Dye sublimation is everywhere. If you’re already in the decorating business, then you’re probably more familiar with the term and the process. If you’re new to the decorating industry, then the term may be new to you as well, but the technique is not. Perhaps you watched the Tour de France or some of the Olympic Games in London this past summer. More than likely you saw various garments from top retailers like Nike and Adidas featuring dye sublimation on their performance apparel.
Dye sublimation is everywhere. If you’re already in the decorating business, then you’re probably more familiar with the term and the process. If you’re new to the decorating industry, then the term may be new to you as well, but the technique is not. Perhaps you watched the Tour de France or some of the Olympic Games in London this past summer. More than likely you saw various garments from top retailers like Nike and Adidas featuring dye sublimation on their performance apparel. If you’ve visited a department store recently, then you’ve probably also seen dye sublimated T-shirts featuring brilliant, full color, all-over printed images.
Sublimated products are also very popular with promotional products and hard goods. You’ll also see lots of examples of it if you stop by the photo section of your favorite retailer. You’ll find mouse pads, ceramic mugs, and T-shirts all featuring full color photos applied to them using sublimation. Sublimation really is all around us. With new products on the market that can support it and with the increased number of benefits, it has over other decorating methods. Dye sublimation is a great option that can be added to just about any apparel decorating or promotional product business.
Education and equipment
The first step to getting started is to understand how the dye sublimation process actually works. Sublimation takes place when a liquid turns into a gas without going through a liquid state. It occurs after heat and pressure are applied. Dye sublimation uses specialty dyes (known as sublimation dye) that are very unique, because the dye actually embeds colors and graphics directly into fabric (Figure 1). It results in a smooth print that becomes part of the garment. It is extremely durable. No matter how many times the garment is washed, the quality of the image will stay the same because it has become part of the fabric. Several pieces of equipment are needed to get started in dye sublimation.
Decorating software To be successful in dye sublimation or really any type of garment decorating, it helps to be a proficient graphic designer. Knowing programs like CorelDRAW or Adobe Illustrator will allow you to adjust logos or images for your customers. Having the ability to change colors or reproduce images also makes it easier to create detailed designs in-house without outsourcing.
Printer There are a number of factors to consider before purchasing a printer. The types of products that a decorator is planning to offer as well as the anticipated volume are two key factors that should be considered when purchasing a sublimation printer. A dye sublimation printer uses special inks or dyes and then prints the images or graphics directly onto a release paper.
The sublimation industry has primarily adopted the use of inkjet printers because they do not disperse any heat during the printing process. Sublimation printers come in various sizes, print widths, printing speeds, ink configurations, and prices. Budget, size, and resolution requirements usually play a role in the purchasing decision, so most beginners will choose a smaller inkjet printer. Many graduate to larger, wide-format printers once the demand for sublimated items increases.
Transfer paper Transfer paper is needed to apply the image or graphic onto other substrates and media. The paper is specially formulated not to absorb the dye. After the image is printed onto the transfer paper, it is then placed on the garment (Figure 2) or substrate and then applied with a heat press. Transfer paper can be purchased in a variety of sheet sizes or by the roll.
Heat press When it comes to purchasing a heat press, there are a lot of options. Heat presses come in a wide range of styles, sizes, and prices. Heat presses (Figure 3) generally range in price from $400 for smaller models to upwards of $15,000 for large-format presses.
Most likely you’ll be using your heat press for other decorating techniques besides sublimating, so you may want to consider long-term goals and buy the press that will help get you where you want to be in the next couple of years. If you plan on staying small, then you may require a smaller, less expensive press. If you want to make sublimation a big part of your business, then you may wish to consider an air press or a wide-format press for higher volumes and increased production time. No matter which press you choose, the most important factor to consider is that the heat press must reach at least 400° F and provide consistent and even pressure.
According to Michelle Roberts, a textile and apparel consultant who helps manufacturers and suppliers solve a variety of textile-based issues and the owner of Technical Textile Solutions in Grosse Pointe, MI, “Dye sublimation requires extremely high temperatures and if the heat press temperature is not high enough, the print will not set properly and will cause the color to wash off or rub off onto light-colored upholstery or other surfaces. Decorators choosing to use this technology must perform their own periodic testing to ensure that their print temperatures and settings are yielding printed garments that will not bleed dye once washed.”
