Heat Transfer vs. Sublimation: Choosing The Right Print Method - Ninja Transfers

Heat Transfer vs. Sublimation: Choosing The Right Print Method

Jul 07, 2023Tom Golubovich

Facing the decision between heat transfer and sublimation for your next project or business? Your Transfer Sensei is here to sort out the differences. This in-depth guide compares each method's unique features, benefits, and challenges, equipping you with the insight to make an informed decision on your pathway to a mastery of print techniques. Let's begin.

Table of contents

Understanding heat transfer printing

Heat transfer is a versatile method of imprinting a design onto various materials through a combination of heat and pressure. Initially printed onto a different medium (vinyl, paper, or film), the design is transferred to the final product by applying varying degrees of heat and pressure, usually with a heat press machine.

The beauty of heat transfer printing is its diversity. The term encompasses a variety of techniques, including heat transfer vinyl or HTV (cut vinyl or printed vinyl), heat transfer paper (inkjet, laser, or sublimation), screen printed transfers (plastisol ink), and DTF (Direct-to-Film transfers).

Each variation has its unique features, advantages, and limitations, offering users a broad range of options to achieve their desired results. Dye sublimation printing, also known as "dye-sub” or just sublimation, stands out with its distinctive properties and results.

various types of transfer printing using a heat press

Heat transfer vs. sublimation: What's the difference?

Dye sublimation is a form of heat transfer printing, but its process and outcomes place in its own category. Similar to other heat transfer methods, sublimation uses heat and pressure. But its unique process transforms solid ink into gas during the heat pressing, bypassing the liquid phase and permanently binding the ink to the material.

This ability to achieve vibrant, photo-realistic, and ultra-durable prints is what sets sublimation apart, along with the capacity to do "all-over" print on apparel (using large, advanced printers), However, its application is less versatile compared to other heat transfer techniques: it only works on light-colored polymer-based surfaces.

Types of heat transfers

The various materials used to heat transfer print each offer unique benefits and outcomes. They cater to different needs, enabling the creation of a vast array of designs and applications.

Heat transfer vinyl (HTV)

Heat Transfer Vinyl, often abbreviated to HTV, is a specialized vinyl used to imprint distinct designs on an assortment of items. It comes in two primary forms: cut vinyl and printed vinyl.

Cut vinyl

Cut vinyl is typically used for single-color designs and is primarily used for lettering and numbering. To employ cut vinyl, a design is carved out of the vinyl using a specialized cutting machine, such as a Cricut or Silhouette. Then, utilizing a heat press or an iron, the design is transferred onto your chosen material.

  • Pros: Cut vinyl is durable, versatile, and available in a wide variety of colors and special FX like glitter and foil. It is cost-effective, affordable, and a good choice for creating bold, solid color designs on any color item or fabric.
  • Cons: Cut vinyl is not great for intricate designs. It also tends to sit heavier on fabrics, which can affect the comfort and wearability of the end product. Using cut vinyl requires a cutting machine, an additional cost, and there can be a learning curve for beginners.
  • Best used for: Good for one-off designs, small batches, or personalized items such as t-shirts, tote bags, or hats. It's a popular choice for creating names and numbers for uniforms or team wear, thanks to its durability, bold colors, and official look.

heat transfer vinyl letters and numbers

Printed vinyl

Printed vinyl, a variant of HTV, offers a solution to the single-color limitation of cut vinyl. You can create full-color prints with printed vinyl and expand the design possibilities.

  • Pros: Printed vinyl enables the use of full color, photographic prints, and gradients in designs. Can be used on any color garment and almost any fabric type.
  • Cons: Often requires 'weeding', a process of removing unwanted vinyl from a design, which can be time-consuming and complex, particularly for intricate designs. Similar to cut vinyl, it sits heavier on fabrics, which can affect comfort and breathability, especially large designs.
  • Best used for: Projects requiring small quantities of multi-colored designs.

Pro tip: With the emergence of Direct-To-Film transfers and self-weeding laser transfer papers, the use of printed vinyl is declining. The newer technologies offer more versatility, higher quality and avoid the cumbersome weeding process, making them more efficient for a wider range of projects.

