The State of Soft Substrates for Sublimation Courtesy Printwear Magazine

by Christopher Bernat

Market Snap-Shot: The exciting thing about markets is that they are constantly changing. The speed of these changes is accelerating in almost every aspect of the economy. Communications and decisions are made faster and faster every day. Nowhere in our industry is this more the case than with sublimation printing. One can hardly recognize the sublimation marketplace now compared to only three years ago. Printer speeds have increased dramatically, consumables have generally gone down in price, and new niches are being created on a weekly basis.

Sublimation is at a critical growth stage right now. The sublimation marketplace is leaving the adolescent stage of its development and entering early adulthood. A number of macro-level events have helped accelerate this development: Large, sophisticated companies have entered the market, a stable intellectual-property environment has been validated, and capital investment is rapidly increasing. Investments in large-format sublimation equipment for apparel are growing faster than other areas, increasing the demand for products to decorate.

As a result, the growth feeds itself. As all of this is happening, there is also a continued migration towards more customized apparel and soft goods in the consumer world. Licensor’s of brands are just now realizing they can further increase customer loyalty through customization. The short run and the micro run (one to six shirts) are the fastest growing part of the business. Now companies are running to fulfill the needs of the sublimation marketplace.

Rethinking Substrates
Sublimation has historically been a technology focused on hard substrates. Companies such as Universal Woods, Bison Coatings and others have created comprehensive product offerings for the awards, custom-gift and other vertical markets. These products are well made, well supported and offer traditional apparel decorators excellent up-selling tools for their existing base of customers. However, the lack of variety in soft substrates has caused many apparel decorators to sit on the sidelines of sublimation. Perhaps you are one of these folks. Well, 2005 may be the year that you finally have a compelling reason to jump into the game.

While there have always been apparel options, they were limited when compared with what’s currently available. As a result, the growth in substrate diversity has been seen mostly in soft substrates and the apparel space. Colors, new styles, new fabrics and new technical features have all entered the soft-substrates sublimation market recently.

Another significant change in substrates is the increased reliability in the supply chain and, generally speaking, a higher level of access to products. As 2005 continues, you will see this trend increase and grow into other areas. Large production shops can now find access to unique sublimation substrates as long as the volumes justify the work for the manufacturer. Usually anything above 500 units is significant enough if you can identify the proper supply partnerships.

Clearly apparel is a critical area of focus when it comes to new substrates; 2005 is proving to be great year for sublimated apparel. A number of apparel manufacturers are now delivering fashionable styles designed specifically for women and athletes. Until now, shirt options for sublimation have been somewhat limited. With the unveiling of new colors, that is no longer the case.

Long-time sublimators who have been anxiously seeking a little style and fashion now have options. As sublimation continues to grow in popularity among apparel decorators, more and more such options should appear in the marketplace. Look for polo shirts, a mock turtleneck and new sweatshirt options to arrive in the market in the second and third quarters of this year. The sublimation marketplace will also see the addition of more sublimation-friendly ringer-styles designed to deliver a crisp new or a cool vintage look for the short-run shirt.

The textures of these fabrics are also expanding in variety. It is now easy to find a dye-sub shirt with a soft, almost cotton-like feel. Micro-fiber shirts offer a very high end silky feel and are very popular with women who have been traditionally underserved and are looking for something new.

Colors have always been in short supply for sublimation. When they were available they were often discontinued without notice. Only a limited number of colors are sublimation-friendly. Almost all substrates for sublimation are white or off-white prior to decoration. But pastel colors can work quite well with sublimation and are also popular in women’s fashion. Light blue, pale yellow, light pink all tend to be sublimation-friendly and should prove popular in the marketplace.

While these options may feel somewhat limited to many decorators, they represent fashion and color nirvana for sublimators. Be on the lookout for ringers and apparel with accent colors for the sleeves and non-printable areas.

Performance Apparel
If you are not aware of the fast growing performance-apparel market, then don’t count yourself among the nation’s football fans. If you watched even one game in 2004, you undoubtedly saw an UnderArmour commercial focusing on the performance features of its garments. These compression fabrics have caught on in the marketplace. Loose fitting versions of the garments are increasing in popularity as more and more people are exposed to technical fabrics.
Performance Apparel did $200 million in sales in 2004 and is expected to do $450 million in 2005. Why is this great news for sublimation houses? Because the best performance fabrics (or at least the majority) are made of polyester. Several companies offer performance micro-fiber shirts specifically designed for sublimation.

