Fabric Printing Methods And Techniques Explained

digital fabric printing, dye sublimation -

Fabric Printing Methods And Techniques Explained

There are several different types of fabric printing techniques to consider when choosing a method for your custom printed designs. Additionally, many factors of the creative design process can influence which fabric printing method you select.

Today we will focus on four printing methods and techniques widely used in the fashion industry. We will discuss cost-effective methods, which fabrics are best for each printing process, and the pros and cons of each.

1. Dye Sublimation

Also known as sublimation printing, this type of printing on fabric involves applying a heat press to a sheet of transfer paper that has been printed with special solidified inks. Once heated, the ink changes from a solid form to gas which allows the design to be fully absorbed through the open pores of the polyester fibers.

The ink fully penetrates the substrate, which protects from fading and cracking even after multiple washes. The end result is a vibrant fabric that has literally become one with the colors and design.

Dye sublimation is an excellent fabric printing technique when used on 100% polyester, or a minimum 65% blend. Nylon and nylon blends also work well with this printing process, as do polyurethane-based outdoor fabrics.

Dye sublimation fabric printing method

Pros of Dye Sublimation

  • Creates vibrant color fidelity, offering continuous tones throughout the design of the fabric.
  • Low maintenance care, easy to wash, bleachable and fade-resistant - contributing to a longer life.
  • Environmentally friendly using recycled paper and less dye, with the ability to produce both small and large runs for each print. With minimal post-print washing, quick-drying and reduced wrinkling, this is one of the best print options.
  • Cost-effective with no additional setup costs for orders and reorders. 
  • Save time completing the entire design-to-production process within 20 minutes.

Cons of Dye Sublimation

  • Dye sublimation cannot be used with cotton or other natural fibers. It is limited to synthetic materials like polyester and nylon. 
  • Sublimation works best on white and light-colored garments. Dark and black-colored surfaces cannot be sublimated.
  • Sublimation is not as ideal for mass production.

2. Screen Printing 

Screen printing is one of the most popular fabric printing methods. It is the process of transferring a design by stencil and using a mesh screen, ink and a squeegee. Screen printing can be done by hand or by automated machine.

Unlike dye sublimation, this type of printing on fabric requires designs to be placed on top of the garment, only screening one color at a time. Because of this process more ink is used than in any other type of printing. This printing method is best used on 100% cotton.

Screen printing fabric printing method

Pros of Screen Printing:

  • Good option for larger orders and single color designs.
  • Widely used for T-shirts and 100% cotton garments.
  • Versatile option for any colors, light and dark, and various types of material.

Cons of Screen Printing:

  • Labor intensive to set up and not ideal for custom, or small orders.
  • Cost prohibitive with higher initial set up costs.
  • Limited range of colors and more expensive the more colors required.
  • Not environmentally friendly - dirty, messy and toxic.

Learn more: Dye Sublimation vs. Screen Printing

3. Heat Transfer

Also known as thermal printing, heat transfer is another type of printing on fabric that allows you to print a design directly onto a garment or object. 

Using heat to transfer an image created in wax, this fabric printing method works very well with 100% natural fiber materials. The printer works by pressing the ribbon against the object until the ink melts from the ribbon onto the garment or object.

Heat transfer fabric printing method

Pros of Heat Transfer:

  • Easy to learn and use even for inexperienced printers.
  • Good option for smaller orders with quicker turnaround time.
  • Full-color photos and a variety of colors are easily transferred.
  • No need to rinse with water afterward, which does not contribute to water pollution.

Cons of Heat Transfer:

  • Does not work well on polyester, lycra, spandex or stretchy fabrics.
  • Vinyl heat transfers will eventually crack and fade with a shorter lifespan.
  • Large quantity runs become time-consuming and expensive.
  • Ironing leaves fabric feeling stiff and is not recommended.

4. Reactive Printing 

This printing method uses a reactive dye combined with steam that permanently prints into the fiber of the fabric. These dyes are printed with the use of an inkjet onto pre-treated fabrics and then washed in order for the print to set properly. This method prints on both sides of the fabric as dye particles in the print paste create a bond.

Pros of Reactive Printing:

  • High-quality long-lasting prints that can be washed over and over.
  • Reactive dyes are eco-friendly.
  • A good option for natural materials such as silk, wool, cotton, linen and cashmere.

Cons of Reactive Printing:

  • Not a good option for synthetic materials.
  • Some reactive dyes cannot meet market requirements such as light fastness to wetness.

Other Fabric Printing Methods

Here are a couple of other common fabric printing techniques.

Stamp Printing

This fabric printing technique uses a stamp with your design cut into it. The ink is etched into the surface of the printing plate transferring the design onto the fabric or paper. 

Although stamp printing has come a long way, it is limited in detail and not suitable for intricate designs. This is a suitable option for small-run printing, but not for large quantity orders.

Pigment Printing

This is a popular fabric printing technique for use with cellulose fibers, so it’s ideal for natural fabrics. This involves the application of dye to the area of fabric where you want your design placed. 

Pigment printing is cost-effective and doesn’t require high-end machinery. It also produces bright permanent colors and is easy to color match. However, binders are used, which leave a coating on the fabric and lead to diminished color when used repeatedly over the same material.

Choose Equipe for Your Custom Dye Sublimation Project

At Equipe Athletics, we specialize in apparel manufacturing with dye sublimation printing. With over 30 years of industry experience, we are confident that we can create products you will be proud of.

Request a quote today and let us bring your next project to life!