A Tale of Two T-Shirts

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. 

SubliStuff Sublimation Series Posts

series listOver on the EmbroideryTalk Blog,  I just did a post where I collected all the links to my series posts in one place.  For those who don’t know,  a series post is when I deal with one subject over several posts,  talking about a different aspect of the topic in each post.   I’ve also done some series posts here on the SubliStuff blog,  so it seemed like a good idea to collect links to those posts all in one place so people can more easily find them.

Subject:  Getting Started with Sublimation

Target Markets for Sublimated Products 

Sublimation: It’s (Not) Complicated 

Create, Print, Press! Is It Really that Easy?

Choosing a Heat Press

Choosing a Printer 

Target Market 

Sublimation Reality Check

Subject: How to Sublimate a Specific Item

How to Sublimate a Shot Glass

What Exactly Can You Sublimate 

How to Sublimate Tiles 

Subject:  Sublimation Paper

Mpres Paper 

The Quest for Fire… Sublimation Paper, pt 1

The Quest for Fire… Sublimation Paper, pt 2

Subject:  ChromaBlast Ink

ChromaBlast:  A Comparison 

ChromaBlast for Cotton

ChromaBlast Printing for Dark T-Shirts

Please keep in mind that this blog has been around since 2010, so some of the printers mentioned may no longer be offered.   I do think the information contained in these posts is still helpful, however, and hopefully you will as well.

Tech Support for Sublimation and ChromaBlast

Whether you’re just starting out or encounter a problem with a system you’ve had for years,  everyone knows that good tech support can be a huge help and bad tech support can doom you to hours on the phone with people who don’t know what they’re doing.   When you’re buying a ChromaBlast or sublimation system from someone,  in addition to looking at packages and price,  you should also consider the type and amount of tech support that’s being offered.  The level of experience of those offering the tech support matters too,  so be sure to ask.

At EnMart,  our technical support comes from two places.  One is Sawgrass Ink.    There are times when we will refer people to Sawgrass Tech support especially if the problem or question involves ink or driver issues.  Since Sawgrass created those products they are,  in some cases,  better positioned to help solve problems than EnMart would be.  Our goal is always to provide the speediest and easiest resolution to customer concerns that we can,  and sometimes that means referring our customers to the people best suited to solve their problem.

The other option for tech support from EnMart is our own in house tech department.  EnMart’s parent company,  Ensign Emblem,  was the company that brought inkjet sublimation to industrial laundries,  so we’ve had years of experience with sublimation.  We have, over the years,  encountered a great many of the problems that our customers may see as they work with their systems.  We’re familiar with color matching,  heads clogging,  ghosting,  paper issues,  printer issues and those little odd issues that sometimes crop up and no one knows why.   Bill and Tom are knowledgeable and ready to help.  If you purchased a system for us and are having problems, feel free to contact us and we’ll put you in touch with our tech guys who will be happy to help.


ChromaBlast Printing for Dark T-Shirts

Did you know that you can use ChromaBlast ink to create transfers for colored or black t-shirts?

Most companies, including ourselves at one time,  would tell you that ChromaBlast is engineered for light colored garments,  and that’s quite true.  For the lightest hand possible,  you do want to print with ChromaBlast ink on ChromaBlast paper and transfer to a light colored cotton garment.   ChromaBlast is, of course, engineered to be a very high quality, long lasting transfer with a very soft hand that rivals the best direct-to-garment prints, for a tiny fraction of the cost.  When pressed onto white (or light colored) 100% cotton shirts, it creates a special bond between the ink, the transfer film on the ChromaBlast paper, and the cotton fibers.

EnMart has discovered, however,  that you can create a transfer using ChromaBlast ink which will work on dark garments as well.  With ChromaDark (3g Jet Opaque) transfer paper from EnMart, you use the same ChromaBlast ink to print onto a thin white base layer on top of a paper sheet, which is then trimmed either by hand or a cutter, peeled apart, and heat-pressed onto a 100% cotton shirt.  The end result is a high quality photo-realistic image on any color of t-shirt – even black.    As the picture shows,  we have tested this method and this paper and it works.

For even more impressive results, use a vinyl cutter to cut the outline around your designs and/or lettering.  Because you are printing onto a white base layer, you will feel it – the same as if you were using screen printing, direct to garment printing, or any other type of transfer.   If you would prefer a transfer that you will not feel once it has been printed to the garment,  your best bet is still a light colored polyester garment and sublimation ink and paper.   If, however,  you wish to print to dark garments,  ChromaDark paper and ChromaBlast ink offer a cost effective solution.

Sublimation and ChromaBlast Inks: A Comparison

When you visit the EnMart site to purchase inks you’ll notice that sublimation and ChromaBlast are included in one menu category.    Since both inks are made by Sawgrass and both are used to print transfers for the decoration of garments and other items,  it seemed logical to include them under the same menu item.   Linking them together in this manner does not, however, mean they are exactly the same thing.

