SUBLIMATION DIGITAL PRINTING
Welcome to this one-of-a-kind informative guide on sublimation digital printing on polyester fabrics.
Sublimation digital printing can be done on various materials, but here we will focus on sublimation digital printing on polyester fabric.
I wrote this guide because lot of students in fashion institutes, asked me to write about a complete, informative, and easy-to-read guide about Sublimation Digital Printing for Polyester Fabrics.
Whether you are new to sublimation digital printing, currently using other print technologies or you are someone who has already started in the world of textile or sublimation digital printing, this guide is intended to give you a comprehensive overview to what sublimation digital printing is all about.
For the purpose of this guide, I won’t be discussing analogue ‘traditional’ print processes such as gravure, and screen print.
Instead, I will focus on sublimation digital printing with digital ink-jet printing machines.
It then explores the materials you can print onto, how digital ink-jet sublimation compares to other textile printing methods, considerations for choosing your heat press or calender, and a whole host of information on the applications you can deliver.
I hope you enjoy the read.
Should you have any comments or feedback you are always welcome. Please feel free to get in touch.
Our contact details are at the end of this guide.
You might be wondering what is covered in this article.
The topics are:
1. What is Sublimation Digital Printing?
2. Why Consider Sublimation Digital Printing?
3. What We Need For Sublimation Digital Printing?
4. What to Check Before Sublimation Digital Printing?
5. How Sublimation Digital Printing Works?
6. Why Only Polyester Fabrics Can Be Used?
7. Benefits of Sublimation Digital Printing
A key perhaps to understanding sublimation digital printing, is understanding, what sublimation is?
First thing first, here’s what we need to know:
What is sublimation?
Technically, sublimation is a specialized change of state when a solid substance skips the liquid phase and moves directly into the gas phase.
This occurs because the substance absorbs energy so quickly from the surroundings that melting never occurs.
Now if you recall from high school chemistry and physics lecture, sublimation is the physical process whereby a substance transitions from the solid phase directly to the gas phase without first passing through the liquid phase.
Sublimation takes place because of either heat, or pressure, or both.
The opposite of sublimation is called deposition, the process by which a gas transitions directly into a solid without first becoming a liquid.
You will have a very genuine question, “How does sublimation work in the context of digital sublimation printing?”
Our next topic will answer your question.
What is Sublimation Digital Printing?
Sublimation printing is a technique that uses heat sensitive inks. These inks turn into gas under the influence of heat and combine with a 100% polyester medium. Since the ink becomes part of the structure of the material, the images on the fabric don’t fade or crack - even after multiple washings.
Put simply, ink-jet sublimation digital printing is the process where specially manufactured inks, containing heat activated sublimation dyes, are fixed by heat and pressure into a polyester substrate, such as a polyester fabric or polyester coated surface.
Sublimation Digital Printing is also referred to as Transfer Printing, Sublimation Printing or Dye Sublimation Printing.
We will discuss the application and possibilities of this technology in detail, later in this article.
Why Consider Sublimation Digital Printing ?
Without a doubt, sublimation digital printing is one of the most effective and efficient methods for creating a whole range of customised and personalised products on-demand.
This means you can deliver an almost limitless variety of creative and profitable applications, that will enable you to extend your range of services to your existing clients, or indeed open up a wide-variety of new markets to you.
With sublimation digital printing, you can print on wide range of fabrics and coated surfaces in many widths and lengths, including stretchy sports fabrics, heavy canvas, fire retardants and ultra-light polyester fabrics like weightless georgette.
In addition to these textiles, you can sublimate onto a range of coated hard surface materials, such as wood, metal, plastics, glass and ceramic.
This means you can deliver a huge range of applications including sportswear and sports equipment, fashion, soft signage, interior décor, promotional merchandise and personalized gifts.
It’s easy, and quick to deliver that means we’ll continue to surprise and delight our customers.
Read on to find out more.
What We Need For Sublimation Digital Printing ?
A sublimation system comes in a variety of configurations depending on your product offerings and production volume.
You need various items to create sublimation digital printing system work.
To get started in sublimation digital printing business, you must need the following eight components:
Sublimation Printing Machine
Heat Transfer Equipment
Heat Transfer Paper
And of course Electricity! Just kidding.
Now we will learn about each component and its importance in the sublimation digital printing in detail:
Sublimation Printing Machine
A high-quality printer is essential.
Printer models come in a variety of print widths and ink configurations depending on the products you'll be making and your anticipated production volume.
The commercial grade, "open ink" systems (ink is purchased in single or multiple liter containers and used to refill open cartridges) offer the most economical output costs for the business that is producing large runs of sublimated products.
