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Sublimation Vs. DTG: The Battle Of Prints

There’s no doubt that the best tee in the room gets all the attention. Maybe you’ve even considered creating your own? Building a custom apparel business is no walk in the park, but print-on-demand services have made the industry more accessible to everyone.

Nowadays, most people have at least heard of custom printing. You may even know people who have done t-shirt printing or launched a custom printing business.

If you’re toying with the idea of doing the same, it can seem overwhelming at first. Different printing techniques are better suited for different materials, designs, and businesses.

Today we’ll explore 2 popular printing methods you might consider for your shop: sublimation and DTG. Comparing them will help you make the best choice for your future online store.

The basics of sublimation

Sublimation is a form of printing that is also known as heat transfer printing. It’s a printing technique where the design is embedded in the fabric fibers using ink and heat with pressure. The results? Permanent and vivid prints that don’t fade or crack over time. This makes it an excellent printing method for all-over print sportswear and activewear, or, polyester-based fabrics. No wonder this printing method has become an industry favorite in the print-on-demand world.

However, the printing process from start to finish can be quite time-consuming, as it requires multiple steps to produce a final product.

Here’s how it goes:

  • The design is first printed onto special paper using sublimation ink
  • Then, the paper with the design is put on the item that you want to print on
  • Using a heat press, pressure and heat are applied to the paper and product
  • The heat makes the ink on the paper turn into a gas
  • The gas goes into the fibers of the product and becomes a permanent, full-color print

It’s important to mention that sublimation is not only limited to custom t-shirt printing. You can also use this technique to print on blankets, mugs, laptop covers, slippers, and even phone cases. If you’re looking for some extra inspiration, check out Printful’s catalog. You won’t believe all the cool things you can sublimate.

The basics of DTG printing

DTG, also known as direct-to-garment printing, is a printing method where the ink is sprayed directly on the fabric. DTG excels at reproducing intricate designs with remarkable precision and offers a soft finish. In DTG printing, the material absorbs the ink that’s sprayed on it, which means this printing method is well-suited for natural materials like cotton t-shirts.

Compared to sublimation, DTG requires fewer steps and less equipment to create a stunning design.

Here’s how it works:

  • The design is loaded onto a computer and adjusted as necessary
  • Then, a pre-treatment is applied to the garment, which helps the ink engage with the fabric
  • When the product is loaded into the printer, the ink is sprayed onto the fabric creating the design
  • Finally, the printed garment is placed in a heat press or conveyor dryer to cure the ink, making it permanent

DTG printing is one of the most recognized on-demand printing methods. Creating a one-off print takes just a few minutes, and the cost is relatively low since DTG printing eliminates the need for expensive setups, like printing plates or screens, typically associated with traditional printing methods.

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Sublimation vs. DTG—let the battle begin

Now that we’ve gone through the basics of these 2 printing methods, let’s dive deeper to figure out what makes them different and, more importantly, which you should pick for your business.

Print quality and durability: outlast a dinosaur

When we look at sublimation, it’s safe to say that the print quality is outstanding. Since the color is embedded into the garment fibers, the design won’t wash out over time and you’ll rarely see any cracks or peels. Sublimation allows you to print intricate designs in multiple colors that look vibrant with sharp, detailed lines.

DTG prints also offer amazing print quality. At first, the fresh print might feel a bit rough and somewhat rubbery, but not to worry, the designs smooth out after a few washes. In terms of image quality, DTG is another excellent choice for colorful, detailed designs. That said, DTG prints are slightly less vibrant on black or colorful garments since the ink is soaked up by the fabric.

In general, sublimation prints tend to be more durable than DTG, but if you follow the garment care instructions, DTG prints will still look great even after several washes.

Some basic care tips:

  • When washing the printed fabrics use a gentle wash cycle
  • Avoid fabric softeners and bleach
  • Avoid ironing the prints

Print complexity

Sublimation as a printing technique is quite versatile, meaning that it supports a wide range of complex designs. With sublimation, you don’t have to shy away from detailed patterns, vivid and colorful designs, gradient colors, or even digital photos.

With DTG printing, you must keep one thing in mind: the fabric soaks up the ink. So, gradient prints are a bit tricky to get right when using DTG printing, and some designs may lack clarity. That being said, DTG prints will largely support your colorful and diverse design ideas, providing you with a vivid final product.

