Retail Trends: Sublimation

May 11, 2016


Have you ever seen a polyester garment with a design that is soft to the touch, almost as if the design is sunken into the fabric? Ever wondered how it’s produced? The answer is sublimation, a unique digital printing process that is making its mark in the world pf polyester performance apparel, especially at retail.

Rather than bonding to the fabric surface like most digital and screen printing inks, sublimation dye penetrates the surface to bond at a molecular level with polyester and/or polymers. (It does not work on cotton.) The result is an image that won’t crack, peel or fade when laundered. Essentially, the graphic will outlast the garment —a huge selling point to customers who may balk at buying jerseys, socks or other apparel with designs that will break down over time.

Live in Hi-Def: In addition to being long-lasting, sublimation is a high-definition (HD) application, such that it can reproduce images and photographs at a high level of detail and vibrancy. In fact, sublimation also is used for many non-apparel applications, such as wedding portraits.

Ideal for Poly-Performance: In terms of decorating poly-performance garments, which rely on moisture-absorbing cells within the fabric, sublimation delivers top-level graphics without blocking the cells, which would inhibit the garment’s performance factor. Other processes, such as screen printing, can reduce moisture absorption, as the ink will block the cells wherever it is applied.

Color Matters: Sublimation decoration can be added to finished apparel or incorporated into the cut-and-sew process. In terms of adding images to ready-to-wear garments, sublimation can be affected by the fabric color. Sublimation dye — like most digital inks — is transparent, such that the background color impacts that of the image. Thus, the fabric color of choice for sublimation is white. However, it also can be used on light colors, but does not adapt to dark-colored garments. In addition, sublimation cannot be used to print the color white. Thus, when sublimated onto a white garment, an image’s or design’s white area is left “open” so that the garment color creates the color white.

Full Coverage: All-over printing is a popular technique that eliminates the issues of fabric color and white imaging. With this process, an image is created that covers the garment’s entire surface from edge to edge. It may simply be a graphic on top of a solid background or perhaps a large logo (think licensed apparel). When applied to a white garment (only), it creates the desired color for the shirt, while applying an image at the same time. White areas of the image are left open and the background white serves as the white for the image. Virtually any shirt color and graphic image combination can be created because they are graphically designed to work together, even though it’s being applied to a white garment.

As high-tech as sublimation seems to be, the reality is that the production process is fairly simple, meaning that costs are comparable to most traditional garment-decoration processes. The result is an extremely sellable product that customers will crave time and time again.

Sublimation Selling Points
• HD imaging on performance garments (made with polyester)
• Virtually an unlimited color range
• No cracking, fading or peeling of designs
• Competitive production costs, if being done in house

Jimmy Lamb has more than 20 years of apparel decoration experience. He currently is manager of communications for Sawgrass Technologies, Charleston, S.C., which specializes in digital printing technologies. For more information, visit

Above image provided by FBF Originals