Sublimation VS HTV: Pros & Cons

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Dye-sublimation printing and HTV (heat transfer vinyl) have a few things in common, and both have their advantages in certain situations. Both techniques require the application of heat and pressure to adhere a design to a base material. Besides this similarity, what are the pros and cons of sublimation vs HTV?

What are the advantages of Sublimation vs HTV?

Sublimation printers enable full color application to a base material in one step. Unlike applying HTV, different colors do not have to be applied in layers. Print full color photos this way, without conversion to vector files. 

No cutting or weeding

examples of products created with sublimation
image source: heatransferwarehouse.com

Sublimated designs require no cutting or weeding like vinyl designs. The basic sublimation process is quite simple. Use special inks, paper and a sublimation printer to print the desired image.

One common aspect to sublimated artwork and HTV: mirror the design before printing.  

Press the design on your base material, like a t-shirt or tote bag, using a heat press. Time and temperature settings tend to be longer and hotter than pressing HTV, but overall, the process is faster, cleaner, creates less waste and offers the widest possible selection of colors.

Best quality over time

Another great advantage that sublimation has over HTV is that the ink bonds directly to the fabric, dyeing it permanently. This is a big advantage over HTV because it won’t crack, peel or fade over time. Sublimated garments retain their original colors after dozens of washes!

Moreover, with sublimated garments, you retain the full breathability of the fabric. For example, athletic clothing has been a big beneficiary of sublimation printing, because the technique infuses color into the fabric without sacrificing any of the ventilation. Moisture-wicking performance wear is completely unaffected by sublimation printing.

If the same fabric has heat transfer vinyl applied, the area covered by the vinyl is sealed in and doesn’t ventilate.

Dishwasher safe mugs and tumblers

When it comes to sublimating on ceramics or hard surfaces, the key advantage is that sublimated hard surfaces don’t have to be sealed. If you apply sublimation ink to a ceramic mug or tumbler, it doesn’t have to be coated with a sealing layer. When you apply vinyl to a mug, especially a mug you want to sell commercially, it should be sealed with a clear film to extend the lifespan of the vinyl. Most cups, mugs and tumblers decorated with vinyl are not dishwasher safe; sublimated ceramics are ready to go in the dishwasher from the jump.

What are the disadvantages of Sublimation over HTV?

First, the main disadvantage is that you need to sublimate on a specific range of items that are receptive to the ink. That means high polyester content fabric, which is not super-popular with all consumers. Sublimation doesn’t work on cotton garments without workarounds that sacrifice quality in significant ways.

Sublimation works best on white polyester fabric

You also can’t sublimate directly onto dark fabrics. Again, you need to employ workarounds and specialty products to use sublimation images with black t-shirts or other dark fabric bases, no matter what their polyester content.

In fact, any colored base material will cause problems for sublimation. Even if your garment is 100% polyester, sublimating on all but the lightest color fabrics won’t give great results.

No white sublimation ink options

dark fabric garment decorated with whit HTV
HTV offers a lot of options for white on dark backgrounds

If your design contains white elements, they won’t be printed as white on your garment. Rather, they will appear as blank or transparent space and the color of your base material will show through. That’s great if your base is white, but if you need white and your base is a different color, you are out of luck.

HTV on the other hand has white options in many finishes. Even if you want to print on vinyl, you have the option for white color from the vinyl itself. Another option for printing on clear vinyl (like window clings) is a vinyl printer with white ink options.

Higher temperature, time and pressure

Sublimation also requires higher heat and pressure than HTV application. A true heat press is required to get the steady pressure over a longer time to activate sublimation ink. Whereas HTV typically takes 5 – 15 seconds at 300 – 315oF, applying sublimation ink to a t-shirt takes 30 – 45 seconds at 400oF.

While a Cricut EasyPress 2 will get up to 400oF, that is the maximum press temperature. Pressing by hand for long periods of time will greatly increase the chances of shifting the sublimation paper during transfer. This will cause ghosting. A heat press will keep your design stable during heat application.

A home iron cannot be used for sublimation.

Any fabric or other item that you want to sublimate must be able to withstand these higher times and temperatures, meaning that many more delicate fabrics (even polyester ones) can’t be used.

No glitter…

a wide variety of colors and finishes available for HTV
a wide variety of colors and finishes available for HTV

Finally, when it comes to sublimation printing vs HTV, we think HTV has an advantage when it comes to variety of finishes and textures. While sublimation prints can be bright and vivid and in full color, HTV comes in glitter and sparkle finishes, metallic and holographic, glow in the dark and reflective. There are so many beautiful colors with amazing finishes available in HTV that are not available in the world of sublimation.

Summary and further reading

At this point, we’ve laid out some of the more obvious pros and cons of sublimation printing compared with heat transfer vinyl. To summarize, we think both are great and you can definitely make amazing things with both methods, but here are the benefits of each in a nutshell:

Benefits of sublimation printing for heat transfer:

  • Full color design application in one step
  • No cutting or weeding (faster project completion time)
  • Best quality results over time.
  • Full breathability of fabric
  • Dishwasher safe for ceramics

Benefits of HTV over sublimation

  • Works on cotton and dark fabrics
  • You can incorporate white into your design
  • Lower temperature and time settings for your heat press
  • Great array of finishes like glitter, metallic and holographic

feature image credits: Perky Apparel, Nicolas Rück

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