Printing Tips

Heat Transfer Paper vs. Sublimation Printing

So, you’re entering the wonderful world of T-shirt making and personalized garments—that’s exciting! You may be asking yourself which garment decoration method is better: heat transfer paper or sublimation printing? The answer is that both are great! However, the method you go with depends on your needs and what you’re looking to do. Plus, each method has its own advantages and disadvantages. Let’s dig into the details to help you decide which is the right fit for you and your business.

The Basics of Heat Transfer Paper
Heat transfer paper is a specialty paper that transfers printed designs to shirts and other garments when heat is applied. The process involves printing a design onto a sheet of heat transfer paper using an inkjet or laser printer. Then, you place the printed sheet on your T-shirt and press it using a heat press (in certain cases, a home iron will work, but heat presses provide the best results). After you’ve pressed it, you peel away the paper, and your image adheres nicely onto the fabric. Great – you now have a custom T-shirt! That was easy, right?

Garment decoration via heat transfer paper is super easy and carries one of, if not the lowest, start-up costs in the industry. In fact, many decorators get their start using nothing more than the printer they already have at home! A few other important notes about heat transfer paper is that most papers work on both cotton and polyester fabrics – while you’ll learn that sublimation only works on polyesters. In addition, heat transfer papers are designed to work for either dark or light-colored garments while sublimation is exclusively for white or light-colored garments.

How About Sublimation
The sublimation process is quite similar to that of heat transfer paper. Like heat transfer paper, the process involves printing a design onto a sheet of specialty paper—sublimation paper in this case—and pressing it to a garment with a heat press. The difference lies in the science behind sublimation.

Sublimation ink, when heated, turns from a solid to a gas that embeds itself into the polyester fabric. When it cools, it goes back to a solid and becomes a permanent part of the fabric. This means that your transferred design adds no additional layer on top, so there’s no difference in feeling between the printed image and the rest of the fabric. This also means that the transfer is incredibly durable, and under normal conditions, the images you produce will last as long as the product itself.
Bonus! Sublimation not only works on polyester fabrics – it also works on a wide variety of hard surfaces with a poly-coating. This opens up an entirely new world of items you can customize – coasters, jewelry, mugs, puzzles and much more.

Heat Transfer Paper vs. Sublimation
By now, we hope you have the gist of heat transfer paper and sublimation, so let’s get down to the nitty gritty and compare these two garment decoration methods in a few important areas.

Durability and Feel
Sublimation uses a process where the ink becomes part of the fabric rather than adding a layer on top. This results in a transfer that is unmatched in both durability and feel. On the other hand, heat transfer paper adds a layer on top of the garment. This additional layer can be physically felt and is less durable than sublimation and can become faded and cracked over time with numerous wash cycles.

Types of Garments You Can Decorate
With sublimation, you’re more limited in the types of fabrics you can decorate compared to heat transfer paper. First, sublimation only works with polyester fabrics. No 100% cotton! This is because sublimation ink only binds to polyester material. You can get away with sublimating on some poly-cotton blends, but the transfer will not be as bright and vibrant as when you use 100% polyester. Because sublimation adds no extra layer on top of the fabric, the material also needs to be white or very light-colored for your transfer to show.
On the other hand, with heat transfer paper, you can decorate on light and dark-colored cotton, polyester and cotton-poly blends.

While heat transfer paper may be the clear winner on the types of fabrics (material and color) that you can decorate, remember that sublimation can also be used on a wide range of hard and soft surface substrates.

Other Factors to Consider
Colors You Can Produce
Sublimation allows you to print full colors, which is especially great if you are wanting to print photos or have customers that need a very specific color (such as for a company logo). Depending on what type of heat transfer paper you use – inkjet or laser – you may not be able to achieve the same full-color, photo-quality transfers as with sublimation.

Sublimation is also naturally self-weeding as only the ink is transferred to the fabric. The process is easy as printing, pressing, peeling!
Most heat transfer papers are not self-weeding with the exception of “two-step” laser transfer papers such as FOREVER Laser Dark. With heat transfer paper, a transfer layer carries the print to the garment, and unless you want a noticeable background the shape of the paper on your T-shirt, you will have to trim around the image with scissors or a cutting plotter.
On transfer papers for light-colored garments, the transfer layer is clear and mostly invisible, and trimming is optional. However, if you don’t trim it, you will be able physically feel the transfer layer even where the image is not present. On “one-step” transfer papers for darks, unprinted areas will show a white background, so trimming is essential.

Bottom Line
Both heat transfer paper and sublimation are wonderful ways to decorate apparel, and which method you choose ultimately depends on your needs