Alternative to Sublimation Printing

Alternative To Sublimation Printing

What is the best alternative to sublimation printing? Many people say it is Heat Transfer. However, “Heat Transfer” could mean one of several things, and it is not the only good choice. There are several alternatives to sublimation printing, and we will cover them here.

Best Alternative to Sublimation Printing: Heat Transfer

You may have heard that heat transfer is the best alternative to sublimation printing. However, Heat Transfer isn’t just one process. Heat transfer refers to any of several methods that all have something in common – they require a heat press to apply the design.

Heat Transfer Paper (light or clear)

One of the most economical methods to decorate t-shirts and other clothing is with heat transfer paper. This method works with standard inkjet or laser printers, and with 100% cotton, which is why many people like it. You need to purchase special paper and cut out your printed design with a vinyl cutter before you apply it to your shirt.

Light heat transfer paper (also called clear heat transfer paper) works on light colored clothing. It works on nearly any clothing composition, such as 100% cotton, polyester, or poly/cotton blends.

To use light colored heat transfer paper, you print your image onto a film, cut out the image, and then use the heatpress to bond the film to your garment. A vinyl cutter is preferred to give you a clean, professional cut. However, since the film is clear, you can get away with not cutting out the image or using scissors to cut out the image, ignoring fine details. This can be a good option for crafting with kids.

Designs created with light heat transfer paper adhere well, and fade slowly over time if washed properly.

Inkjet or Laser Printer

Light Heat Transfer paper is be formulated for either inkjet printers or laser printers, so read the package carefully before you buy.

For an inket printer use: light inkjet heat transfer paper (sometimes called clear inkjet heat transfer paper)

For a laser printer use: light laser heat transfer paper (sometimes called clear laser heat transfer paper or laser light heat transfer paper)

Note that you must purchase the right type of paper for your printer type. You cannot use inkjet heat transfer paper in a laser printer and visa versa.

Light Heat Transfer Paper Process

  1. Use software to create or import the design
  2. Load the light heat transfer paper into your inkjet or laserjet printer, and print the design in mirror image
  3. Cut the design out using a cricut, Silhouette, or other vinyl cutter (If the design is simple, you could even use scissors)
  4. Place the design onto the apparel, design side down
  5. Press with heavy pressure
  6. Peel the backing away from the design
  7. Admire your creation
alternative to sublimation printing - Light Heat Transfer Paper
Light Heat Transfer Paper uses a printer that you already own

Choosing Heat Transfer Paper

Since heat transfer paper does not require a special printer (like sublimation does), and can be used with a printer you already own, the key factor is to choose a paper that give you good results with your particular printer and fabric.

As a result, you will want to test out different papers. Luckily, places like Heat Press Nation offer low cost Heat Transfer Paper sample packs so that you can try out a variety of papers before you commit to purchasing a large quantity.

Heat Transfer Paper (Light or Clear) Summary

  • Use existing printer
  • Use special paper
  • Uses vinyl cutter
  • Could use scissors or no cutter for simple designs
  • Requires a Heat Press
  • Works on white or light colored clothing
  • Good for home projects, samples, and quick projects
  • Not typically suitable for a business

Why use light heat transfer?

It is a simple method for printing on light fabric that uses some equipment you probably already have.

Heat Transfer Paper (Light or Clear) Pros

  • Economical way to put full color graphics onto clothing
  • Uses the inkjet or laser printer you already have
  • Very fast method
  • Works on nearly any fabric composition (100% cotton, polyester, blends)
  • May not need a vinyl cutter for some designs
  • Fade resistant for a long time with proper care
  • Printed image has a soft feel

Heat Transfer Paper (Light or Clear) Cons

  • Remember to print in mirror image
  • Your design is usually cut out with a vinyl cutter
  • Quality is good, but colors are not as vibrant as sublimation or other methods
  • Works on fabric only – not for use on objects such as mugs

Heat Transfer Paper (Dark or Opaque)

Dark heat transfer paper (also called opaque heat transfer paper) is used to transfer full color designs onto shirts of any color, including black, and can be used on nearly any fabric type.

