What is Sublimation Printing?

Sublimation is a popular surface decoration process for creating short runs of custom sportswear, soft signage (display graphics on fabrics), decorated textiles, photo panels, building materials, and promotional products.    

When controlled amounts of heat or pressure are applied to either a printed transfer paper or polyester-coated surface, the colorants in sublimation inks become gasses that permeate the surface of the item being decorated. The ink doesn’t alter how the printed surface feels. Dive into the details of sublimation printing processes with a closer look.

Two sublimation processes

The sublimation transfer process gives shops the versatility to decorate either rolls of fabrics or rigid surfaces such as aluminum. acrylic, stretched canvas, snowboards or wood panels

In this process, the inks are printed on specially treated sublimation transfer papers. A heat press applies the controlled amounts of heat and pressure needed to transfer the inks from the printed paper to the fabric or object being decorated.  

The direct sublimation process enables businesses to decorate long runs of fabrics that are up to 197 inch wide to make seamless backdrops for decor, stage sets, theaters, and trade show exhibits. The direct process eliminates the time and expense of printing on a transfer paper first but requires treated fabrics to produce the best results.

Some “hybrid” 10-ft. and 16- ft.- wide printers are designed for both sublimation transfer or direct sublimation. Some of these superwide dye-sub printers have built-in heaters to sublimate the inks into the fabric. This eliminates the need to unload a printed roll and run it through a separate superwide rotary heating calendar to convert and dry the inks.

Benefits of Sublimation

The use of sublimation printing is rising partly because it offers some important durability and sustainability advantages compared to direct painting.

As a result, there has been a rapid growth in the demand for sublimated products and ongoing improvements in sublimation technology. Today, print-service providers can choose from a huge variety of sublimation printers as well as hundreds of different types of sublimation-ready textiles, photo gifts, and promotional products.

Sublimation printing provides low-cost-of-entry business opportunities for start-up e-commerce retail businesses. Established graphics and commercial printing businesses can use sublimation printing  to expand their product offerings or enter new markets, such as interior decor or promotional products. .

Here are some benefits:

Natural feel:

Unlike screen-printing or heat-transfer surface-decoration processes, sublimation printing doesn’t alter how the printed garment or photo product feels to the touch. Sublimation is a popular method of decorating sportswear, swimsuits, leggings, and other apparel that will be worn close to the body.


Because the inks are embedded beneath the print surface, the printed image is resistant to water, abrasion, cracking, and fading. Sublimated photographs on poly-coated metal panels don’t need to be framed behind UV-filtering glass or acrylic to resist fading.

Vibrant Colors:

Most dye-sublimation printers use CMYK inks. But some printers are also built to include additional colors such as violet, orange, fluorescent yellow or fluorescent pink. These combinations can achieve a brighter range of colors. Fluorescent yellow gives safety and cycling apparel greater visibility in dangerous conditions.

Image Quality:

Instead of forming colors by placing dots of ink directly on the fabric, the sublimation process produces continuous-tone images. Correctly sublimated photographs don’t show any dots, even when viewed up close.

Cost-Effective Sign Option:

Sublimation inks cost less than the UV-inks used to produce durable indoor and outdoor prints for trade shows and events. Sublimated fabric graphics for trade-show exhibits are less costly to ship than signs printed on vinyl or rigid boards. The fabric typically weighs less and can be folded or rolled up into a small package. Because of its durability, the sublimated fabric graphics can be re-used at multiple events.


Because polyester fabric can be reused and recycled, it reduces the volume of landfill waste compared to signs made from vinyl and some rigid materials.

The sublimation inks are water based, and don’t contain the solvents or photo initiators used to make eco-solvent or UV-curable inks.

Makers of fabrics for fashion and apparel like dye-sublimation because it doesn’t require the printed textiles to be steamed, washed, and dried before they are cut and sewn into garments, bedding, or upholstery products.

It also reduces the use of water and energy.and allows garments and upholstery to be manufactured only in the sizes, colors, and patterns customers have ordered. This keeps more unsold garments out of landfills.      

Sublimation Printers

Entry-level sublimation printers (8.5- to 24-inches wide) and heat presses are available for start-up home-based businesses who want to produce and sell small, customized or personalized products. These printers can be used to decorate items such as coffee mugs, luggage tags, coasters, ornaments, photo plaques, drinkware, pillow covers, and promotional products.

Sublimation printers ranging from 44 to 64 in.are used to make fashion, jerseys, costumes, bedsheets, blankets, tapestries, snowboards, metal photo panels, and some types of displays.  

Larger printers – from 76 to 196 in. wide – are available to make soft signage and display graphics, including seamless, easy-to-ship backdrops and displays for trade shows, museums, entertainment venues, theme parks, and retail stores.

These grand-format printing companies often handle outsourced work from print-service providers that don’t have the demand or capacity for printers and heat calendars that can handle rolls of materials that are 3 meters or 5 meters wide.

Challenges and Limitations

Color management can be tricky:

It’s impractical for manufacturers to develop accurate profiles that include all the variables in both the printing and heat-transfer steps. The specialized RIP software offered with your sublimation printer can be helpful, but you must learn how to troubleshoot any color control problems that arise with the specific products you are decorating.

Dye-sub experts recommend experimenting with different combinations of settings and documenting which one produces the best results in your shop.

It’s critical to set up a predictable, repeatable workflow for each sublimated product offered. New color management tools are being developed for digitally printed fabrics. Specialized training is also available. .

The sublimation process doesn’t work on all materials:

It can be used (with different results) on coated and uncoated polyester fabrics and poly-cotton materials that have a high level of polyester.

The sublimation process doesn’t work on garments made with natural fibers such as cotton and wool because the fibers don’t open up when exposed to heat.

To expand the use of fabrics that can be printed, makers of sublimation printers, inks, and transfer paper are developing new types products that will owners of wide-format pigment-ink printers to use the heat calendars they use for sublimation to also transfer pigment-ink images to cotton and other natural fabrics.  

Metals and plastic items require a polymer coating in order to be decorated with sublimation inks. Ceramics and glass can also be sublimated with the right kind of treatments.

White inks aren’t available:

This means sublimation works best on white or light-color fabrics because white sublimation inks aren’t available to produce a base layer for vibrant, predictable colors.

There are lots of opportunities for errors:

For example, if the fabric stretches, wrinkles, or folds over during the transfer process, the image won’t print or transfer correctly.

If a transfer paper is oversaturated with ink, the colors will bleed or run. The colors won’t look as vibrant if the operator uses the wrong combination of time, heat, and pressure to transfer the ink to the product.

A good way to learn about how to sublimate is to start with a low-cost entry-level printer and heat press.

Suppliers of equipment and materials have provided numerous videos, blog posts, and webinars that explain how to avoid or troubleshoot common problems.  

Setting Up a Workflow

Setting up repeatable, efficient, quality-controlled workflows for each product your shop offers is key to achieving greater profitability in your business.

Once you have an efficient workflow established, you can use Ordant software to automate the process of reaching out to potential customers, estimating potential jobs, and scheduling, shipping, and invoicing jobs.

You can also integrate web-to-print storefronts that enable you to accept online orders from either business customers or consumers. Incoming, prepaid, pre-approved job files can be automatically routed to the appropriate printer being used for production.

With Ordant, it is easy to incorporate sublimation workflows alongside workflows for products made on UV flatbed printers, eco-solvent wide-format printers, label printers, direct-to-garment printers, or offset presses.

It’s also easy to make adjustments in pricing as your supply and production costs change.
To see why Ordant is radically different from most Print MIS and sign shop programs, schedule a demonstration at www.ordant.com

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