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Sublimation for Beginners

Decoration Methods Sep 16, 2022

If you're reading this, you probably know that sublimation wasn't even an option at home until a few years ago. But now, thanks to some handy dandy technological advances, it's totally doable, even for complete beginners. Whether you're dreaming of a sublimation side hustle or just want to make some cute shirts or accessories for your squad, we've got you. Read on to see what you need to get started and to learn what the process involves.

So, What Is Sublimation?

Sublimation is a decoration technique where a digital image is printed onto a special paper and applied to either a fabric or another suitable surface. The process involves applying heat and pressure to imprint the images from the transfer sheets onto the surface using special sublimation dyes. During the application process, the special sublimation dye ink transforms directly into a gas, skipping the liquid stage, and is infused into the surface on which you apply it.

Thanks to this unique process, the image will retain its sharp quality over the years without fading, making sublimation printing a highly professional printing method for at home crafters.

How Do You Do Sublimation?

Okay, so let's get you started with the sublimation how-to down low. Follow these steps to print some really cool images on fabrics or other appropriate surfaces using the sublimation process:

  1. Choose your design and save it as a digital image.
  2. Print it on sublimation transfer paper using sublimation ink and a printer to create the transfer sheet.
  3. Place the transfer sheet in a heat press and heat it.
  4. Wait while the heat changes the sublimation ink into gas — the instructions for your sublimation ink and paper will tell you the length of time.
  5. Allow the ink to enter the heat-opened pores of the fabric or material.
  6. Stop the heating process.
  7. Let the ink cool down, which turns it into a solid form.
  8. Carefully remove the transfer sheet from the material.

Check out these shirts — they're made of materials that work great for sublimation.

Pros of Sublimation vs. HTV

Thinking of making the move from HTV to sublimation? There are a few good reasons why sublimation is a useful method, especially compared to HTV:

  • You can get great-looking prints that look just like the digital images you select with sublimation.
  • You can get images with unlimited colors. (With HTV, you can only do a finite number of colors and layers without the print getting too thick.)
  • You can print faster with sublimation printing than with HTV, screen printing, and other image transfer printing methods.
  • You'll save money long term if you consider the quality and durability of your prints. The image isn't going anywhere, even if you wash your favorite sublimated T-shirt a million times.

HTV and sublimation use some of the same supplies, so don't feel like you have to choose one over the other. Experiment and see which one works better for you and your needs. We're betting you'll find sublimation an awesome printing option once you get some practice.

Is Sublimation Printing Expensive?

Sublimation can seem like an intimidating endeavor for a beginner, but once you have your equipment and materials, the possibilities are endless! Start by getting a few tools (like a printer, graphics software, sublimation ink, and transfer sheets) and you'll be making gorgeous, long-lasting printed goodies in no time. Many of the supplies and equipment you need for sublimation printing, you might already own (like a printer), which lowers the upfront cost even more.

What Surfaces and Products Are Best for Sublimation Printing?

Not all materials are great for sublimation, but there are a ton of options available to you. While most people know that you can sublimate on apparel and accessories made of polyester, nylon, Lycra, or spandex, you can also sublimate on surfaces with a polymer coating. As long as the surface or coating contains polymer, you can print on fabrics, plastics, metals, ceramics, and glass. The polymer molecules will bind the sublimation ink permanently to the transfer surface. Keep these things in mind when choosing your sublimation material and project:

  • You can get the best, brightest results by printing on white or light-colored polyester or polyester-coated surfaces.
  • You might want to avoid dark surfaces, as they don't show the prints clearly. However, if you are absolutely stoked to sublimate on a dark surface, you can consider creating an HTV print on it first and then sublimating your design on top of that print.
  • If you are printing on fabrics you are going to wear, consider choosing blended ones that are 50% to 75% polyester. (You can get excellent sublimation printing results with 100% polyester clothes, but they are probably not going to be as comfortable to wear, so that's just something to keep in mind.)
  • You can sublimate on blended fabrics with 65% polyester or less, but you are likely to get a vintage faded look. If that's the outcome you are aiming for, no issues, go for it.
  • When selecting fabrics, check if they can withstand the heat and pressure of the sublimation printing process.
  • Skip 100% cotton, wool, or other natural fibers as the sublimation ink will not transfer onto them. If you attempt sublimation printing on these fabrics, it will wash out. The ink can only bond with polymer.
  • Don't worry, though. If it's important to you to use natural fabrics, you can coat them with a sublimation spray before printing, and boom, you're all set.

We've got some great poly cotton options ideal for you to start sublimating.

Sublimation Must Haves

You've got a sense of the sublimation process — now you need your supplies. Before you fill up your online shopping cart, consider your goals (like occasionally making shirts for your besties or eventually creating a sublimation empire), as they can impact what product to invest in. In most cases, you'll want these items to get you going, regardless of the scope of your sublimation goals:

Inkjet Printer

Inkjet printers are affordable for home crafting purposes, durable, and less prone to ink clogging. Plus, they are easy to maintain and easy to use. You can replace the regular ink with sublimation ink and get excellent, high-resolution prints. We recommend getting reliable inkjet printer brands like the Sawgrass, Epson, Canon, Brother, Mitsubishi, or HP printers.

Sublimation Ink

It may seem obvious, but you're not going to want to use your normal ink for sublimation printing. Sublimation inks are made from a combination of dyes or pigments and solvents designed to transfer to certain fabrics. They are available in the CMYK range of cyan, light cyan, magenta, light magenta, yellow, and black. When using them, never ever mix different brands of ink. That will just mess up your printer and cause your design to come out with inaccurate colors.

Sublimation Paper

Sublimation paper is a special kind of printing paper that can absorb and retain sublimation ink. It's also known as transfer paper, and you can buy it in different paper sizes and weights. Place it in your inkjet printer with your sublimation ink to print out the image you're planning to transfer.

Heat Press

Depending on the requirements of your sublimation business, you can get heat presses in different styles and sizes. You can use a traditional, small format heat press to sublimate prints on all types of apparel and accessories, like T-shirts, fabrics, caps, shoes, mugs, and plates. That is generally sufficient for sublimation for beginners. You can also use convection ovens and specific presses made for printing on round surfaces if you need that.

Design Software

There are different design software programs that you can use to create original designs to print on the sublimation transfer papers. Depending on your preference and budget, you can use free open-source graphics software or paid graphics software. A few free software options include Inkscape, GIMP, and Canva. Paid softwares like Cricut Design Space, Procreate, Sawgrass, Gravit, CorelDraw, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Illustrator are also excellent choices for sublimation printing design work.

Protective Gear

When working with heat presses in sublimation printing, we suggest you use heat-resistant gloves to protect your hands. You also need to get heat-resistant tape, protective paper, a protective pad, a rubber mat, and a foam roll to avoid any mishaps during the printing process.

Cleaning Supplies

It's a wise move to have a lint roller and a microfiber cloth handy for some quick clean up. You're going to have to clean the printing surface of dust particles or lint before you do the image transfer. Otherwise, you'll get weird specks and spots in your printed image. No thanks.

Don't forget, shirts aren't your only option. Try sublimating a bag for an awesome personalized look.

Sublimation printing will open a whole new world of possibilities of what you can create. For beginners, it may seem a little complicated at first, but it is easy to get the hang off and you will soon become a pro at creating loads of exciting customized products.