Digital Decorating:

The Road to Sublimation Success

Learn the basics of this decoration technology.

By David Gross, Contributing Writer

Color management means getting accurate color. Sublimation decorating presents some challenges over and above traditional digital output due to its two-step process.

September 4, 2018

Sublimation decorating is a disruptive technology that’s changing apparel-industry rules by providing personalized products almost instantly.

This burgeoning technology allows digital decorators to create full-color, photographic-quality products with a minimum quantity of one and no setup costs.

Sublimation uses inkjet printers to print transfers using sublimation inks, also referred to as disperse dyes. These inkjet printers use a piezo print head to vibrate the ink onto the release paper. This paper is designed to “carry the ink,” then release it onto the substrate as it turns into a gas during the heating process.

To transfer, the printed image and paper is secured to the substrate and placed in a heat press, where it usually is pressed at 400˚F for a dwell time and pressure that is dependent on the substrate. Most fabrics are pressed for 45 seconds with light pressure, whereas ceramics require several minutes with medium-to-heavy pressure.

During the heating process, the sublimation dyes seek an oil-loving molecule (polyester) with which to bond. At the same time, these molecules open up in what is called the glass transition state to accept the gas. It’s important to note that cotton is a water-loving molecule and will not accept the dyes. Once the transfer is complete, remove the substrate from the press and allow it to cool, thereby closing its pores and trapping the dyes. Once cooled, the results will be permanent, with amazingly bright and vivid colors.

Equipment Needs
If you’re a business owner, sublimation equipment actually may be one of your least-expensive investments. All you need is a sublimation printer and heat press. This also is a scalable technology, meaning you can start with a desktop printer (such as the Sawgrass SG800, which can print up to 13″ x 21″ transfers) and later scale up to a large-format printer (such as the Epson F6200 or Mutoh RJ900X, capable of printing transfers up to 44 inches wide).

Although larger printers typically will require a larger heat press (such as the Geo Knight 44″ x 64 ” MAXI-PRESS), such equipment can be used to produce an exciting array of large products. These include allover-printed T-shirts, cut-and-sew apparel, the 40″ x 60″ ChromaLuxe photo panels, in addition to all of the products in the desktop category.

For a product to be sublimatable, three things are required:

1. The item needs to be white or light colored. Because the ink that’s used is not opaque, an item’s color will show through an imprinted image. Unfortunately, this means images can’t be printed on dark-colored or black items.

2. The item should be able to handle the required heat and pressure. Whether it’s with a heat press or oven, the item must be exposed to 350˚F-400˚F temperatures without melting or becoming deformed.

3. The item needs to be made of or coated with a material that will accept the sublimation gas.

Hard Substrates: New Opportunities
Nearly anything made of polyester fabric can be sublimated. Compatible soft substrates include T-shirts, socks, flags, aprons, towels and more.

In addition to fabrics, there are thousands of hard-substrate products to decorate. With just a printer and flat press, decorators can produce a range of traditional hard substrates, such as coasters, name badges and license plates, as well as new products such as ChromaLuxe metal photo panels, and ColorLyte glass photo panels and curved acrylic.

Investing in a mug press can add ceramic coffee mugs, water bottles, steins and more to your product offerings.

Color Management
In simple terms, color management is the process of getting accurate color. Sublimation decorating presents some challenges over and above traditional digital output due to its two-step process of printing the transfer and transferring it onto the substrate.

Also challenging is the fact that each substrate has unique characteristics. If you need to match spot colors like a Pantone color, school color or a color on a business card, you’ll need to print and then sublimate a color chart that can then be used as reference. A great International Color Consortium (ICC) profile also is necessary for accurate and vivid photographs. An ICC profile is like a color filter; you feed it color data and it changes the values so you get accurate color on substrates.

Grow Your Profits
Move out of your comfort zone. There are two basic ways to grow your business. First, expand your product offerings so you sell more to existing clients. Since you already have their artwork, why not show them what else they can buy?

Highlight new products, such as sublimatable socks or performance shirts. Remember, just because you don’t like a product doesn’t mean your clients won’t buy it; don’t let your opinions get in the way of making money.

Leverage the value of sublimation to produce a minimum quantity of one or small lots. And once artwork is done, production can be completed in minutes.

Next, find new, profitable clients. Many businesses experience a slow season around the holidays. Start promoting photo gifts early so that you will have more business during this traditionally slow period. Consider wholesale fulfillment strategies, like selling products for fundraisers and partnering with pet groomers to sell pet-keepsake products.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for sublimation decorators is figuring out proper pricing. One incorrect approach is plugging numbers into a formula that marks up or keystones a product’s cost to determine its selling price. For many high-value items, like a ChromaLuxe cuff bracelet, this method yields bizarrely underpriced product.

A ladies’ cuff bracelet, for example, decorated with a monogram and pattern, costs only about $1 but has a selling price of $20-$25. With such margins, you easily can sell wholesale to a boutique store.

The most important part of being successful at sublimation is receiving support in four key areas: the computer, printer, heat press and sales/marketing strategies. I have seen countless decorators that have failed because they didn’t want to take advantage of the wisdom and experience found within the sublimation niche.

It doesn’t cost more to partner with an expert manufacturer or integrator that can put you on the road to sublimation success — and keep you there.

David Gross is president of Condé Systems Inc., in Mobile, Alabama. For the past 26 years, he has devoted himself to advancing sublimation decorating technology. For more information or to comment on this article, email David at

Starting Point

My research indicates that sublimation was first documented in the 1920s. It all started when someone accidentally observed special dyes that, when heated, turned into a gas and “dyed” acetate film.

In the beginning, the special dyes were screen printed onto paper and then transferred onto polyester fabric. Sublimation became a hit because it didn’t change the feel of the fabric, produced beautiful vibrant colors and wouldn’t wash out.