Heat transfer paper

Heat transfer paper offers a range of options in terms of printing techniques. It involves printing a design onto specially coated paper, then transferred onto the fabric using heat. The simplicity and the ability to use standard printers make it a popular entry-level option.

Different types of heat transfer papers are available, including inkjet, laser, and sublimation paper. (Sublimation is covered later in this article.)

  • Pros: The overall advantage of heat transfer paper is its affordability and ease of use. It doesn't require any specialized equipment beyond a printer (inkjet or laserjet, depending on the paper) and a heat press or iron, making it highly accessible for beginners or small-scale operations.
  • Cons: Heat transfer paper can lack durability compared to other heat transfer methods. Designs may fade or crack after multiple washes. Additionally, certain types of heat transfer paper can pose challenges when used on dark garments, limiting their versatility.
  • Best used for: Heat transfer paper is ideal for DIY projects, crafting, and small-scale production. It's excellent for easily creating personalized apparel, mugs, and other items.

For an in-depth guide on different heat transfer papers, including sublimation, we recommend checking out our comprehensive guide to heat transfer paper. For further instruction, including pro tips and troubleshooting, read our step-by-step guide on how to use heat transfer paper.

Screen print transfers

Screen Print Transfers are a unique combination of the vibrancy and color accuracy of traditional screen printing with the versatility of a transfer system. Rather than applying ink directly onto a garment, designs are screen printed onto a specialized heat transfer paper and adhesive powder. Once dry, it can be stored and is ready to be transferred onto the fabric using heat when needed.

  • Pros: Same pros as screen printing. Vibrant colors, durability, and the ability to accurately match Pantone colors–a key selling point of traditional screen printing. Versatility comes into play, as a large batch of transfers can be printed and stored for application to different items as needed. This speeds up the process and reduces waste, especially for recurring designs.
  • Cons: Requires the creation of screens for each color in the design. This can be time-consuming and costly, particularly for complex, multi-colored designs. Also, like traditional screen printing, there can be challenges holding details and getting smooth gradients.
  • Best used for: Getting a traditional screen printed look and feel. They're also beneficial for situations where a large quantity of the same design is needed, such as concerts, corporate events, or team sports. Since they can be stored, they allow for print-on-demand of multi-color screen prints, which is typically not feasible.

Direct-To-Film (DTF) Transfers

Direct-to-Film (DTF) is a revolutionary method in the realm of heat transfer printing that melds the best of digital printing and heat transfer processes, using specially made inkjet printers, DTF ink, and PET film. Two crucial steps that set DTF transfers apart are a layer of white ink underbase printed along with the colors, followed by applying a hot melt adhesive powder. The transfer is heat pressed, and the film is simply peeled away.

  • Pros: Vibrant, full-color designs with exceptional detail on a wide variety of fabric types, including dark and textured materials. The ability to print full color, including white, makes it an excellent choice for complex, multi-color designs. Minimal setup work makes it a cost-effective solution for small runs or individual orders, with outstanding durability and flexibility.
  • Cons: It has a unique hand, which for large continuous prints, feels like a thin, stretchy vinyl layer on the fabric, which may limit the garment's breathability. For printers, the upfront cost for DTF equipment can be significant, particularly for high-quality printers and inks.
  • Best used for: Projects that require intricate, multi-color designs, especially in smaller quantities. Excellent when you need to print the same design on a wide variety of fabric types and other materials. Starting a print-on-demand business with low overhead by ordering pre-printed transfers to press at home or in your shop.

DTF transfer peel away

Understanding sublimation printing

Sublimation printing is a specialized print method that utilizes heat to transfer dye materials such as polyester and other synthetic fabrics or materials. This technique offers a range of unique advantages that make it distinct and highly valued in the printing industry.

How sublimation works

In the simplest terms, sublimation is a scientific process where a substance changes from a solid to a gas, without ever becoming a liquid. Dye sublimation printing harnesses this science with a specialized ink that can undergo this transformation.

The process involves printing designs onto special sublimation paper using sublimation ink. When heat pressed, the gaseous ink coats the polyester fibers or poly-coated surface. As it cools, it reverts to a solid state, essentially dyeing the fabric or material.

