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A Fabric Printing Appraisal

(January 2017) posted on Tue Jan 10, 2017

Dye sublimation or direct-to-fabric?

By Darek Johnson

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In a discussion on weather, the US Geological Survey (USGS) describes sublimation as “the conversion between the solid and the gaseous phases of matter, with no intermediate liquid stage. In the water cycle, sublimation is most often used to describe the process of snow and ice changing into water vapor in the air, without first melting into water. The opposite of sublimation is deposition, where water vapor changes directly into ice – such a snowflakes and frost.”

In this descriptive paragraph, the USGS ( outlined, albeit abstractedly, the process of dye-sublimation and direct-to-fabric printing. In essence, dye-sublimation ink, like water transformations, sublimates to vapor and the “deposition” process illustrates the express application process that deposits ink directly onto a fabric.

In a digital print dye-sublimation process, liquid suspended pigment (or dye), once printed on transfer (“release”) paper and subjected to a heat transfer process while overlaying selected media, sublimates into an ink vapor that subsequently transfers the printed image onto the receptive media. The direct-to-fabric process is simpler: You simply print directly onto the fabric.

Both systems have advantages. When heated, sublimation-type ink will transfer to polyester fabric or such dimensional objects as polymer-coated coffee cups, smartphone covers and other specialty items. Further, dye-sub ink is less broadly dispersed onto the media; thus, the images are sharper than prints made with the direct-to-fabric print process. However, direct application systems are quicker (no paper transfer activity) and the prints offer brighter colors because directly printed inks are more inclined to saturate the fabric.

Direct-to-fabric systems offer quicker processing and no paper cost, but it’s possible that any dye-sub paper cost savings would be lost through increased ink use. However, Heather Rockow of KAO Collins Ink says ink usage is de-pendent on many factors and each case should be examined independently.


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