Sublimation Printing vs. Heat Transfer Paper: Which Reigns Supreme?

By Jeff Butler | Published on June 4, 2024

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Transfer Paper or Sublimation Printing?

Welcome to the vibrant world of custom T-shirt creation and personalized apparel! If you're deliberating between heat transfer paper and sublimation printing as your go-to method for garment decoration, you're in the right place. Each technique has distinct benefits and limitations, tailored to different needs and outcomes. Let’s explore each to determine which might be the best choice for your creative ventures.

Understanding Heat Transfer Paper

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Heat transfer paper is an innovative material used to imprint designs onto garments using heat. The process begins by printing a design onto the paper via an inkjet or laser printer. You then place the paper onto the garment and apply heat using a heat press—though a household iron might suffice for hobbyists, a heat press ensures optimal results. Once pressed, the paper is peeled off, leaving the design beautifully transferred onto the fabric.

This method is exceptionally user-friendly and generally requires minimal initial investment, making it a popular choice for beginners. Notably, heat transfer paper is versatile, compatible with both cotton and polyester fabrics and suitable for light and dark garments. Conversely, sublimation printing is primarily effective on light-colored polyester materials.

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Delving into Sublimation Printing

Sublimation printing shares similarities with the heat transfer method, involving a special type of paper—sublimation paper. The key difference lies in the chemistry of sublimation. The sublimation ink transitions from solid to gas under heat, embedding directly into polyester fabrics. As it cools, it reverts to a solid, integrating seamlessly with the material. This creates a durable and indistinguishable print from the fabric itself, ideal for items that undergo frequent washing.

Sublimation doesn’t stop at fabrics; it’s also suitable for a variety of poly-coated hard surfaces, broadening your creative possibilities to include items like mugs, coasters, and puzzles.

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Comparing Heat Transfer and Sublimation

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Startup Costs and Equipment

Starting with heat transfer paper is notably budget-friendly. Basic requirements include a standard inkjet or laser printer, a heat press, the transfer paper itself, and your chosen garments. A basic heat press can cost around $300, possibly your most significant initial expense.

In contrast, sublimation involves a higher startup cost, though prices have decreased significantly in recent years. For example, the Sawgrass SG500 sublimation package provides everything needed to begin, except for the heat press. Similar to heat transfer, a decent swing-away heat press for sublimation starts at about $500.

Durability and Texture

Sublimation excels in durability and texture, integrating the ink into the fabric, which results in a print that is as durable as the garment itself. Heat transfer paper, while effective, adds an additional layer to the garment, which can be felt and may degrade with wash and wear.

Variety of Applicable Garments

Sublimation is limited to polyester fabrics and light-colored materials, which can restrict your garment choices. Heat transfer paper, on the other hand, is more versatile, applicable to various fabric types and colors, including darks, which might be preferable depending on your project needs.

Color and Detail

Sublimation allows for vibrant, full-color outputs—perfect for detailed graphics and photographs. While heat transfer paper can also achieve high-quality results, the level of detail and color might depend on whether you’re using inkjet or laser transfer paper. Inkjet is generally preferred for photo-quality prints on light garments.


Sublimation offers a self-weeding process where only the ink transfers, omitting any background hassle. Heat transfer paper often requires manual weeding, especially for designs intended for dark garments to avoid unwanted background colors.

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Choosing Your Path: Final Thoughts on Sublimation vs. Heat Transfer Printing

In conclusion, both heat transfer paper and sublimation printing offer unique advantages and may suit different types of projects. Your choice should align with your specific needs, considering factors like the types of items you intend to decorate, your budget for initial setup, and the longevity and feel of the finished products.

Whether you choose the simplicity and versatility of heat transfer paper or the durable and vibrant results of sublimation, each method opens up a world of possibilities for garment decoration.

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