Color vibrancy: enough zing to make a lemon jealous

Now let’s take a look at the color vibrancy element of these two methods. Sublimation allows for multiple color designs and gradients. This method uses four primary colors to print all designs: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, also known as CMYK. Considering the fact that sublimation is usually done on light-colored fabrics, white parts will be the blank spaces left on the garment. The downside is that sublimation printing doesn’t support specialty inks and other extras like glitter.

DTG uses the same CMYK color model as sublimation to print its designs. In DTG printing, designs printed on colorful or black garments will have a white base color, but that won’t be the case when printing on white fabrics. The ink is sprayed directly onto the garment and gets soaked up by the fabric, which may mean slightly less vibrant products.

Fabric suitability

When it comes to fabric suitability, sublimation is best for synthetic fabrics, which often means sportswear. This includes different polyester blends and polymer-coated fabrics. Although it’s possible to sublimate cotton fabric, sublimation is a better fit for garments that contain nylon, spandex, neoprene, and other synthetics. Sublimation isn’t only used for printing on clothing, it works well for ceramic and enamel mugs, phone cases, and much more.

Unlike sublimation, DTG printing is best used on natural fabrics like linen, cotton, bamboo, and related fabric blends. Why? The ink binds better with natural fabrics. Although natural fabrics are preferred when using DTG, this printing style can also be used on other types of fabrics. However, bear in mind that different fabric compositions can influence the garment’s ability to soak up the ink, resulting in a slightly different look and feel.

Eco-friendliness

Many of us are looking for more sustainable alternatives when it comes to our daily lives. If you’re looking for a more eco-friendly printing method, then look no further than sublimation. The ink used in the sublimation process is non-toxic, meaning there are no harsh chemicals that heavily impact the environment. Another bonus of choosing sublimation as your printing method is that it doesn’t require much water as compared to other dye transfer techniques.

DTG is also a great print option when considering eco-friendliness. Since DTG is well-suited for printing one-offs, it allows you to avoid overproduction and textile waste in general. That’s mainly down to the fact you can order the exact amount of product you need and nothing goes to waste. Obviously, when using an on-demand service like Printful, you eliminate the overproduction factor altogether.

In fact, Printful is partnered with Kornit, whose equipment uses less energy and produces close to zero wastewater during the printing process. The inks used by Kormit are toxin-free, non-hazardous, and contain no animal by-products. This is great news if you’re interested in sustainable production.

Source: Kornit

On-demand fulfillment

When it comes to on-demand fulfillment, both sublimation and DTG are great options. The outcome really depends on choosing the right provider that will suit your business needs. For example, Printful offers both.

When using an on-demand provider like Printful, you don’t have to worry about inventory costs or dealing with excess stock. Print products are made only after an order has been received, eliminating overproduction and the need for extra storage.

When working with Printful, you can save some extra cash by ordering in bigger volumes as Printful is no stranger to offering discounts on bulk orders.

Upfront investment

If you want to do the printing yourself, you’ll need to invest in printing equipment like the printer itself, inks, paper, plates, and more. Sublimation can be more cost-effective for larger orders, while DTG is usually preferred for smaller quantities. In general, sublimation requires a lower upfront investment as it uses an inkjet printer, transfer paper, a heat press, and specific sublimation inks. Although that sounds pricey, DTG printers are often more expensive, and the printing process also requires some extras like pretreatment solutions, curing equipment, and maintenance supplies to ensure a high-quality end result.

Alternatively, if you rely on an on-demand printing service like Printful, there’s no upfront investment needed. Products are made only after the customer has placed an order, and the item is printed, packed, and sent by Printful directly to your customer. It’s that simple.

Source: Unsplash

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Customer with received custom jacket
Printful logo

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What’s your choice?

As with many things in life, when coming to the final decision it all depends. In this case, it depends on your business model and brand needs. What type of products do you have? What are the fabrics that you want to print on? What is the desired volume of your prints?

In general, sublimation printing is best suited for printing on polyester-based fabrics and a wide variety of other items. Sublimation will produce high-quality, long-lasting prints that don’t crack over time. On the other hand, DTG is a great option for printing on more natural fabrics, like cotton and bamboo, and offers bright, detailed print outcomes.

Read next: DTF vs. Sublimation

Ultimately, the printing method you choose will depend on your specific needs and preferences. We hope this comparison has helped you make an informed decision about which printing method is the right one for you.

This originally appeared on Printful and is available here for wider discovery.
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