This method is different from light transfer paper in two major ways: (1) the transfer paper is opaque; and (2) the application is different in that the backing is removed from the paper before it is applied to the garment.

Since the opaque transfer paper is white, the color white will show wherever it is not cut away. As a result a vinyl cutter and a weeding step are required.

The bond is not permanent, and can start to peel and crack after as few as 10 washings. As a result, businesses use this method when they are making “promotional” products. These are clothing items that have short lifespan, such as for a company event, or a fundraiser. The shirts are usually worn to promote group unity for a limited amount of time, and they aren’t meant to become standard items in anyone’s wardrobe.

Hobbyists would use this method if economics were the primary factor. Making children’s clothing, for example, would be good use, because the child will likely outgrown the clothing before the design comes off.

Inkjet or Laser Printer

Dark Heat Transfer Paper is also sold by the type of printer you have, whether inkjet or laser printer:

For an inket printer use: dark inkjet heat transfer paper (sometimes called opaque inkjet heat transfer paper)

For a laser printer use: dark laser heat transfer paper (sometimes called opque laser heat transfer paper or laser light opaque heat transfer paper)

Dark Heat Transfer Paper Process

To use dark heat transfer paper, a heat press and a vinyl cutter are required. This method involves:

  1. Print the image on the dark transfer paper
  2. Cut out the design
  3. Remove the backing
  4. Set the design onto the clothing, design side up
  5. Using a heat press to bond the design to the clothing

Heat Transfer Paper (Dark or Opaque) Summary

  • Use existing printer
  • Use special paper
  • Uses vinyl cutter
  • Uses Heat Press
  • Use on any colored clothing
  • Good for home projects, samples, and projects with a short lifespan

Why Use Dark Heat Transfer?

It is a quick method for printing on dark clothing, using a some equipment that you probably already own.

Dark Heat Transfer - sublimation Printing
Dark Heat Transfer is used for promotions

Heat Transfer Paper (Dark or Opaque) Pros

  • Economical way to put full color graphics onto clothing
  • Fast method
  • Works on nearly any fabric composition (100% cotton, polyester, blends)
  • Uses the inkjet or laser printer you already have
  • Don’t have to print in reverse

Heat Transfer Paper (Dark or Opaque) Cons

  • Peels and cracks after 10-25 washings
  • Your design must be cut out with a vinyl cutter
  • Works on fabric only – not for use on objects such as mugs

White Toner Transfer

White Toner Transfer Printing requires a special printer, and specific film for printing. The advantages of this method are that the transfers are long lasting, the method works on any color fabric, on many different types of fabrics, and can also be used on other types of substrates such as glasses and mugs. Notably, a vinyl cutter is not needed. Complex designs can be transferred to clothing, with no weeding required. Additionally, the design does not fade or crack after repeated washings. For dark fabrics and 100% cotton fabrics, this is an excellent commercial alternative to sublimation.

The downside to this method is the cost of getting started. Printers can cost $5000.00 or more. Common brands of printers are Crio, Uninet, Ricoma, and DigitalHeat.

Alternative to Sublimation printing - White Toner Transfer
White Toner Transfer prints the color white

When you create with a white toner printer and white toner transfer paper, you will hear the terms “A” side and “B” side. The “A” side is a translucent film that you feed into the printer to print the design. The “B” side is a sheet of adhesive that you bond to the A side using a heat press after the A side has been printed.

Once the A side and B side are bonded, then you remove the B side. You are left with a design that now has a layer of adhesive on it. You then place the design onto your substrate and use the heat press to affix it to the garment. Finally, you peel back the translucent film, and only the design is left on the clothing.

You can also apply the image to other hard surfaces the you can fit it your heat press. Additionally, you could also use a mug press or a hat press to transfer the designs to mugs or hats.

Why use White Toner Transfer?

It is a long lasting method that works on all color fabrics, as well as on other hard surfaces.

