Matt Daines, sales director at Screenworks, has been working on dye sublimation and developing its’ potential, especially within the area of customised and bespoke products for more than five years. Here, he explores the many advantages, but also the current limitations of this method of printing.
Dye sublimation printing is always done on a polyester, polymer, or polymer coated item. At high temperatures, the solid dye converts into a gas without ever becoming a liquid. The same high temperature opens the pores of the polymer and allows the gas to enter.
When the temperature drops, the pores close and the gas reverts to a solid state. This results in a print that is extremely durable and has a luxurious feel.
With a trend for customers looking for longer-lasting and better quality fabrics, sublimation is a technique that we are expecting to see real growth in over the coming years – as it delivers on these demands.
With sublimation, the whole design process is done digitally. This allows for colours to be Pantone matched even in a low volume of products making it particularly suitable for luxury and customised products. Complicated designs, and photographic prints are exacted in full, accurate colour in a way that is not necessarily as effective if undertaken by any other method.
With bespoke products each element can be made-to-measure. As a result, sublimation can be used to decorate every element of the garment before it is assembled. Printing can be done to the entire panel, ensuring a full colour-matched design, hitting brand image on point.
The design capabilities are also far more expansive using this method, insofar as you can print over seams, and even achieve a full 360˚ print wrapped around a garment. A herd of wildebeest could be printed stampeding around a jacket… the only limit on design here is the imagination! Washing has no effect on the print, ensuring long-lasting vibrancy.
One of the key limitations of sublimation is the choice of fabric. This technique is only fully effective upon polyester fabrics. A print can be achieved on cotton, but the vibrancy and effect is not the same.
For now this means that for clients desiring natural materials such as cotton, sublimation is not an option. That said, significant advances have been made over the last 12-18 months and with the current rate of advancement with digital print processes, it is highly likely that a solution on cotton is not far away.
There is still a variety of polyester fabrics available to print on. Recycled polyester is a great choice which delivers on customer demands for sustainable fabrics. Garments and products can be made from a range of wastage, including plastic bottles or trimmings swept up from the factory floor, which are formed into pellets and then made into fabric.
Another possibility is ‘cotton touch’ fabric. Made from polyester this offers a good option for those looking for the design capabilities of sublimation, but who need something that feels like cotton. This fabric is best suited to leisurewear applications.
Research is already being done into potentially creating as effective a print upon natural cotton as is currently possible upon the polyester. The end goal would be to be able to produce as vibrant a print using this technique on natural fabrics as on polyester. This would widen the scope of designs that can be created upon cotton and natural fibre products.
As the process only works effectively on polyester fabric it does have particular benefits for products intended for certain usage. One of these in particular is sportswear. Polyester wicking fabrics are woven in such a way that the moisture is forced into, and through, the gaps in the weave so it can find the outer shell of the material. The weave makes the material highly permeable, giving a good airflow that aides the wicking process. These properties help to remove sweat and keep the person wearing it cool.
Sublimation on sportswear is an option we are seeing being increasingly popular with sports brands or sponsors that are looking to create a unique design, or one that is right on brand.
Dye sublimation, with its possibilities for bold and innovative prints, naturally lends itself to bespoke production, but has great potential for so many different designs and client demands.
In the end, it comes down to personal preference and customer needs as to whether sublimation is the right method for the job. It’s exciting to think that this technique has yet to reach its full potential but is already yielding such fantastic results and widens the design capabilities of printing.