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Sublimation Printing - What is it, and what can it do for you?

Black Duck Tee Shirt with all-over sublimation printing of the Black Duck logo.

All-Over Sublimation at Black Duck, of Black Duck!

You may have heard the term ‘sublimation’ going around lately. Some apparel decorators call it dye-sub, or dye sublimation printing, but no matter what you call it, sublimation printing is a versatile, digital printing method, says Manuel Barris, that opens up a world of opportunities to any consumer of decorated goods.

So, what is sublimation? Well, simply put, sublimation is a process by which  sublimation dyes are printed onto a transfer medium with a specially prepared inkjet printer. Thereafter, those dyes are then transferred from the medium to an object or garment under the heat and pressure delivered by a commercial heat press. Sublimation only works on garments made of polyester, or on specialty objects made of polyester or given a polyester coating. When the heat and pressure are applied, the dye on the transfer medium sublimates, or becomes a gas, and is then absorbed into the polyester itself; the print is actually a part of the garment/coating. It doesn’t fade easily, wear, or have any texture or weight.

So, what does all of this mean to you, our customer? There are many benefits to the process:

  1. Full color on small runs. Unlike screen printing, there is no need for separate screens, films, or a great deal of setup for sublimation. Though you may well need to have us refine your art, the process thereafter is straightforward, and on smaller orders may prove less expensive overall than screen printing.
  2. Less need for minimum orders. We are more likely to be able to accommodate a smaller order or re-order when you sublimate, due to the reduced amount of setup needed to print your item.
  3. Individual customization. Though art charges may apply for this level of customization, seeing as each garment is printed from it’s own transfer rather than en masse on the same set of screens, this method makes it much easier to add individual customization to each printed item.
  4. Lighter hand. The nature of sublimation means that prints are never heavy or thick. The garment is unchanged by the process, save for the addition of your art.
  5. Durability. There is no cracking or peeling in a sublimated print, they last as long as the garment.
Friends and Lovers T-Shirt featuring a large front sublimation printed painting of angels in the shape of a hot air baloon.

Black Duck produced this stunning sublimated shirt for the Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally

I know what you may be thinking, “There has to be a catch!” Well, the truth is, sublimation does have some restrictions, though you may find that many of these restrictions aren’t the kind of deal breakers you might imagine due to recent innovations in the industry. These are the things you have to watch out for:

  1. White/Light garments only. Sublimated color blend with the color on which they are printed, so the best result comes from printing on white garments. That said, though it is more expensive, you can choose to have an entire garment printed! This means that not only could you turn your white garment any color, you could also cover it’s surface with any image you like!
  2. Polyester garments only. Though it is true that this process only works on polyester, the polyester garments of today aren’t the heavy, impermeable garments of the ’70s that usually come to mind. The largest amount of modern performance fabrics, moisture-wicking fabrics, and the like are made of polyester. Comfortable, even cotton-like textured garments are being made in sublimation-friendly polyester!
  3. Higher price per piece in large runs. There comes a point when a large enough run of sublimation will become more expensive than traditional screen printing. That said, even if the blanks are slightly more expensive, for small runs, the reduced setup fees often make sublimation more economical for full-color or photo-realistic designs.

Is sublimation for you? That depends on your job; when you weigh all the facts you can see that if you want a small number of full-color printed garments, sublimation fits your needs perfectly. Moreover, if you are a fan of light-feeling prints and performance fabrics, you may find that you prefer it to traditional printing methods. Ultimately, if  you absolutely want a cotton garment, have a large order, or just don’t know what you want, Albuquerque, New Mexico’s own Black Duck can make the decision easy. We can decorate for you via either method, so we can tailor any part of the decoration process to your specific order! Contact us; whether or not you want to try sublimation, we’ve got you (and your garment) covered.

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