White Toner Transfer Pros

  • Works on any color clothing
  • Works on nearly all fabric types
  • Also can be used on other hard surfaces, such as mugs
  • No vinyl cutter needed
  • Works just as well for simple and intricate, complex designs
  • Design looks good after many washing cycles

White Toner Transfer Cons

  • High up front cost for printer
  • Special toner required


Supacolor is way to transfer high quality full color graphics without the need to have a printer at all. It is a service that is revolutionizing the industry. You upload your design to their website, and they ship a ready to press transfer page directly to you. All you have to do is apply the image to the fabric with a heat press. The result is a vibrant, nearly permanent full color design that can withstand 70 or more washings. Supacolor is available for nearly every fabric type and color.

There is a minimum order of 10 pieces, and they also have a Supagang option, which enables you to use all the real estate on a transfer sheet by filling it up with different unrelated designs.

Supacolor is great for artists or hobbyists that don’t want to pay the upfront costs of a white tone transfer or sublimation printer.

It is also an excellent option for those with a small business who already have printers. You can outsource the work of printing very large or very small orders so that printing does not become the bottleneck in your business.

Supacolor has locations in the US, UK and New Zealand.

Why Use SupaColor?

Long lasting brilliant colors. Equipment-wise, you only need a heat press.

Supacolor Pros

  • Great quality
  • Bright colors
  • Does not fade even after many washings
  • No printer to purchase or maintain

Supacolor Cons

  • Takes several days to get transfer sheets
  • Minimum order requirements

Heat Transfer Vinyl

Heat transfer vinyl (HTV) is another method used to decorate fabric. Sheets of HTV are available in many colors, patterns and even textures. You cut out a design using a vinyl color, and bond the vinyl to the apparel using a heat press.

No printer is used with vinyl, unless you want to use it as a method to sublimate on dark fabric. Rather HTV is typically used for putting single color calligraphy or bold solid color shapes onto fabric. It is not for transferring full color prints.

Heat Transfer Vinyl - Alternative to Sublimation Printing
Heat Transfer Vinyl

The design complexity comes from the cutting and weeding of the vinyl. If you want to add different colors of vinyl to your design, then you need to use transfer paper and registration marks so that the design lines up properly.

Heat Transfer vinyl is applied to the surface of the shirt. The colors usually stay bright, but the vinyl will eventually peel and crack with enough washings.

HTV can be used on hard surfaces as well as on apparel.

Why use HTV?

Good for large, bold designs. Works on fabric and other surfaces. No Printer Required.

Heat Transfer Vinyl Pros

  • No printer needed
  • HTV is available in many colors and patterns
  • Works on nearly all fabrics

Heat Transfer Vinyl Cons

  • Cutting and weeding are key to this method
  • Complex and multi part designs require extra steps

Screen Printing

Screen printing (also known as silk screen printing) is an ancient technique for transferring designs onto fabrics and other flat surfaces. It originated in China around the year 1000 AD. In the 1906’s, Andy Warhol made the method popular as an artistic medium. Today, it is one of the most common techniques used by commercial print shops for high volume T-shirt production.

Screen printing requires a screen that is pulled taut on frame, a mask, and ink. A stencil is created and affixed to the screen. Today, that is typically done with UV (ultraviolet) light curing. Then a squeegee is used to pull a fine layer of ink across the screen. The ink penetrates the screen where the stencil has openings.

Ink is applied one color at a time, and so multiple passes are required to get different colors in the design. Although the pigment in the ink can be any color, production machines often use 4 screens with Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black to achieve different colors. This is known as the CMYK or Four color printing method.

Screen printing can be done manually for home use or for small businesses. Automatic machines are used for high volume production. The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art has an excellent demonstration of screen printing.

Screen printing is the traditional method of decorating items, including apparel, and still one of the most common.

Screen Printing - Alternative to Sublimation Printing
Industrial Screen Printing Machine “Spider”

Why use Screen Printing?

Great process for large scale manufacturing. Also a good medium for artists.

