Sublimation printing allows you to customize shirts, mugs, phone cases, and hundreds of other items with full-color graphics, photographs, and custom designs. It brings a whole new level of vibrancy and detail to apparel printing.
But not every shirt works well for sublimation. The fabric blend, weight, color, and construction are all important factors in producing stunning results.
In this complete guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about sublimation printing on shirts. You’ll learn the ins and outs of the process, the different types of shirts that work best, and tips for choosing the ideal shirts for vibrant, long-lasting sublimated apparel.
Table of Contents
What is Sublimation Printing?
Sublimation printing, also known as dye-sublimation, is a digital printing process that uses heat to infuse fabric or other materials with ink. It’s ideal for printing full-color graphics, photographic reproductions, and custom designs on mugs, polymer coated items, and synthetic fabrics like polyester.
Here is an overview of how sublimation printing on fabric works:
- First, your desired image, photograph, or design is printed onto special transfer paper using professional sublimation inkjet printers.
- The transfer paper is placed on the polyester fabric item and inserted into a heat press machine.
- Under high heat around 400 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure, the ink on the transfer paper turns from a solid to a gas and permeates the fabric.
- The ink bonds permanently with the polyester fibers to produce vibrant, lasting color.
- The result is a permanent, high-resolution print that won’t fade, crack, peel, or deteriorate like standard screen printed inks.
Sublimation printing is often used to create dazzling team jerseys, performance athletic apparel, custom t-shirts, pillows, blankets, phone cases, coffee mugs, and more.
Next, let’s look at some of the benefits that make sublimation a popular digital printing choice.
Benefits of Sublimation Printing
There are many advantages to using sublimation printing that make it a top choice for fabrics and other items:
- Vibrant, permanent colors – Sublimation inks infuse fabric for bright, permanent colors that do not fade or deteriorate over time. The prints retain their high vibrancy even after repeated washing.
- Photographic detail – With specially formulated inks and high DPI printers, sublimation can reproduce images in true continuous tones just like a photograph. Fine details and gradients are precisely printed.
- Soft handfeel – Dye-sublimation inks actually become part of the fabric rather than sit on the surface like traditional screen prints. This gives the material a soft handfeel without the plastic-like texture of some printed fabrics.
- Range of fabrics and materials – While polyester is the most popular, sublimation also works well on nylon, polymers, hard surfaces, and coated substrates. This allows you to print on everything from ceramic mugs to phone cases.
- Durability – Sublimated designs are incredibly durable since the inks bond at the molecular level with the fabric rather than sit on the surface. The prints won’t crack, fade, or deteriorate even after years of washing.
- Environmentally friendly – It’s a cleaner process than screen printing, with no wasted inks, solvents, or materials used. There is no setup, plates, or extensive cleaning needed either.
- Cost effective – Once you have the printer and heat press, the ink and material costs are inexpensive compared to traditional screen printing. There’s also no limit to the number of transfers and minimal setup between printing jobs.
Now that you understand the sublimation printing process and benefits, let’s look at selecting the right shirts.
Best Shirt Materials for Sublimation Printing
While sublimation works on some coated ceramics, metals and plastics, it’s most commonly used for printing on fabric. However, not every type of shirt or fabric works well.
The most important requirement is that sublimation only permanently sets and bonds with synthetic materials like polyester or nylon. Natural fabrics like cotton contain cellulose fibers that won’t properly accept sublimation dyes.
Here are the best shirt materials and fabric blends to choose for sublimation printing:
Polyester is the best fabric for sublimation printing. As a fully synthetic material, the disperse dyes chemically bond with the polyester molecules to produce vibrant colors and prints that won’t fade over time.
When printed properly on a 100% polyester shirt, sublimated designs will look as bright and crisp after 50 washes as they did brand new. Be sure to choose high-quality polyester material so the shirt retains its fit and doesn’t shrink.
Polyester-spandex blends such as 80% polyester/20% spandex are also excellent choices for sublimation. The spandex provides stretch and flexibility while the polyester allows the fabric to accept the disperse dyes.
These types of blended fabrics work very well for athletic wear like sports jerseys, gym clothes, swimsuits, and more. The sublimated prints will remain flexible and won’t crack or deteriorate as the fabric moves.
Poly-cotton blends with at least 65% high-quality polyester content will produce decent sublimation prints. The synthetic polyester fibers will readily accept the disperse dyes even though the natural cotton ones won’t.
Just avoid blends with over 35% cotton, as the lower polyester content will result in faded, less vibrant prints. It’s also important to use high-quality polyester in the blend and not cheaper materials.
