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May 17th, 2011

By Steve Conde

Can you sublimate on cotton? I hear it almost every day. People seem so disappointed when they find out the answer.
No, you cannot sublimate onto cotton. You should not even try to sublimate onto 50/50 or 70/30 cotton fabrics. Why? Well, sublimation dye, unlike screen printing, actually dyes the fiber of what it goes on and unfortunately, cotton or any natural fabric for that matter, will not accept the sublimation dye. Even if you get an image, it will be far sub-standard and probably wash out the first time it gets wet. The most common process used on cotton is screen printing. Those who don’t know better, often confuse it as a form of sublimation but it isn’t – it is a process all to itself.
The question I have isn’t, “How can I imprint cotton?” but why would you want to? People think cotton shirts are the cat’s meow. I don’t agree. Oh, they are OK for a dress shirt if you don’t mind ironing it every time you wear it but I don’t like to iron and I’m not sure my wife knows how!! That’s why the only kind of dress shirt I will buy has to have a lot of Polyester in it.
Imprints on cotton wash out. Ever since I was a little boy, my mother struggled with cotton fabrics fading when washed. Now today’s fabrics don’t fade like they used to due to colorfast dyes and cold water detergent but they still fade. When Polyester is dyed by sublimation or any other way, it fades very little, if at all.
Then there is the shrinking. I have cotton undershirts that look like they would fit someone half my size. They were too big when I bought them. I never throw them away because they are worn out, just because they shrink to the point I can’t get into them anymore. Polyester does not shrink.
Finally, I have an issue with cotton and something called “the hand”. When cotton fabric is imprinted, it is usually with screen printing inks, and it changes the hand (the feel) of the fabric. The printed area becomes stiff and inflexible. Over time, it may crack and peel off. Sublimation does not change the hand of the fabric. Because sublimation actually dyes the fabric (rather than paint it which is essentially what screen printing does), the fabric remains as soft and pliable as it was originally.
Although Polyester gets a bad rap, it is far superior than cotton for most applications. Unless you are old enough to remember the old Leisure Suits of the 60’s, you probably realize that all those high tech, moisture wicking fabrics used by big names like Nike® and Reebok® are all Polyester. Would you ever pay $40 for a Polyester T-shirt? If you are into those big sports names, you probably have. Certainly many of your customers have. They know the advantages of these new fabrics and aren’t scared off by the fact they are man-made. Granted, some apparel companies try to disguise them by using high flouting names but if you really check them out, you will find they are either Polyester or some combination of Polyester and other man-made fabrics.
In the sublimation world, we use a product line called, “Vapor” (sold by Condé) which makes their garments from the same materials as those high-end companies. Now, I don’t know if you can get $40 out of a T-shirt without using a big brand but you can produce a garment of equal quality and you can make a substantial profit even if you sell it for half what that big brand does.

Unfortunately, you can’t sublimate dark colors like black but there are a number of colors available from bright white to yellow to beige and even a bright red and they all sublimate very well. You will notice the fabric does have an effect on the resulting colors (sublimation dyes are translucent, not opaque so they don’t cover up the color of the fabric, they combine with it) but even with the color shift that occurs, the resulting images are usually very nice (be careful about using photographs on the darker colors). The resulting color on these shirts will knock your socks off!

All that being said, there is one more solution to talk about: ChromaBlast inks and media by Sawgrass. Here’s what they say “Though the application is quite simple, it’s the patented chemical process that sets ChromaBlast apart from any other form of digital cotton printing. As heat and pressure are applied during the production, it sets up a cross-link between the cotton, the inks and the media which transfers the image into the fibers of the garment. The result is a customized cotton or poly cotton garment with a soft hand, vibrant color and superior washability.”

Now, I have handled cotton shirts imprinted with these inks and media and I swear it’s as close to sublimation as you can get. I recommend a small printer set up with those inks and media (the e3300N has a ChromaBlast solution) and you can offer cotton printing to those diehards who insist.

But I still admire sublimation and Vapor shirts…

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