Sublimation ink is designed to work with polyester garments and poly coated blanks.    This ink actually sublimates when heated and dyes the coating or the fibers of the item it is being used to decorate.   Sublimation ink can be used on a wide variety of items,  including mugs, mousepads,  tiles,  dog tags,  pet bowls and shot glasses.    Because the ink bonds with the coating on the hard goods or the fibers in the garments,  there is very little to no hand with a sublimation print.   Although it is a transfer,  you don’t feel the carrier mechanism.

ChromaBlast Ink,  on the other hand,  is designed to work on cotton garments and other items like tote bags or hats.    It is a true transfer, in that a carrier mechanism is used to transfer the ink to the fabric.   While ChromaBlast has less of a hand than some other transfer methods,  you can feel the transfer on the shirt if you run your hand across it.   ChromaBlast ink is also intended strictly for light colored garments,  the one thing it does have in common with sublimation ink.  Neither ink is suited for dark colored garments.

How to Price Sublimated Products

If there is one question anyone at EnMart dreads,  at least when it comes to sublimation or ChromaBlast,  it’s the question about how many prints can be gotten from a cartridge of ink.   It would be lovely if we could reel off a number and have that number be accurate,  but that’s not how it works.  The number of prints that can be gotten from a set of cartridges is dependent on a wide variety of factors,  from how large the design is,  to how the printer releases ink,  to the settings that are programmed into the software.   There are any number of variables that can impact how many transfers a set of cartridges can print,  and so it is next to impossible to quote a number that would have any sort of accuracy.

Still, we do understand why this is something that people want to know.   Determining how many prints you can get from a set of cartridges will help you determine how much you’ll be paying per print and thus how much to charge your customers for a finished item.    While we can’t tell you how many prints you will get from your cartridges,  we can give you some estimate,  however broad,  of what those prints will cost.    Sawgrass has handy charts for the Ricoh sublimation systems and the Epson sublimation systems.  They also offer comparisons for ChromaBlast with a Ricoh printer and ChromaBlast with an Epson printer.   While these comparisons offer estimates only,  they will at least give you a place to start from until you begin working with your own printer and discover what your individual yields will be.

Another thing that could impact how many prints you get is the type of substrate you’re using.   A soft substrate,  like a shirt,  takes much less ink to decorate than does a hard substrate,  like a tile.    Harder substrates require more ink and different software settings to get the vibrant colors that you want.   You may also need to choose the High Quality settings in your PowerDriver software,  which leads to higher saturation of your substrate,  but which may also require more ink output.    So, when you’re making an attempt at estimating how many prints you can get from a set of ink,  keep in mind that the item on which you’re printing can impact ink output as well.

The easiest way to calculate the price of your sublimated goods is probably to use Sawgrass’ price calculator.   This calculator is designed to include all the items that could influence the cost of creating a sublimated good.   It is a great tool and a great way to help ensure that you are charging enough for the items you create.

Free Ink for Ricoh Printers

Many EnMart customers are already familiar with our QuickStartR package,  featuring the Ricoh GX e3300N printer,  or with the Ricoh GX 7000 which is a production grade printer.    These printers are great options for sublimation shops,  with reasonable price points and smooth operation.

This summer,  EnMart is going to make the Ricoh platform even more attractive with a special offer on ink.  Between 6/1/2011 and 7/31/2011,  EnMart is offering one FREE ink cartridge with a first re-order of CMYK Sublijet-R or ChromaBlast-R sublimation ink.    To qualify, customers must purchase a Ricoh GX e3300N or GX7000 Printer with either a full set of SubliJet-R ink cartridges or a full set of ChromaBlast-R ink cartridges.   Once your initial order has been placed,  you will receive a coupon for one Free ink cartridge with your first reorder of a set of CMYK ink.   The coupon must be redeemed by 12/31/11. Offer is available only in the United States and Canada.

The Ricoh platforms are now available for both Windows and Mac operating systems,  so there’s never been a better time to get started with sublimation.    The Free ink offer expires on 7/31/2011,  so get your system ordered today!


New Sublimation and ChromaBlast Solution for Mac Users

EnMart often gets questions about whether or not Sawgrass’ printer drivers can be used with a Mac.   At times, we’ve had to say no, or suggest workarounds in answer to that question.  Today, however,  I have a different response to that question.  Sawgrass has just announced the introduction of Sublijet-R and ChromaBlast-R solutions for the Ricoh GX7000 and the Ricoh GX e3300n which run on the Mac OS.

The center of this new solution for Mac users is MacProfile.  This is an easy to install, unique color management software bundle that assists with product registration.  MacProfile also includes a custom ICC profile, a custom Palette Swatch Library and custom Proof Palette.   This new solution is compatible with popular Mac OS design software like Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.   The software will also give users flexibility,  as it offers rich, vibrant color over a wide variety of images and substrates.

