Sustainability in the Fashion Industry
There are many ways to add a design to your garments. There is screenprinting, dyeing, special washes, laser treatments, embroidery, burn outs and appliques. The technique I want to explore more on is dye-sublimation printing. 

What is Dye-Sublimation

Dye-Sublimation is the simplest form of imprinting a design on a garment. The outcome of the design is photo quality and very simple to do. All you would need is the garment, transfer paper and dye ink.

How the printing works is through the process of sublimation. Sublimation is the chemical process of turning a solid into a gas without it becoming a liquid first. So with dye-sublimation, it's basically turning the ink into a gas, fuse it with a polymer and then turn it back into a solid.

So the process starts with buying the needed equipment and software you see on the right. Once you've uploaded the image to the sublimation printer, you place your garment in it and print the image. Then you take the garment and put it in the heat transfer machine and heat press the garment covered with the sublimation paper. This turns the ink that was printed onto the garment into a gas and then it fuses with the garment and becomes a solid once again. As you see, the downfall to this process is the ink can only fuse to polymers, meaning only synthetics. So you can not print on garments that are made with natural fibers, such as 100% cotton shirts. But you can use it on a poly/cotton blend.

Also, it is very difficult to print on dark colored shirts. However, it is possible using dye sub dark. Dye sub dark is a polyurethane transfer sheet that is white one color and once the design is printed onto it, it is heat transferred to the garment. This process isn't that great compared to usual process of dye-sublimation. The reason being that over time, through multiple washes, the design starts to fade and crack. So the best thing to do is print on lighter color garments.

What's also amazing about dye-sublimation is it isn't just for apparel. You can practically do it on anything (made of synthetic materials). A lot of products created for branding, like coffee mugs, pens, bags, etc. can be printed on fairly easy and for cheap too!

Resource 1: About Dye-Sublimation
Resource 2: The Dye-Sublimation Process
Resource 3: Dye-Sublimation FAQ

Small Scale

You can do dye-sublimation at the comfort of your own home. All you would need is a computer, the software (usually CorelDraw or Photoshop) and a printer (Epson) that allows you to print on garments. You can buy the dye-sublimation inks from any website and if you don't have a heat transfer press, you can just use an iron but must place a teflon coated protective sheet on top of the garment while heating the garment after printing. The video below shows how you can easily do this at your home in a matter of minutes. A little setback is these printers usually run on CMYK so the color choices are limited and the quality is not superb.

Large Scale

Dye-sublimation is usually done large scale. The printing presses are usually huge; the size of newspaper printing presses. And with the size of these machines, you can use millions of colors, unlike the Epson printers used for small scale printing. One benefit with this large scale printing is it saves in costs. Compared to the multiple screens needed to screenprint a design, only one huge sheet of paper is needed to print a design to multiple garments. Also, when these designs are heat pressed with their huge heat pressers, the results are vibrant and the design will never crack, peel or fade. Screen printed ink is known to do this so dye-sublimation is a much better alternative.

Some benefits of large scale printing is:
  • You can create front, back, and complex all-over print designs.
  • You have an unlimited color palette choice.
  • You can't feel the print at all.
  • Some cool multi-layered sublimation effects can be done like Tattoos, tie-dye effects, and asymmetric designs.

As you can see in the video below, the process of large scale sublimation printing is fairly easy to do. The machines can do multiple garments at one time and it prints in minutes. This can save a lot of time compared to the single garment printers used for small scale orders.

Chemicals used

The main chemical used in dye-sublimation are dye-based ink. They are harmful and safe to use. An advantage of dye-based inks is they are better than pigment-based inks because they can produce more vibrant colors on any given surface. However, a disadvantage is they tend to bleed so that is why the use of the heat transfer comes into play so it immediately turns the dye back into a solid.

The printers usually use CYMK so usually a minimal amount of different dye inks are used.

Resource: Dye-Sublimation Inks

Environment and Safety Issues

There isn't really any environment and safety issues of concern. Read Impact to the Worker & Environment

Special Procedures

The only procedures to keep in mine with using the dye-sublimation process is to remember you can only use synthetic fibers or a blend of synthetic and natural fibers. Also, the dyes must be heat pressed after printing to completed the bonding process. Without completing this step, you can ruin your design by accidentally smearing it.

Impact to the Worker & Environment

What is great about dye-sublimation is how it's safe for the environment and the worker. Dye-sublimation is the most environmentally friendly, sustainable process possible in garment printing and production. It produces ZERO waste! Because the process involves turning a solid directly to a gas, there is no water needed for dyeing. Compared to screen printing where mass amounts of water is consumed to dye which results in polluted water wasted and ground contamination, dye-sublimation creates zero water waste.

Paper is needed to during the heat transfer process but their are companies, such as Simsotex, that uses farm grown trees to supply the paper they use. So you can always use recycled paper and recycle the paper after use.

The only concerns to the worker is during the heat pressing stage. When the garments are pressed, steam is created and you may breathe in whatever chemicals were in the dye inks. As you can see in the video posted above of the Simsotex factory, the workers are not wearing mask so it is fairly possible this might happen. As of now, there have been no urgent reports of workers complaining of any ill effects from the dye-sublimation process. Also, the handling of the dye-inks are safely secured so there are no inhaling of chemicals or any direct-to-skin contact with the dye-inks.

This process is perfectly safe!

Resource: Social Responsibility


After researching the process of dye-sublimation, I was quite surprise to find out environmentally friendly the process was. I never knew that it was a direct solid-gas-solid process unlike the liquid inks used in screen printing. I like this process a lot better. It seems so much easier then screen printing, a lot cheaper and since it has zero water waste, I think this is the best way to go in regards to creating graphic designs for tees. I also love the fact you can do this in the comfort in your own home. It's nice to know that I have don't have to operate a huge factory and start off large scale to start my own company. I can start large scale in the back of my garage and that's a great feeling and has made me more optimistic in creating my own graphic tee company someday!