Are you a beginner to sublimation and not sure where to start or what you need? Curious about it and wonder what it’s all about? Great! In this Beginner’s Guide to Sublimation, I’m going talk about what sublimation is, what you’ll need and answer often-asked questions.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is sublimation?
- 2 Sublimation Supplies You will Need
- 3 What can I sublimate on?
- 4 Sublimation Printers
- 5 What kind of paper do I need for my Sublimation Printer?
- 6 What is the best program to use for Sublimation Printing?
- 7 How to Print Sublimation Images
- 8 Cricut EasyPress, Cricut Mug Press, Heat Press and others
- 9 Basics of Sublimation on Mug, Tumbler, T-shirt, etc.
- 10 FAQs
- 11 Which program should I use to make my designs in?
- 12 Can I do sublimation with my Cricut?
What is sublimation?
Sublimation is a process that uses heat to infuse ink into fabrics and sublimation blanks. This produces stunning results that last longer than heat transfer vinyl. Applying sublimation is considerably easier than applying HTV.
Sublimation works by applying a special coating to the outside of a blank. This coating is called a substrate. It is applied to blanks such as coasters, mugs and tumblers. Special paper is used to transfer images to the substrate on the blank. Some fabrics can be sublimated as well. The ink infuses into the fabrics and it feels as if nothing is there, as it has become one with the fabric. This is what happens when polyester t-shirts are sublimated.
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Sublimation Supplies You will Need
- Sublimation printer for printing the design with sublimation ink
- Cricut or Silhouette or other cutting machine (opt) to cut the excess around the design
- Heat press to press the design to the substrate/blank
- Toaster oven for mugs and tumblers
- Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, Silhouette Studio or Cricut Design Space as design software
For Craft Hobbyists
- Converted sublimation printer for printing the design with sublimation ink
- Cricut or Silhouette cutting machine (opt) to cut the excess around the design
- Cricut EasyPress 2 or EasyPress 3 to press the design to the substrate/blank
- Cricut Mug Press for mugs and tumblers
Small items (for both)
- Shrink wrap or silicone mug wrap (for mugs and tumblers)
- Disposable gloves for handling blanks after they have been cleaned
- Lint rollers to remove all fibers from the blank
- Sublimation blanks
- Teflon sheets to distribute heat evenly when pressing
- Butcher paper to catch wayward ink as the ink sublimates
- Butcher paper holder (optional)
- Heat resistant gloves (if using toaster oven)
- Tongs with silicone tips (if using toaster oven)
- Heat Resistant Tape to hold design to blank
- TexPrint DT XP Light or A-Sub Sublimation paper to print the design onto
- Sublimation ink for printing of the design
What can I sublimate on?
A sublimation blank is an object that has sublimation substrate coated on the outside, or is an item of a certain type of fabric. Some examples of fabrics are polyester shirts, spandex leggings and coated canvas tote bags. Other examples of coated materials are coasters, mugs, acrylic keychains and tumblers.
Hard Sublimation blanks
There are a ton of different types of sublimation blanks. Retailers I recommend are Condé, Heattransferwarehouse.com, Heatpressnation.com, JPPlus.com (Johnson Plastics Plus) and Jiffy Shirts. when you’re looking outside of Amazon, which doesn’t carry the best quality of sublimation blanks. Unless you’re exclusively printing on fabric, you’ll definitely want to take a look at what’s available, as you’ll need some of these.
Fabric Sublimation Blanks
Other sublimation blanks, such as t-shirts, you will need to buy as close to 100% polyester as possible. Some say to go with 65% or better, but you will still not get a great sublimation with 65%. Unfortunately, most poly blend shirts are going to be about that range. The next best bet is usually to go with 100% polyester. If you can find a blend with about 80% blend, that’s great.
You can sublimate on other fabrics as well, such as nylon, rayon and spandex, but I haven’t worked with these fabrics yet. Polyester, and the other fabrics, are required for the sublimation ink to infuse into the fabric. Otherwise, the dye will appear washed out. Sometimes people do this on purpose and it looks fantastic as a faded look. However, most times it looks like an accident.
