Article written by:  Cherie Derrick, Encompass Technologies, October 2000

I can't tell you how many times I have spent 15-30 minutes with a customer or with someone wanting to get into the business of dye sublimation, just explaining what a dye is, let alone what dye sublimation is.   When I was growing up, if you wanted something to look different after you had it for a while you went to the store and bought dye and changed the color (always dying the item darker, because you can't add color and make it lighter), or if you needed shoes to match your bridesmaid dress you dyed them.  The same principal applies for dying your hair.  I guess it is a sign of the changing times but people today don't seem to understand what a dye is even though our world of cloth and clothing revolves around it.  I often want to respond to the question of "What is dye sublimation?" with "It's magic!".

Dye: to impregnate color into a material.  Many times this color change is permanent.

Sublimation: a change directly from the solid to the gaseous state without becoming liquid.

Polymer: consisting of large molecules made up of a linked series of repeated simple molecules.

Dye sublimation:  Solid dye particles are changed into gas using heat and pressure, then bond with any polymers present, and change back into a solid.

In today's market when people talk about dye sublimation transfers, they are usually speaking about output from inkjet printers.  The problem with inkjet printers and dye sublimation is that most of the printers spray their ink out of tiny nozzles that are easily clogged by the relatively large dye sublimation particles. Epson printers are the most common brand of inkjet printers used for dye sublimation transfers, due to their advanced printer head technology, print density, and low cost.

The confusions comes from the fact that we are using inkjet printers but we don't use ink in them. The fluid that is stored in the inkjet cartridge is just the carrier of the dye.  The carrier stays on the paper, it is only the dye that migrates from the paper to your substrate.  The dye has little or no color until heated, so what you see on the paper usually looks nothing like the final transferred image.

Other forms of dye sublimation transfers are done with thermal printers, offset printers, monochrome laser printers, special made processors, and can even be done by screen printing transfers.

What's with these polyesters you mentioned in the definition, you ask?  The dye particles that are used for this type of dye sublimation are designed to only bond with polymers, so the higher the polyester content in the material the more dye that will bond giving you a brighter image.

So that's all there is to it?  Basically, yes.  The other questions that continue to come up all boil down to understanding the dyeing process.

Why can't I do this on a dark material?   

This is not an ink.  This is a dye.  Adding a little color to something that is dark doesn't do much of anything.  If you have a bucket of black paint and add a cup of green, what do you get?  It doesn't make the paint green.  It may add a hint of green to the black but, I doubt that you will be able to tell.

Why can't I reclaim shirts like in screen printing? 

This is not an ink that sits on top of the fabric, it is a dye that penetrates the fiber of the fabric.

There were some spots on my transfer I didn't see before pressing, how do I get them off my shirts? 

If it is 50 to 100% polyester 99.9% of the time you can't.  If you can, you are probably not transferring your images correctly or there is something else desperately wrong.  You can try bleach but it shouldn't work.  If  done correctly on polyester, these dyes are permanent as they have become part of the fabric.  The only way they are going to come out is possibly if you put them in the sun for the next two or three years but then the material will probably sun rot before the inks go away.

The next most frequent question is "if dye sublimation only works with polyester how does it work on ceramics, glass and metal?"  Magic?  Nah, it's another easy answer, all of these products need a coating which is a special layer of polymer for the dyes to bond to.  

Now your probably starting to think, well this is neat, I can change the color of just about any ole' piece of plastic or polyester material.  Well, stop thinking that.  That would be magic!  Many polymers can not withstand the amount of heat needed to do the sublimation part of the process, and if they can stand the heat what's going to happen when you add some pressure and time?  Many of them melt and shrink.

So why doesn't it work on cotton?  Again, it's because these dye particles are designed to bond with polyester, and ignore everything else.  It is like trying to mix oil and water with most natural materials.  There are fabric enhancers, prep sheets, and sprays that can be added to non-polyester fabrics, which will add a layer of polyester to the shirt. This works better on 50/50 shirts since the added polyester can bond better with the polyester that is already part of the  shirt, and then the dye also will have more polyester to bond with. This will make the image more vibrant, and it will last longer than with a 100% cotton shirt.

Hopefully this helps clear those muddy waters.  It's really not all magic, it's just dye with a little magic thrown in.

The above review is: Copyright 2000 Encompass Technologies, All rights reserved, and may not be copied or reproduced without the written permission of the author. subscriptions as low as $29.95.