Designs can experience color mismatching

More and more people are discovering the advantages of sublimation printing for vibrant t-shirt designs. Here are three huge reasons why you’ll love adding sublimation printing to your list of t-shirt decorating skills, especially if you’re selling t-shirts:

  • Low-cost decorating method for custom prints: It’s fairly affordable to set up a sublimation printing gig at home, and produce gorgeous prints that you can wear or sell in larger quantities to schools, events, bands, clubs, teams, companies and more!
  • Produces high-quality, longer-lasting vibrant designs: If you have a full-color or complex design that you’d like to see perfectly replicated in vibrant color on a t-shirt, sublimation printing’s the answer. Since producing the design is a matter of creating it on screen and printing it to transfer paper, it’s super-easy to offer custom t-shirt designs for sale. Plus, since the final transferred design joins with the fabric, it’ll never crack, fade or peel over time. When you run your hand over the fabric, you’ll feel the soft, smooth t-shirt fabric. Sublimated colors tend to also be more vibrant than what you can achieve with other forms of printing.
  • Efficient printing method that results in higher profit margins: Decorators report that sublimation printing is faster than other printing methods. This allows you to save time and money when you’re producing orders for your customers, resulting in healthier profit margins. If you can make more money out of the gate, you’ll recoup your upfront investment faster.

Of course, as with every decorating method, there are a few things to be aware of with sublimation printing before you get started:

  • Designs can experience white creasing or ghosting effects if done incorrectly: If your t-shirt fabric is folded in certain spots (like under the arms) or your transfer paper is moist, you might see white creasing in the design when you peel back the transfer paper. White creases happen in spots where the ink doesn’t sink into the fabric, so those areas remain the light color of the t-shirt. Next, ghosting happens when your transfer paper shifts under the heat press. The design then looks blurry or faded, like a “ghost.” Sometimes, you’ll get ghosting if your transfer ink hasn’t dried fully before you press it, or you apply too little or too much pressure with your press.
  • Can’t print white as a color in your design: Since sublimation uses CMYK printing, you aren’t able to print white ink as part of your design. Of course, you can print onto a white t-shirt and use the fabric color as a white tone. However, you need to remember that you can’t produce a design with white in it.
  • Can only be printed on polyester or poly blend shirts, in white or light colors: Unlike other decorating methods, sublimation works best on polyester-based garments in white or light colors. If you want to print on black or darker-color t-shirts, digital printing or screen printing is a better option.
  • Designs can experience color mismatching: If you’re looking at your design on your computer screen, your colors appear in RGB mode, but then print out in CMYK mode. That means you’ll need to at least print a sample shirt to see if you’re achieving the results you want. Alternatively, you can use RIP software to check if any of the colors have spotted or changed.

How to Get Started with Sublimation Printing

If you’re ready to get started with sublimation printing, you’ll need to first decide whether you want to set up a full sublimation workstation at home or start out working with a local t-shirt printing shop. When you’re brand new to sublimation printing, it can help to pay a local decorator to print your sublimated transfers and/or to heat press the transfers onto your blank t-shirts. That way, you can take your time to learn more about the process and decide whether you want to invest in your own setup at home.

When you decide you’re ready to set up your t-shirt sublimation shop at home, you’ll need to invest in equipment and supplies that fit your budget and your needs. We’re going to run down the main tools you’ll need, along with some tips for evaluating the best equipment like a heat press and sublimation printer.

Design Software

If you’re a novice designer you can try out a program like Canva, which is a free online program you can use to create t-shirt designs, using your imported photos. For design pros, Adobe PhotoShop or CorelDRAW are excellent options to easily create designs for your t-shirt blanks.

Sublimation Printer

There are many compact dye sublimation printers on the market, starting at around $300. There are a variety of entry-level models from popular brands like Epson, Sawgrass, Mitsubishi and Brother. You can start by checking out features and reviews online to start narrowing down your options that fit your budget and needs the best.

Here are some features to pay attention to:

  • Quality, size and speed of printing: Take a look at the DPI (dots per inch) to see how detailed you can get in your printing. Print size is also key, since some printers will allow you to print larger than the standard transfer paper size. How fast does your ideal printer print? Depending on how many shirts you’ll be sublimating for an order, speed can really make or break your work time. You can also look at how many sheets of paper each printer tray holds.
  • Wireless connectivity: Some printers need to be physically connected to your computer and others don’t. Depending on your preference and office setup, this may make a difference to you.

Sublimation Ink

You’ll need special sublimation inks that go from a solid to a gas state. Inkjet inks don’t try as soon as they come in contact with paper. However, sublimation inks dry immediately. Talk to printer manufacturers on the best inks they recommend. If you’re purchasing a specific printer brand, there might be specific inks that come with the printer.

Sublimation Transfer Paper

The easiest way to get started here is to check out what types of sublimation-specific brands are available to you, and to check out the reviews. We recommend using sublimation paper for optimal results. If you visit an office supply store, you can talk to a representative there about what brand might work best for your dye sublimation needs.

Heat Press

You’ll find a range of heat presses available to you, from budget-friendly models perfect for a home-based business, to those more suited to a commercial operation. If you’re setting up at home, it makes sense to look for a lightweight heat press that has a small footprint. There are heat press models that lift up and swing away, so you can choose the one you like the best. With any equipment purchase, it makes sense to read online reviews and watch online tutorials to see how to use each heat press.