MacProfile also comes with Sawgrass’ Palette Swatch Library and Proofing Palette.  The tools can be used for precise color matching.   The Palette Swatch Library is a a selection of preset color which are suitable for creating designs which are intended to be printed using Sublijet-R or ChromaBlast-R ink.   The Proof Palette allows creation of a color swatch booklet, which can be used as a reference guide to see how colors will look once they are pressed.

Mac users can find more information about installing and using the MacProfile software on the Sawgrass website.   You can download MacProfile from the Sawgrass site as well.

ChromaBlast or Sublimation?

Every once in a while we get a call from someone who is trying to make the decision between buying a ChromaBlast or a sublimation system.   Sometimes they aren’t really sure what the difference between the two types of systems actually is, and other times they’re looking for a specific benefit that will help sell one system over the other.   If you’re attempting to make a decision between ChromaBlast or sublimation,  here are a few things to consider before you make your choice.

First, let’s start with the most basic difference.  ChromaBlast works with cotton substrates and sublimation works with poly substrates.   The ink formulations will only work with the proper substrate, and work best on items that are not blends.   Sublimation ink actually dyes the substrate,  ChromaBlast has a carrier film which bonds with the cotton fibers.  Both offer vibrant, clear color.

Second, let’s talk about what you can imprint.   Sublimation inks allow you imprint both garments and poly coated items like mugs and mousepads and license plates.   Those who use ChromaBlast ink  are generally going to be more interested in decorating garments.   ChromaBlast works with cotton,  which extends into t-shirts and aprons and bed linens and other items of that sort.   There are no hard goods that can be used with ChromaBlast.

Third,  keep in mind that switching inks in one printer is not recommended.   If you can’t choose and you want to both sublimate and print ChromaBlast transfers,    your best bet would be to buy one printer for each type of ink.    EnMart offers both our QuickStartR package and our ChromaBlast package precisely for people who are in this sort of situation.  The packages are very reasonably priced,  and would allow you to be able to print both ChromaBlast and sublimation for under $1000.

Fourth, it should be said that neither printing process, sublimation or ChromaBlast,  will allow you to print on dark garments.    Regardless of whether you choose to sublimate or print with ChromaBlast ink,  you will be printing on light colored garments and/or light colored hard goods.   If you are looking to print on dark garments,  you either would need to purchase light colored polyester fabric sheets which could be sublimated and heat sealed to your garment, or you might want to investigate direct to garment printing.

The main thing to remember is that either system, ChromaBlast or sublimation,  is a viable option for expanding your business and creating a new profit center.   If you want more information about sublimation and ChromaBlast as profit centers,  check out this video on EnMart’s YouTube channel.    While you’re there,  take a minute to subscribe to the channel as well.

Top 4 Trade Show Questions

Every time we go to a trade show,  our sublimation and ChromaBlast display always gets a lot of interest.   We also get asked a lot of questions.   Of course, every person wants to know different things,  based on their own experiences and circumstances,  but there are some questions that we hear quite regularly.  Since we hear them so often,  I thought it might be useful to list a few of those questions,  and their answers, here on the blog, so those people who may not have made it to a trade show could be informed too.

Question 1:  What’s the difference between ChromaBlast and sublimation? –  There are a lot of ways to answer this question,  but the easiest answer is also the simplest.  To put it simply,  sublimation is a process that works with polyester and poly coated items,  and ChromaBlast is designed to work with cotton.

Question 2:  Can I sublimate/print with ChromaBlast on dark items? –  The short answer is no.  Printing on a dark garment generally requires a white underbase or white ink,  and there is no white sublimation or ChromaBlast ink.  There may be some items,  like our color changing mug that start out dark,  but there is nothing that is consistently a dark color that can be printed with sublimation or ChromaBlast ink.

Question 3: How many prints can I get from a set of ink? – This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many factors which can impact how many prints a set of ink will yield.   The size of the print,  the density of the color,  the settings in your print management program,  the set-up of your printer,  all these things can make a difference in your yield.  There is no hard and fast answer to this question.

Question 4: What’s the best printer? – Again, there is no hard and fast answer to this question.  A lot depends on the needs of the person who is asking.   What is the largest size paper you’ll want to print?  How often will you use the printer?  What’s your budget?  The answers given to questions like these will help determine which printer is best for you.

Obviously,  there are a lot of questions we get asked at every show and, judging from the amount of time people spend in our booth,  a lot of answers that are being given.   If you’re at a trade show where EnMart is exhibiting,  please feel free to stop by and see us.  We’ll be happy to answer any questions you have.   If you can’t visit us at a trade show,  leave a comment on this blog,  or on Facebook page or Twitter feed and we’ll reply as soon as we can.