Sublimation inks have many colour-giving elements and are highly concentrated, which is necessary to create beautiful, vivid and crisp images.
The main difference is the carrier for the ink's pigment.
Some manufacturers have sublimation inks available for their specific printer models.
Other third-party sublimation inks are compatible with certain printer models depending on the make and model of the ink-jet head used in the printer.
Users of third-party ink solutions will have to make sure of ink compatibility, machine supplier support for any printing or technical issues that may arise.
There is usually standard CMYK colors for the ink, but some manufacturers also provide other colors like Pink, Orange, Navy Blue, Sky Blue, Red, neon pink, neon yellow, neon green, green, turquoise, violet and various range of black.
Heat Transfer Paper (Sublimation Paper)
You need specific papers for the sublimation heat transfer process.
These papers are specifically developed for sublimation digital printing.
There are several things to consider when choosing a transfer paper.
First, make sure the coating is compatible with the ink technology being used.
Many manufacturers make different papers that are compatible with either oil-, solvent- or water-based inks.
We do not want the ink to penetrate the fibres of the paper.
The goal of the coating is to minimize ink absorption by holding as much ink as possible in the coating.
To create high-quality sublimation prints, you need a transfer paper that has high ink absorption and dries quickly.
We expect a little bit of ink to stay on the paper after printing, but for as much ink as possible to be sublimated off the paper at the required temperature, not pressed back on the paper.
A good quality paper’s weight is usually ranges between 90 GSM and 140 GSM.
The paper needs to stay flat and may not create ripples after printing. It is also important that the paper releases the ink when heating.
Thicker paper creates lesser ripples under heavy ink loading.
Lighter weight paper is sometimes chosen, as it is cheaper and can provide adequate results.
WATCH OUT BEFORE SELECTING A SUBLIMATION TRANSFER PAPER!
To ensure correct ink transfer, smooth saturation, and fine image quality, don’t cut corners on your paper and use a coated sublimation transfer paper with excellent ink-absorption and high-ink release.
If you know that you have a loyal repeated client and also if you can predict about his future order and do a print run in advance and plan on transferring them days or maybe weeks later when you receive the order, it may help by putting the prints in a polythene bag (such as the bag the roll of paper is protected in).
This will minimize absorption of moisture and maintain print integrity before heat transfer.
Heat-Press Machine or Heat Transfer Machine
Ok, we’ve printed our sublimation inks onto paper – what type of heat press do I need to transfer the image onto my substrate?
Calender presses are used to heat transfer from a printed roll of paper onto polyester fabric.
Printing is only the first step of the digital sublimation process.
For sublimation to take place, you need heat and pressure.
The roll of paper is attached to the press and fed through with the fabric.
Heat presses come in a variation of sizes and shapes, but you need a calender for roll-to-roll sublimation.
You need a professional calender system that is fast, affordable and easy to use, making it a perfect finishing partner for your sublimation digital printers.
You need a minimum temperature of 180°C for sublimation to take place.
Depending on the textile, we advise a temperature of 185 to 200°C and an exposure time of about 30 to 55 seconds to simultaneously heat the ink on the transfer paper and the polymer fibres within the substrate, enabling the transfer of ink to media.
Please note that you will need to adjust the temperature and/or exposure time when the results are not satisfying.
You need to give less exposure time for thinner fabrics, and more exposure time for thicker fabrics.
Sometimes if we give more exposure time to fabrics they become hard. So you have to play around these constraints until you know the numbers for the kind of fabric you have for printing.
A reliable large format press should last decades and fulfill an increasing sublimation output as your business and printing machinery grows.
Invest in reliable high quality heat press and plan for business growth.
As we will see later in this article only the polyester products can be sublimated.
Polyester fabric is one of the products that can be sublimated.
Apart from polyester fabric, there are literally thousands of blank polyester products available to the sublimation decorator today from textiles, aluminum and brass, FRP, (Fiber-glass Reinforced Plastic), hardboard, wooden products, stainless steel items, ceramics mugs and tiles, and a large variety of performance apparel t-shirts.
However when choosing a textile for sublimation printing, it is important that you take a 100% polyester fabric that is RFD (ready for dying/printing) and pre-shrunk.
This avoids shrinking when heat is applied.
You’ll need a computer to design and process your digital graphics for printing and to manage your overall print production.
No matter the product or output, a computer is necessary for three things:
1. To run a Design Software,
2. To run a RIP Software, and
3. To establish a connection between printer and RIP software.
4. Most importantly to input and adjust your production quantity and size of the printing, and see how the output will look like.