The most popular polyester shirts are made by Bella + Canvas. They make a version called All Sport that is 100% polyester. I haven’t been able to find it lately, and their website now only shows a 50/50 cotton-poly blend shirt. I’m hoping that they replace the 100% poly or resupply it. Take a look around the web though. There are so many t-shirt suppliers out there! Bella + Canvas do make great cotton shirts too for HTV, so if they’ve removed their 100% polyester shirt option entirely, it’s still a great choice for HTV or cotton fabric sublimation.
The one I use and is also recommended is the Gildan brand called the Gildan Performance. I like them because they carry Big and Tall sizes, and I have people of all sizes in my family. You can also find the Gildan Men’s Moisture Wicking, which is a good choice. It’s also 100% polyester. Gildan fits the bill for everyone.
Both brands can be found at many online and local retailers, including Amazon, Michaels, Joann and Hobby Lobby. If you are looking for bulk quantities, you might look at online retailers other than Amazon first before turning there.
Cricut makes great fabric and hard sublimation blanks as well. I believe they are well-priced. I have tried the baby bodysuits, the sublimation mugs and some of the hard substrates and they work very well. Others have been very pleased with the shirts but say they run small. Check them out. I think you will be pleased.
Just like regular inkjet printers, sublimation printers come in different models and sizes. You can purchase a sublimation printer, such as the Sawgrass SG500, or you can convert an Epson printer, for example. These two solutions seem to be what most do in the hobbyist to small business industries. Epson has recognized that their printers are sublimation ink friendly, and they have developed a sublimation printer as well.
Epson EcoTank Printers
I have an Epson EcoTank printer, which is the printer of choice for crafters and small businesses alike who don’t want to pay for a sublimation printout right out of the gate. Any of the EcoTank printers will work. The choice comes down to paper sizing and features you want. I chose the 3750 because it allows for 12″ paper, handles cardstock and other thick materials and has a rear input.
The EcoTank printers are cost effective, and you can find good sublimation ink on Amazon. I use Hiipoo sublimation ink. You’ll find it recommended by many sublimation enthusiasts. It has a good price point and the it looks great. The bottles fit on top of the wells and the ink goes right in–make sure you get those and not the ones you have to use a syringe with. They are so easy to use!
If you’d like instructions on how to convert an Epson printer, or just want to see how it works, Angie Holden of the Country Chic Cottage has put together some great instructions on conversion. I found the conversion process for the EcoTank printer quite simple. There are some other great video tutorials out there. Just google for them and give them a watch!
Sawgrass Sublimation Printers
Sawgrass printers are specifically sublimation printers. They have some of the lowest priced professional printers on the market but have great quality. The sublimation printers come with software, a design studio application, ink and support. The Sawgrass SG500 is its entry level printer and it’s affordable around $500-$550 depending on sales. A small business can earn this back in no time!
What kind of paper do I need for my Sublimation Printer?
There are 2 types of sublimation paper: one for light colored material and one for dark colored material. The latter is a bit misleading as sublimation paper, and I’ll explain how.
Light Material Sublimation Paper
Light sublimation paper is used to print images onto white or very light colored fabrics and blanks. This works beautifully for white t-shirts as they absorb the colors of the dye well. The dye colors will only take on the hue of the lighter colors and will only look odd if they are too dark or too “off”. For example, if pink is sublimated onto a medium gray, the pink will look washed out with a gray base, as it will sublimate directly into the gray fabric. I use TexPrint DTXP Light sublimation paper, as it’s just a little bit better than A-sub. If you have trouble getting TexPrint, or like the ease of buying from Amazon, the A-Sub sublimation paper is also really good.
Dark Material Transfer Paper
Dark fabric, however, is different. If the light material sublimation paper were used on dark colored material, the colors would take on the hue of that shade because the sublimation ink is infused into the fabric. If pink is sublimated into a black t-shirt, it will hardly be visible at all, as the black fabric will absorb the color of the dye. There is a solution to this issue, however.
