The heat transfer sublimation printing process is a great eco-friendly printing technique that is not only simple, but also efficient in creating bright and interesting prints on fabric. It is a fantastic technique that’s used by top designers, visual artists and something you can even do at home.
In this method, heat-activated dyes are used to transfer prints from the source to textile by the process of sublimation. Sublimation basically refers to the passage of molecules from the solid to gas state, without moving through a liquid state. During the printing process, heat is applied to sublimation dyes, to directly convert them into gaseous form. Simultaneously, the dye makes contact with a synthetic material like polyester. Upon exposure to heat, the cloth fibres open, allowing the dyes to permeate into the fibre and bond with it permanently. The prints are therefore transferred from the source to the textile. All that is needed to permanently fix the colour is heat.
Now that we have a general idea of what the process is all about, let’s take a closer look at the details.
Materials Used In Sublimation Printing
Sublimation printing provides the best results when used on synthetic fabrics like polyester. This is due to several factors. Mainly because of the high temperatures the fabric needs to be exposed to – fabrics such as nylon would melt under such high temperatures. It is possible to use the technique on cotton and other natural fabrics also. The results may not be as bright, however, and may eventually fade.
You may not have realised it, but if you’ve ever used a home T-shirt printing kit with transfer papers, you have sublimate-printed. Sublimation printing can be done in many ways. It works best with an industrial heat press, as it gives a consistent heat and the right pressure to get a full bright print. But it can also be done on a smaller scale. It is a fantastically experimental technique. The possibilities are endless!
Using disperse dyes or heat transfer inks: Here, you create the design in reverse on non-absorbent paper with disperse paints. This can be used to create a beautiful, painterly effect. You place the design against the fabric and apply heat to the surface. The step-by-step process is as follows:
Brush, stencil or spray the design on paper. Newsprint works well as it is absorbent and thin. Allow it to dry.
Place the fabric on a flat surface with layers of protective paper on top to avoid ink transfer beyond the surface.
Next, place a hot iron or heat press on the print in a steady position, until the paper begins to yellow and the transfer is complete.
For more details, the steps involved in this method is available in this article.
This is an easy technique you can try out at home with a household iron.
Heat Transfer Papers: You can also perform image transfers using ready-coloured transfer papers. This can be great for collages and quick all-over colour effects.
Printing Your Design Onto Transfer Paper: This is where things get pretty exciting! You can adorn your fabrics with your own designs. The images can be printed onto sublimation paper with high quality inks using sublimation compatible inkjet printer like Epson or Ricoh printers.
The process starts with creating the image to be printed. The possibilities are endless, there are no restrictions on colour or size, you can even get really fine details. Think about using photographs or use image creating software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator.
Once the image is ready, print it on sublimation paper using a printer that supports sublimation ink. (If you don’t have access to a printer like this you can send the images to companies like Bags of Love who will send you your print on the paper back to you. They will also the print fabrics if you don’t have access to a heat press).
Next, bring the item in contact with the area of the fabric to be printed on a flat surface.
Press with a hot iron or sublimation heating pad at the desired temperature, for the required time, and using sufficient pressure
Once pressed, remove the sublimation paper swiftly and cool to fix the print.
What Makes Sublimation Printing So Eco-Friendly?
Now, that is the question! So far it sounds like a perfect technique, quick easy, accessible and even fairly cheap! But it gets better, heat transfer sublimation printing is also an environmentally conscious design process.
Firstly, it results in minimum wastage. No dye gets into the water system which happens with many other dyeing processes.
The same sublimation print can be used multiple times to print on more than just one piece of fabric. A process called exhaust printing. Although subsequent prints will reduce in intensity, it will still work for a number of pieces. This can give its own unique effect.
The paper can be reused for other projects, perhaps packaging or stationery.
One of the only downsides is the limited number of fabrics it can be used with. Polyester itself is not known for being an eco friendly fibre. But, how about using recycled polyester? Making it doubly eco!
The other great factor is that it can be used on second-hand garments, thus giving them a new lease of life and extending their use. A great example of this is the work of Shelly Goldsmith pictured above, who worked with second-hand garments in her art projects.
Professor Rebecca Earley, founder of the Top 100 project, is an expert on Sublimation Printing Techniques. Her famous B.Earley shirt collection demonstrates how used garments can be made interesting and used for much longer through heat sublimation printing.
Rebecca uses polyester shirts and charity shop finds as the starting material for her sustainable design initiatives known as TEN. She uses the sublimation technique to change their look, thereby making these second-hand clothes attractive and interesting. She also focuses on bringing the consumer closer to fashion processes, by providing hands-on experience of what goes on behind the scenes through workshops like the Black Hack Workshop. What an inspirational way to work.