Sublimation vs. Heat transfer is There Any Difference?

The exciting world of clothing decoration and T-shirt making awaits you. Different printing methods are used in the garment decoration industry, especially sublimation printing and heat transfer printing. It’s important to understand sublimation vs heat transfer in depth.

Are you wondering which method of garment decoration is the most effective? Before you start printing your shirts, it’s crucial to understand the differences between the two methods. We will discuss and compare the two processes that will help you make the right choice.

Heat Transfer vs. Sublimation

Sublimation is defined as the direct transition of a solid-state substance into a gas state. This phase does not pass through the regular liquid state and only happens at certain temperatures and pressures.

Sublimation is one method of shirt printing based on this principle. During Sublimation, dye-based inks are heated to gasify and are converted from solid to gas. The gas dyes the fabric. 

In contrast, Heat transfer printing refers to the process of applying custom designs to items or garments using heat and pressure (also known as thermal printing, heat printing, and thermal transfer printing). When you apply heat and pressure to heat-applied materials, custom designs or images are transferred to garments or other items.

What is Sublimation Paper?

The technology of sublimation printing uses specially formulated papers that are referred to as sublimation transfer papers. The paper-based substrate is roughly similar to normal paper. 

To hold dye sublimation inks, the paper is coated with a special coating. Upon drying, the coating consists of approximately 35% silica and 5% binder based on the paperweight. 

The process of sublimation printing is the same as that of heat transfer paper. The ink is printed on the sublimation paper and pressed to a polyester garment with a heat press. 

What is Heat Transfer Paper?

In heat transfer paper, designed patterns are transferred to shirts and other clothes when the paper is heated. The design is printed onto heat transfer paper using an inkjet or laser printer. 

Then, you place the pressed sheet on your shirt and press it with a heat press (a home iron might also work in some circumstances, but heat presses produce better results). After pressing it, you peel away the paper, and the image adheres to the fabric nicely.

Heat Transfer Paper vs. Sublimation Paper

Now that you know the basics of heat transfer paper and Sublimation let’s compare these two garment decoration methods in a few important areas.

  • Durability

Sublimation involves adding the ink to the fabric instead of adding a layer on top. Hence, the transfer is unmatched in durability as well as in feel. Furthermore, you won’t feel the image on the fabric at all as it has a very light hand. 

Unlike Sublimation, heat transfer paper adds a layer to garments. You would be able to feel the shirt’s design. As it is less durable than Sublimation, this layer can fade and crack after repeated washing cycles.

  • Equipment Cost

One of the most economical ways to get started with garment decoration is through heat transfer paper. You will also need an inkjet or laser printer (which you probably already have), a heat press, and the garment or shirt you would like to decorate.

On the other hand, Sublimation carries a higher start-up cost than heat transfer paper, but that cost has greatly come down in recent years. Sublimation starter packages include everything you need, such as sublimation paper, a sublimation printer, software minus the heat press. 

  • Weeding

When using heat transfer paper, you may need to “weed” or cut and trim your design before transferring it to your substrate. There are no self-weeding inkjet transfer papers available.

However, for laser heat transfer paper, there are some self-weeding options. There are two-step self-weeding transfer papers available for heat transfer.

Sublimation does not require cutting or weeding. Sublimation has no weeding or trimming since only the paper areas containing sublimation ink are sublimated.

  • Color

The major difference between Sublimation and heat transfer is that you can print white fabrics with the Sublimation technique because Sublimation doesn’t work well on dark-colored fabrics. On the other hand, heat transfer works best on any colored fabric, whether dark or light. 

Types of Transfer Papers

Various methods exist for transferring text, images, designs, graphics, etc., to a fabric or substrate of your choice. Most people are probably familiar with screen printing (also known as silk screening). 

Nonetheless, thanks to the availability of specialty transfer papers, vinyl, and films, you can achieve the same results using laser printers, inkjet printers, or any other type of specialty equipment.

  • Inkjet Transfer Paper

Inkjet Transfer Paper is perhaps the most popular method of producing inkjet transfers at home or in a small business. 

In this technique, an image, text, graphic, design, logo, or any image is transferred onto specially coated inkjet transfer paper. Inkjet printers and normal inkjet inks (dye-based or pigmented) are used for this.

The method can be applied to light and dark colored fabrics; however, the application methods are slightly different. The image is printed on the transfer paper in reverse to apply to white or light-colored fabrics, also known as a mirror image. 

The printed image is placed face down onto the fabric to bond the ink with the fabric, followed by an even application of heat using a heat press or home iron. You then peel away the backing to reveal your image.

  • Plastisol Screen Printed Transfer Paper

The Hot-Peel method of transferring produces a finished product that is almost identical to screen printing. Using a screen printer, an image is transferred onto plastisol paper, then transferred onto the fabric using a heat press.

The image is transferred to the fabric when the paper peels off. Even though this method is cheaper than sublimation printing, a screen printer and heat press are still necessary to perform this method.

  • Cold-peel transfer paper

A screen-printed material, similar to plastisol, is also produced using expensive and specialized equipment. For screen printing, parchment paper is used for cold peel transfer.

Cooling causes more ink to transfer to the fabric, causing the image to become brighter and more vivid. Transfers created with cold peel are more like screen printing, but the image feels rubbery.

Sublimation vs. Heat Transfer on Mugs

Both of these techniques can be used to create printed mugs. Using heat transfer, you can print your custom logo on transfer paper, and the ink is then transferred from the paper to the fabric.

For transferring the print onto rounded objects such as mugs and bottles, you would need a cylinder-shaped heat press. The mug press machine makes use of the sublimation technique.

First, the design sheet is inserted into the machine, and then you load the mug. The mug is then pressed at the prescribed temperature for the selected time. When it’s done, you can remove the mug and carefully peel away the transfer paper. 

Can I Use Sublimation Ink On Heat Transfer Paper?

Yes, you can use any ink on heat transfer paper. Because the secret to the transfer process lies in the paper rather than the ink, there is no preference for what printer you use or what ink you use. The process needs to be carefully followed.

Which is Better? Sublimation or Heat Transfer?

You should decide which is right for your business based on the kind of garments and substrates you intend to decorate.  

Final Words

You should also consider the amount you are willing to invest. For example, if your business specializes in white and light-colored polyester apparel, Sublimation is a great choice for you. 

It offers the lightest hand and the highest durability and washability. If you want to print on a color or material of your choice, heat transfer paper is the way to go.

Also Read:

7 Best T Shirt Printing Methods Compared With Pros & Cons

Can You Use an Iron for Sublimation Transfers? Household Iron vs. Heat Press

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