Tips for the Best Sublimation Results

If you want to up your sublimation game sooner rather than later, check out some expert tips that you’ll find helpful in your dye sublimation journey.

Buy Heat-Resistant Tape and Gloves

When you’re working with a heat press and high temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, you want to protect yourself and your t-shirts. That’s why heat-resistant gloves are a great supply to purchase along with your press. You might also want to use heat-resistant tape, which holds the transfer paper in place to minimize white creases or ghosting in your design.

Invest in RIP Software to Color Match

As you learned, one of the cons around sublimation is that the colors you see on your computer screen will look different than when you print them out. That’s because you see the colors on screen in RGB mode, but they print out in CMYK mode. RIP software can help you see the colors more accurately on screen. This is software you’ll want to get as you start designing your first sublimation artwork.

Keep Your Designs Vibrant With the Right Heat Pressure

We’ve discussed that if you don’t heat your sublimation transfer long enough or with the right amount of pressure, your t-shirt design will look faded. This is where following the instructions that come with your press or sublimation paper will help you. Trial and error is another way you’ll learn what the right time-temperature-pressure ratio is for the best results.

Print Your Image Larger Than You’ll Need It

This tip is exactly how you’re reading it: Print your design slightly bigger (as in a few millimeters) than you’ll need it on the shirt. If your design is too small, you have unwanted white spaces. A larger design will eliminate this possibility.

What Are the Best Shirts for Sublimation?

If you’ve browsed the Threadsy selection of wholesale blank shirts, you already know there are hundreds, if not thousands, of different t-shirt fabrics, blends, and styles available to you. However, for best results with sublimation printing, you need to choose a 100% polyester t-shirt or a blend made up of no less than 65% polyester. If you choose the wrong fabric, your dye may wash out the first time you throw it in the laundry, as the ink does not adhere to cotton or other natural fibers. Besides choosing the right fabric, you need to choose a white or light-colored t-shirt. The lighter your shirt color, the more vibrant your design will appear.

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Can You Use Blended or Cotton T-Shirts for Sublimation?

People often ask us what type of blended shirt works best for sublimation. As you’ve learned, a 65% polyester/35% cotton t-shirt is among the most popular blends, since they’re softer and less see-through than 100% polyester shirts.

Here’s something you might not know: When you wash a 65% polyester blend t-shirt with a sublimated design for the first time, 35% of the image will wash out. However, don’t worry! The design will still look vibrant. But there is where you should pay attention to a t-shirt’s blend percentage. When you go lower than 65% polyester, a higher percentage of the design will wash out. For example, if you get a 50/50 t-shirt, half of the design washes out. The less polyester you have in the blend, the higher the chance that the design will fade after the first wash.

Remember: Don’t try sublimating on a 100% cotton shirt or one made from other natural materials, since the dye won’t absorb into the fabric. Digital printing or screen printing are better decorating methods for cotton t-shirts. Polyester fabrics will also stay soft and won’t shrink after washing and drying.

Sublimation Printing FAQs

You might still have questions about sublimation, and we’re here to answer them. Check out the most frequently asked questions we get from our customers about sublimation.

Can I Use My Regular Printer for Sublimation?

Your regular inkjet printer that you use for printing out documents from your computer generally won’t work for sublimation, since dye sublimation uses a different kind of ink. However, there are some printers you can invest in that will allow you to do both, if they have piezo printing technology.

What’s the Difference Between a Sublimation Printer and an Inkjet Printer?

Good question! The basic difference between a dye sublimation printer and an inkjet printer is how they transfer ink onto a substrate. A sublimation printer uses heat to transfer ink from a ribbon to your transfer paper. On the other hand, an inkjet printer drops tiny ink dots directly onto the paper.

Is a Sublimation Printer “Worth It”?

Our answer? It depends. That means, it depends on what your plan is to sublimate shirts. Are you sublimating one and done? Then it’s probably not worth the investment. If you’re launching a t-shirt business and you want to sublimate the shirts you sell, then our answer points to yes. The good news is that the most affordable sublimation printers start around $300, so it can work for your budget. Contrast that with industrial-grade sublimation printers that start around $5,000 and go up from there.

Is Sublimation Printing Permanent?

The quick answer: Yes. When you apply 400-degree heat onto the sublimation ink transfer, the ink turns into a gas, and then as it cools, turns back to a solid. The ink becomes “one” with the polyester yarns. If you sublimate on a cotton or blend with a low polyester percentage, the design will wash out or fade in the laundry.

What Type of Paper Do You Use for Sublimation?

We recommend starting out with sublimation-specific paper. It’s not a good idea to use regular copy paper with sublimation ink, since sublimation-specific paper is designed to support sublimation ink. If you do try to use regular office copy paper, the sublimation inks can bleed through and damage your printer.

Will 50/50 Shirts Work for Sublimation?

The short answer is: Yes. You can sublimate a 50% polyester/50% cotton t-shirt with good results. However for the best results, we recommend printing on a 100% polyester t-shirt or a poly/cotton blend that is at least 65% polyester. 

Shop Threadsy for the Best Deals on Shirts for Sublimation

Now that you’re ready to start sublimating your polyester or polyester blend shirt project, it’s important to choose high-quality shirts to showcase your beautiful and stylish designs. Choosing the right t-shirt might just be the most important part of gathering your supplies. After all, your t-shirt is your blank canvas for your creativity and self-expression! You can choose from our great selection of wholesale sublimation shirts. We’re so excited that you’re starting out on your sublimation printing journey!

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