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A DIY Designer’s Guide To Sublimation Printing

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Sublimation printing has always been popular, and now that it is more accessible for designers than ever before, we are seeing an even broader range of creative concepts. Sublimation printing can be applied to four different types of surfaces, including rigid substrates (brass, glass, acrylic, plastic), rigid products (mouse pads, keyrings, phone cases), soft signage and fabrics.

If you have always wanted to design your own apparel or print your art onto objects for gifts or to sell – this guide is for you.

Sublimation printing vs screen printing

At first glance, these may seem like identical methods, but there are subtle differences between dye sublimation printers and an ink screen-printer. Like most printing jobs, the key difference lies in how the ink or dye interacts with the surface. In the process of sublimation printing, the sublimation dyes are transferred into the fibres of a piece of clothing, whereas the ink in screen printing is simply transferred to the clothes. Screen printing may seem like the more cost-effective option here, but dye sublimation actually produces a more high-quality result and is better for clothing projects. A fun project could be to see if you can tell the difference between the two different printing methods and spot these features in your own wardrobe and belongings.

The sublimation printing process

The sublimation printing process essentially comprises a heat transfer that takes place between the sublimation dye and the fabric you’d like your print to be adhered to. The design is first printed onto a special paper called sublimation paper, followed by the heat transfer process. During heat transfer, the sublimation dye changes from a liquid to a gas that is then compressed into the fibres of the fabric or right onto the surface of the item you’re printing on. Chances are, some of your favourite pieces of clothing have been printed through the sublimation process. The dye is essentially embedded into the fabric and so there is no risk of the design peeling away or coming out in the wash.

It is worth noting that the same machine cannot be used for the dye print and the printing of the design onto the special paper. You will need to use a capable printer for the design print and this special paper can be expensive so make sure you know the printer can do the job before you place your sublimation paper into its feeder tray.

Digital prints

The sky’s the limit when it comes to choosing a digital print for your sublimation printing job, and you can choose to design these prints yourself or buy one from an artist on Etsy or somewhere else. Depending on how confident you are feeling with the DIY sublimation job, you might decide to choose a simple or more complex design. You want to be mindful of where the design is going to lay on certain parts of the clothes or objects being printed on. You don’t want any unflattering optical illusions on your clothes and you don’t want your printed objects to look strange all because of a thoughtless placement.

Buying or hiring

Screen printing has really had a moment in recent years and now sublimation printing is growing in the same fashion. You can choose to hire a sublimation printer or buy one, and as you would expect, the prices will vary depending on what you choose. It’s a good idea to see how your shortlisted printers work before you commit to any particular model. In doing so, you’re likely to get a better understanding of what make and model is going to be best for your needs. You also want to consider the other costs associated with your work and whether you are going to sell your designs in the long term. Selling your designs can be a fantastic way of supporting yourself financially as you continue developing skills in this highly fascinating yet sadly rather costly discipline.

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We hope that you have a sense of how sublimation printing works and you have a few ideas bubbling away for your first print! If you know your way around a screen printer then you will be very comfortable with this process. Be sure to jump onto Etsy and see what other designers are working on for some inspiration.

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