What is Dye Sublimation Printing and How Does it Work for Shirts?

What is Dye Sublimation?

Dye sublimation is a custom printing method in which you start with a mirror image print of your design on special heat transfer paper and then use a heat press to apply the design, called a “substrate” to your T-shirt.

Dye sublimation is the go-to printing technique for anything polyester. Print a high-resolution photo or graphic to make a unique T-shirt, tank top, tennis shoes, baseball cap, or anything else you can think of that is made from polyester.

How Does Dye Sublimation Work for T-Shirts?

Water-based ink is used in dye sublimation because it turns into a gas when heated and will bond to polyester materials. This process is excellent for T-shirts because it creates a vibrant graphic that will not wash away, peel, or crack over time. The reason this works like a charm is that dye sublimation doesn’t add ink to the surface of the fabric, but changes the color of the fabric. You end up with a soft, smooth result where all you feel is the T-shirt, rather than anything printed on top of the material.

Dye Sublimation in Two Easy Steps

If you want to give the art of dye sublimation a try for yourself, grab these tools, and follow just two simple steps.

Dye Sublimation Tools

  • Dye Sublimation Printer
  • Heat Press
  • Transfer Paper
  • Disperse Dyes
  • Polyester Fabric
  • Contact Thermometer (Not required, but recommended)

Step One: The Printer

Use the dye sublimation printer and special sublimation ink to print your logo or graphic onto a sheet of transfer paper.

Step Two: The Heat Press

Place the transfer paper onto the surface of the T-shirt where you want the graphic to be and apply heat with the heat press. Heat presses vary in size and purpose. However, despite these differences, all heat presses work in the same fundamental way.

The amount of time you will need to apply heat will vary depending on the material on which you are working. Typically, 390-400 degrees Fahrenheit will heat the ink on the transfer paper and the polyester fibers simultaneously, resulting in a transfer of the ink to the fabric. Wait between 30-60 seconds depending on heat and material, then remove the heat and transfer paper. Ta da! You now have a permanent graphic on your T-shirt.

If the heat transfer does not come out right, it is likely due to the wrong time or heat settings. Another possible cause of a transfer mishap is the temperature of the heat press. On some heat presses, the displayed temperature may not always match the actual temperature. To avoid this problem, you may want to have a contact thermometer at hand and adjust the temperature settings as needed.

Heat presses come in the following basic types:

  • The small format heat press (16×20) is for small items like tennis shoes, tank tops, or T-shirts.
  • The flatbed heat press is for polyester fabric and other polymers on hard surfaces.
  • The 3D vacuum heat press is for pre-treated polymer materials that have a curved shape like mugs, phone and laptop cases, and buttons.
  • The large format heat press is for large materials like signs and banners.

Ready to get your design printed on a custom T-shirt through dye sublimation? Let AA Custom T-Shirt Printing do the printing for you!