Digital Decorating:

The Wide World of Sublimation

By Aaron Montgomery, Contributing Writer

In the fashion business, it is key to quickly react to what is on trend now and replenish 
product vs. waiting months for foreign goods. Photo courtesy of Before + Again.

October 5, 2017

As an industry professional, are you tired of dealing with dye migration, trying to find the correct additives or other headaches related to decorating polyester? You may think the solution is as simple as buying a sublimation printer and the required accessories to start production.

While that is a decent starting point, it’s likely you would invest in a small-format printer, which has a width less than 42 inches. Most sublimators use such systems, but that’s just the tip of the figurative iceberg when it comes to this technology.

Literally thinking bigger can lead decorators down the road to wide-format, roll-to-roll sublimation. It’s a process that has its advantages, but also misconceptions that need clarifying. Doing so also will enable exploration of potential markets that this type of sublimation allows decorators to access.

Wide-Format Misconceptions
The first misconception of wide-format, roll-to-roll sublimation involves the economics related to the process. When people hear the words “wide format,” they immediately think of hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent, huge warehouses for inventory and other large-scale issues.

Fortunately, that’s not reality. A 44-inch printer system can be purchased for about $7,000-$9,000, which is not out of reach for many decorators. Other associated costs may include a large-format heat press, although it is not needed for all wide-format printing. If needed, expect to spend $10,000-$20,000, for a total investment of about $30,000.

If that causes discomfort, another option is to lease the equipment. With good credit, a standard 60-month lease would cost about $500-$700 per month. Many companies with this equipment have proven that making $700 a month in profits with sublimation printing is well within reach.

In terms of profit potential, roll-to-roll sublimation also can be broken down into monthly payments and easily covered. For example, if you are looking to not only produce garments, but also home goods such as shower curtains, bed sheets, blankets, pillow cases and similar items, you will need a machine that can print at least 64-72 inches wide. You also will need a calendar press (sometimes called a drum or rotary press) that can accommodate the 64- to 72-inch requirement. Such a bottom-line investment jumps into the $50,000-$80,000 range, but monthly payments still will be about $1,000-$1,600 per month.

The next misconception when it comes to wide-format sublimation is the cost savings. Labor is a big factor in costs and most products carry enough margin to handle the increased ink costs associated with a small-format printer. However, when you break the costs down, the perspective changes.

If you are a small-format sublimator, you most likely are paying about $70 for a 30ml ink cartridge. That is about $2.30 per millileter. A typical sublimation transfer uses about 1.5ml of ink per square foot. You have about $3.75 per square foot of ink and paper costs (assuming paper costs about 25 cents per square foot). When compared to large-format sublimation, where you are paying about 15 cents per millileter of ink, the cost now is less than 50 cents per square foot.

I have heard people say wide-format software is hard to use. If you are working with the right supplier, your RIP software should be set up on the front end as part of the purchase investment. You can drop jobs into most RIP programs and let them “nest” images for printing and paper-usage optimization. Most programs also have a job-cost calculator, allowing sublimators to more accurately quote their work. Some even can do variable data output, which makes certain jobs, like jersey creation, even easier.

New Markets
With the misconceptions now clarified, you can figure out what’s possible after an investment in wide-format sublimation. While most decorators primarily consider sublimation for garments, the reality is there’s so much more you can do.

Let’s start with the lucrative garment market and go from there.

Sports Jerseys: For years, the sports-jersey industry was dominated by dye houses and vinyl lettering. A lot of cotton was used and that business still is strong today. Things have changed, though, and polyester performance jerseys are becoming the norm. No longer do you see the solid-colored jersey with one- or two-color names and numbers on it. Instead, you see excellent designs, multiple colors and more.

In addition, garments can enhance athletic performance by wicking away moisture and keeping wearers cooler. Jerseys today no longer are meant simply to designate a number; they are part of an athlete’s success on the court or field of play.

Home Textiles: This category is a rapidly growing market when it comes to roll-to-roll sublimation. Simply browsing websites like Etsy reveals tons of personalized home-textile items. Popular items include pillow cases and throw pillows, but the demand for personalization doesn’t end there.

You also will find larger items, like shower curtains, bed sheets, comforter covers, towels and more. There also is a market for items like door and car mats, comfort mats and more. The home-textile market is growing and doesn’t show signs of stopping anytime soon.

Boutique Fashion Products: Gone are the days of boutiques and other fashion-
oriented retail outlets searching for next season’s trends a year in advance, then placing large stock orders for delivery in four to five months. Consumers and retail stores now demand shorter turnaround times and smaller minimum-order quantities to keep up with the changing pace of fashion trends.

Sublimation allows for ideal management of these demands. Joe Werner, CEO of Before + Again, started his women’s fashion line in 2008 during the recession. “As a just-in-time manufacturer, our ability to turn around highly creative pieces with low minimums fit well for a market that was nervous about high inventory levels,” he says. “And in the fashion business, it is key to be able to quickly react to what is on trend now and replenish product versus waiting months for foreign goods, which also require larger orders. [The] bottom line [is] our equipment, design and production processes allowed us to mitigate risk to stores and give a tremendous amount of creative choice to consumers.”

A less-expensive process, faster production and new markets are the main benefits of using wide-format sublimation and roll-to-roll technology. So don’t wait to dive in.

Aaron Montgomery has been involved with the garment decorating and personalization industry since 2000 and the digital printing industry since 1997. He co-hosts the 2 Regular Guys industry podcast at, and you can find blogs about a wide range of topics at