Screen Printing Pros

  • Can be used for full color printing
  • Once set up, good for making many copies of the same design
  • Quick process

Screen Printing Cons

  • Wet process. Requires cleaning of screen, squeegee
  • Finished prints need to dry

Direct to Garment (DTG) Printing

DTG is known as direct to garment printing or digital garment printing.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could load a T-shirt into a printer and print your design directly onto it? Well, if you have a DTG printer, you can do just that. If you are a hobbyist, however, don’t get excited just yet, because the printer costs over $20,000. This method is used by commercial firms.

DTG printing works on nearly all color and composition fabrics. The printers have large printing areas, so you can do a design that takes up a large area of the shirt. Some DTG printer brands are Ricoh, Epson, Summit, Brother, M&R, and FreeJet, among others.

Although it sounds simple, the process has more steps besides printing.

  1. The surface of the shirt must be treated prior to printing. You can purchase pre-treated shirts, or use a spray applicator to treat them yourself.
  2. The treated shirts then need to be flattened and cured in a heat press.
  3. Next the shirt can be loaded and secured into the printer
  4. Press the print button and let the printer work its magic
  5. Give the printed shirt a final pass in the heat press to cure the ink
Alternative to Sublimation Printing - DTG
Direct to Garment Printing

Why use DTG?

DTG is an alternative to screen printing for manufacturing in high volumes.

DTG Pros

  • No cutting, weeding, or films to handle
  • Bright colors that are long lasting
  • High volume process
  • Can print on a shirt in as little as 10 seconds

DTG Cons

  • Printer is a capital investment
  • Chemical Pretreatment required
  • Two heat press steps

Direct to Film (DTF)

Direct to film (DTF) is a process that uses the same or a similar printer as a DTG printer. Instead of printing directly on the clothing however, you print an a special film. One of the best aspects of DTF is that you can make transfer films in advance. For a commercial enterprise, this changes the bottleneck step, and enables a small shop to be a high volume producer with quick turnaround time. Supacolor, although its exact method is proprietary, uses DTF technology. Here is a summary of the steps:

  1. Print on film
  2. Add hot melt adhesive powder over the design
  3. Use a heat press to bond the adhesive to the ink
  4. Set the design on your apparel
  5. With a heat press, bond the design to the fabric
  6. Peel the film away
  7. Press the shirt once more to bond the design more fully with the fabric

Why use DTF?

Use it for a high volume process. With DTF, you can create films in advance to remove bottlenecks.

DTF Pros

  • You can make films in advance, and store them until they are needed
  • Good for high volumes
  • Excellent quality

DTF Cons

  • Printer is expensive
  • Requires hot melt step
  • Requires multiple heat press steps


Using a needle and thread to decorate material has been a part of human history since man’s early days. Embroidery was depicted in Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, and there are surviving examples from the 5th century BC in China, and 300 AD in Sweden. It is an artform that has prevalent in many different cultures, and as part of many different religions.

Embroidery by hand is slow and time consuming. Machine embroidery was first introduced in France in the 1800’s during the industrial revolution.

Recently, with the popularity of Pinterest, hand embroidery has seen a resurgence in the popularity of embroidery as a hobby. Additionally, artists, such as Don Tran, make unbelievable creations using skills that were passed down as part of the tradition in his Vietnamese family.

For everyone else who wants to create embroidered items for sale, an embroidery machine is a must.

Embroidery machines for home use can have just one needle, such as the Brother PE800, and look similar to a sewing machine. But it you want to use embroidery for production, then you will want a machine with multiple needles. Commercial machines, such as those made by Ricoma, don’t look like a traditional sewing machine at all. They have multiple heads that use 10 or more needles each.

Thread is available in a wide variety of colors. The designs are programmed into the machines from a computer, and the machine does the work.

Embroidery is used for clothing and hats. Patches, jackets, and banners are items that are commonly embroidered. Embroidered items can seem more luxurious or high end compared to printed apparel, and can be sold at a premium

Embroidered military patches, with intricate designs, have been used throughout the world, and have their beginnings as embellishments on the robes of royalty. Patches have been common in the United States since the war of 1812. Today, they are standardized, coordinated, and approved by the Institute of Heraldry.

