The subject of polyester fabrics being dyed is a hot topic.

Sublimation in the Decorating Scope

Josh Ellsworth

Josh is the VP of sales, dealer channel for Stahls'. He deals in the sales and implementation of heat-applied, apparel-decorating systems with a focus on customization. He holds skills in the production, sale, and marketing of customized apparel. He presents seminars at trade shows and contributes articles to trade publications, like Printwear magazine.

The subject of polyester fabrics being dyed is a hot topic and has been for some time in the direct-to-fabric market for soft signage and display products. Sublimation is also hot as a heat transfer process and there are two basic sublimation styles to get you into the game—post production and pre-fabrication (or cut and sew).

How it works

Before we dive into details let’s examine the basic chemistry of sublimation. The process involves printing a design in a mirror image onto a photo quality paper and heat pressing for the recommended time, temperature and pressure. Peel away the paper backing and the item is dyed with sublimation inks.

As the polyester garment and/or polymer coating on the substrate is heated, the fibers open up to accept the dyes. The dyes are “locked in,” essentially becoming a part of the substrate. They cannot be scratched, washed off or really impacted at all.

The beauty of sublimation is its durability and no-hand texture on textiles and, when compared with other decorating technologies, it prevails for full-color custom images on hard surfaces as well. The limiting factor with sublimation is that the garments must be comprised of at least 65 percent polyester. The higher the content, the crisper the image. Also, since the fabric is dyed, the textile itself must be white or light in color. Any pigment in the garment will impact the color of the final print. Some rare exceptions to the rule can take place, such as printing a black image only onto a royal blue or red garment but, as a whole, light shades are recommended. And the same is true for hard goods. They are usually white and suppliers almost always carry a special line that is sublimation-compatible. These lines of product are pretreated with a polymer coating specifically for this process.

When considering all of the options for hard goods, the mind can really go wild. Plaques, key chains, ornaments, tiles, awards and clipboards only scratch the surface of a world of imprinting possibilities. There are even special T-shirts made with a polyester shell and cotton inside for a better wear and feel. Some other common items include table covers, mouse pads and performance wear.

The Platform

Typically, for the small- to mid-size shop, the system includes a sublimation printer, inks and paper. The vast majority of shops will purchase a printer and simply print and press. Inkjet style printers are still the most possible, but new advancements in print technology for printing gel-based inks offer significant advancements in print speed.

In the inkjet realm, the format can change from a small desktop unit to a much larger format printer in the range of 30" to 64" wide, the latter of which is commonly employed for shops looking to leverage sublimation technology for apparel and graphic signage. But there are also some unique ways that sublimation is being leveraged is for all-over printing.

With the right size heat press and printer, decorators are able to print an entire pre-sewn garment in two steps, one for each side. Admittedly, this workflow does leave some unprinted areas beneath the sleeves and in places where the shirt is wrinkled. It’s recommended to promote this as a selling feature but, in my opinion, it’s more a part of the process that a customer must deal with if they want that look.

Pre-fab notions

While many consider the aforementioned as all-over printing, true all-over sublimation is conducted by shops that leverage cut-and-sew capabilities. In one production scenario, the garment template is designed and printed on a roll of sublimation paper. After printing, the paper runs through a rotary drum heat press along with a bolt of polyester fabric. Now the transfer dyes the fabric and the shop cuts the panel and sews the garment together, resulting in a full-color custom fabrication without blemish. There are also sublimation systems that print directly onto roll fabric which is then heat set.

Think of the opportunity in motocross jerseys, wrestling singlets, softball uniforms and so on. The cut-and-sew sublimation process is trending and, with the recent introduction of neon inks and its natural marriage to performance fabrics, key markets are arising, most notably in the extreme sports sector.

Getting crafty

Another growing use of sublimation technology is in the actual polyester twill material that is being sewn to garments for the jersey lettering and/or an appliqué design. Since twill can be sourced in white and sublimation can be heat applied to twill, unique patterns, complex designs and even faux stitches can present a world of possibilities for patches, numbering, crests and more.

Out of all the heat transfer processes available, sublimation seems to be one of the most unique. When you look at the entire fabric marketplace, one could argue that it reaches just a small part of the market. While I would agree, the markets to which it allows access are growing and are projected for even more growth in the future. Sublimation really allows the incorporation of vivid, unrivaled color.

When coupled with other decorating processes or when utilized in the right business model, sublimation can add a lot of value and profit. For digitally-printed, low- to mid-quantity, custom runs it’s an option right alongside of print/cut heat transfers and direct-to-substrate/garment printing. If you can afford to employ all of these techniques, you won’t have to pass on any full-color jobs that come your way.