Printing and Design Tips: April 2021, Issue #237

Inkjet? Dye Sub Printing? How Do You Choose?

The only problem with having so many choices--in printing as in most other areas of life--is how to choose the right option. Sometimes it helps to have a cheat sheet of rules and benefits. So if you choose to break the rules, at least you’re doing this from a position of knowledge.

More specifically in my own case, one of my print brokering clients is augmenting her line of color swatch books (like PMS books for selecting make-up and clothing colors based on one’s complexion) into the realm of fabric printing. Her garment colors will include the same hues as her print swatch books, chosen to highlight one’s facial and hair coloration.

To help in my client’s work, I have been studying inkjet printing and dye sublimation printing as they relate specifically to fabric decoration.

First of all, here’s how the two technologies operate:

Inkjet (Also Known as Direct Printing)

While varying somewhat from vendor to vendor, inkjet printing equipment spits a shower of minuscule ink particles onto the substrate. An inkjet print head travels across the flat substrate to print type, photos, and/or line art on paper, vinyl, canvas or (in my client’s case) fabric.

In my client’s case, the fabric might be a bolt of flat cotton, or it might be a finished garment (like a t-shirt) held rigid so as not to move during the imaging process. Inkjet printing (on fabric or other materials) achieves an exceptionally wide range of color (color gamut) given the use of extra inks beyond the usual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. It can also capture striking detail due to its high resolution.

Dye Sublimation

Usually dye sublimation begins with special ink that is jetted (just like inkjet) onto transfer paper. Then the transfer paper is placed against the substrate (anything from fabric to harder substrates like ceramic mugs), and intense heat is applied. Dye sub inks are specially formulated to sublimate (go directly from a solid to a gas, skipping the liquid state in between). If you’re printing on synthetic fabric, such as a polyester shirt, the ink sublimates, migrates into (or in and among) the fibers of the fabric, bonding directly to the fibers and providing a detailed, durable, printed product.

The Features and Benefits (Inkjet)

Here are some thoughts regarding the features and benefits of both technologies and the process of choosing one technology over the other:

1. Inkjet is usually the choice for printing directly on cotton and other natural fibers. That said, this option is also good for nylon.

2. Unfortunately, images inkjetted onto cotton can degrade over time as the garment is washed repeatedly. In fact, to avoid immediate color loss, a garment or bolt of fabric (that will be printed and then cut and sewn into garments) must be both pre-treated and post-treated. The chemical pre-treatment helps the ink bond to the fabric, and then after the printing step the post-treatment fixes the colors in place with intense heat.

3. Inkjet printing is an option for far more than paper or cotton fabric. You can also inkjet print canvas messenger bags, hats, and even canvas shoes.

4. Large-format inkjet presses exist with a width of up to 16 feet. So if you’re printing a table throw for a convention, you can produce the printed piece without stitching together many smaller pieces (as might be the case with dye-sub-printed material).

5. Inkjet printing is faster than dye sub printing. In addition, the equipment is ususally less expensive.

On the "con" side, here are some thoughts about direct inkjet printing:

1. Colors are not as vibrant as with dye sublimation printing. The crispness (perceived sharpness and resolution) may also be less than with a dye-sub-printed product depending on the pre-treatment chemicals, the texture of the substrate, and the temperature of the process.

2. As noted above, the image is not as durable as a dye-sub-printed image. So more care must be taken. (For instance, I wear my favorite t-shirts less often, on more important occasions.)

3. While the equipment may not be as pricey (in some cases), the consumables (ink cartridges) are expensive. Also, the ink print heads can clog up (i.e., if you’re an inkjet printing vendor, you need to factor in equipment maintenance and potential down-time).

The Features and Benefits (Dye-sublimation)

1. As noted before, the ink migrates from the transfer paper into the substrate (fabric, mugs, even laminated snowboards, ceramic building tiles, and keychains). Then heat fixes the image permanently into the base material. (The image actually becomes part of the t-shirt, mug, or snowboard.) This makes for a much more permanent image than possible with direct inkjet printing.

2. Dye sub actually allows for continuous tone printing because each printed dot can be a different color. (Imagine a continuous tone photo vs a photo that has been halftone screened for printing in a publication. The halftone—even with smaller inkjet dots--has a dot pattern of some kind that is absent in the continuous tone image. This makes for spectacular color fidelity and perceived image resolution.)

3. Dye sublimation is a simpler process than direct inkjet printing, with fewer moving parts (no inkjet print heads, for instance). This makes for less equipment maintenance and down time.

4. Dye sub printing does not need any drying time (unlike direct inkjet printing). So when the product is printed, it’s ready to go without the chance of the image’s smearing.

And on the "con" side:

1. Dye sublimation printing is not great for cotton fabrics, unless these are pre-treated with a polymer substance for the ink to bond with.

2. The dye sub equipment is not as wide as the larger inkjet printers. Therefore, for anything over ten feet in width, you need to stitch together portions of the printed product.

3. Dye sub specially formulated inks are expensive (because they are made to sublimate, or transition directly from a solid to a gas).

4. The dye sub printing process is slow when compared to direct inkjet printing. In part, this is because you need to inkjet print the transfer paper and then sublimate the inks from the transfer paper into the fabric or garment. This is especially relevant when you print longer press runs of a product (when compared to inkjet printing).

5. While it is increasingly possible to print directly on a bolt of fabric (and then set the ink with intense heat), this can be problematic. If the fabric moves at all, the final product might be blurred. (Using the transfer paper actually keeps the image and the substrate flat and in proper alignment.)

Visual Weight in a Design

And now for something more visual and subjective. A design tidbit.

Let’s say you’re designing imagery for the t-shirt you plan to print either via inkjet or via dye sub printing. Perhaps you have a drawing or photo, a headline, and some explanatory material for a t-shirt promoting an upcoming rock concert.

If all three elements "feel" the same in terms of their visual weight, you will confuse the viewer. If there is no clear and dominant element, which in this case can actually be either the image or the headline, the design will be either confusing or boring.

Placing a dominant element, and then adding the smaller, complementary elements, simplifies the viewing process. It makes your point immediately clear. This is actually true for fine art as well as commercial art (graphic design). It is your responsibility as the creator of the t-shirt, advertisement, or whatever the art is to determine the path of the viewer’s attention as it travels into the dominant image on the t-shirt and among any supplemental images or type.

The simple process of determining what image is dominant makes for a sense of unity within the creative piece and helps the viewer process the composition and meaning of the design.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]