Substrates Dye sublimation can only be achieved on polyester fabrics or materials that have been treated with a polyester resin coating (Figure 4). Because sublimation is so versatile, there are literally hundreds of products available that can be sublimated. Soft substrates include polyester garments and 50/50 blend T-shirts. Hard substrates include products made from ceramics, metal, and glass, such as mugs, plaques, clocks, coasters, and a wide range of promotional products.
When it comes to garment decorating, there are numerous options and methods and so many choices that it’s difficult to distinguish one from another. Embroidery, screen printing, heat transfer materials, and DTG printing each offer their own unique opportunities and benefits. Today, there is a significant amount of dye sublimation being done by garment decorators (Figure 5).
Dye sublimation is different from most other methods of decorating, because of its unlimited use of colors and ability to blend and actually become part of a garment. Since it is done with heat and gasses, there are no screen charges or limitations on the number of colors that can be used. Roberts notes that fabrics continue to retain their feel and drape, no matter how rich the color is, because the dyes become part of the fabric and are not left on the surface.
Dye sublimation can be somewhat confusing at first.
“Dye sublimation is often misunderstood, because it is so different from other methods of printing,” Roberts says. Dye sublimation is closer to dyeing than printing, because actual dyestuff is used instead of inks or pigments. Dye Sublimation can be difficult, because great care must be taken during the heat press process, or the dye molecules that have been vaporized can sometimes deposit on unwanted areas of the fabric if the printed paper is jarred or otherwise moved too quickly. This is often referred to as ghosting of the image.
Dye sublimation also offers a low production run cost and the ability to offer one-offs or smaller runs. One of the downsides to the process is that white or light colored garments must be used. Sublimating is generally not as successful on darker colored fabrics, as the colors do not appear nearly as vibrant. Nor will it work on 100% cotton-based materials. However, garment decorators who offer other decorating methods can embellish with screen printed transfers, DTG printing, or other effects.
Trends in dye sublimation
Newer fashion trends and consumer demands are influencing the use of dye sublimation and its popularity in clothing and apparel. Models can be seen on the runway showing off designer-inspired patterns. Cheerleaders at colleges and universities can be seen sporting the trend, and even companies are getting in on the trend with signage.
The trend for personalized, one-of-a-kind products continues to be in high demand. Tattoo artwork, custom designs and patterns, and even corporate logos can be applied to T-shirts, scarves, dresses, hats, and shoes. The ability to offer unique products also offers a perfect opportunity for decorators to charge a premium price for their service.
In terms of durability and performance, dye sublimation is the best choice for decorating performance wear, because it doesn’t affect the breathability or the moisture wicking properties. Performance garments generally contain high percentages of polyester, which allows them to withstand the high heat required to sublimate the garments. Larger sporting goods manufacturers are now entering into the market, since dye sublimation offers one of the best options for decorating performance wear.
Showing their softer side is a big trend in the corporate world. Fabric signage presents a good opportunity and allows companies to use softer fabrics and textiles to deliver their messages. Temporary outdoor signs, trade shows, and mall kiosks all offer creative uses for dye sublimation as well.
Finding your niche
How well do you know your customers? Take a look at your customers and your target market. What types of products are they purchasing from you? Are they asking you for promotional products, signs, plaques, or other types of products that you haven’t been able to offer them? Perhaps they’re looking for decorated performance apparel that is free of heavy heat transfers or screen printed inks.
Before investing in any equipment, you need to decide what types of items you’d like to sell and how much of your business you want to devote to sublimation. If you want to keep it small, then perhaps you only invest in a small printer. If you think sublimation is going to offer you lots of opportunities and you’re ready to jump in with both feet, maybe you consider purchasing more expensive equipment that can handle larger runs.
Terry Wagner of Uniforms and More is a garment decorator based in Livonia, MI. He offers embroidery, screen printing, digital printing, and sublimation. Terry says that sublimation jobs have been a small percentage of his business, but he is starting to see a lot of growth as performance wear becomes more popular.
