Inkjet sublimation uses specially formulated inks and a heat-transfer process to fuse printed designs and images with the polymers in polyester fabrics. Inkjet sublimation printing is much more widely used than the toner-based sublimation process.

This post will discuss wide-format and grand-format inkjet dye-sublimation printing for textiles, used for sports jerseys, fashion apparel, activewear, swimwear; décor fabric, soft signage, tents, flags, backdrops and tensioned and SEG fabric displays.

Part 2 of this series will discuss dye-sublimation on hard surfaces, including polyester-coated wood, metal, acrylic, ceramics, and glass.    

How Sublimation Printing on Textiles Works

Two sublimation processes exist for textiles: dye-sublimation transfer printing and direct-to-textile sublimation printing.

Sublimation Transfer Printing: Images are printed in reverse onto a specially coated heat-transfer paper. The printed transfer paper is then heat pressed onto polyester fabric. When the ink and paper are exposed to a controlled amount of heat and pressure for a specified period of time, the ink turns into a gas that permeates the fabric and solidifies into its fibers.

This video of the Roland Texart XT640 sublimation printer shows some of the apparel, soft signage, and decor products that can be created with inkjet sublimation transfer printing. (Video: Roland Texart XT640 Dye Sublimation Printer)

Images that have been heat-sublimated into fabrics don’t feel like prints. Rather, the inks feel like an integral part of the printed fabric. Depending on the inks, transfer materials, and apparel fabrics used, the sublimated images don’t fade, even after multiple washings.


This video illustrates how small products, such as a polyester microfiber sports towel, can be customized with a Mimaki wide-format sublimation printer and a tabletop heat press. (Video: Mimaki TS30 100 Heat Press)

Direct-to-Textile Sublimation Printing. In this process, images are printed directly on pre-treated polyester fabrics. The printed fabrics are then heated to fix the colors of the fabric. The direct-to-textile process produces designs and images without the need for a transfer paper and reduces the risk of defects occurring during the transfer process. Direct-to-textile sublimation printers require a waste pit to keep excess ink from staining the backside of the fabric.

The Durst Rhotex 325 grand-format sublimation printer in this video can print either on transfer paper or directly to polyester and some polyester blend textiles. (Video: Durst Rhotex 325)

Inkjet Sublimation Printers for Textiles

Wide-format dye-sublimation printers for textiles include models from 24 inches to 100 inches wide. They are used to print graphics and images on rolls of fabrics that will be cut and sewn to make sportswear or fashion apparel or banners, backlit displays, table covers, and displays at trade shows, events, and retail stores.  Wide-format sublimation printers are made by Roland, Epson, Mimaki, Mutoh, and HP

Grand-format dye-sublimation printers range from 104-inches to 196 inches. These printers are used to make supersized, seamless backdrops for tradeshow exhibits and photography studios, lightweight hanging banners, flags, and decor fabrics for event venues, hotels, restaurants, museums, and other public areas. Some grand-format printers are equipped to print on both transfer paper and textiles. Some printers include heaters that fix the sublimation inks to the direct-printed textiles.

Companies that make grand-format dye-sublimation printers include Durst, Agfa, EFI, Mimaki, DGI, and HP.
Manufacturers of rotary heat presses (“calendars”) for direct-to-textile or sublimation transfer printing on rolls of textiles include Klieverik and Monti Antonio.    

Inks

Dye-sublimation inks for textiles use ultra-fine disperse dyes that don’t fully brighten until exposed to heat. When the dye sublimation inks are printed onto the transfer papers, the inks don’t fully bond to the paper and the color appears muted.  As the heat press applies heat and pressure to the transfer paper and polyester substrate, the inks are released from the paper and the colors are activated as the dyes are diffused into the polyester fabric fibers.

The formulation and viscosities of sublimation inks vary, depending on the type of printhead the printer uses and how the printed fabrics will be used. For example, sublimation inks used to print children’s wear or pillowcases must meet different health, safety, and washability standards than durable textiles printed for trade show banners.

Most wide-format inkjet sublimation printers for textiles use 8 colors of ink excel at colorful, visually rich signs and graphics. Two sets of CMYK inks can be used for faster throughput of some types of signs, but most printers use inksets that contain light cyan and light magenta inks and different densities of black inks. Some inksets can include fluorescent yellow or pink ink and orange, violet or blue inks.

Fluorescent colors are popular for theme-park graphics and high-visibility safety gear, cycling jerseys, and other sports performance apparel.  Orange, blue, and violet inks expand the range of fashion, brand, and team colors that can be reproduced.

White inks are not available for dye-sublimation printing. Instead, the white polyester fabrics engineered for soft signage and visual display graphics usually have a bright white print surface to optimize color reproduction and image quality.

On a bright-white coated fabric optimized for transfer printing, the colors look rich and saturated and images look “dot-free” even when viewed up close.