Pros and cons of sublimation

  • Pros: The process yields high-definition, vibrant, full-color prints that are resistant to fading or cracking. Due to the nature of the ink's fusion with the material, the prints are exceptionally durable, sometimes outlasting the fabric they're printed on. Sublimation has the best "hand" of any printing technique. There is no raised surface, sublimation prints are as soft and smooth as the original texture of the material.
  • Cons: The primary drawback is its limitation on polyester fabrics or poly-coated items. This factor narrows the range of applicable products. Also, sublimation prints do not show up well on dark or colored substrates, meaning it only works on light-colored (ideally white) materials. Print details  and edges are not as crisp compared to other heat transfer methods, because the nature of the process.
  • Best used for: Full-color, photographic designs on light-colored polyester fabrics or poly-coated hard surfaces. It's a popular method for creating vibrant and long-lasting prints on a broad range of products, from apparel to ceramic mugs, mouse pads, key chains, and other promotional items.

example of an all-over print

What is all-over printing?

A unique feature of sublimation is its capacity to create 'all-over prints.' This refers to a continuous design that covers the entirety of a garment, even reaching over seams and edges. This is achieved with industrial-size printers and heat presses. Both sides of the garment are pressed at the same time. 

All-over printing has gained significant popularity, allowing designers to create immersive prints without spatial limitations. This capability has unlocked a world of creativity, making sublimation printing an alluring choice for those wanting standout designs.

large-format sublimation printing



To guide you further in your journey of choosing the right printing method, we've gathered and answered some of the most common queries about heat transfer and sublimation printing techniques.

What is a sublimation transfer?

A sublimation transfer refers to the process wherein a design, printed using sublimation ink onto specialized sublimation paper, gets transferred onto a substrate - either a polyester-based material or a poly-coated item. The application of heat transforms the ink into a gas, which then impregnates the substrate, culminating in a vibrant, lasting print that can cover the entire surface of the item.

What's the difference between sublimation and vinyl?

Sublimation and vinyl, specifically Heat Transfer Vinyl (HTV), are distinct heat transfer printing techniques. Sublimation involves the transformation of ink into gas under heat, which then integrates into the fabric to render a vibrant, enduring print. It's perfect for detailed, multi-color designs on light-colored, polyester-based substrates. On the other hand, HTV requires cutting out designs from sheets of vinyl and adhering them to a material with heat. This method is ideal for creating bold, simple designs across a wide range of fabric types.

Can sublimation ink be used on heat transfer paper?

No, sublimation ink is specifically formulated for use in sublimation printing. It necessitates the use of sublimation paper or direct printing onto a polyester fabric or a poly-coated item. If you attempt to use sublimation ink on regular heat transfer paper, it could result in subpar outcomes and potentially harm your printer or heat press.

How long does heat transfer vinyl last?

Heat Transfer Vinyl (HTV) is generally durable and capable of lasting for around 50 washes or more with proper care. However, its lifespan can fluctuate depending on the vinyl's quality, the heat application's precision, and the care provided during the washing and drying processes. It's always advisable to adhere to the manufacturer's instructions to guarantee your HTV prints' maximum lifespan.

heat transfer vinyl and glitter vinyl


Heat transfer vs. sublimation: Which is better?

Our exploration of heat transfer methods illuminated their flexibility and ability to create detailed, vivid prints. However, the print quality, hand feel, and durability are largely determined by the technique used and chosen materials. Dye sublimation stands out with its unmatched durability and color vibrancy. However, its potential is limited to light-colored, polyester materials or poly-coated items.

So, which is better? It comes down to your unique needs. Sublimation is the clear winner for vibrant, permanent designs on polyester or poly-coated items. And for "all over" prints, it stands alone. But if your project demands versatility across various materials, or you're working with a tighter budget or smaller scale, heat transfer techniques–particularly DTF–is the way to go.

As we conclude this match-up between heat transfer vs. sublimation, your journey in the world of heat transfer printing continues. Armed with the insights from this guide, you're equipped to make wise decisions. When it's time to bring your creative vision to life, Ninja Transfers is your trusted ally, providing top-quality DTF transfers to unleash your potential as a transfer ninja.


transfer sensei

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