To keep the dye from infusing into the dark materials, we use heat transfer paper. There are two brands of note: StarCraft Inkjet Printable Heat Transfers for Dark Materials and Siser EasySubli®.
StarCraft Inkjet Printable Heat Transfer paper uses inkjet ink to transfer graphics as opposed to sublimation ink. You will use it in your inkjet printer; not your sublimation or converted sublimation printer. Siser EasySubli uses sublimation ink, so it must be printed on a sublimation printer.
In order to transfer the image to your sublimation blank, you will most likely need heat resistant transfer mask sheets. Siser has its own mask and it’s recommended. (By the way, both of these brands can also be used on cotton fabric as well.)
What is the best program to use for Sublimation Printing?
Deciding on a graphics application may come down to 2 things:
Here are potentially 4 applications available to you: Cricut Design Space, Silhouette Studio, Adobe Illustrator and Inkscape. There are other applications, but these are the main ones discussed around the water cooler.
Cricut Design Space and Inkscape are free, while Silhouette Studio and Illustrator are not. Silhouette Studio has several versions at different price points, but to work with SVGs, you must purchase the Designer level, which is the 2nd level. Adobe Illustrator is much more expensive. If you are a business, we recommend Adobe Illustrator as it can serve you on so many different levels; not just with sublimation graphics. If you own a Silhouette, you will be purchasing Silhouette Studio most likely anyway. If you plan on only doing occasional sublimation and have a Cricut, you might want to stay with Cricut Design Studio for now based upon cost.
Adobe Illustrator and Inkscape are the most complex of the four applications. Silhouette studio is the second most complex while Cricut Design Studio is the least. If you’re looking for a compromise between Adobe Illustrator and Cricut Design Studio and you don’t mind the cost, opt for Silhouette Studio. It provides more robust features, and you can Print and Cut up to the size of your cutter allowance, whereas Design Space only allows 6.75” x 9.25” and is limited in functionality. You can always use Inkscape (comparable to Illustrator) for free, but the learning curve is high.
How to Print Sublimation Images
Printing sublimation from Cricut Design Space
Printing sublimation graphics on a sublimation printer is as easy as printing on any other printer. You are just printing directly to the sublimation printer instead.
When using Cricut Design Studio, you will print to your sublimation printer just as you would print to your regular printer during Print Then Cut. Make sure that you have the sublimation paper loaded in your printer the correct way. It is important to select “Use System Dialog” under “Add Bleed” in the Print Setup dialog box when you are “Making It” so that you can select the proper printing profile you set up for the print for EcoTank and Sawgrass printers. Angie Holden of The Country Chic Cottage has a great video on how and why to create printing profiles for sublimation printing. I highly recommend checking it out.
Printing sublimation from Adobe Illustrator and others
When printing from Adobe Illustrator, you have can print large graphics that will fill up your entire sublimation printing space. Silhouette Studio allows you to print to the allowance of your cutting machine, and Cricut Design Space is hard set to 6.75” x 9.25”. Print as you normally would, and select your sublimation printer. Print using your ICC profile you created specifically for sublimation.
Cricut EasyPress, Cricut Mug Press, Heat Press and others
Both the heat press and the Cricut EasyPresses are great options for sublimation heat elements. Consider both when find the best one for your needs even if you are a craft hobbyist. Optionally, there are some good off-brand small heat presses (alternatives to the EasyPress) available if you’re looking for a lower cost solution. I have both a heat press and a Cricut EasyPress, but I also run a small business. I use the EasyPress for small transfers and small items (such as socks) and my heat press for larger transfers.
I use my heat press when pressure is important, as the EasyPress requires that I provide even pressure accurately and my heat press can do that without fail. Don’t forget to consider the Cricut EasyPress off-brands as well. They may serve you well in the interim until you are ready to make the plunge to either an EasyPress or a full heat press.
Cricut EasyPress 2 & 3
The Cricut EasyPress 2 and EasyPress 3 are small, portable presses that can reach 400 degrees Fahrenheit. It comes in different sizes: 9”x9”, 12”x10” and in EasyPress mini. The larger sizes are great for regular HTV and sublimation transfers on fabric, wood, metal and more. The mini is great for small items like shoes and stuffed animals.
