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Heat Transfer vs. Heat Sublimation

We’ve been asked dozens of times what the difference between heat transfer and heat sublimation are. In this article we are going to discuss what each of these processes is when it comes to garment decoration. Then we will discuss the differences and similarities between the two as well. 

What is heat transfer

Heat transfer is a two step method for transferring an image onto a garment. The first step involves printing a design onto transfer paper. Then the design is transferred onto adhesive paper. The adhesive sheet is peeled away from the transfer sheet. Step two of the process is pressing the design onto the shirt using a heat press. After it is finished you carefully remove the adhesive paper from the garment and the shirt is complete. You can feel the design attached to the garment. The image is on a different layer than the substrate. 

What is heat sublimation

In heat sublimation a designer prints a design onto regular copy paper or sublimation paper and then presses that paper directly onto the garment. Once the garment has been heat pressed the paper is removed and the garment is complete. The process works because the heat press heats up the ink on the paper and turns it into a gas. That gas embeds itself into the garment in the exact design that was on the paper. When the gas cools it becomes a permanent part of the garment. After heat sublimation is completed there are no attachments to the garment. It is as if the garment and the design are one. 

Which is more durable? 

When determining which procedure is used to measure durability it comes down to the amount of washes that the design can endure. With heat transfer there is a thin piece of paper attached to the fabric. This piece of paper can withstand 30 - 40 washes before it begins to crack and disappear. Whereas with heat sublimation the design is now part of the fabric and can therefore be washed over 100 times. The image is less likely to fade and there will be no cracking. Sublimation is more durable. 

What can you transfer images onto?

Sublimation is a lot more limited in what an image can be transferred onto That is because the ink in the image has to adhere to the fibers of the substrate. Specifically sublimation can only be transferred onto polyester fibers. If a shirt is not 100% polyester the design will not be as vibrant as it would with a 100% polyester shirt. Plus you can only use a light colored substrate. If the substrate is dark you will  not be able to see the design. With heat transfer it is possible to print on both light and dark garments plus there is no limit on the substrate. You can bypass the polyester if you want. You could print on a hat or wood. Heat transfer clearly is the better option for application diversity. 

How are the colors?

Sublimation printing can print full colors. This is great for photographs or gradients from images. Color matching works quite well with sublimation. Heat transfer is also quite versatile when it comes to color. If you are using the correct transfer paper the color quality is quite good. 

The Final word On Heat Transfer vs. Sublimation

Both heat transfer and sublimation are great ways to embellish garments. They do have their own differences, however. Both require a heat press so as long as you had one you could experiment with both styles of printing to see what works best for you. If you need help purchasing a heat press we’ve created a guide called Choose the Right Heat Press For You to help you out. In the end you will clearly see that there are uses for both types of decoration. 

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