Dye sublimation, like digital printing, involves the use of a printer. But the inherent process is quite different. In the dye sublimation the dye is heated to a gaseous phase that, upon contact with the surface of a fabric, solidifies and is retained.
Dye sublimation usually involves high cost equipment, special inks and heating elements that make it one of the costliest t-shirt printing method.
The basic, behind the scenes, happening is that a dye sublimation contains rolls of the 4 basic inks (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) contained within cellophane like films. These inks are solid until a warm heating element/printer head passes over them. As a result of this rise in temperature the inks vaporize and permeate the structure of the fabric involved before solidifying into a pattern.
Dye sublimation usually produces very vivid printings with slight gradation between pixels. As a result, it looks like the design is incorporated into the fabric instead of being printed on it. Overall the results obtained from dye sublimation can be deemed photorealistic. Additionally, because the dye is infused within the grid work of the fabric, this kind of printing offers increased resilience. Printed areas are much less likely to get worn out or cracked.
The major disadvantage of this printing technique is the cost, as stated before. Among all the printing methods it is the costliest and requires huge capital investment on a printing company’s part. As a result not many commercial t-shirt printers offer it. Another significant disadvantage of this method is the lack of support for 100% cotton t-shirts. As you may well know, most t-shirts that are sent to be printed are low-cost, plain cotton ones. This reduces the potential of dye sublimation.
Dye sublimation printing is recommended for synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester and thus can be used to print banners or personalize training gear (parkas, trousers etc.). It is also quite widespread in the printing on non-textile materials like metals, plastics and ceramics. Another major application of this technique includes the printing of mouse pads. It is ideal for them because of its no-feel finish that doesn’t conflict with the mouse’s optical sensor.