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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven 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.

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Custom Printing: Inkjet vs. Dye Sublimation for Fabric Printing

Photo purchased from …

First of all, textile custom printing is getting to be very big (and colorful, if you note the vibrant hues in the photo above). Whether it’s direct-to-garment imaging, or printing on fabric and then converting the bolt of material into garments, commercial printing on cotton, polyester, and other textiles is starting to get a lot of press.

(Every night I get a Google aggregator feed of articles pertaining to offset and digital printing. For a while now, the subject matter yielding the most articles has been split between package printing and textile printing.)

Moreover, one of my larger customers, a fashionista who prints a color swatch book (like a PMS book) for picking clothing and make-up colors based on one’s complexion, hair color, etc., has begun to expand her proprietary color line from these color swatch books to actual clothing lines using digital fabric printing technology for custom printing and dyeing cloth.

So what does this mean for you?

I think it means it’s prudent to study everything you can about all possible facets of fabric printing: the technologies and the trends. If you’re a designer, it may mean studying the technologies and trends so you can expand your business to include fabric design (just as many designers expanded their print design businesses to include web-page design). Education in new technology is always a good investment.

The same goes for offset and digital printing companies. If you’re just putting ink and toner on paper, perhaps it is time to consider putting dye and ink on textiles, just as you may have added large-format inkjet signage to your business offerings a while back.

Regardless of your particular trade, it’s wise to keep abreast of expanding trends in a commercial printing environment in which some sources of business opportunity are drying up (newspapers, for instance).

Products, Workflow, and Technologies

One of the best ways to focus your education on recent fabric printing trends is to consider the following list:

    1. The products


    1. The workflow


  1. The technology

I will focus primarily on the third item (technology, pros and cons), but first I want to describe the kinds of products you may want to design. On a promotional level, there are soft signs (everything from banner stands and table throws for conventions, to large-format signage for the sides of buildings, although some of these are vinyl, and the real focus of this article is on fabric).

On the level of interior design, digitally imaged textiles can be converted into uniquely printed sheets, towels, bed covers, upholstery, wall covering. The list goes on (even lampshades).

On the level of clothing design, you can find everything from bathing suits to scarves to tank tops. What used to be the realm of only vinyl appliques affixed to t-shirts with heat and pressure has expanded into detailed photographic imagery printed on every possible clothing substrate. For instance, shirts for sale at the beach now have intricate art across the entire surface of the garment, in contrast to prior designs that were confined to a small rectangle on the front of the shirt. Keep in mind, also, that these new printing techniques can also be used for hats, messenger bags, and other promotional give-aways (emblazoned with your logo) for distribution at trade shows.

Regarding workflow, some items are printed directly. Shirts and hats are examples. If your product is small and can lie flat, you can print directly on the item.

In contrast, for larger items (large fabric wall coverings, for instance, or long runs of pattern-printed fabric destined for designer dresses), you may want to print directly on the rolls of fabric and then convert the printed textile to usable items after the custom printing stage.

Finally, there’s the technology, which is the main point of this blog article. Here you currently have two options: inkjet and dye sublimation. In large measure, which of these you choose will depend on the material on which you’re printing.

Inkjet Is for Natural Fibers

If you’re printing on cotton, you will choose direct inkjet printing. The nozzles of the inkjet printer will spray droplets of ink onto the surface of the fabric. Pre-treating the fabric before the application of ink and post-treating the fabric with heat will help bond the ink particles to the substrate, whether a pre-made t-shirt or a bolt of fabric.

These are the pros and cons of this technology:


    1. You can print on cotton. You really cannot use dye sublimation to print on cotton unless you first add a polymer coating to the cotton.


    1. You can print larger substrates (Reid Broendel of Ironmark notes in “Advantages of Direct Printing vs. Dye Sublimation” that the inkjet maximum width is about 16 feet, whereas the dye sublimation maximum width is closer to 10 feet. What this means is that you have fewer sewn-together sections of the printed fabric with inkjet printing.)


    1. You can easily gang up multiple inkjet printing jobs, allowing faster throughput, lower costs, and the ability to do short print runs economically and quickly.


    1. Like dye sublimation, direct inkjet printing allows for incredibly detailed photographic imagery at much higher resolutions than possible with screen printing (another alternative for printing on fabric).


  1. The process is faster than dye sublimation.


    1. Colors are less intense than in dye sublimation printing.


    1. Sometimes the crispness of detail is less than in dye sublimation printing. (Reid Broendel of Ironmark notes in “Advantages of Direct Printing vs. Dye Sublimation” that this can also be affected by ink types, fabric types, pre-treatment methods and materials, and temperature.)


  1. Inkjet printing on fabric is less durable than dye sublimation printing. Inkjet printing applies ink primarily to the surface of the cotton fabric, whereas dye sublimation printing actually permeates and is bound to the polyester fibers. If you wash an inkjet-printed shirt a number of times, the printed imagery will fade.

Dye Sublimation Is for Polyester

As noted before, you can pre-treat cotton with a polymer coating and then do dye sublimation printing, but your best bet is to use dye sublimation technology to print on 100 percent polyester material.

In this process, you first print your image on a “transfer sheet” with special inks that can be “sublimated” with heat (that is, turned directly from a solid material into a gas, bypassing the liquid state). Then you put the transfer sheet on top of the fabric and apply intense heat to transfer the image deep into the polyester fibers of the fabric. (The process heats the inks, which boil and give off a gas that is transferred into the fabric.)

This firmly bonds the colors into the fabric, significantly improving durability. (It actually improves color intensity as well.) Interestingly enough, the same process can be used to print on hard surfaces such as the surface of drinking mugs, floor and wall tiles for interior design, and keychains for promotional work. This is in addition to dye sublimation’s use for soft signage, interior design textiles, and other fabric-based surfaces.

Here are the pros and cons of this technology:


    1. The colors are brighter than inkjet.


    1. The printing is more durable than inkjet. Colors won’t fade because they are a part of the fabric, not on the surface of the fabric.


    1. You can print continuous-tone imagery (unlike inkjet custom printing). Dye sublimation does not require any kind of halftone screening, so the colors can be more intense, and imagery will appear to be of a higher resolution.


  1. Ink dries instantly, unlike inkjet printing.


    1. The process is slower than inkjet printing.


    1. The equipment is expensive (even though the process is simpler than inkjet printing and therefore results in less maintenance and downtime).


    1. Final output cannot be as wide as inkjet. This means larger items need to be sewn together in sections.


  1. The printable substrate is limited to plastic: i.e., polyester fabric and such.

What’s Your Next Step?

Getting involved in this new technology is like stepping up onto a moving merry-go-round. You have to think about it and then do it at the right time. So the best thing I can suggest as a next step–if this interests you as a designer, printer, or print sales rep–is to read voraciously and learn as much as you can.

Printing on textiles is hot. This is definitely worth your time.

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