These fabrics wick moisture away from the body, keeping you cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. There are many types of moisture-management technology, all with different price points and features. Some garments offer permanent moisture-management technologies. If you are focused on serving the hard-core athletic and fitness market, make sure you understand the wicking technology you are selling. The knowledge of the consumer is increasing in this area as big companies invest big dollars in the marketplace.
These product should interest those interested in high-end, high-margin business. Nike, Reebok, and UnderArmour have all created a price entry level in the $25 range for undecorated garments. The majority of decorators out there can deliver this product with a cost of goods below $10 per shirt. That leaves a lot of room for profit.

Carpets, Mouse Pads, Custom Cuts
When it comes to carpet materials, it’s all about access to quality materials with reliability. Carpets are primarily a large-format dye-sub application but can also work in a desktop dye-sub environment. A number of types and qualities of carpets are now available from distributors and manufacturers representatives.
Mouse pads are nothing new to sublimation, but new styles are available. More important is the ability to get customized cuts of neoprene-based materials—everything from a 30” X 60” wide 1/16 of an inch material for customized miniature soccer fields to special die-cast shapes for industrial applications and product information for marine vessels.

Promotional Items, Bags
The sublimator is seeing increased quality in many substrates. Promotional products have increased in popularity. Frisbees, beverage holders, bar mats, retail display mats and other soft promotional items are all increasing in quality and sophistication.

An area that has long been in need of improvement is that of bags. There are a number of products launching in the second half of 2005 that will increase the availability of high-end sublimateable bags. Stayed tuned for this category to grow!

Custom-Designed Fabrics
Custom fabrics are needed for everything from full color marine sails to customizable fencing uniforms. As larger companies try to leverage customization, fabrics made-to-order is becoming a reality.

This is may not be important to someone who is focused on making wonderful full-color dye-sub banners. Poly poplin is easy to find and competitively priced. However, many others have special needs. Short-run fashion houses, sports-uniform designers, and industrial materials engineers, are all the type of folks who may be looking for custom-printed custom fabrics. Since mass customization will continue to increase year after year, so will the pool of customers needing custom fabrics.

This, that and the other Fleece stadium blankets, pillows, purses, table cloths, place mats, oxford shirts, aprons, and many other exciting substrates are on the market or arriving soon. All these items offer the traditional dye-sub printer an opportunity to deliver consistent artwork on many different products.
By effectively bundling them into customized programs, these substrates can add 15-100 percent to your average sale. Up-selling your current customer is a great way to cover the investment in entering digital dye sublimation.

About the author: Chris Bernat is a partner with SourceSubstrates LLC, a firm that markets the Vapor Apparel brand of sublimateable apparel, substrates and specialty fabrics. His duties include product development, sales and consulting services. Previously, Bernat was director of sales for Sawgrass Technologies after serving as business manager of the Sublimation Division and Large Format product manager. Email him at

How the SubliJet Process Works

Traditional color laser, inkjet, and wax thermal transfer papers use heat to “melt” the image onto the surface of the t-shirt, resulting in a heavy, “decal-like” transfer that can fade, crack, or discolor and may only be washed under special conditions. Because SubliJet uses transfer inks and not special transfer paper, there’s no “hand” or feel to the image. The garment is “tattooed” with the image and is as soft and comfortable as the material itself. To overview the process:

  1. Design image using graphics software.
  2. Print the mirrored image onto high-quality inkjet paper via a printer outfitted with sublimation inks. This becomes known as your transfer.
  3. Place the item to be printed onto a heat press and place the transfer on the item. Press for recommended amount of time (T-Shirts are pressed at 400º for 25 seconds).


When heat and pressure are applied, two things happen: 1) The polyester fibers open, and 2) The sublimation inks turn to gas and seek out polyester. When heat and pressure are removed, the fibers close, trapping the ink inside. The result is a permanent, “no-hand” image.

