How do we sublimate on dark shirts? On dark garments in general? What about cotton? In this post, I explain what heat transfers are, how they differ from sublimation, and the difference between light material and different ways to sublimate on dark shirts and other materials and cotton. Then, we will print then cut a design and transfer it onto a t-shirt. Finally, I include some FAQs that you will find helpful.
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What are Heat Transfers?
Heat transfers are designs made from a paper that take Inkjet or LaserJet ink. They have a clear, white or opaque base material and an adhesive backing. This backing allows it to be attached to fabrics and other materials such as leather, mouse pad material and wood. It is not sublimation, but is used as an alternative to sublimation when sublimation is not possible due to dark and non-polyester fabrics.
How are Heat Transfers Different From Sublimation Designs?
Heat transfers contain ink that that adheres to a base material. The base material sits on top of the fabric or blank you are transferring it to. The transfer uses ink from Inkjet or LaserJet printers, although there are types that use sublimation ink which I will discuss in a moment.
Sublimation designs are made with sublimation ink on sublimation paper. When the design is placed onto the 65%+ polyester material, it is infused into the fabric fibers. Once the heat press process is complete, there is no difference between the original fibers and the design in the fibers, and no base material sits on top of the fibers. The fabric has been “dyed” with the design.
Sublimation only works on white and light colors for this very reason; if you were to sublimate light blue onto a navy or black shirt, you wouldn’t be able to see the light blue that infused into the navy or black fibers. The only way to see the light blue would be to have a white or opaque base material between the navy and the light blue so that the navy blue can’t be seen. This is where heat transfer paper and special sublimation paper come in.
What are the Different Ways to Sublimate on Dark Shirts and Other Fabrics?
Heat Transfer Paper
As we’ve discussed, this is a popular method for getting around the issue of not being able to directly sublimate on dark shirts and other fabrics. And again, this is not true sublimation. This method uses inkjet printer inks on heat transfer paper.
There are 2 types of heat transfer paper: one for light materials and one for dark materials. The one for light materials has a clear base because it does not need to block the white material in order for your design to show. This type is usually used for white or light non-polyester fabrics and materials such as cotton.
The one for dark materials has an opaque or white base so that the design color is visible. The base sits on top of the dark material and blocks it completely, allowing the colors of your design to show. This type is usually used for dark fabrics and materials from polyester to cotton to other fabrics and materials. This is the type of transfer we are going to work with in this post.
Special Sublimation Paper
You can still use sublimation ink on dark shirts and other materials as long as you have a solid material that keeps the dark fibers from showing through your design. This is where special sublimation paper comes in.
Just like heat transfer paper, the special sublimation paper has a material that blocks the dark fabric from showing through your design. It has a substrate on it that the sublimation ink adheres to. When you heat-press or EasyPress the special sublimation paper to your dark shirt or garment, the sublimation ink sublimates to the opaque or white material, and the opaque or white material adheres to the shirt, blocking the dark fabric from showing through. You are left with your beautiful design sitting on top of your dark shirt completely visible. This method, however, requires a sublimation printer.
Although there are many brands, the best one is Siser EasySubli. It can be a bit tricky to use but can be mastered with some practice. It also requires heat transfer mask and they make their own for a decent price.
Sublimation Paper on Heat Transfer Vinyl (HTV)
This method was used before special sublimation paper was born and is still used. You can use certain heat transfer vinyl and sublimate on top of it, as long as the HTV you use covers the dark shirts and other fabrics, keeping them from showing through. You can also do this with adhesive vinyl for other projects that are outside the scope of garments and fabrics.
Because the heat transfer paper for dark materials has a white or opaque base, you will need to trim all of the visible base material and its backing away from the design. Otherwise it will transfer to your dark shirt or garment when you press it. Having a cutting machine is handy for this due to its precision.
In order to get a precise cut, you need to do an initial calibration for “Print Then Cut” on your Cricut machine. If you have not done this, please follow the directions for calibration at Cricut before starting your project.
In this post, we will use heat transfer vinyl as an alterative to sublimation on a dark shirt. I will use a blue, 100% cotton t-shirt made by Gildan. Any dark, cotton t-shirt or garment is fine to use.
I have a tie dye peace sign design for you to use if you don’t have a design. You can grab access to it below. Cricut Access has plenty to choose from also if you have that available.
See the FAQs at the end or the material directions for washing instructions, among other important information.
Let’s get to it!
Supplies you will need
- Inkjet printer
- Heat press, Cricut EasyPress or Cricut AutoPress (no irons due to heat consistency and temperature issues)
- Cricut Maker Series or Explore Series cutting machine
- Cricut LightGrip mat
- Dark cotton t-shirt or other dark cotton garment
- StarCraft for Dark Materials Inkjet Printable Opaque Transfers
- Low tack Heat transfer mask also here and here (this is similar to transfer tape used with adhesive vinyl but made for heat.)
