How It’s Done: Dye Sublimation for Custom T-Shirts

How dye sublimation printing works is different than more traditional t-shirt printing like silk screening and heat transfer. In dye-sublimation printing, colors are not laid down as individual dots, like inkjet printers. Instead, there is a cellophane ribbon of color. Sublimation is what happens with dry ice when H2O goes right from a solid to a gas, skipping the liquid phase. That’s what happens with the ink. Heat causes the dyes to vaporize and stick in the fabric or on glossy surfaces and then they dry. So, the dye is actually in the fabric instead of sitting on top of it like the other printing types. This means there is no cracking or peeling over time. If you wash your t-shirt gently, the colors should have staying power without fading, too.

Because of the color spectrum used in dye sublimation, the end result is colors that look more like they do in nature. Instead of just the primary colors and their combinations to choose from, you get hues and shades giving your pictures a real life look and definition right on your t-shirts.

It’s important that you choose the right t-shirt. Light colored shirts produce the best result. Here’s why. With dye sublimation, the colors are embedded right into the fabric. The makers of dye sublimation printers explain it this way: if you add a dark red or green to black, you still have black.

The flip side of using a light colored shirt is that its colors will mesh with the colors of the image you print on it. For example, if you use a yellow shirt, the colors in the photo or logo will have some yellow, too.

There are some special transfer papers you can get to use dye sublimation with darker t-shirts. The quality of the t-shirt is important, too. It needs to be at least 50% polyester. The more polyester, the better quality and more vivid your image will print.

When using this printing method, you can simply scan a photo into a computer. Then add text or names and make adjustments. Then, you print. There are printers that you actually put the t-shirt through and print directly on the shirt. The other option is that you print on dye sublimation transfer paper and then heat press or iron the image into your shirt.

Because most of the work is done on the computer, it’s easy to make changes when using dye sublimation. This means if you are ordering shirts from a professional printer there are no screen set up charges and usually no minimum orders required. The cost of dye sublimation printers is dropping. If you’re doing it at home, just be sure to get the appropriate transfer paper, a polyester t-shirt and follow the instructions to get the right temperature for your iron. You’ll be putting clear photo-quality images on your t-shirts in a snap.

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