Nylon and Polyamide
Both nylon and polyamide fabrics provide great durability and also work well for sublimation printing. Polyamide is commonly used for outdoor clothing and gear that needs to withstand the elements. It offers good flexibility and makes an exceptional sublimation printing surface.
Polypropylene fabric has applications in moisture-wicking athletic apparel and socks. It provides a smooth surface for sublimated designs. Polypropylene is also used to make outdoor furniture that holds up well against sun, rain, and cold temperatures.
In addition to the fabric content, the weave and weight also impact results. Tighter knits generally yield better prints than loose, porous weaves. Lightweight fabrics around 130gsm and under perform best, as heavier material can mute vibrancy.
Next let’s look at other factors to evaluate when choosing a quality sublimation t-shirt.
What to Look for in a Good Sublimation Shirt
While polyester and polyester blends are the most important criteria, there are several other factors that help determine quality sublimation printing shirts:
- Fabric weight – Lighter, thinner fabrics produce the most vibrant prints. Heavy, thick material can block some of the ink from fully saturating the shirt. Look for weights around 130gsm or lower.
- Weave – Tight knit fabrics create a smooth, flat surface for sharp image details. Check that the material has a soft, fine weave as opposed to rough, loose knits with visible pores.
- Color – White and light pastel shirts work best, as they offer a bright base for maximum color pop. Black shirts should be avoided, as they absorb too much light and can mute the ink vibrancy.
- Performance features – Synthetic performance shirts with moisture-wicking technology provide added comfort and prevent sweat stains.
- Cut and construction – Shirts should maintain their form without twisting or distorting when pressed. Seams, pockets, buttons, and collars can all impact how the fabric presses.
- Coating – Some polyester shirts come coated with a thin polymer layer designed to enhance sublimation prints. The coating helps achieve more vibrant colors but isn’t required.
- Softness – High-quality polyester and nylon materials feel smooth and soft. Avoid rough, cheap material that may irritate the skin.
Let’s look at some top recommended brands that make exceptional sublimation ready shirts and apparel.
6 Best Shirt Brands for Sublimation Printing
Here are top picks for blank shirt brands that cater to sublimation printing:
1. Vapor Apparel
Vapor Apparel is considered the gold standard when it comes to sublimation blanks. They engineer high-performance shirts designed specifically to yield optimal sublimation printing results.
With ultra-soft fabrics, cutting edge features, and a huge range of styles, Vapor shirts are exceptional yet affordable sublimation garments. Even their poly-cotton blends contain enough polyester to allow for vivid sublimated prints.
2. Bella + Canvas
Bella + Canvas makes a versatile range of retail and wholesale blank shirts ideal for garment decorating and sublimation printing. Many of their super-soft shirts are polyester or a smart poly-cotton blend perfect for dye-sublimation.
3. Next Level Apparel
Next Level Apparel offers diverse, innovative fabrics perfect for printing vibrant designs. Their Ideal and Nex-tech tee lines are made of 100% polyester for unbeatable sublimation results. Next Level’s sporty raglan athletic shirts also work great for team uniforms.
As one of the largest apparel brands worldwide, Gildan provides exceptional blank shirts and basics for sublimation. Their Gildan Dryblend line has a 50/50 cotton/polyester blend that delivers a soft, breathable canvas for sublimated designs.
Jerzees is the innovator behind Dri-Power moisture management technology. Their activewear and athletic shirts contain 100% sublimation-friendly polyester to produce eye-catching prints that won’t fade or crack.
6. Augusta Sportswear
Augusta Sportswear offers technologically advanced performance apparel perfect for crafting custom sublimated team uniforms. Their lightweight polyester shirts yield stunning, durable prints.
Any of these reputable brands will provide a high-quality printing canvas for exceptional sublimation results. But here are some extra tips for choosing the best shirts.
How to Select the Best Sublimation Shirts
Follow these tips when buying and preparing shirts to ensure optimal sublimation printing results:
- Material – Always go with 100% polyester or at minimum 65% polyester blends for most vibrant prints. Check spec sheets for exact fabric content.
- Weight/thickness – Choose lightweight, thin material ideally 130gsm or lower. Thick heavy shirts block ink absorption.
- Knit – Tighter knits prevent pores and create a smooth printing surface. Check for soft, fine weaves.
- Color – White, light grays, and pastels work best. Black reduces vibrancy. Heathered polyester also prints well.
- Seams/buttons – Avoid seams, collars, or buttons that may warp around when heat pressed. Pockets also cause distortion.