- Parchment paper (or tissue paper provided with the StarCraft heat transfers.)
- Pressing pillow or EasyPress mat
- Weeding tool
- Brayer (optional)
- Lint roller
- Peace sign design or your own design
*Note: If you buy a different brand of heat transfer paper, I can’t guarantee that it will work, as I probably haven’t tested it. Further, I don’t know if it will work with heat transfer mask. Therefore, if you use another brand, it may be trial and error. StarCraft for Dark Materials (and its counterpart for Light Materials) are industry-standard products that are highly reputable. Stahl is a high-quality brand for both HTV and heat transfer mask. If you choose to buy a different brand of heat transfer mask, please try to find a low-tack mask. High-tack will be too sticky, and medium tack may or may not work, depending on how intricate your design is.
Steps to Sublimate on Dark Shirts and Other Garments
- Do not wash your shirt or garment first. The detergents and fabric softener will interfere with the transfer base material, which is what holds the design to the fabric.
- Do not iron your shirt beforehand. We will do a brief ironing where the design will be placed right before pressing to remove moisture and wrinkles.
- Prepare your craft space in advance with your supplies.
- Preheat your EasyPress 2 or heat press to 350 degrees and set timer to 30 seconds (or the temperature and time indicated for your heat transfer brand.)
Printing the Design
1. Click the link for the Peace Sign design or import your SVG design into Cricut Design Space.
2. Select “Open in App”, “Open Cricut Design Space Desktop Application”, then select “Customize” if using the Peace Sign design.
3. The size of the design is 6.75” x 6.75”, the maximum size allowed as a circle for print then cut. Resize if you’d like to make it smaller, such as for a pocket. Make adjustments to your own design if needed.
4. Select “Make it” in the upper right hand corner.
5. If you are prompted to select mat or matless, select “mat”.
6. Make sure “Mirror” is not selected. The StarCraft Dark Materials Heat Transfers are not mirrored. Other brands and types are, but not this brand. Double-check “material load type” and make sure it says mat. Then select “Continue”. (If you purchased a different heat transfer brand that requires mirroring, select mirroring here.)
7. Wait for your machine to connect (I always forget to turn my machine on!)
8. While waiting, place a sheet of StarCraft Dark Materials transfers in the rear feed tray or in your paper tray–whichever one you will select when printing. Make sure to set it in the correct position so it will print on the white side.
9. Select “Send to Printer”.
10. Make sure “Add Bleed” is selected and turn on “Use System Dialog”. Make sure the correct printer is selected and click “Print”.
11. Make sure the correct printer is selected in this dialog box too, then select “Preferences”.
12. Under media type, look for and select “High Resolution Papers” or something similar. If you don’t have that option, look for photo paper and use high quality for printing. If you see “t-shirt transfers” or “heat transfer”, do not use this option because your design will print mirrored by the printer. For StarCraft Dark Materials transfer sheets, we do not want to mirror our design. (If you purchased a different brand that requires mirroring, please mirror in Cricut Design Space.)
13. Click “Okay”. The dialog box will close. Click “print” in the next dialog box. Your design will print.
*Note: My pictures may look different in orientation from your printout due to my printer brand and model, and settings I had at the time of design and printing. Your printout will most likely print straight up; not sideways.
Cutting the Design
14. Place your design on a Cricut LightGrip mat. Use your hands to press the paper firmly onto the mat. Optionally use a brayer to roll it down firmly onto the mat.
15. Click “Browse all materials”.
16. Search for “heat transfer”. Select the “Heat Transfer (non-Cricut)” material type, then select “Done”.
17. Select “more” under pressure to make sure you get a clean cut.
18. Load your mat and press the arrow button. When prompted, start the cut by pressing the play or “Cricut” button.
19. When completed, run your finger along the cut lines to feel if the cut is deep. If so, release the mat. If not, run a second pass by clicking the “play” or “Cricut” button again before removing the mat.
20. Roll the brayer over the transfer paper to prepare for weeding. Weed the excess material around and inside of the peace sign, or from your own design. Make sure that only the design remains. Any white left will transfer to the t-shirt or garment.
21. Just as you would use transfer tape for adhesive vinyl, we will use heat transfer mask for our design. Cut a piece of heat transfer mask that covers the size of the design. Remove it from its backing and place it on the design.
22. Use your scraper to burnish the heat transfer mask to the design. I usually scrape four times from one side to the other. Use your preferred method.
23. Pull up from one corner of the heat transfer mask and peel back at a 90-degree angle to see if the heat transfer mask it attached to the design. If it is, release the mask back down and set it aside. If not, burnish a few more times and try again.
Pressing the Heat Transfer
22. Place the portion of the t-shirt where the design will go in the center of your pressing pillow or EasyPress mat. Use your lint roller to remove lint and other small debris from the area on which you will transfer your design.
23. Making sure the t-shirt is straight on your mat, press the area where the transfer will be placed for several seconds to remove the moisture and wrinkles.
