Dye Sublimation is a printing technique that allows us to print full color images on a wide array of items such as t-shirts and coffee-tea mugs and ceramic tiles. Solid dye particles are converted into a gas using heat and pressure then are forced to bond with the material they are dyeing and converted back to a solid.
How does sublimation printing differ from screen printing?
With Dye Sublimation the dye is actually absorbed (“tattooed”) into the material as opposed to ink sitting on top of the material as with screen printing. Because of this, only light colored shirts can be used to Dye Sublimate. Think of it like this, if you add green dye to black paint you will still have black paint. The major difference is the ability to print not in four or six color as with screen printing, but FULL COLOR. Imagine the possibilities of being able to print full color photo quality images onto t-shirts and mugs and tiles.
Dye-Sublimation: Continuous-tone output technology that produces near-photographic quality color prints which are better than those produced by a four-color commercial printing press. However, this technology requires expensive ink and paper.
—From the Business Directory
Dye-Sublimation: Uses high heat and solid dyes to produce photo lab-quality images. Dye-Sub printers contain a roll of transparent film made up of page-sized panels of color. Solid dyes in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black are embedded in the film. Print head heating elements vaporize the inks which adhere to a specially-coated paper. As the ink cools it re-solidifies on the paper. Color intensity is controlled by precise variations in temperature.
Dye-sublimation printers lay down color in continuous tones one color at a time, instead of dots of ink. Because the color is absorbed into the paper rather than sitting on the surface, the output is more photo-realistic, more durable, and less vulnerable to fading than other ink technologies.
—From About.com Desktop Publishing
How does sublimation apply to our t-shirts, mugs and tiles?
Special inks need to be used that have the ability, when heated, to transform from their solid state to their gaseous state bypassing the liquid state. The images originate on a piece of transfer paper that is produced from a dye sublimation computer printer. The inks also need to have similar characteristics to polyester, a form of plastic. This is only half of the puzzle. The other half is that the ceramics or t-shirts need to be specially treated. The transfer paper containing the sublimation inks is placed on the specially treated ceramic or t-shirt, both heat and pressure is then applied. The inks begin to sublimate around 375º F making the products very receptive to the gases from the inks. The gases penetrate and mix with the coating on the ceramic or t-shirt fabric and when cooled, the gasses return to their solid state. You now have a very permanent image that will last a very long time. The ceramic mugs and tiles won't chip or peal and are microwave and dishwasher safe. The art images on the t-shirts are ‘tattooed’ into the fabric so there is no ‘hand’ or feel as with screen printing images. The t-shirts are machine washable and the art image will not crack or peel.