by Tom Chambers

This article is intended to be a summarized comparison between two very popular methods of garment and promotional decoration.  While much of it has already been covered in more detailed fashion elsewhere in this blog, this summary is a general guide to better enable you to make an informed choice between two very different methods.

Sublimation

Sublimation is both a process and a bit of science, and is a unique method of decorating.  When you sublimate, you print a dye onto a special paper.  When you put the paper on something made of or coated with polyester or a polyester polymer, and put it in a heat press, the heat turns the dye into a gas, which then permanently dyes the item by penetrating and bonding with the polyester molecules.

  • Sublimation requires a system comprised of a printer, special ink and paper, graphics software on a computer, a heat press and/or an oven, and a variety of blank products to sublimate.
  • Sublimation is NOT a “transfer”. There is no transfer paper with a transfer film. There is no feel or residue.
  • Sublimation works only on polyester (such as performance apparel), or special polymer coated blank items. If you sublimate 50/50 poly-cotton, you’ll get 50% reduced image quality for a worn look (or use ChromaBlast paper for a hybrid subli-transfer solution).
  • Once fabric is sublimated, it IS permanent. Bleach won’t even faze it.
  • Sublimation looks best on white or light colored items. There is NO white ink. You can NOT sublimate onto anything darker than the actual color(s) you are trying to sublimate.
  • Sublimation is arguably one of the least expensive, yet most versatile methods of decoration available, capable of decorating thousands of different items in addition to apparel, with photo quality artwork.
  • Sublimation is perfect for smaller orders and custom work with high profit margins.

Printed Transfers

Printed transfers are, as the name implies, printed, and then transferred.  Other than the fact that you print your artwork and press it, there is very little similarity with sublimation at all.  Transfers are printed onto a special paper, and then the actual print itself is transferred over to the item when you press it.

In general, printed transfer systems can be divided into a couple of types.  Inkjet – ranging from home printers to pro systems such as ChromaBlast; and Laser – both home and professional laser transfers, and also ones that print white that eliminate the need for transfer film based papers and trimming.

  • All transfer systems regardless of type require a printer, ink or toner, transfer paper, a heat press (an iron can be used for some small home based systems), graphics software, and various products to transfer to.
  • There are many different transfer papers available, usually specific to the type of system. Most have a film that carries over the ink or toner to the t-shirt or other item that must be trimmed to avoid leaving excess film residue.  Utilization of a self-weeding type paper can eliminate the need for trimming, but can have mixed results depending on the paper and process used.  Laser printer self-weeding papers tend to produce better results vs. inkjet self-weeding paper.
  • Whether you are doing white and light colored items or dark colors determine the type of transfer paper you will use on many systems. A vinyl cutter is also recommended for trimming the paper close to the edges of your design (except for self weeding paper types).
  • Dark shirts or items require either a white transfer layer to print on, or the ability for the printer to print white. Designs on dark fabrics using the white transfer layer will have a heavier feel to them as a result.  Laser transfers printed with white ink instead are not as thick, but do still have some feel to them (as will any method of printing transfers for dark t-shirts).
  • Printed transfers are a relatively inexpensive method of producing full color graphics for small to medium size orders of t-shirts and other cotton and cotton blend goods at a lower price point. Some can even transfer to polyester as well.

Inkjet

  • Home Office: Simply use your existing regular printer and ink, buy some transfer paper designed for this method from an office supply store or other source, and use an iron or heat press.  Results vary, but generally this method doesn’t create long-wearing and lasting transfers, and is more for occasional hobby use and novelty gifts.  This is the least expensive type of transfer method and system, and quality can be an issue.
  • Pro: There are a variety of larger, professional inkjet systems on the market with different inks and transfer papers that provide a wide range of results that are used mostly for cotton and cotton blends.  This system is somewhat more expensive, but in general you should expect longer lasting designs and better overall quality vs. the home office type setup.  Some inkjet systems purport to be able to transfer to other blank goods besides garments.
  • Chromablast: A pro level inkjet system that is sold by EnMart is the ChromaBlast inkjet transfer system, which offers a high quality long lasting transfer with a soft feel.

With ChromaBlast, a strong, yet stretchable and breathable bond forms between the film, the ink, and the cotton, and most of the extra untrimmed residue where there is no ink will wash out with the first washing.  This wash also makes the transfer feel even softer.

ChromaBlast is designed for use on light colored or white COTTON fabrics ONLY, utilizing proprietary ChromaBlast Transfer Paper.  It CAN be used on dark garments though with other specialty transfer papers such as ChromaDARK, which will have a heavier feel and should be closely trimmed for best results.  In spite of those limitations, ChromaBlast is relatively inexpensive and higher quality compared to many other systems.

Laser

  • Home Office: Similar to the home office inkjet, you can purchase transfer papers from a variety of places to work with your single color or color home laser printer.  Slightly better results than the home office inkjet, but still not a pro level system.
  • Pro: One of the more expensive printed transfer type systems to purchase, it has some of the best results overall on both light and dark colors.  Excellent self-weeding papers are available that eliminate excess transfer film without having to trim.  Having no restrictions as to cotton or polyester, and added abilities to do laser transfers to mugs and many other items are a bonus.
  • White: Simply put, these laser print transfer systems come with all the advantages of the Pro Laser category, and also have the capability of printing white toner – eliminating the need for that thick white transfer film on the transfer paper.  There is no trimming needed either, and you have the ability to do full color printing onto both light and dark colors.  Even though this extra ability comes at a significant increase in system cost, the finished per unit cost is low enough to provide good profit margins.
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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