“Currently, I own a small ink jet printer designed to work specifically with sublimation inks. I use it for small runs and one offs. On larger jobs, I will outsource the transfers. I just finished a job for a fun run with 425 performance T-shirts. It featured a five-color left chest design on the front and an 11 x 17 design on the back that included 12 sponsors’ logos in 16 different colors. If I continue to get more jobs like it, then I plan to purchase a larger printer and handle the bigger sublimation prints in-house myself.”
Dye Sublimation also offers tons of potential when it comes to creating fashionable designs as well as mixed-media garments. Greg Gaardbo is the owner of Shockwave Apparel in Des, Planes, IL, and his line of sublimated apparel combines the latest cutting edge styles with the most innovative techniques in apparel decorating (Figure 6).
Shockwave Apparel is well known for mixing a variety of different applications together. They own their own sublimation equipment, including a MAXI•PRESS, Mutoh RS900 digital printer, and two mug presses. Shockwave also offers screen printing, embroidery, rhinestones, and sequins. “Dye sublimation makes a great base because the graphics blend into the fabric. The smooth surface makes it easy to add a variety of embellishments to create a truly unique, custom garment,” Gaardbo says.
Shockwave targets their dye sub offerings to a variety of markets. In addition to fashion, (Figure 7) they are seeing great profit potential with corporate clients. While T-shirts are still their most popular sublimated item, burnout shirts (Figure 8) and bikinis have been especially popular with liquor brands and energy drink companies.
According to Gaardbo, “Sublimation is a great option to have in any decorating shop. The ability to mix a variety of media makes it a great choice for any decorator. My only wish is that manufacturers would produce a greater variety of garments featuring polyester in order to allow us to carry a wider range of clothing options.”
While not every garment decorator is ready to bring sublimation in-house, there are still a variety of ways that you can offer it without a big investment. There are a number of companies that offer high quality transfers with a fast turnaround. Simply send them the artwork, and they’ll send you a sublimated transfer that just needs to be heat applied to the appropriate garment.
Another option is dye sublimated twill and appliqué. Several manufacturers of heat- applied products offer custom letters, numbers, patches, and name bars. Multi-color appliqué is ideal for embroiderers, because it costs less than embroidery, and it doesn’t have the bulk of multiple layers of thread. Since there are no color limitations and photographic images can be printed in extremely fine detail, sublimation is a nice alternative to other methods.
According to Roberts, “The ability to manufacture a garment through a print-press-cut-sew workflow for 100% custom full-garment sublimation of T-shirts and other garments also makes for great profit potential. These workflows allow small garment decorators to provide a fully custom shirt that will command a higher price tag than a typical screen-printed T-shirt.”
Make it work for you
Jimmy Lamb, manager of education for Sawgrass Technologies, says, “Sublimation is truly one of the most unique and diverse digital printing processes in the industry. Since sublimation dye won’t fade, crack, or peel when laundered and it provides extreme durability and long-lasting color vibrancy, it offers an ideal way for decorators to add full color graphics to poly-performance apparel. Thanks to consumer-oriented companies, such as Under Armour, poly-performance apparel has become immensely popular in the mainstream retail marketplace. And on top of that, the same process used to sublimate clothing, also works for a wide range of non-apparel merchandise including promotional products, signage, awards, plaques, photo gifts, spirit products, and more. Sublimation is really remarkable!”
Dye sublimation is also becoming more popular and more recognizable with consumers. Decorators who add it to their business will find that the future for dye sublimation holds tremendous growth potential and opportunities. Like any decorating method, it has its strengths and weakness, but as any good decorator knows that finding a way to make it work for their business will guarantee long-term potential and a great opportunity for increased business with new and current customers.
Cara Cherry is a freelance writer located in Michigan. Her industry experience includes more than five years working for a well-known manufacturer of materials and equipment for garment decorating. In addition, she has degrees in both public relations and marketing and is a member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). She has written articles for various industry publications and can be reached at email@example.com.
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