Professional graphics software has advanced color management settings and which allow for the use of custom color profile (e.g. ICC profiles) is recommended.
An example of professional graphics software is Adobe Photoshop. It is the best software out there to make your designs with.
The designing software helps a lot.
Especially if your business is such that you are not given designs by your clients, then you might need to buy designing software, like PhotoShop, to make your digital graphics.
Digital graphic is a technical term but most commonly it is known as design, print pattern, graphic design, digital image, art file, or surface pattern.
Designing software lets you design your own imagination into a digital image that you want to print later.
Your digital design should at least be 150 dpi for best quality printing to achieve quality print result on the fabric.
You need to check with your color management software - RIP software, to see what format it accepts and lets you use.
According to your RIP software you will need to make the design.
Usually most of the RIP Software accepts TIFF, PSD, JPG, and PNG formats for printing best quality designs.
RIP Software is known as Raster Image Processor Software. Wide format sublimation digital printing systems may require RIP software.
RIP software is an advanced print driver which can be calibrated for color and quality specifically based on your individual printer, sublimation ink set, paper and your final product.
Not all sublimation printer manufacturers supply software with their machine which means you’ll have to research different RIP software and ensure that it’s compatible with your printer.
You also need RIP software to control your printer and to manage your print jobs.
Wasatch, and neoStampa are the digital printing industry’s leading software.
Normally this RIP software comes free with the printer manufacturer, and sometimes you need to pay for it. It really depends on how you have negotiated your deal with them.
That was all to set up the sublimation digital printing system.
Now, when you're first getting started, the sublimation process can present some unique learning experiences.
Here’s what we found in our learning curve:
What to Check Before Sublimation Digital Printing ?
You may have the system ready for you to print.
But before doing sublimation digital printing, you need to check few things.
To determine whether you can imprint a product with a wash-fast, scratch-resistant, full-color sublimation image, you'll need to answer three simple questions:
First: Is the decoration area polyester-based?
Sublimation is reliant on polyester's unique molecular structure (e.g. its ability to bond with the gassed ink dyes).
You cannot sublimate to cotton, nylon, vinyl, wool, leather, etc.
Second: Will the product hold up to the optimal temperatures (up to 400° F) and pressure required for the sublimation process?
Third: Is the color of the product light enough to take an image?
This is a dye technology, the color of a sublimation product's decoration surface can affect the final colors of your graphic.
True white works best, but you can still decorate lighter colored products such as t-shirts or light cream or off-white colored polyester fabrics while achieving 70-80% of the printer's available color gamut.
There are hundreds of ready-to-sublimate products specifically made for the sublimation industry with more and more being introduced continually.
How Sublimation Digital Printing Works?
Here is the description of the complete sublimation digital printing process divided in smaller steps that you need to follow with sublimation digital printing:
Get the right size and quantity of a repeat pattern, and RIP the design from a computer and send the RIP design to printer. Remember that the design needs to be mirrored (depending on your RIP software) to get it printed the right way.
Print the design that you have received from the computer on the special transfer paper using sublimation inks.
3. Heat Transfer Process
Use a heat press to transfer the ink on transfer paper to the polyester fabric you want to print on.
The paper is placed on top of the item to be imaged, with the printed side down. Pressure and heat is then applied using the heat press or calender.
This process will yield best results on 100% polyester fabrics.
The print is complete when the paper is removed. No drying time, or post treatment is required.
The process permanently pastes the design on polyester fabric and the print cannot be scratched or washed out.
The dye then resolidifies on the fibers of the fabric which makes the colors quite durable, wash-resistant, and colorfast.
It becomes part of the fabric and has no handle, feel or texture above that of the fabric.
Why Only Polyester Fabrics Can Be Used ?
So why do we need to print onto polyester with sublimation digital printing?
Basically, polyester is a plastic, so when enough heat is applied, it begins to melt, allowing the pores to open up.
It won’t be a hard-melting which will create a gluey mess, but it’s enough to open up small little gaps in the fibers.
When heated, the sublimation inks change from a solid to gas, and this gas can then enter into the open polyester fibers.
After the removal of heat sublimation dye and polyester fibers resolidify, and act as one.
This is why sublimation digital printing is so durable and colorfast.
This is not possible for materials such as cotton, paper, wood or wool which scorch and burn when exposed to temperatures required to activate sublimation inks (typically 180-200°C).
So it will be a bad idea to use cotton or other natural fabrics.
