Sublimation printing has become increasingly popular in recent years for customizing fabrics, hard goods, and more. But some people think that sublimation only works on white substrates. Is this really true, or can you sublimate on colors other than white?
How Sublimation Printing Works
First, let’s review the sublimation process. Sublimation uses heat to infuse dye into polymeric substrates like polyester. The ink turns to gas under high heat, bonding with the polymer fibers. When the material cools, the ink solidifies and becomes part of the substrate.
This bond creates permanent prints that won’t crack, peel, or fade over time. The dyes used in sublimation inks are translucent. So they work best on light or white materials where their colors remain vivid.
Sublimating on Darker Colors
While sublimation looks optimal on white, you can still sublimate on colors – even darker shades. However, the results may differ compared to sublimating on white fabrics or substrates.
When you sublimate on a colored material, the original color will blend with the sublimation ink. So darker shades usually turn out muted or washed out after sublimating. Here’s an overview of how some colors tend to turn out:
|Original Color||Resulting Color|
|White||Vibrant, true to design|
|Light gray||Muted, but relatively true to design|
|Dark gray||Very muted and dull|
|Black||Very dull, colors look darkened|
|Light blue||Blue tone merged with design colors|
|Royal blue||Navy tone blended with muted colors|
|Red||Pinkish tone combined with design|
As you can see, the darker the original color, the more the vibrance and accuracy of the sublimated design is reduced. Black fabrics and substrates result in very muted sublimation imprints. Some colors like red or blue will tint the design with their tone.
Tips for Sublimating on Colors
If you want to sublimate a colored fabric or item, here are some tips to get the best results:
- Use mostly light colors in the design – Medium to darker colors will not show up as well.
- Increase brightness and contrast in the design file – This helps lighter colors pop more.
- Limit use of darker colors – They will be very muted on colored items.
- Try a test print first – Check how the design turns out before doing a full production run.
- Print the design larger – This helps light colors show up more against a colored background.
- Use a mostly white background in design – Avoid large dark background areas, as they will be very muted.
While you won’t get the same vibrant results as on white, you can still get decent sublimation results on lighter colored substrates. Just adjust the design file to compensate.
Using Additional Products for Dark Colors
If you want to sublimate a dark or black product, there are couple options to improve the print quality:
Sublimation primers temporarily coat the substrate with a white bonding layer. When heat pressed, the sublimation ink bonds to the primer rather than the substrate. This allows for much more vibrant, accurate colors on dark fabrics.
Some common sublimation primers include:
- Siser BrightCoat
The primers can be applied in a temporary spray or as a removable adhesive sheet. The downside is that primers add time and cost to the sublimation process. The coating may also crack or peel over time with wear.
Some heat transfer vinyls now have a sublimation printable surface. By printing the design onto printable HTV first, you can then cut and apply it to the substrate. This allows the HTV to act as a barrier for vivid sublimation results on any color garment or product.
The benefit of printable HTV is it provides a permanent application without the risk of cracking or peeling over time. The challenges are having to print, cut and apply the HTV adds more time and steps to the sublimation process.
Top Substrates for Full Color Sublimation
While you can techncially sublimate on any polymer-based substrate, some absorb the ink better than others. For the most vibrant, accurate color results, these are the best choices:
|Polyester fabrics||100% polyester works best. 60-65% poly/35-40% cotton blends are also good options.|
|Hard substrates||Aluminum, wood, acrylic, and plastic substrates designed for sublimation.|
|Mouse pads||Polyester fabric top surface perfect for full bleed sublimated designs.|
|Coated metals||Aluminum sheets with special polyester coating for sublimation.|
|Fabric sheets||Woven polyester fabric sheets ready to be printed and cut & sewn.|
Always check that a substrate is polyester-based before attempting to sublimate on it. 100% natural fabrics like cotton will not sublimate correctly.
How to Get the Whitest Polyester for Sublimation
For the brightest, most vivid sublimated colors, you want the whitest polyester possible. Here are some tips for sourcing white polyester fabrics and blanks:
- Look for “optic white” – Polyester described as optic white will appear brighter white.
- Avoid “pearl” or shiny finishes – The coating reduces whiteness.
- Get cotton-covered polyester – The cotton face provides a brighter white surface.
- Use polyester mesh or performance fabrics – Designed to stay ultra white even when wet.
- Find poly/cotton blend t-shirts – Around 60/40 blends maintain a bright white.
- Buy high quality brands – Better fabrics hold their white shade longer.
The best suppliers put intense research into developing the whitest polyesters. Top apparel brands also source high end fabrics designed to stay brilliant white. This extra whiteness leads to eye-catching sublimated prints.
Over time, laundering white polyester can cause it to lose whiteness and take on a dingy, yellowed tinge. Here are some tips to keep sublimated fabrics looking brighter for longer:
- Wash in cold water – Hot water accelerates yellowing.
- Use non-chlorine bleach – Chlorine can degrade fabric and affect whiteness.
- Add bluing agents – These offset yellowing and keep whites whiter.
- Air dry – Heat from machine drying also increases yellowing.
- Steam or wet iron – Helps restore lost whiteness and brightness.
Proper laundry practices make a big difference in extending the life of vibrant sublimated fabrics. Taking steps to preserve the whiteness will keep those colors popping for many washes.
Common Myths About Sublimating on Colors
If you’re new to sublimation, you may have heard some misleading information. Here are some common myths and misconceptions debunked:
Myth: You can only sublimate on white
Truth: You can sublimate on colored substrates, though the results may appear muted compared to white. Use adjustments like primers or printable HTV if you want vivid colors on darks.
Myth: Polyester has to be white
Truth: Polyester comes in many colors and can still be sublimated. But white polyester will produce the brightest, most accurate colored prints.
Myth: Sublimation doesn’t work on cotton
Truth: You can’t sublimate directly onto 100% cotton. But cotton-poly blends around 60/40 work very well. The polyester fibers absorb the dye.
Myth: You can only sublimate fabrics
Truth: Many hard goods like mugs, plates, phones cases, wood, and more can be sublimated with the proper polymer coatings.
When done properly, sublimation printing can work on more than just white fabrics. While the results may not be as vibrant as sublimating whites, there are ways to improve color rendering on colored substrates. With a bit of trial and error, you can discover how to get great looking sublimated prints on a variety of fabrics and products.