Dye Sublimation Printing Basics, Plus, Can You Dye Sub Print on Dark Fabric?

Inkjet printers are generally known to print such items as vinyl (PVC) banners, vinyl stickers, and even fabric that has been treated to accept ink. However, this is not dye sublimation printing, or dye sub printing for short. Dye sub printing, as stated within the name, uses dye, not ink, a subtle but meaningful difference as they have completely different functions.

Four color process inkjet printers as noted above use the common printing designation of CMYK printers. C is for cyan. M is for Magenta. Y is for Yellow. And K is for black (not sure why this is, but it is what it is). The combination of these four colors, when applied by the printer in a certain order (I believe yellow prints first, then magenta, then cyan, and finally black), will create full color prints on whatever substrate is being printed at the moment.

In contrast, or at least partial contrast, the dye set use in an inkjet printer is different because it is dye, not ink. The four color process (4CP for short) printing when a dye set is used in an inkjet printer is a bit different. One thing to note as well, here. While the same printer is sublimación en telas used to print inkjet inks and dye sublimation dyes, one cannot simply switch ink sets for dye sets without a complete flushing of the printer, so most printers don’t switch between printing ink or dye because it is a labor intensive operation and would waste a lot of time.

At any rate, the dye set for dye sub printing is CMYO. C is still cyan, and M is still magenta, and Y is still yellow. But O stands for overprint clear, which still turns black during the heat transfer step of dye sublimation printing.

So, to explain the difference between inkjet printing in basic terms compared to dye sublimation, in inkjet printing you load up a roll of vinyl banner material and send the print. The ink is dried on a heated platen, or with a UV light just behind the printed graphic on the substrate, then it rolls up on the take up reel, and it’s done. If you’re printing decals that need die cut, some printers also contain a plotter that will also do this part, but many don’t, so marks that can be read by a vinyl plotter are printed, then read by an “eye” on the plotter, and cut to size. That’s an oversimplified version, but you probably don’t need to know every step in that process.

In comparison, with dye sublimation, first the printer prints a mirror (reflected/backwards) image of the desired image on a treated paper known simply as “transfer paper.” Once the paper has been printed, it is matched up to an appropriately sized piece of polymer-based fabric, typically a polyester material of one style or another (from sheer to satin to knit to canvas, etc.), and run through heated pressure rollers at about 375 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is where the heat transfer of the dye occurs. As the transfer paper heats up, the dye is transformed into a gas, and the pores or cells of the polymer-based fabric expand and open up. The dye is forced into the open pores by the pressure of the rollers, and as the fabric passes beyond the heated rollers, the cells rapidly close, trapping the dye inside the cells of the fabric, creating a beautiful continuous tone print, with colors typically more vibrant than what can be achieved with straight inkjet printing to fabric or vinyl.

There are many similarities, as you can see, between inkjet and dye sub printing, and even some of the equipment is interchangeable, but they are definitely NOT the same thing. And the results of sublimate printing of polyester fabrics can create beautiful posters, banners, or displays that can make anything you’re promoting look better than you thought it could.