- Brand reputation – Stick with reputable blank shirt brands known for quality. Beware cheap unsorted shirts that may have defects.
- Price – Good sublimation blanks cost a bit more but the results are worth it. Avoid the cheapest shirts.
- Fit – Pre-shrink shirts to lock in size and prevent further shrinkage during pressing.
- Washing – Wash shirts before printing to avoid any dye runoff bleeding into the design.
Taking the time to start with the best possible shirt will ensure your printed designs come out looking their absolute best.
Next let’s look at some tips and best practices for the sublimation printing process…
Tips for Perfect Sublimation Printing on Shirts
Follow these tips to master the art of sublimation printing on shirts:
- Use professional design software like Photoshop, Illustrator or CorelDRAW that support high dpi for photographic detail.
- Create designs in CMYK color mode which produce more accurate colors during sublimation than RGB.
- Use vector formats for logos and graphics to prevent blurring or pixilation when printed.
- Incorporate any text into graphics rather than overprinting to avoid blurriness.
- Resize images and designs to print close to the finished size needed for best print quality.
Printer and Ink
- Use a professional dye-sublimation printer with specialized sublimation inks for optimal vibrancy on fabric.
- Choose a high print resolution of at least 1440 dpi for photographic detail.
- Use the proper print settings and ICC profiles for the printer, ink, and fabric combination.
- Allow printed transfers to dry fully before pressing to prevent blotching.
- Preheat press to exact fabric pressing temperature (usually 380°F to 400°F).
- Use silicone-treated parchment paper to avoid sticking.
- Insert shirt and transfer print-side down and press at medium-high pressure.
- Press shirts for 40 to 60 seconds to allow ink to fully sublimate and bond.
- Allow fabric to cool completely before removing paper to seal colors.
- Print extra transfers to test ideal time, temp, and pressure settings.
- Check for complete ink transfer before mass production pressing.
- Allow 24-48 hours after pressing for the prints to fully cure and settle into the fabric.
- Turn shirts inside-out for first few washes to protect print vibrancy.
Following these best practices helps achieve stunning, professional sublimation printed shirts. Next we’ll look at maximizing results…
Getting the Most Vibrant, Durable Sublimation Prints
With the right techniques, sublimation printing on polyester shirts produces stunning results that far outlast traditional screen printing. Here are some tips for achieving the most vibrant, durable sublimated shirts possible:
- Wash and dry blank shirts first to prep the material and avoid dye runoff bleeding onto the print.
- For best results, use pressurized pre-treatment spray on the fabric before printing. This allows more ink to bond for brighter colors.
- If spraying, hang dry the pre-treated shirts completely before transferring print.
- Print images at high resolution above 300 dpi for the most detail and photographic quality.
- Make sure designs and photos are sized close to final print dimensions for best clarity.
- Use profiles and settings for entire sublimation process chain – printer, ink, transfer paper, fabric, etc.
- Allow sufficient drying time for prints before pressing to prevent blotches or bleeding.
- Preheat press to exact recommended temperature for the fabric, usually around 400°F.
- Press items for the full dwell time needed for the material thickness – at least 40 seconds.
- Use medium-high pressure to allow inks to fully sublimate into the fabric.
- Avoid re-pressing shirts multiple times as polyester can only take high heat once.
- Allow prints to cool completely before removing paper carrier to seal in colors.
- Wait 24-48 hours for prints to fully cure and settle into fabric before washing.
- Turn shirts inside-out and wash in cold water when laundering to protect print vibrancy.
- Do not iron directly over sublimated prints as the polymer ink may stick to the iron.
Following these best practices will result in stunning, vibrant printed designs that withstand repeated washing while retaining their colorful brilliance for years.
Sublimated Shirts Outlast Traditional Printing
Unlike screen printed inks that sit on the surface of fabric, sublimation infuses the shirt fibers for a lasting bond that won’t deteriorate, fade, or crack over time. The prints become an integral part of the fabric rather than just on the surface.
The result is custom printed shirts with vibrant and durable designs far superior to traditional printing methods. Photographic details not possible with screen printing can be achieved.
For businesses, sports teams, schools, and resellers, sublimation is an ideal way to create customized apparel and merchandise. The high print quality and longevity lead to satisfied customers that proudly wear and enjoy the shirts for years to come.
By selecting the optimal polyester and poly-blend shirts, following press procedures properly, and caring for the prints, the results will look stunning wash after wash even after years of wear.
We hope this complete guide offers lots of useful advice for unleashing the full potential of sublimation printing on shirts. With the right materials and techniques, you can achieve beautiful, lasting custom apparel.