June 1, 2022
How many times have you wished that you could sublimate a product that wasn’t polymer-based or polymer-coated. It’s a question I’ve been asked many times and I always had the same answer: “Sublimation only bonds with polymers and polyesters.”
Of course, there are more than 1,000 sublimation-ready products in the marketplace from a variety of dealers, so that gives you plenty of options if you spend some time searching online. But what happens when you can’t find that special item that will really get your customer excited, or perhaps possibly open the door to a line of new and unique products for your business?
During the past few years, there have been some products released in our industry that will allow you to add sublimation to surfaces that weren’t originally compatible with the application. Some work well, while others are mediocre at best. Some work on fabrics, but not hard surfaces. Others are compatible with hard surfaces, but not so great for fabric.
I must admit that I haven’t tried them all; but of the ones I have tried, my hands-down favorite is EasySubli, a product that was created through a joint venture between Sawgrass and Siser. The latter supplier produced a vinyl to which sublimation ink can bond, and Sawgrass created an ink formula specifically for Siser’s vinyl product. Thus, you can produce high-quality, full-color sublimated images on heat-transfer vinyl (HTV) with this product.
Some decorators may not be excited about the prospect of sublimated vinyl, but it really is an effective application for sublimating on substrates that currently aren’t compatible with the process. You still have to use a heat press, but as long as the product will fit into the press and not melt or discolor at 310˚F, then everything should be fine.
EasySubli comes in printer-ready sheet sizes. First, print the image with a sublimation printer, then contour-cut it with a cutter. You can use scissors, but you’ll hate yourself when you’re done. Weed away excess vinyl as needed. Then, press the material onto your product.
Even though that’s an abbreviated version of the process, the takeaway is that it’s easy and gives decorators a lot of opportunities for sublimated-product diversification. Let’s start with a look at apparel applications.
If you’re already a sublimator then you know sublimation works best with polyester, as that’s the fabric to which sublimation dye bonds — not cotton or any other type of fabric.
Poly-blends can be used, but the images may appear somewhat dull or washed out, the degree of which is based on the percentage of polyester in the fabric. Remember, however, that this effect can be useful when you need a faded or retro look for an image. With sublimatable HTV, you can apply sublimation to virtually any fabric, which means sublimated cotton shirts now are possible for your shop.
Another factor with sublimating fabric — or any product, for that matter — is surface color. White is the most compatible color, as sublimation dye has a high degree of transparency, meaning the surface color can affect the image color. It can work on light-colored items, but when it comes to dark fabric, a sublimated image will be almost invisible.
The EasySubli vinyl is white, so when sublimation is applied to it, it is being printed on a white background. This essentially creates a white barrier between the image and the surface such that the color of the surface will not affect the color of the ink. Suddenly, dark colors are within the realm of what you can decorate with your sublimation system.
Other Products & Applications
At this point, you’re probably thinking: “It’s vinyl, not sublimation, which means a heavy ‘hand.’” Traditional sublimation has no hand because the ink bonds at a molecular level with polyester; think of it as infused color. Vinyl, on the other hand, is a physical material on top of the fabric. So, yes, you will feel it when you touch it.
However, like many other new-age HTV materials, sublimatable vinyl has a light feel, so it’s not bulky like some other vinyl products. It’s a trade-off, but don’t write it off because it’s vinyl. It still can provide you with excellent results.
Moving past fabric, the EasySubli product can be used with all kinds of hard-surface products, too. Because it bonds with a heat-activated adhesive, it can be used with almost any material. Remember to experiment before you offer anything for sale, but you will be pleasantly surprised with the new options available by using this material.
Let’s look at a few hard-surface product concepts and ideas.
Sublimatable signage already is available in multiple materials, shapes and sizes. All too often, however, you have a potential order that requires a specific material in a specific size and shape for which there is nothing available that’s sublimation-friendly.
For example, think about all the types of wood — pine, oak, walnut, cherry, teak and mahogany, to name a few. They are readily available in stores such as Home Depot and can be shaped to order using woodworking tools. But without a proper polymer coating, you are wasting your time with sublimation. However, sublimatable HTV makes decorating on any type of wood a possibility. As an added bonus, if you’re good with carpentry, this can lead to unique products that none of your competitors can offer.
Plaques and awards are big business in the sublimation world and there are a lot of great products to choose from in the marketplace. Once again, if you can’t find the right option, then you may lose sales opportunities. Think of the convenience and peace of mind you could have when walking into a craft or hobby store and finding an off-the-shelf item that would satisfy customers’ needs and knowing you can sublimate it.
Removing the Limits
Now, you might be asking yourself why not just use standard HTV and not bother with the sublimation version. Standard HTV involves a solid-color product, which means you’ll have to inventory a lot of vinyl in order to have a wide range of colors at your fingertips.
With products like EasySubli, you only need to stock one color: white. That’s because you can use sublimation to produce virtually any color, even those not found in the HTV world. For example, rather than “getting close” to a team’s colors or business’s logo, you can match it exactly.
With sublimation vinyl, you also aren’t limited to solid colors. You can print shapes, patterns and multicolor images. You even can produce vinyl with photographic images, full-color logos and more. This takes your creativity to a higher level than ever before.
If you want to expand your business and your market reach, this is a very affordable option. Just think of all the preciously unsublimatable products that now are sublimatable.
Award-winning author and international speaker Jimmy Lamb worked in the decorated-apparel industry for more than 30 years. He has worked for many industry suppliers, including Hirsch Solutions and Sawgrass Technologies. In addition to authoring hundreds of articles, he also has been a speaker at Impressions Expo trade shows and owned his own decorated-apparel business. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jimmy at email@example.com.
Specialty Products and Presses
Curved and rounded products require special heat presses, such as a mug or cap press, which have curved surfaces designed to fit those products. Combination presses also offer flat- and curved-pressing capabilities with specialized attachments.
Specialty 3-D heat presses also are designed for products with curved surfaces. In addition, they can apply images to multiple surfaces of a single substrate, such as the top and sides of a cellphone cover. This type of press uses a vacuum system, not a platen, to pull a membrane tight around the substrate and then applies convection heat.
Wraps can be used with some rounded products as an alternative to presses. Transfers are secured to the substrate using a special high-temperature wrap that surrounds the item and latches into place. The substrate is then placed in a convection oven for an extended period of time — typically 12-15 minutes. Wraps are available in multiple sizes and can be used for products such as mugs, pet food bowls, cookie jars, etc.
Finally, a rotary press — also known as a calender press — is a continuous-feed unit used for pressing fabric as it comes off a roll-style sublimation printer. The fabric passes through a series of heated rollers that also “press” the sublimation. It is typically used for large-volume fabric pressing.
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