Benefits of Sublimation Digital Printing
Here is a list of the benefits that come with sublimation printing:
No need to coat fabric (No pre-treatment needed), so savings in chemical, labour and time.
Printing with very high accuracy and detail.
Easy: It has a relatively low learning curve compared with screen printing.
Sublimation digital textile printing produces beautiful printed fabrics with bright, fresh colors that pop.
On demand printing reduces risk and wastage.
It doesn’t cost extra to add additional colors to your design. Thousands of colors can be produced with sublimation (even if you choose a 4 color CMYK printer).
Same raw material cost per unit to print one item or 1000 items. So no need for minimum orders, and perfect for 1-up items and promotional items for anyone! (Of course lower quantity orders consume time and labour that will turn into a production loss.)
Complete customization! The advantage of digital sublimation printing is that no plates are required, so it is ideal for customizing designs with changing elements such as names, numbers, etc. It’s really easy to do one of a kind, sampling or limited edition designs on polyester fabrics.
Quick: Sublimation is quick and easy to produce, allowing for same day or same hour printing because of the less processes needs to achieve desired outcome.
Compared to traditional printing process, by using sublimation digital printing method we can reduce infrastructure set up time.
Sublimation printing method dyes the polyester fabric directly, so the fabric itself still holds its drape and feel.
The resulting fabric after fusing process do not require additional curing or wet washing, finishing, cleansing and drying after them, as there are no chemicals to be added on the polyester fabric.
Eco-friendly: No water is needed in the process whatsoever, hence no water pollution.
Experienced and knowledgeable business owners have explored the versatility of sublimation digital printing method since long back.
Doesn’t matter what you business’ main focus is, sublimation digital printing allows for a wide version of product solutions across wide-spectrum of market segments.
Sublimation has been used for several decades to apply images to upholstery, curtains, lampshades, carpets, cushions, furniture, window blinds and much more.
From Basketball, Volleyball, Soccer, and Ice Hockey t-shirts, to Lycra based fabrics for swimming, athletics and cycling, if they have graphics on them they have almost certainly been applied by sublimation digital printing.
Most performance fabrics today are polyesters, and sublimation digital printing process does the best job to maintain the polyester fabric’s feel and integrity.
Digital sublimation printing can just as easily produce a one-of-a-kind or a short run of items for a team, or use the same overall print pattern but customise each individual t-shirt.
In fact, many art patterns can only be produced by sublimation printing because of the accuracy and use of unlimited colors, creating a completely new market for digital only sports clothing producers.
Digital sublimation has been used by many leading high-end fashion houses during the last decade or so.
There are incredible polyester fabrics for designers to choose from and many feel far from synthetic.
From glossy satins for ties, tops and dresses, to hefty thick canvases for luggage.
Because of the wide colour spectrum available for digital sublimation printing is certainly of great importance to the fashion industry where there is often less room for compromise, and digital print processes are being pushed to the limits of what colours are achievable.
The accuracy, sharpness, clarity of prints, and mouth-watering beautiful artistic designs makes digital sublimation printing the only choice for many types of apparel, from performance sports to designer dresses.
Brands are increasingly choosing fabrics over traditional PVC based graphics.
As such, soft signage is now a key application for print providers to consider.
What are the reasons behind this trend?
Fabrics can be recycled.
Transparent fabrics create the notion of structure without obscuring view and offer a more inviting feel.
Cheap Shipping: It is also cheap to ship several meters of polyester fabric banners folded into a small courier envelope and shipped to customers without risk of damage.
Ease of Use: They are also very easy to handle at the customer’s location, washable and easily mounted.
Quick to change: Significant cost savings can be made on labor costs while installing, as modern frames and sign systems can be fitted quickly and easily.
Less wear-tear damage: For external short-term use (around 6 months) there should be little or no fading from all but the harshest climates.
So these were the major use cases for sublimation digital printing but there are lot more segments in need of this technology too.
The opportunities are endless. Sky is the limit!
This guide hopefully explains what sublimation is, how it’s done and what you can create and sell to your customers.
Sublimation transfer printing has established itself as the preferred technique for printing polyester fabrics in the markets like apparel and home textiles.
With such a dynamic technology your imagination is really your limit. The market is still emerging. Consumer likes sublimation printed fabric over traditional printed fabric.
If this guide has encouraged you to learn more about digital sublimation, please get in touch.
The next step is up to you, but we are here and ready to help you extend your business into the wide array of opportunities that await you with sublimation digital printing.
If you have any experience, question, or feedback that can add value to this article then please email us and share.
Hollyflower is leading the way in Indian market by happily providing eye-catching sublimation digital printing results on polyester fabrics.