Finding success with dye-sublimation printing is a difficult but rewarding process. The first step towards finding that success is by finding your niche and producing high quality materials for it. But what type of fabric should you use for your dye-sublimation business? Should you use a poly-blend, a nylon/lycra blend, or maybe some cotton-poly material? We’ll explore the pros and cons of each of these fabrics, and how it can impact your dye-sublimation business.
But first, a quick aside on typical dye-sublimation fabrics
Before we get our hands dirty with the details of the fabrics listed above, let’s establish a quick and easy rule for you to follow. A general rule of thumb here is that if the fabric is man-made, you can probably use dye-sublimation to transfer your designs. The reason for this is pretty straightforward; sublimation ink is a water-based dye ink that we apply heat and pressure, causing it to turn into a gas. This gas bonds with the polyester molecules, dying the molecules in order to transfer our designs.
Cotton - Not too great for Dye-Sublimation Printing
So spoiler alert, cotton is not the greatest material for dye-sublimation. In fact, it’s straight-up not good. The reason why cotton isn’t commonly used in dye-sublimation is because the natural fibers in the cotton won’t permanently bond with the dyes in the sublimation ink. You can press a high cotton content substrate with your designs, and they will temporarily transfer the ink - but they will wash out almost immediately. The bonds between the dyes in your ink and the natural cotton fibers aren’t permanent, and will the ink will wash out very easily.
There are a couple of ways to help this bonding process along - but they aren’t particularly common nor are they as good as other transfer methods. Specialized coatings, like Polyfog, and specialized transfer paper, like Reveal S paper, can allow you to transfer your designs to cotton substrates - albeit at a lower quality. These types of specialized coatings can introduce a polymer into the cotton substrate, which will allow the dyes to permanently bond - dying the material. It is definitely worth exploring if it is something you are interested in, but there are other transfer methods that may be more worth your while for transferring your high quality designs.
Polyester - The Go-To Standard for Sublimation Printing
Like we’ve already mentioned, polyester materials and blends are the ideal, go-to substrate for transferring your designs with the highest quality. The dyes in the sublimation ink are able to bond with polyester molecules, allowing you to transfer your designs with the highest quality.
There is a major drawback to polyester though; not a people love polyester. Polyester is considered to be a little more uncomfortable, and itchy to a ton of people - and can sometimes survive less wash cycles than cotton and other natural fibers. The polyester fibers in fabric are often much smaller than their natural fiber counterparts, and can easily come un-done, making the material less comfortable (this is usually called pilling - if you look at an athletic or dry-fit shirt in your closet, you may notice little pill bundles appearing on the edge of the fabric). This is why many people will opt to use a blended material.
Poly-blends can offer tons of advantages over 100% polyester fabrics, since they will often feel more comfortable and survive longer while being worn and washed. You may experience some issues with uneven transfers or light transfers when using poly blends. Since you are sublimating to 100% polyester materials, the sublimation inks you are using will only be able to blend to a portion of the material. So if you are using a low polyester count fabric, then your design won’t transfer completely to the material. In general, you will want to aim for at least 40% polyester content. If your business requires higher fidelity transfers, then aim for higher content fabric, and vice versa.
Nylon, Lycra, and Others - Worth Checking Out
Many people in the industry opt to use blended materials containing nylon, lycra, spandex, and tons of other materials. In general, you can use the rule of thumb from above to judge whether your fabric can be sublimated - so long as it’s man-made! But that rule isn’t all encompassing - especially when it comes to these types of materials.
The number one thing to watch out for with these special blends (other than making sure your poly content is high enough) is to make sure you aren’t burning the materials. Polyester, along with nylon, lycra, and spandex, are all able to be burnt just like anything else. Often times, the materials will have lower burning temperatures than natural fibers. When you burn the material in your fabric, the fabric can change shape and distort images transferred onto it. It can even reduce the air flow going through the fabric, making it much more uncomfortable to wear.
Check with your supplier or manufacturer before using these materials, and make sure to test your print settings and double check your temperature & pressure. You want to make sure your settings aren’t burning your materials! Suppliers will usually give you a rough idea of where they believe the ideal sublimation temperature is - but it is worthwhile to double check these temperatures for your own prints.
In General - Use your Common Sense
Dye-sublimation is a very rewarding industry, but it is one that comes with a difficult learning curve. That doesn’t mean it is all too difficult to get the hang of! Many of these rules for success are common sensical, and shouldn’t be too hard to follow along with!
Just remember, if it’s man-made, you can probably transfer your designs with sublimation! Make sure your blends aren’t too crazy - 100% polyester has drawbacks due to long-term quality and comfortability, but will typically have the highest quality transfers; 100% cotton is very comfortable and will last forever, but won’t hold any transfers. A blend with at least 40% polyester is a good range to shoot for, and will help you get the best of both worlds when it comes to quality and comfort. If you are interested in using other materials, such as nylon, lycra, or spandex, make sure to test your materials beforehand! These materials can burn easily, and you should make sure all of your settings are dialed in before pushing these out to your customers.