Alternative to Sublimation Printing - Embroidery
Commercial Embroidery Process – Hands off, but capital intensive

Why Use Embroidery?

It is a hands off process that produces complex and intricate designs.

Embroidery Pros

  • Good quality and long lasting
  • Luxurious
  • Finished goods can be sold at premium prices.
  • Hands-off and labor saving – the machine does the work
  • clean process – no smeared inks; no screens to wash

Embroidery Cons

  • Requires specialized expensive machine
  • Slow process compared to printing – throughput is accomplished by having multiple machines

Honorable Mention – Print on Demand Services

Another alternative to sublimation printing is any of the many print on demand services. We have written an article about the process here.


Can you sublimate on dark fabric?

It takes several steps, but it is possible. See our article about sublimation printing on dark fabric.

What is the best process to get started?

We think sublimation is best, because of the great colors and permanence. (and if you haven’t noticed, our website is called LeanSublimation!)

If you want to simply explore whether you have an interest at all in printing on shirts, then the cheapest way to experiment is with light heat transfer paper and a Cricut Easy Press.

If you want to dive in, but purchase minimal equipment, then purchase only a heat press and have your designs printed by SupaColor.

Good places to shop for supplies and equipment at and at

How do I start a Sublimation business?

There are several points to consider. Please see our article on how to start a sublimation business.

Summary Table – Best Alternative to Sublimation Printing

MethodBondUseEquipment NeededSupplies NeededSummary
SublimationPermanent (Not a surface layer. Instead it bonds to fabric fibers)Light colored Polyester Fabric and other surfacesSublimation Printer
Heat Press
Sublimation Paper
Sublimation Ink
Best Quality Method
For permanent transfer of colorful complex designs. Needs polyester garments. Works on many hard surfaces.
Clear Heat Transfer PaperFades over timeLight colored Fabric onlyAny inkjet or laser printer
Viny Cutter
Heat Press
Clear Heat Transfer Paper
Inkjet ink or laser toner
Cheap and quick. Fades over time. Cloth only.
Opaque Heat Transfer PaperPeels and cracksFabric onlyAny inkjet or laser printer
Viny Cutter
Heat Press
Opaque Heat Transfer Paper
Inkjet ink or laser toner
Economical and Fast. Peels and Cracks over time. Use for projects with short lifespan. Cloth only.
White Toner TransferLong LastingFabric and other surfacesWhite Toner Printer
Heat Press
Transfer Paper for White Toner Printer
Toner specific to Printer
Retail Quality Product. Use for items other than clothing.
SupacolorLong LastingFabric and other surfaces.Heat PressNone (Heatpress ready transfer sheets are shipped to you)Vibrant long lasting Colors. You don’t need your own printer. Minimum quantities.
Takes several days.
HTVLong lasting, but will peel and crackFabric and other surfaces.Vinyl Cutter
Heat Press
HTVBest for single color transfers. Requires cutting and weeding.
Screen PrintingShould last a long time if laundered with careFabric and other flat surfaces.Screen Press Machine,
(Frame, squeegee) Light source, Water/Sink for cleaning
InkCommon Commercial Method. Used for low volume or high volume processes
DTGShould last a long time if laundered with careFabric onlyPrinter
Spray applicator
Heat Press
Pretreatment, InkExpensive process for high volume operation. Good results.
DTFShould last a long time if laundered with careFabric and other surfaces.Printer
Heat Press
Transfer Film, Adhesive powder, InkGood quality results. Since transfer sheets are made in advance, the method offers flexibility
EmbroideryShould last a long time if laundered with careFabricsEmbroidery machineEmbroidery threadExcellent results, especially for complex designs. Luxury appearance.

Alternative to Sublimation Printing Video – Official Heat Press Nation Video

Jared B of Heat Press Nation compares and contrasts different alternatives to sublimation printing. The content really starts at the 3:05 mark.

Alternative To Sublimation Printing illustrated by Jared B.


We have discussed several different alternatives to sublimation printing, provided pros and cons of each, summarized the process for each method, and reviewed when they would be appropriate to use.