Sawgrass Systems has developed dye-sublimation inks for a variety of small and large format printers. Call 843-884-1575 or visit for more information.

Heat Transfer Instructions

Pre-Press Time: Eliminate any moisture in the fabric with a 5-second press before applying a transfer. Moisture causes images to “bleed” during transfer.
Transfer Time: 20 to 25 seconds
Temperature: 400° F
Pressure: Medium pressure (approximately 40 psi)
(Sweatshirts use Light Pressure, approx. 20 psi)
  • Use a lint-roller brush over the surface of the garment that will come into contact with the heat press. This removes any lint, dust or loose fibers that may have settled on the fabric.
  • Do not shortcut heat press time. A shortened press time does not allow the sublimation dye to completely penetrate the Soft L’ink® fibers. This leaves the dye more subject to wash out. Do not reduce the heat press time below 20 seconds.
  • Do not press too long. Longer press times and/or higher temperatures can cause the dye molecules to penetrate too deeply into the fabric, resulting in reduced vibrancy of your image. In addition, higher temperatures and press times can permanently scorch or yellow your shirt. Do not exceed 25 seconds transfer time or 410 degrees transfer temperature.
  • Prevent Blow-Through. Blow-through is when the dye molecules penetrate one side of the shirt and transfer to the opposite side. This can occur with images with high ink densities. To prevent blow-through, insert a teflon sheet between the front and back of the shirt.
  • Keep your heat press clean. Residual ink on the heat press can result in unwanted “stray” transfers on your shirt. To minimize the effects of the dye that can build up over time on your platen, periodically press scraps of white fabric or paper towels.
  • Eliminate image “Ghosting”. Ghosting is the appearance of a faint double transfer of your image. This can occur when the paper transfer shifts slightly when the pressure is released in your press. To prevent ghosting, try one of two methods: Use heat resistant tape to secure your paper transfer to the shirt. -OR- Allow a portion of the paper transfer to extend outside the press during heating. As soon as the pressure is released, immediately pull out the paper transfer.
  • Tip for sportshirts. When printing golf shirts you’ll be more pleased with the results if you press only the upper/left chest area, instead of pressing the entire front (as you would a t-shirt). Let the buttoned placket fall off the side of the press so that it does not come into contact with the heated platen. You might also try placing a blank mouse pad under the left chest area; some printers find this results in fewer press marks.

SubliJet® Printing FAQ’s

How are transfer inks different from transfer papers?
Image transfers created with color laser printers/copiers, ink jet printers, or wax ribbon printers utilize a plastic coated sheet to melt toner or ink particles on the surface of a substrate. The result is a decal-like transfer that does not breathe and can peel, crack, or fade over time. SubliJet transfer inks use a chemical process called sublimation to transfer its ink into the surface of a substrate. This results in a tattoo-like transfer that breathes with the fabric, will not peel, crack, or fade, and lasts for many years.

What kind of paper is used for printing dye-sub transfers?
Because SubliJet utilizes heat activated sublimation inks, there is no special transfer paper required. For optimal transfer quality SubliJet inks need to be used with standard, high-quality ink jet paper. Sawgrass recommends several high quality ink jet papers that are available through your Authorized SubliJet Reseller.

How are transfer inks different from traditional screenprint inks?
Traditional plastisol inks have been used in apparel decorating for decades. They generally offer a near permanent image in multiple or full-color process. One limitation of traditional screenprint inks is that they require film output, press set-up, screens, dryers, and clean up. This limitation makes production of short-run, customized goods impractical.

Because SubliJet transfer inks are digitally printed using a computer and an ink jet printer, there is no costly pre press, set-up, screens, or clean up. A simple heat press is all that’s needed to create vibrant, multi-color or full-color images in runs of one or one-hundred.

What do I need to get started?
To start printing Soft L’ink t-shirts, you will need a SubliJet ink cartridge set, a compatible ink jet printer, PC or Mac based computer, graphic design software, and a heat transfer press. The addition of a color scanner or digital camera lets you create transfers from photos or other full-color artwork. Our network of Authorized SubliJet Resellers can assist you in selecting a system designed for your needs.