24. Place the design on the t-shirt face-up. If you are centering your design on your t-shirt, you will want to place it 3 fingers down from the center of the front collar (4 if you have small fingers or if it’s a big & tall shirt like my husband’s.) Check and make sure the design is not off-center. If you need to redo it, peel it back and place it again. You can redo this until you have it where you want it.
25. Place parchment (or tissue paper from the package) over the design. Press with medium pressure for 30 seconds at 350 degrees.
*Note: Pressure is critical for the longevity of heat transfers. Medium pressure may be a little more than you think it is with an EasyPress 2; about 60 pounds. So give it a good press down and maintain the pressure across the entire base of the EasyPress 2 for the whole 30 count.
26. Remove the shirt from the heat press or remove the EasyPress 2 from the shirt. Let the design cool completely, then peel the heat transfer mask off the design.
27. Save the heat transfer mask as it can be reused. I save mine to the page that the heat transfer paper backing to or the heat transfer mask backing.
The steps to “sublimate” on dark shirts look like a lot, but I’ve really broken down the entire instructional to its most basic steps. Once you have done this once or twice, you’ll be old hat at it. You’ll even be ready to branch out to other fabrics and other blanks like mousepads and wood. And don’t forget about StarCraft for Light Materials Inkjet Printable Transfers for white and light cotton and other non-polyester (less than 65%) materials when you want sublimation designs but don’t have a sublimation printer. You can also use special sublimation paper for light materials like EasySubli, which behaves similarly to StarCraft, if you have a sublimation printer.
Below are some FAQs that you may find interesting. If you have any other questions or would like to discuss anything, please leave a comment. I love hearing from y’all! Happy, happy crafting!
I’ve heard about “blow out paper”. Do I need this for heat transfers?
No, you do not need blow out paper. Blow out paper is used to catch and absorb extra dye that is “blown out” from the sublimation process as it is turned into a gas. Heat transfers do not do this when being pressed. A sheet of parchment or tissue paper, or a Teflon sheet might help disperse the heat a little better, however, but it is not necessary.
How is this sublimation?
It’s actually not true sublimation. We’re using heat transfer paper to transfer a base material that is opaque, which covers up the dark fabric of our shirt or garment. On top of that base material sits our design. With sublimation on shirts and other garments, the design is infused into the garment fibers, which must be at least 65% polyester.
The reason we need a different solution for dark fabrics is because we can’t see lighter inks when they are sublimated into darker fabrics, the same way you can’t see a light color marker color if you accidentally get a little of it on a black or navy shirt.
There are sublimation solutions, but they have an opaque or white base material that sits between the design and the dark fabric like the heat transfer vinyl. The base material is a substrate that the design is sublimated to using sublimation ink. A sublimation printer is required for this. Since many don’t have one, heat transfers are a convenient solution.
If you’re interested in sublimation, check out my post “Everything You Need for Sublimation.” I talk about all the materials and items you need to start sublimating.
Should I wash my shirt first?
No. The detergents and fabric softeners interfere with the ability of the heat transfer to adhere to the fabric of your garment. Once you have pressed your transfer, wait at least 72 hours before washing your garment. garment/fabric?
How should I wash my shirt or garment?
Wash inside-out in cold water on delicate. You can tumble dry on low heat, but for maximum lifespan, air dry.
What types of things can I use heat transfers on?
There are many materials and blanks you can use heat transfers on. Known possibilities are a ton of different fabrics, mousepads and wood. If you’re interested, do a bit of experimenting and try transferring onto different blanks and fabrics. Let us know in the comments what’s worked for you!
Why can’t I use an iron?
Many irons cannot get to and keep 350 degrees. Additionally, many irons cannot keep a consistent temperature across the plate of the iron. It’s oddly shaped, and it’s critical to get a full 30 seconds with full pressure across the entire design. Also, you don’t want to overdo the time on your design in any one place and with an iron you will most likely have to do multiples to cover the full design.
So you can use an iron if yours can get to 350 degrees and has consistency across it’s plate, but be careful that you don’t do double duty on any part of the transfer.
How long will the heat transfer last?
If you follow the post-pressing and washing directions, you should be able to get at least 50 washings out of your heat transfer. Make sure you don’t wash your t-shirt before you press your heat transfer to it. After pressing, let your shirt rest for 72 hours before washing.
My transfer didn’t take.
There are several reasons your transfer may not have taken.
Did you use the wrong kind of printer? Did you use heat transfer for light materials in stead of dark materials? Did you press your design face up? Is your heat press or EasyPress not getting up to temperature? Did you wash your shirt beforehand? Did you wash your shirt too soon after pressing? Make sure you followed the instructions for your heat transfers.
Check these things first. Heat press transfers are finicky and the instructions must be followed specifically. You can check the temperature of your heat press or EasyPress 2 with an infrared thermometer.
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