Substrates

Many different types of transfer papers and polyester knit and woven fabrics are available for making hundreds of different apparel, signage, and décor products.

Transfer Papers: A variety of multi-purpose or special-purpose transfer papers have been developed for sublimation textile printers. Most papers are designed to work with water-based sublimation inks, but some are available for industrial sublimation printers that use oil-based or solvent sublimation inks.

Some dye-sub papers for fabrics use a low-tack adhesive to help keep the paper dimensionally stable during the heat transfer process. Thinner, lighter, more economical papers have been developed for industrial sublimation printers that use fast-drying inks to print on papers at higher speeds. Suppliers of transfer papers include Neenah Coldenhove. Beaver Paper, Bergen Textiles, and Sappi (Transjet)

Fabrics: Companies such as Fisher Textiles, Top Value Fabrics, and Eclipse Textiles have engineered dye-sublimation fabrics for a huge variety of apparel, décor, and signage applications. For example, Eclipse makes sublimation-ready fabrics for swimwear, dancewear, activewear, fashions, and intimate apparel. Top Value Fabrics and Fisher Textiles offer soft knit and sturdy woven fabrics for both direct-to-textile sublimation and high-resolution sublimation transfer printing on wide-format and grand-format sublimation printers.

Some fabrics have manufactured with the predictable amount of stretch required for making silicone-edge graphics (SEG). Silicone-edge graphics feature a sewn-on silicone beading that can easily be inserted into the grooves around the edges of an aluminum frame. The frames and can be configured to custom sizes and the inserted graphics look smooth and “frameless”  
SEG displays are popular in retail stores, event venues, and trade-show booths.

SEG displays are popular because they are lightweight and easy to transport and install. This video shows how easy it is to insert a silicone-edged fabric graphic into an SEG frame. (Video: SEG Fabric Installation Instructions)

Prepress

One of the biggest challenges in dye-sublimation printing is achieving predictable, consistent color. That’s because colors can shift when the ink turns into a gas when heat or pressure is applied. Successful producers of sublimation prints experiment with the combination of inks, transfer media, and heat settings that work best with their equipment for a specific type of product. They save and repeat these production steps for future jobs.

Sublimation printers from Mimaki, Roland, Epson, and HP come with RIP software for converting photos and designs into ready-to-print files for dye-sublimation printing. RIP software for wide-format sublimation printers include color profiles for the print manufacturer’s specific ink sets, recommended transfer papers, and type of substrate.

Ergosoft, Wasatch, Colorgate, Caldera, and Onyx RIP software can manage printing and color on a variety of wide-format inkjet printers, including dye-sublimation printers.  

Finishing

The finishing processes required depend on how the printed fabric will be displayed. After the final colors are fixed on fabrics with a flatbed heat press or rotary heat calendar, the textile may need to be cut and sewn.


Summa’s L series of flatbed cutting systems use lasers to contour cut the stretchy polyester fabrics used in sublimation printing. (Video: Summa L Series Announcement)

If the fabric will be inserted into SEG aluminum display system, silicon edge strips must be sewn onto the edges of the graphic.


This video shows how Impulsa industrial sewing equipment is used to add a strip of silicone beading to the edge of a fabric graphic. (Video: Impulsa Synchronized Sewing for Silicone Edge Graphics)

Advances in Technology

Recent innovations in inkjet dye-sublimation have focused on improving color management and expanding the range of fabrics that can be decorated.

Earlier this year, HP introduced two 64-inch Stitch wide-format printers and a 126-inch Stitch grand-format printer for textile dye-sublimation, These three printers are the first inkjet dye-sublimation printers to use thermal printheads. Thermal printheads cost less than piezo printheads and can be replaced by the user.

This video announcing the 3.2-meter HP Stitch S1000 printer highlights the HP SmartColor software and the ability to print both on transfer paper and directly to polyester textiles. (Video: HP Stitch S1000 Dye Sublimation Inkjet Printer)

Print-service providers can use the onboard spectrophotometer their HP Stitch S-series printers and HP SmartColor software to create their own profiles They can also automatically get the closest visual color match when a PANTONE® color is out of gamut.

HP created this video to demonstrate how easy it is to use the HP SmartColor software with their 64-inch HP Stitch S500. (Video: The World’s Fastest Color Match – HP Stitch S Series Printers.)

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This post is part of a series we are publishing to help you understand how the many types of analog and digital printing processes are evolving to meet the changing requirements of customers today.

Follow Ordant on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter to learn when the next post is published. It will cover inkjet dye sublimation printing for hard substrates, including sublimation blanks and rigid panels for décor products, art and photo prints, and indoor and outdoor signs.

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Wide-Format Inkjet Printing - Part 2: Flatbed & Hybrid Printer
Wide-Format Inkjet Technology- Part 3: Grand Format Printers