What printers can be used for this unique printing process?
SubliJet inks support many popular desktop EPSON ink jet printers. These printers offer entry-level to moderate users an affordable and flexible transfer solution. For higher production levels, Sawgrass resellers provide complete print systems utilizing large format, high-capacity ink jet printers. Please contact your Authorized SubliJet Reseller for details.

How do you create images on the Soft L’ink t-shirt?
SubliJet inks offer a patented ink transfer process that uses time, temperature, and pressure to permanently dye the micro-polyester surface of the shirt. Using standard graphic design software and your choice of clip art, scanned images, or computer created artwork, simply print your image to your ink jet printer onto paper using SubliJet inks. Using a heat press, apply the paper transfer to the t-shirt and enjoy the results!

How much does it cost to produce a Soft L’ink t-shirt?
Less than you think! The total cost for a Soft L’ink t-shirt decorated with a 12″ x 12″ SubliJet ink transfer is as low as $5.40 using higher capacity printers. The Soft L’ink t-shirt wholesales for about $4.60, and a SubliJet transfer is as low as $0.80 per square foot based on full-coverage for production-oriented printer models.

For users operating desktop ink jet printers, the total cost for a Soft L’ink t-shirt decorated with a 10″ by 10″ SubliJet ink transfer is as low as $6.00. Again, the Soft L’ink t-shirt wholesales for about $4.60, and a SubliJet transfer is about $1.25 for a 10″ by 10″ based on full-coverage.

What is the market price for a short-run, customized t-shirt?
People are willing to pay a premium price to have their name, favorite photo, design or logo custom-imprinted on a cotton-based T-shirt. The U.S. market price for a customized short-run T-shirt with photo quality image ranges from $12.99 to $29.99.

Where can I buy SubliJet transfer inks?
Sawgrass resellers provide SubliJet digital transfer inks, training, support, and service to you. Each specializes in sublimation transfer systems and can offer supporting products including heat press equipment, printers, inks, paper, and a broad range of sublimation-ready products. For an authorized SubliJet Reseller in your area, visit or call 843-884-1575.

What else can I create with SubliJet inks?
In addition to fantastic t-shirts, SubliJet inks can produce mouse pads, mugs, awards plaques, ceramic gifts, clocks, and more! For additional information on the broad range of sublimation ready products that are available, please contact your Authorized SubliJet Reseller.

What are the limitations of SubliJet?
SubliJet inks transfer well to light colored, synthetic surfaces such as polyester and acrylic. They do not transfer to natural surfaces such as cotton, or dark colored surfaces. Over long periods of time, SubliJet inks may exhibit some color fading when exposed to direct sunlight and are not recommended for long-term outdoor use.

Where can I buy Soft L’ink products?
Hanes Printables has selected a specialized group of distributors to offer Soft L’ink products. Soft L’ink® fabric can be purchased from Fisher Textiles, telephone 1-800-554-8886. Click here for a complete listing.

Why do my customers get little fuzzy balls on their Soft L’ink shirts after they have been laundered?
If you look at polyester under a microscope, you’ll see tiny “hooks” on the outside of the fiber. During the wash cycle, cotton naturally breaks loose and floats around. If the cotton comes into contact with the polyester hooks, it sticks to the fabric surface and forms little balls called “pills.”

Pilling is most common on sweatshirts, which are often made from blended 50/50 polyester/cotton fabric. With Soft L’ink pilling is generally not a problem, since one surface is completely micro-polyester and the other side cotton. (The fabric isn’t “blended” so there’s less chance that loose cotton will come into contact with the polyester side.) However, if the shirt is washed with other fuzzy or high-cotton products, the loose cotton will cause pilling problems. Soft L’ink products should be washed in cold water, inside-out, with like colors.

How Can I Learn More About SubliJet?
Please visit or call Sawgrass Systems at 1-843-884-1575.

Is there a way to reduce pressmarks on finished sublimated apparel?
A Teflon sublimation pillow will help to reduce the pressmarks: Place the pillow under the shirt and press with medium pressure keeping in mind that it needs to be compressed, but not completely flattened. The pillows are available in various sizes and can be found on TR Distributors website If hand made, use either ½” or ¾” foam sandwiched and stitched between two Teflon sheets. The foam can be found at your local sewing or arts and crafts store.

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