Sublimation Printing 101 | What is Dye Sublimation Printing?

Oct 7, 2020

Welcome to the first of, what I hope, is a long series of learning along with me!  After reading and stalking anything and everyone with a sublimation setup, I’ve decided to dive into the printing process in my own studio space.  Each time I share what I’ve made using dye sub processes, I get asked about what sublimation is, how it works, and what you need to do it yourself.  So here I am!

I’d like to preface this by saying that I’m learning along with you!  Everything I talk about on here is practically being discovered in real time, the same as you.  I don’t claim to be an expert.  I’m simply a person full of curiosity and excitement about a new medium for making!  Let’s learn together, shall we?

WHAT IS DYE SUBLIMATION PRINTING?

I’m so glad you asked!  Because it’s all about science!

The word “sublimate” is defined as “the passing directly from the solid to the vapor state”.  So what does that mean in terms of what we are doing?

Dye sublimation printing is a digital printing technology, that allows you to print full color artwork on polyester (and polyester-coated!) substrates.  It’s taking a printed design (the solid) and by applying even heat and pressure, it turns to a gas (through an endothermic reaction) and never hits the liquid phase.  There’s no ink needing to dry during the transfer process, it’s all an infusion on the molecular level.

Basically magic.  Except it’s science!  (PS — I have a great cut file design that goes along with this sentiment.)

The version of sublimation printing we are going to be discussing is focused on the process of using sublimation dyes that are printed directly to a transfer sheet, and then heat pressed to the substrate.  The ink is deposited on some high-release speciality papers and the chemical process happens while your heat press does all the work for you.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HTV + DYE SUB?

Heat Transfer Vinyl (or HTV), is incredibly popular in the crafting and creative world.  Most likely you, or a friend of yours, has a Cricut or Silhouette die-cutting machine and has had some version of experience with HTV.  The vinyl is a polyurethane material that allows any apparel decorator to create a design, cut and weed it out, and heat apply it onto a garment.

With HTV you are printing “on” the fabric.  You can feel the design if you run your hand over it.  Over time, the design can crack or peel due to wear and tear.  But for most purposes, it is AWESOME and absolutely worth having in your creative arsenal.  Plus it will bond to cotton, polyester, cotton/poly blends and various other fabric types that can handle the heat application process.  It comes in many colors, sometimes even patterns and specialty prints, and you can use it on dark and light colors — even layer the prints for multi-colors on a single design!

Dye Sublimation is a chemical reaction, as explained already.  There’s no printing “on” the fabric.  You’re bonding “to” the fabric.  You can stretch it as much as you’d like, you can wash it a million times, and your design will remain the same as the day you first applied it.  You are limited to lighter colored fabrics, so your design will be able to show.  And the fabric type is stricter as well: polyester, polyester, polyester.

Each printing type has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.  It just depends on what you’re looking to do!

WHAT CAN I DYE SUBLIMATE PRINT ON?

SO. MANY. THINGS!  But…within a certain range of substrate.

Also.  I keep using the word “substrate”.  Let’s quickly define that.  In chemistry, a substrate is typically the chemical species being observed in a chemical reaction, which reacts with a reagent to generate a product.  Whew.  Lots of big words.  In dye sublimation, the substrate is polyester.  Polyester is the “species”, the special sub ink is the “reagent” and the product is your beautiful make.

Polyester is a man-made, synthetic resin.  It comes in so many forms…but the most thought of version is fabric.  Thanks to the 1970’s polyester suits trend, polyester fabrics don’t always have the greatest reputation.  But as of late, polyester is making a comeback in the form of DBP…or Double Brushed Poly.

DBP is everywhere in the sewing world lately!  It sublimates beautifully, and I’ve made a few totally awesome (honking my own horn here) clothing items already using it.  It’s not the only fabric out there that can handle the dye sub process, but it’s the easiest to get your hands on and so far has given me some of the best results.

 

I’ve also had incredible luck with a woven fabric that I’ve been dye subbing my little heart out for some fun items.  Mostly masks (thank you 2020), however I see it as a gateway to so much more creative making!

 

What about non-fabric items?  Oh gosh!  There are endless amounts of sublimation blanks, that you can find all over the place.

