Sublimation vs Heat Transfer Paper- Which is Right for You?

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Sublimation vs Heat Transfer Paper: Which is Better?

There are multiple ways to decorate garments and often people make the comparison of sublimation vs heat transfer paper. We can’t necessarily tell you which is better because that depends on your business needs and what you’re trying to achieve and/or decorate. However, we discuss the differences and compare the two process to aid you in your decision-making process.

What is Sublimation?

Sublimation is a similar process to heat transfer paper in the sense it requires you to print an image or design on a special paper, then use heat to apply it to a substrate. However, there is one major difference- the science of how the process happens. Sublimation ink is a dye-based ink that when heated, turns from a solid into a gas. This gas dyes the fabric. Due to the ink actually dying the fibers of the garment, sublimation is only ideal for white and light garments. Sublimation Process

What is Heat Transfer Paper?

Heat transfer paper is a specialty paper that you print on and the image can be transferred to a garment or hard surface with a heat press. There are two types of heat transfer paper: inkjet and laser. For each paper type you need its respective printer type. Laser transfer paper cannot be used with inkjet printers and vice versa.

Heat transfer paper can work with most office printers. However, you will get the best quality and results out of a white toner printer, such as an OKI. These printers are specifically designed for garment decoration and lay down a layer of white toner to allow vibrant, full-color prints to be transferred to colored and dark garments. Heat Transfer Paper

Differences Between Sublimation and Heat Transfer Paper

Aside from the science of the transfer process, there are many differences between sublimation and heat transfer paper. These differences range from the type of substrates you can transfer on, the feel, durability, weeding and startup costs.

Garment Colors

One of the biggest differences between the two methods is the color garments you can transfer to. With heat transfer printing, you are not limited to the color substrate you want to transfer an image to. You can transfer on any color, dark or light.

Alternately, with sublimation, you can only print on light-colored garments. This is due to the science behind the process. Since sublimation dyes the fabric in the transfer process, you cannot sublimate on dark colors. Although there are workarounds for this, such as using a heat transfer vinyl that you can sublimate on to after pressing it to the shirt, it is still the biggest limitation of sublimation. Garment Colors

Substrate and Fabric Type

With sublimation, you are limited to white and light-colored polyester fabrics or polyester coated hard surfaces. Sublimation does not work with cotton or other fabrics. You cannot just go to the store and grab a mug or other item and sublimate on it, it must have a polymer coating that allows for the sublimation process.

Heat transfer paper can be used on virtually any fabric: polyester, cotton, blends, nylon and more. You can also decorate hard surface items without a polymer coating. There are very few limitations on what you can transfer to with heat transfer paper.

Durability & Feel or “Hand” of the Image

Since sublimation happens when the polyester fabric is dyed, you won’t feel the image on the shirt or surface. It has a very light hand. Additionally, it is more durable than heat transfer paper and will not crack like a heat transfer paper design eventually would.

Since heat transfer paper leaves an image on top of the garment, you will be able to feel the design on the shirt. Heat transfer paper can vary in the feel or “hand” of the design depending on a multitude of factors including the type or brand of heat transfer paper used and whether a RIP software or a T.Seal finishing sheet has been utilized.

Heat transfer paper garments can be washed about 25 to 30 times before you will be able to start noticing fading or cracking in the design. The life of the shirt and design can be extended by using a RIP software to rasterize your design which allows for greater washability and durability.


Depending on the type of heat transfer paper that you use, you may need to “weed” or cut and trim your design before transferring it on to your substrate. There are no inkjet self-weeding transfer papers on the market. However, there are some self-weeding options for laser heat transfer paper. For heat transfer, there are two-step self-weeding transfer papers on the market.

No cutting or weeding is involved with sublimation. Since only the areas of the paper that have sublimation ink on them are sublimated onto the garment or substrate, there’s no weeding or cutting involved. Weeding Heat Transfer Paper

Startup Costs

Getting started with heat transfer paper is the lesser expensive option between sublimation and heat transfer paper. To get started, all you need is an inkjet or laser printer, a heat press, heat transfer paper, and the substrates you would like to decorate.

You can use a standard printer or invest in an OKI white toner printer. It will be more costly if you decide to enter the custom apparel market with an OKI white toner printer. However, if you choose to just start off with a regular inkjet or laser printer, it will be the lowest cost option.

Sublimation carries a higher start-up cost than heat transfer paper. While not as expensive as it used to be, sublimation carries a higher price tag than heat transfer paper with a inkjet or laser printer. For sublimation you will need a sublimation printer, a heat press, sublimation paper, and your substrates or garments to decorate.

Sublimation vs Heat Transfer Paper: Which is Right for Your Business?

Choosing which is right for your business depends on what kind and color garments and substrates you want to decorate.  You must also consider the amount you are willing to invest. If your business focuses or mainly focuses in white and light-color polyester apparel, sublimation is a great option. Your prints will have the lightest hand and great durability and washability.

However, if you want to print on any color or material type, heat transfer paper will be your best bet. You can start out with a basic printer, then as you begin to profit, you can reinvest in a higher-quality OKI white toner printer, such as an OKI pro8432WT, for more vibrant and higher quality images.

Sublimation and heat transfer paper are both excellent methods of garment decoration. Ultimately, what is the best depends on the needs of your business and customers.


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