By Tom Chambers

Occasionally when people are researching sublimation and asking questions, I hear variations of this one:  “Can I sublimate cotton?”  While the short answer is “no”, as with most things, there’s more to it than that.

Usually some follow up questions reveal that the goal is to do sublimation onto sublimatable blanks, and to also be able to do cotton (or 50/50 poly cotton) t-shirts, because the cotton and cotton blend shirts are cheaper than higher quality, longer lasting polyester t-shirts, and they believe they need to create an inexpensive t-shirt to sell to a market that doesn’t want to pay much for it.  That in turn opens up a whole other discussion involving the differences between the two main types of t-shirts and their respective markets.

On the one side, you have polyester t-shirts with a comparable feel and look to cotton, that for a variety of reasons cost significantly more than cotton or blended cotton t-shirts.  However, most polyester t-shirts are of a much higher quality, will last a lot longer, and of course can be sublimated – which is permanent, and has no “feel” to the design.  Not to mention being able to accept full color photo quality artwork.  This more than compensates for the relatively small difference in price – but because of the higher price, you’d have to charge more for the shirt – effectively changing the target market.

On the other side, you have cotton and poly-cotton blended t-shirts.  These are available everywhere from a wide variety of manufacturers with a lower price per unit, and as a result, many decorators use these shirts to create inexpensive products that sell for a low price.  Unfortunately, you can’t sublimate them.  Or can you?  More on that later.

These two sides create a myth of two seemingly irreconcilable shirt types.  The truth is that each shirt is well suited for its own particular market and decoration method.  Cotton lends itself to mainstream, mass production, and discount markets due to the lower cost, whereas polyester is well suited to a completely different market that is willing to pay more for a higher quality, longer lasting shirt that can be decorated in full color photo quality graphics and customized very easily.  The shirt types aren’t irreconcilable – the two different markets are.

To put it another way, someone that wants a cheap $10 t-shirt isn’t going to pay enough for the sublimated polyester t-shirt to cover your costs plus enough extra for you, the decorator, to make it worth your time.  Likewise, someone wanting a nice custom full color t-shirt isn’t looking for something they can make themselves with some transfer paper from an office supply store, the ink in their home printer, and an iron.

It all boils down to knowing what your market is, and selling it what it wants.  Sometimes it’s one type of t-shirt, sometimes the other, and sometimes both.

But what if you are just starting out, and want to do both types and sell to both markets, without buying 2 systems?  There is a way.  Earlier I mentioned that you couldn’t sublimate onto cotton.  Technically, you can’t – it’s a scientific impossibility and it will never happen – but you can fake it.

So how do you achieve this wizardry?  It’s simple.  Take your sublimation system, with sublimation ink, and sublimation paper, print onto ChromaBlast transfer paper, and transfer to 50/50 poly-cotton t-shirts.  The sublimation ink will “sublimate” to the polyester part of the shirt, and the film from the Chromablast transfer paper will bond to the cotton part and carry the rest of the ink over that way.

It’s a hybrid type of transfer method that will let you use one system to print two different things, and works well when you are starting out until you get enough volume to justify a dedicated system for each.

Use your sublimation system and ink with sublimation paper to produce all those premium quality custom promotional items and polyester t-shirts that you can sell for top dollar, and use the same system and ink, with ChromaBlast paper, to produce those t-shirts you plan to sell at a lower cost.

Tom Chambers is EnMart’s sublimation guru,  the guide and mentor regarding all things sublimation.   Tom was instrumental in introducing inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries, and has been working with the process since the early days of thermal ribbon sublimation. 

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