Dye Sublimation Printing on Stretch Fabric

Dye sublimation printing onto stretch fabric is the process of sublimating dye into the fabric itself. The process itself works by heating a special type of solid ink. This is much different than other types of printing techniques, such as inkjet and laser printing, which spray liquid ink ink onto a page or surface, staining it. Instead, dye sublimation printing heats up the solid ink, causing it to turn into gas vapors. These vapors make their way into the target surface, where they then turn back into a solid form.

Benefits of Dye Sublimation Printing

dye sublimated printing on our flat panel sailsFor stretch fabric, dye sublimation is usually seen as a better option than inkjet printing. The biggest advantage is that dye sublimation creates a finished product that is noticeably more durable than a product printed with an inkjet printer. As the dye essentially impregnates the stretch fabric, it actually becomes a part of the fabric itself. The printing then cannot be damaged with wear, nor can be flaked off or crack.

Dye sublimation printing on stretch fabric is also more visually appealing, especially when you are at large events or corporate meetings. The process involves a continuous tone output when printing. As a result, it creates smoother and brighter color transitions and variations than inkjet printing. Fabrics that have been printed with dye sublimation will always have a more superior look and sleeker finish.

Dye Sublimation Printing on Stretch Fabric

For many, this seems like a daunting task to print onto stretch fabric due to the fear of warping and images seeming distorted once the fabric is stretched into place. At Stretch Shapes, we have engineered propitiatory processes that prevent any warping or distorting of images on all our products. For products like our Flat Panel Sails, our graphic design department performs a proprietary reverse warp process to ensure that your graphics display beautifully when installed. On items like our Truss Wrap Screens or anything with a hook and loop border, we take all factors into consideration. For instance, how fabric pulls out in relation to the rigging points, specific stretch ratios and the overall size of the panel being printed onto. While all our printed stretch fabric may look funny when not stretched, we guarantee all prints will look flawless when stretched properly.

Achieving Photo Realistic Quality Through Dye Sublimation Printing

The standard process requires the ink to be turned from a solid into a gas which can be absorbed into the item being printed. With stretch fabric, a transfer paper that is printed on with a digital printer is used as a go-between. While generically named, the transfer paper is a specially treated paper that is able to accept dyes. CMYO (cyan, magenta, yellow, overprint clear) dye cartridges are used instead of the average CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) cartridges. They CMYO cartridges allow the dye to become part of the fabric, rather than simply covering the fabric.

The transfer paper is then applied to a piece of polyester or other similar synthetic fabric. About 375 degrees Fahrenheit of heat is then applied by feeding the fabric through heated rollers that also apply the pressure to the fabric. The stretch fabric’s cells expand and the dye is converted into a gaseous state and is absorbed. Once the fabric cools, the cells close up and the ink is trapped, making the printing permanent. Hence the photo or image quality is at the most unique and terrific level, which for Stretch Shapes is at 150 DPI.

Dye Sublimation Printing vs. Screen Printing

Let’s start with how screen printing works. First, a screen is made. This screen lets the ink through in some areas while blocking it in others, it’s nearly 100% customizable. The ink is put on top of the screen and spread over the entire surface using a squeegee. The fabric being printed sits underneath the screen and takes on the design cut into the screen. Usually, the process is repeated for each color in the layers; one screen (or layer) for each individual color in the print. After the image has been printed onto the fabric, it is put through a dryer to ‘set’ the ink, making the imprint permanent. Sounds pretty simple, right? This is the most common way to print on a shirt. Odds are pretty good that you have multiple screen printed shirts in your closet right now.

Drawbacks to screen printing:

  • First and foremost, over time, it ends up cracking and peeling. This is because much of the ink isn’t absorbed by the material, but is baked on. For that same reason, when you run your hands over a screen printed fabric, you’ll be able to feel the print. The friction from normal wear and tear causes the cracking and the peeling to happen faster. So if you’re reusing items at multiple events, your product will wear down and need to be replaced sooner.
  • Another drawback to screen printing is a screen can only hold so much detail, so high-resolution images become slightly pixelated when viewed up close.

Now let’s discuss dye sublimation printing. The basic dye sublimation process uses special heat-sensitive dyes to print virtually any image onto a specially prepared “transfer” paper. The paper is then placed on the stretch fabric and both are placed into a heat press. When the heating cycle is completed, the image on the paper has been transfered to the item and has actually become part of the stretch fabric. Run your fingers across the surface of a sublimated fabric and you will feel nothing.

The reason for this is that sublimation is always done on a polyester or a polyester blend fabric. At high temperatures, the solid dye converts into a gas without ever becoming liquid. The same high temperatures opens up the pores of the fabric and allows the gas to enter. When the temperature drops, the pores close and the gas reverts to a solid state, making it now a part of the fabric. This is why dye sublimation can’t be done on natural materials, such as 100% cotton. Natural fibers that have no “pores” to open cannot accept the gas vapor. They dye particles are designed to bond with polyester and ignore everything else. Think of it like trying to mix oil and water.