Sublimation Meets Cotton #RhodyCustomGraphics

If you’re a sublimator, you’ve undoubtedly heard — repeatedly — that this decoration process will not bond to cotton. Truthfully, that hasn’t changed. Sublimation chemically bonds to polyester and polymers, not cotton; however, that doesn’t mean you can’t apply it to cotton.

New developments in the marketplace have yielded products that can be used to apply sublimation dye to a cotton fabric’s surface. In the true sublimation-production process, the dye bonds at a molecular level with polymers. In the case of apparel, this means the chemistry happens below the surface rather than on the surface. This is why true sublimation bonding results in dye will not crack, peel or fade when laundered.

In the case of products that allow cotton sublimation, the resulting image will be on the surface instead of in the surface, and may crack, peel or fade over time. But that’s not really a bad thing, considering traditional forms of cotton decorating — such as screen and direct-to-garment (DTG) printing — also have the same tendency.

Several new sublimation-to-cotton products have hit the streets during the past few months. Typically, they fall into one of two categories: transfer paper and printable material. Let’s focus on the transfer-paper options.

All About the Paper #RhodyCustomGraphics

The concept of transfer papers means all you need to do is choose the correct option from all the choices available and print directly to it with your sublimation printer. Then, use a heat press to apply the design to the shirt. The dye will transfer from the paper, along with chemical elements contained therein, onto the cotton shirt’s surface. Then, you simply discard the paper. This process is similar to the standard, everyday sublimation process.

It sounds easy and, in reality, it is. However, all papers are not created equally; thus, it’s important to test different products and evaluate the results.

All of the currently available papers use some form of polymer, providing a “go-between” link that enables sublimation to adhere to cotton. Essentially, the entire sheet is coated when manufactured. When applying an image with a heat press, the coating releases from the paper with the ink to bond it. However, with some products, the non-printed area’s coating also transfers to the shirt.

Picture a rectangular sheet of transfer paper with a small logo printed in the center. During the heat-pressing process, that logo — as well as the paper’s empty area — also transfers. You end up with a printed logo surrounded by a faint, off-white rectangular box that has the paper’s dimensions. This “polymer window” is not desirable.

With these papers, trim away the excess paper around the printed image so that only the dye transfers. This can be done with scissors; however, if you plan to do a lot of sublimation-to-cotton printing, look into buying a cutter that can be set up to automatically do this. Using a cutter will add a few extra steps, but it’s worth the effort.

The second type of paper is known as “self-weeding” because the polymer component only transfers where dye is present on the paper. Though it sounds like a better solution, there also are drawbacks with this type of paper.

First, it uses a “wet process” for production, which means you must print and quickly apply the image with a heat press. The second issue is that it works best with dark images. Light colors and pictures don’t transfer very well.

In comparison, the other paper style tends to do quite well with lighter colors. Translation: No paper option is perfect. Thus, take the time to experiment with them and the production processes so you can determine what works best for each application.

There’s more to using sublimation-to-cotton transfer papers than simply choosing the correct product. Digital transfer papers have many different characteristics that affect the image’s quality and color. They have to absorb the dye and release it properly, and each one does it differently. Take those issues into account when using the products.

The Software Factor @ The key is using color-management/printing software that makes it easy to correct such issues. For example, software exists that enables different “profiles” to be created for different papers. The profiles set up parameters within the printer and control how the dye is delivered to the paper based on its characteristics and the dye’s characteristics. Too much ink leads to waste; in the case of the wet transfer paper, it also could cause streaks. Too little ink may lead to images that have dull or incorrect color.

When the correct profile is used, the best quality will be achieved. With this in mind, ensure you use the correct settings each time. If your software offers specific profiles for specific products, then it’s simply a matter of choosing the correct profile for the job. The software and printer will do the rest.

If you’re using a raster image processor (RIP), try experimenting to find the proper settings for each type of transfer product. If you don’t have a RIP or system-specific software, then contact your sublimation system’s manufacturer for advice.

So far, I have used a half-dozen products that allow sublimation to be applied to cotton and have found all to be different, but useful. In addition, new products routinely are debuting that improve the process and boast more capabilities, such as sublimating on darks.

These new products will open doors to many new fascinating sublimation applications, which will help maximize profit potential for your decorated-apparel business.


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