You can also purchase a heat-resistant mat to help keep your work surface protected. If you don’t want to purchase a mat, you can make your own pressing pillows to use in both your heat press and with your easy press.
The heat press is the traditional way to apply transfers to your HTV and sublimation blanks. There are a variety of different heat presses on the market, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. If you are a beginner or small business looking to purchase your first heat press, you might look for an inexpensive heat press before spending a lot of money on a higher-end one. I use an inexpensive heat press I purchased from Amazon and it does a great job. If you know that you will be doing a great deal of sublimation in your business, you may want to opt for a higher end one out of the gate.
When looking for a heat press, check out the temperature accuracy. This is critical to getting a good press. Most of the inexpensive presses come with a manual pressure handle; but if you have issues with arthritis or have difficulty closing large items, you may want to look for an automatic pressure heat press. If you are new to heat presses, take a look at how much support is offered as well.
Update October 2022:
Cricut released its AutoPress in May 2022 to great fanfare. It’s a great choice if you plan on running a small business selling objects that are heat pressed. Additionally, HTVRont has released its own affordable heat press.
Cricut Mug Press
A Cricut Mug Press is a great way to sublimate an image onto a ceramic mug. It’s easy to use and the results are fantastic. It is designed to sublimate 11 oz. and 15 oz. straight mugs. The Mug Press makes the process very simple. Grab some heat tape and butcher paper, follow the easy directions and when it’s done, you have a beautiful mug! The downside is that you can only do 1 mug per Mug Press at a time. So if you are a small business, consider getting a convection oven instead to do multiples at a time. See The Best Convection Ovens for Sublimation to learn more.
Convection Toaster Oven
If you have tumblers or tapered mugs you want to sublimate, or want to do multiples of either at one time, you’ll need to move to a convection oven or convection toaster oven. You’ll need to purchase a separate convection oven or toaster oven than the ones you eat from to sublimate these items due to the off gassing from the sublimation dye.
When using any type of convection oven for sublimation, you will also need a silicone sleeve or shrink wrap. You can buy one from Amazon, but they do not last very long. If you plan on sublimating a lot of tumblers and mugs in a convection oven, I suggest Hix Mug Wraps. They are high quality and will last for at least 300 sublimations, whereas the ones from Amazon may last only 30, making it well worth its price.
You will also want proper ventilation. In our experience, it is no little amount of gassing. It literally pushed me out of a quarter of my house!(To be fair, I’m a little sensitive to this kind of stuff.) If you can place your toaster oven in the garage or several open windows with great ventilation, we highly recommend it. Also, don’t forget to buy a fire extinguisher that is rated for oven fires and keep is close by. We’re big fans of fire safety!
See The Best Convection Ovens for Sublimation to learn more.
Other Heat Element Products You Will Need
Regardless of purchasing an EasyPress 2 or a heat press, you will need Teflon sheets, blow out paper (butcher paper, or copy paper for small transfers), oven tongs with silicone tips, lint rollers and disposable gloves.
The blow out paper will collect any dye that is “blown” out of the transfer so it doesn’t stain anything around it, including you, your Teflon sheets which can be pricey, your table or anything else around you. The Teflon sheets help with heat distribution and prevent sticking. They also help prevent that white round or square “white box” that you sometimes get with heat transfer vinyl transfers and sublimation transfers (along with cutting). It’s a must to use with a heat press, but I use it with my EasyPress 2 every time as well.
The tongs are almost indispensable to me. I use them to remove my mugs and tumblers from my convection oven, as they are super hot when they are done. I also set them on a raised cookie cooling rack to give them cooling space underneath as well. You will need the lint roller because the dye from any lint on the fabric you will be sublimating onto may sublimate into the shirt.
Basics of Sublimation on Mug, Tumbler, T-shirt, etc.
Applying an image to a sublimation blank has a few additional steps but isn’t difficult. The first step is to Print Then Cut as explained above. Make sure to check the directions of your paper on mirroring; dark materials heat transfer paper typically is not mirrored, while TexPrint DTXP sublimation paper (for example) is mirrored.