Here are a few types of blanks you can find: Boards, Business Cards, Drinkware, Clocks, Coasters, ID Tags, iPad / iPhone Cases, Jewelry, Keychains, Can Coolers, License Plates, Magnets, Mouse Pads, Mugs, Name Badges, Ornaments, Pet Tags, Photo Frames, Plaques, Puzzles, Tiles……and then some!

I’m less experienced in the sub blanks than I am with fabric so far.  But like I said, I’m ready to explore along with you!  I’ve already had incredible success with these keychains!  I honestly was blown away with the vibrant colors.  And am ready to take on as many items as you’re ready to take on with me.

 

WHAT DO I NEED TO GET STARTED?

It might feel like a big list, but I promise we will break it down even further in the coming weeks.

  • PRINTER (Converted to Sublimation Ink + Printing)
  • SUBLIMATION PAPER
  • SUBLIMATION INK
  • HEAT RESISTANT TAPE
  • HEAT PRESS / IRON
  • DESIGN SOFTWARE

Please follow me at Wild + Wanderful Blog on Facebook / Wild + Wanderful Blog Facebook Group / Wild + Wanderful on Instagram so you know when the newest posts come out.  They’ll all make their way to my new resource page on the blog: Sublimation.

Until then, here is a quick look at my current setup.

Epson Ecotank ET-2720 | A-Sub Sublimation Paper – 8.5 x 14 | 15×15 Clamshell Heat Press | Printers Jack Sublimation Ink

Disclosure: As always, you’ll find some affiliate links scattered within my post, which means I receive a small amount of compensation if you end up purchasing something I’ve recommended.  Keep in mind that I link these companies and their products because of their quality and not because of the commission I receive from your purchases. The decision is yours, and whether or not you decide to buy something is completely up to you. Thank you for helping to feed my sewing habits!

14 Comments

  1. dania

    Thanks Katy! Very informative 😁

    Reply
    • Katy M.

      I promise I’ll get to the more fun parts soon! I feel like you can’t start without getting to the nitty gritty of how it works and what it all means first. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Debora VanHamlin

    Man I wish this worked on nylon spandex! I just cannot like polyester. But it looks super cool!

    Reply
    • Katy M.

      You can print on poly blends, but the less polyester, the less bold your print turns out. ie: 70% poly, 30% cotton basically means that your design will only print at 70% of its vividness. There are other polyesters fabrics that have a jersey feel to them — you just have to hunt around for what works best for you!

      Reply
  3. Kayl

    Thank you! I do a lot of work with vinyl permanent, removal, and HTV. A lot of my customers have been asking for this and I have referred them to others which is me giving money away!

    I’m definitely going to follow you as I hope to get my printer for Christmas.

    Reply
    • Katy M.

      It’s been fun experimenting so far with different substrates and items! I hope to have more posts up soon!

      Reply
    • Linda

      Love your article! Have brand new Epson ecotank and filled it with sub ink. I can only get very faint images even on 100% poly. Help. Any suggestions?

      Reply
      • Katy M.

        I’d probably need a little more information to help. What are you using to press it? What temperature and for how long? And what’s the item that you’re pressing onto?

        Reply
  4. Angie

    With design software do you use?

    Reply
    • Katy M.

      I mostly design inside of Adobe Illustrator, but sometimes will manipulate files in Photoshop.

      Reply
  5. Dawn Toole

    All of your beautiful projects finally convinced me to take the plunge. Ordered my printer and ink today. Weirdly I already gave the sub paper. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Reply
    • Katy M.

      So fun! I hope you love this new tool — I’m still learning what I can do with it.

      Reply
  6. Julia

    How does your printer hold up if you don’t print regularly?

    Reply
    • Katy M.

      I’ve only had my setup for a little over a year now. I don’t use it constantly, but the printer is used once a week on average. I’d assume it’s the same as any other printer you have in your home / office — if it just sits, you might run into trouble with the printer heads drying out, etc.

      Reply

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Welcome to Wild+Wanderful!  I’m Katy.
Momma. Wife. West Virginian.
Designer. 
Dreamer. Coffee Consumer.
DIY-er. 
Craft Beer Enthusiast.
Purple Obsessor. Lover of Handmade.

MILDLY WILD. MOSTLY WANDERFUL.

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