Sublimation transfer print vs direct print
 Dye-sublimation (dye-sub) is a core method for printing onto fabric. There is a variety of equipment and inks for dye-sub graphics, ranging from entry level to industrial.
 
Dye-sub printing requires heat—the act of sublimation occurs when the inks are warmed, turn into a gaseous state, and permeate the substrate. With direct dye-sub, the sublimation process occurs directly on the fabric. With transfer dye-sub, a graphic is first printed onto sublimation paper and then infused on the fabric through an external heat source. Although the transfer and direct methods differ, they also share many common benefits.
 
Here, Digital Output explores the applications and situations when it’s advantageous to use dye-sub for fabric printing. We also highlight dye-sub printers and ink.
 
Benefits of Dye-Sub
No printing method fits every application, and each approach and technology offers benefits. However, dye-sub is a go-to method of fabric printing for durability and color.
 
Dye-sub delivers a wide and vivid color gamut, often with only four colors. It’s easier for the print provider to capture and replicate the nuances of the graphic. Michael Syverson, director of special projects, PrinterEvolution, explains that the richness of the graphic is due to how the dye or ink directly infuses into the substrate.
 
“This level of saturation produces superior output and a high-quality appearance. Sublimated fabrics can also be stretched into an infinite number of shapes and forms so the only limitation is the imagination. Other technologies will see cracking and crazing with stretching and folding,” he observes.
 
Dye-sub is appropriate for both long- and short-term applications.
 
“Both transfer and direct are good for short- and long-term indoor applications such as point of purchase (POP) and trade show displays.” suggests Tommy Martin, director, textile business development, Mimaki USA, Inc.
 
The two dye-sub methods each have unique benefits. Some print providers prefer transfer dye-sub, finding it easier to print directly on sublimation transfer paper rather than on fabric.
 
“The transfer process enables printing onto a wider variety of substrates, some of which are a challenge to print to directly—e.g. velour and most fabrics with less than 50 percent polyester composition,” explains Brent Moncrief, VP, sales and marketing, Durst Image Technology US, LLC.
 
Transfer doesn’t have the same UV resistance as some printing methods, so it’s not used as often for outdoor applications. However, if offers rich, deep color that makes it popular for many other uses and settings.
 
“Dye-sub transfer, because of its high definition and color pop, is preferred for indoor signage, home decoration fabrics,” shares Catalina Frank, product manager, Epson. She adds that transfer provides sharper images and contours that are ideal for applications in this segment.
 
Direct dye-sub usually requires coated textiles. “Direct dye-sub is interesting because it is possible to check the proof at the printing stage without transfer and there’s less risk of failure by skipping the transfer process. Sublimation Paper and ink can be also saved,” observes Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporated.
 
Direct dye-sub is well-suited to outdoor applications, partly due to durability and partly because the process enables front-to-back bleed, which is ideal for banners and flags.
 
Selecting an appropriate ink increases the durability and longevity of directly-printed sublimation graphics.
 
“Whether you choice to print to sublimation paper and then sublimate to fabric or direct print to fabric, there are applications that are challenging for low-energy disperse dyes to meet. Applications that require outdoor—UV and wet—usage as well as high contact applications—rub fastness—can be a challenge for low-energy dyes,” explains Ted Zhi, textile marketing manager, DuPont Digital Printing.
 
Vendors expect dye-sub to gain in popularity. This is partly due to emerging fabric applications that benefit from the color and depth of dye-sub graphics. Soft signage and apparel are among the most promising segments.
 
“This is due to the increased availability of new fabrics for high fashion, performance apparel, and industrial textiles. With an increasing selection of fabrics comes new and emerging markets that are open to this technology. The equipment and ink technology is improving to adapt to these new markets,” advises Martin.
sublimation paper