Next, we’ll want to press the image onto our sublimation blank. If using the Cricut EasyPress, follow Cricut’s directions.
If you’re using a heat press, check out the directions and set the time and temperature the same on your heat press. Follow the directions but use your heat press instead of the EasyPress unless otherwise specified.
If you are using a different sublimation paper brand, look at the package or go online to the manufacturer’s site or a trusted retail site and get the temperature, time and pressure settings. This is very important. Be it HTV or Sublimation, getting the correct settings is imperative to a good press. Use those settings with your EasyPress or Heat Press to get a good press.
Is Cricut Infusible Ink the same as sublimation?
They are not fundamentally different. Cricut Infusible Ink Sheets are printed with sublimation ink already on them. This means that you can cut a graphic from the ink design and directly transfer them onto your fabric or sublimation blank. The upside is that you don’t have to have a sublimation printer; the paper already has sublimation ink on it. The downside is that your image is limited to the color(s) of the ink sheet.
Which program should I use to make my designs in?
You can use whichever graphics program you are comfortable in. Silhouette Studio is a comfortable middle choice between Cricut Design Studio and Adobe Illustrator. You have more features than the latter but it is not nearly as complex as the former. You can also buy an inexpensive copy of Silhouette Studio and use it without having a Silhouette cutting machine.
The caveat that may preclude you from using Cricut Design Studio is the size limitation of Print Then Cut, which is 6.75” x 9.25”. See “What is the Best Program To Use for Sublimation Printing” above.
How do I print large sublimation images on Cricut?
You can’t do multiple sublimations on a fabric or substrate; it will at the very least remove some of the dye. The best way to do this is to sublimate in sections or print the transfer on a large printer. For most of us, the former is the one we have the most access to. It can be complicated, and typically you will need to design for a bit of overlap. If you don’t, there will typically be a line. You will also most likely need to use a different graphics program than Cricut Design Space if you are using that due to the overlapping requirements. Our recommendation is to watch videos on sublimating in sections and read up on it before attempting sections.
Can I do sublimation with my Cricut?
Yes. You can use Print Then Cut for sublimation just as you would use it for stickers and decals. Check out my How to Make Print Then Cut Stickers post. Create your decal using the same directions but substitute sublimation paper, your sublimation printer and your decal for the stickers.
Can you use Cricut EasyPress for Sublimation?
Can I use Cricut mugs for sublimation (and other Cricut blanks)?
You can use the Cricut accessory blanks that are made for sublimation. This means that they are specially coated so that the sublimation ink will take. The coating is called a substrate. All blanks that you use for sublimating must state that they are for sublimation, as they will have the substrate coating. Fabrics need to be at least 65% polyester, but we recommend at least 80%. The lower the polyester count, the more faded the transfer will look.
Can I sublimate on Cricut vinyl (or any heat transfer vinyl)?
At least on Siser EasyWeed holographic you can. Before easy, dark material solutions, there was sublimation onto holographic heat transfer vinyl. Angie Holden of Country Chic Cottage has a fantastic post on sublimation on HTV.
Can I sublimate on cotton?
Can I sublimate on Dollar Tree items?
Only if they have sublimation substrate on them or if they are a high percentage polyester fabric. Otherwise, stick to buying sublimation blanks that are specified as such.
Sublimation may sound complicated and seem like it has a lot of components. But once you have what you need and do it a few times, you will find that it’s quite simple and is much faster than doing heat transfer vinyl applications. Additionally, the designs last longer can be absolutely dazzling!
If you want to start a small business, sublimation is a great area to be in because there are so many popular products to sell. Although there are initial costs, overall it is less expensive to print and infuse sublimation than to print and adhere heat transfer and adhesive vinyl. With a little know-how and the right supplies, you can be creating beautiful sublimations for family, friends and potentially customers in no time at all!
Grab a copy of my Print Then Cut stickers and follow along with my Print Then Cut post to learn all about it! If you have a question or want me to include something, please be sure to comment. I love hearing from you!
Happy, happy crafting!