Screenprinting or Sublimation Printing?

This is something that we get asked a lot, what is the difference between screenprinting and sublimation printing? And which is better?

They’re both great printing methods, but here we’ll explain how each one works and hopefully answer any questions that you might have.

Screen Printing

This technique has historic origins from the Song dynasty in China, and was introduced to Europe in the 18th century. It’s pretty much common and can be carried out manually if you have the right tools. Over the years, the equipment used for this kind of printing has been modified, with better machinery taking over manual methods and giving way to the use of multiple screens; a technique that allows efficient printing of multiple colours or allows multiple wears to be printed on, in lesser time. 

Although these advancements make screen printing more efficient, the mechanism remains the same, with the only variations pertaining to the mix of ink colours needed for the design.

The Fundamentals of Screen Printing

In Screen Printing, designs are printed on your wears when the inked mesh of a screen touches your wear/cloth momentarily, under the slight force of a squeegee or blade. It sounds abstract but we will go further to break this down. Basically, the acting elements in this technique are:

  • The ink:

 This can be of any colour, chosen by the customer for the printing. Sometimes, it can be a combination of different ink colours or types of inks.

  • The Screen:

This is a frame with a mesh stretched over it. The mesh has traditionally been silk but more recently, polyesters such as nylon are used.

  • The Squeegee or blade:

This is a tool with a flat rubber blade, used to spread the emulsion and ink over the screen.

Before the press action, some preparations are done. This is basically preparing the screen for press action. Requirements for the pre-press process are:

  • Prepared Emulsion
  • The screen
  • Ultraviolet light
  • Squeegee
  • Transparent film bearing a dark tint of the design
  • A fan

Preparing the Screen:

In this process, the prepared emulsion is scooped onto the screen and spread thin with the squeegee. Think of it like applying butter to your toast and then spreading it thin. This initial step sets the screen up for stencilling. You may not understand what that means but we will explain that soon. The thin film of emulsion is allowed to dry on the screen (this is usually quickened with a fan or can be done with sunlight).

The next procedure is stencilling. Here, the prepared design (the transparent film bearing the design) is laid backwards on the screen (The essence of this, is to produce a negative image on the screen). The film is taped to the screen and a glass support is laid over it, providing pressure that allows the negative image of the design to be imprinted on the screen. This set up is allowed under ultra-violet light for some time. Because the design is printed in a dark tint on the film, the ultra violet light does not penetrate the areas under the design and as such the emulsion on all other areas of the screen hardens except for those areas. These “soft” areas allow ink to pass through and imprint on clothing. The other hardened areas block ink; this is called the stencil.

After this, a soft brush and water is used to wash away the emulsion, leaving an imprint of the design on the screen. Now, the screen is ready for printing!

The Printing Action!

Before the prepared screen is used, the sides of the frame are taped, leaving a secluded area bearing the design. Manually, the screen is clamped down on to the material or clothing to be printed on.  The chosen ink or prepared ink is spread across the top of the design and the squeegee is used to spread it thin over the design.  The ink only passes through the soft areas of the stencil (the soft areas taking form of the design), leaving a print of the design on the fabric underneath.

Screen Printing Could Be Best for You

  • If you’re looking to carry out some bulk printing and in a short while, then sublimation printing would be highly impractical. Sublimation printing takes up a lot of time and at a higher expense. The modified screen printing press allows usage of four screens at a time, quickening the pace of printing and favouring bulk work.
  • This technique is friendly to most types of garments. Cotton is a fan favourite for screen printing, especially smooth fabrics.
  • This technique is also capable of producing lasting prints that permeate the fibres of the fabric instead of sitting atop it (as is the case when using plastisol ink). To achieve this, water discharge inks are used instead.
  • If you’re looking to utilize a range of various effects, then this technique is for you. You can create 3D prints, foil designs, shimmer and shiny metal flakes. Sublimation printing easily produces detailed prints but without these effects.

Sublimation Printing

This method is also called Dye-Sublimation Printing. It cannot be done manually. Being a newer method, it can only be performed automatically with the use of machines. Sublimation occurs when a solid changes to gas without passing through a liquid phase. This is the exact working mechanism for this type of printing, and it can only happen under high temperatures between 300 to 400 Fahrenheit degrees, and high pressure, more reason as to why it is not done manually.

For the printing action to occur, the dye is first transferred onto sheets of paper, called the “transfer paper”. This is done through a liquid gel ink. Transferring of the dyes onto the sheets, is a process meant to capture the design and ready it for printing.  These sheets serve as a carrier for the designs to be imprinted on the fabric. 

Once these transfer sheets are ready, the next step is to place them on the heat press. It’s a part of the machine that carries out the sublimation process. Under that amount of heat and pressure, the gaseous form of the dyes bond with the fibres of the fabric tightly, and in so doing, leave a print of the design on the fabric.

Sublimation printing

Sublimation Printing Could Be Best for You:

  • The one word that defines Sublimation printing is “permanence”. If you’re looking for a print that will be infused into the fabric of your clothing and will be able to stand the test of time, you should consider this type of printing. There will be no cracking, fading or peeling of your print. Do bear in mind that this type of printing will cost you more but the price will be worth it.
  • If your fabric is polyester or a polymer coated fabric such as: acrylics, nylon, Polyamide ( PA), Poly Cotton, Poly Ether Ether Ketone (PEEK), Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), you should highly consider this type of printing. Your fabric is considered “sublimation friendly.” It is mostly best to consider Sublimation printing if your fabric is of soft texture. Sublimation printing is best for synthetic garments, producing high detailed prints.
  • If your fabric is synthetic and white, then this option is best for you. Sublimation prints are vibrant and highly legible on white of light-coloured garments.
  • If you’re looking to have a multi-coloured intricate design printed, Sublimation printing is best for you. Unlike screen printing, printing multi-coloured designs is never a hassle. A new transfer is simple printed to lay down a different colour. However, screen printing multi-coloured designs involve creating a new screen for each colour.

The method of sublimation printing though, is when garments are printed before they’re sewn together.

For example, rugby jerseys, or cycling tops, things like that, with full prints all over the garment. These are printed onto the fabric before they’re sewn together, and we can do that right here in Auckland. Contact Us for more details.