What is sublimation printing and how does it work?

Sublimation is a printing technique that transfers a design into the fiber of the fabric. The ink that is on a special paper turns into a gas by applying a high temperature. Then, it transfers it to the fabric by pressing the printed paper.
The print is permanent. So, the ink can’t be washed out or washed off from the fabric, making sure that the quality of the printed design will remain the same.
The term “sublimation” means “pass directly from solid to gas”. This means the solid ink will become into gas when the heat and pressure are applied, allowing the ink to transfer into the fibers of the fabric.
This type of digital printing contains intense colors, and gives the fabric a smooth feeling, while keeping it ventilated.
I wanted to know more in detail about the process of sublimation, so I contacted Héctor de Maza Coatelier. Even though he was busy, was very kind and explained in detail his work.

The Process

First, you print the artwork on a special paper.
The printer is a four-ink injection plotter (4 colors), so the illustration is in CMYK color. Also, the printer must be as wide as the fabric is (between 1.10 to 1.60 meters).

The sublimation ink is a water-based ink, which means the color is a pigment suspended in a solvent liquid, usually water.
The artwork is printed on a paper that doesn’t absorb ink. Additionally, the backside of the paper is varnished to avoid the ink passing through it. This way, the ink goes in one direction: through the right face of the paper right to the fabric.
An industrial ironing machine transfers the design from the paper to the fabric, by applying heat and pressure.
The transferring process needs a minimum temperature of 190ºC. The heat makes the ink turn from a solid to gas (sublimation). At the same time, it opens the pores of the polymer of the fabric. The gas penetrates the polymer becoming a part of it. As the fabric cools down, the dye solidifies inside the textile fiber.
Once the color is transferred, the paper is separated from the fabric.

characteristics

Sublimation printing is characterized by its color, touch, and ventilation.
It is appropriate for small productions and positional printing. As well, it is only applicable to synthetic fabrics.

Color

The four-colored digital printing allows the design to have several colors: the cost of printing is the same price as it is for one color, rather than being more expensive as if you were paying for several colors.
The quality of reproduction is photographic. The reproduction technique is the same as that used in graphic arts.
By transferring the color to the polymer of the fabric, it makes it very intense and durable.

Touch

Since the application of color is made by transferring it to the synthetic fiber, the fabric touching remains the same. This means the stamping is not altering how the fabric feels.
Also, it keeps its transparency and softness.

Ventilation

As the pigment does not cover the fabric pores, it does not lose its breathable properties. Therefore, sublimation printing is suitable for sportswear and technical garments.

Fabrics

Due to the characteristics of the type of pigments and techniques used, this type of printing can only be done on heat-resistant synthetic fabrics.
For non-synthetic fabrics, you need to add polyester coating on the surface.

Small productions

Sublimation printing is ideal for sample making. It does not require screen printing, photolites, clichés, etc., allowing to print a few meters of fabric and to work with low quantities, since the process is the same for 5 meters as it is for 200 or more.

Positional print

A positional print can be made according to the type of pattern on a piece of fabric, saving considerable fabric loss. Also, as it does not shrink the fabric, the positional print can be done without leaving a fabric allowance.

Quality checkpoints

As we have seen what the characteristic elements of sublimation printing are, we can say that the quality control issues are:

  • color intensity
  • color resistance
  • print smoothness
  • fabric touch

defects

  • Stain Marks: due to a dirty environment, the dust could be on the surface of the fabric at the time of transferring the color, and this causes small areas of fabric to lose color.
  • Ironing default marks: if the fabric or transfer paper is not perfectly flat, it will leave a line with no color.
  • Color Fading: due to deficient fixing, the printing loses color and stains the fabric.
  • Subdued color: the fabric doesn’t absorb the color properly due to the composition of the fiber.
  • Pealing: this happens in some types of synthetic fabric after ironing, as some fabrics are not suitable for this type of printing.

All this is what Hector kindly explained to me.
I hope you find this information useful.

Olga Fuenmayor

Olga Fuenmayor

Editor at Seampedia.
Fashion Technical Management / Consulting
Model development / Quality control / Production control.

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