Printing on apparel opens up vast opportunities for customization. Almost every design or cute message you’ve admired on a t-shirt or onesie is a product of decorative printing.
You too can customize apparel for your family, friends, and teammates, or venture into a business. But if you are drawn to this specific article, it is probably because you are unsure of which method to go with between sublimation and vinyl.
What is the difference between sublimation and vinyl? The difference between sublimation and vinyl as decorative methods is that sublimation embeds ink on a substrate while vinyl is a special melted plastic film. Sublimation tends to last longer without a finishing layer.
This is just the main difference, but there’s more to the two printing methods. You can look at the supplies needed to begin, the products you can and cannot print with each style, the design’s longevity, and other differences.
If you are a beginner, this post will be an eye-opener for you. We discuss sublimation and vinyl to the core, so you can be fully informed before investing in either.
What Is Vinyl?
Vinyl is a smooth, flexible type of polyurethane used in decorative printing techniques. The vinyl is cut out into the desired design using a cutting machine.
It is then transferred onto the fabric and heated using a heat press or iron. The heat melts and fuses the vinyl with the material.
What Is Sublimation?
The scientific definition of sublimation is the process whereby a solid turns directly into a gas skipping the liquid stage. Through a similar process, an image is printed onto a special paper known as sublimation paper.
The printed sublimation paper is then transferred onto a substrate and heated using a heat press. The dye fuses with the substrate and is then cooled back to a dye now embedded in the fabric.
Both vinyl and sublimation are fantastic ways of adding some flair to items and even personalize them.
Product And Design Possibilities
We are sure you already have tons of creative ideas you want to try out. But before hopping onto any of the methods, it is critical that you analyze them further. There are significant differences that affect the design and products you can print.
You also need a variety of supplies to get you started. It is important to know what financial implications each has and whether it is within your budget.
Also, because one method utilizes ink and another polyurethane, the durability is likely to vary. Both sublimation and vinyl are print methods, but the different processes limit certain colors designs and even products one can print on.
You probably already have in mind the images or artwork you will want to produce and what you would like to print them on. However, the method you choose may limit your creativity. Let’s start with sublimation.
As mentioned earlier, sublimation involves ink transfer. The ink transferred is, however, fusible only with 100% polyester or polyester lined products —sorry to burst your bubble, cotton lovers. Still, it is widely used on other non-fabric substrates like ceramics, tiles, glass, etc.
Another drawback is that sublimation is limited by the color of the fabric. It is only bright and visible if you use a white or light-colored backdrop.
Therefore, if you are thinking of all the lovely dark cotton onesies and dark-colored t-shirts you will decorate, sublimation will not work for you. You can only get results with polyester or a poly blend that has a high percentage of polyester in it, and it has to be light in color.
Vinyl, on the other hand, is not fussy with materials. It will fuse with almost any material thinkable, natural or synthetic. The possibilities of products you can get creative with vinyl are limitless. However, it has its own hitches.
First, you cannot mix colors in one print. If you want a multi-colored design, it means cutting, placing, and heating the different colored vinyl sheets separately, which is just tedious.
Also, you can’t get too dramatic with the artwork. You can only print a solid continuous block or silhouette, not complex graphics.
Conversely, sublimation allows the transfer of full-colored, photo-realistic images. It can be as complex as you wish and in any color under the sun.
Equipment And Supplies Needed
You’ll need a different set of machinery and supplies for each of these decorating methods.
For vinyl printing, you need:
- Vinyl sheets or rolls
- Vinyl cutters like Cricut, Cameo, or Silhouette
- Transfer paper
- Heat press machine
- Weeding tools
For sublimation, you need:
- Sublimation printer
- Sublimation paper
- Heat press machine
These aren’t a lot of items, right? In fact, if you already have some of them, it will significantly decrease your start-up expenses.
But for those looking to start out from scratch, the cost will determine the method your pockets are more comfortable with. Let’s consider the major items in each case.
A heat press machine and a vinyl cutter are the budget inflators when working with vinyl. The price range will depend on the quality of the machine, but you can get a decent quality hobbyist heat press machine and vinyl cutter for $250 each, give or take. My favorite heat press machine is this one.
Switching gears, a sublimation printer is the major capital investment in sublimation. It can be as low as $500 and as high as $1,500. There is also the heat press machine, which we had already estimated, to add to that.
The other consumables are not expensive. Well, except for when you need to replace the special ink on the sublimation printer.
Clearly, sublimation costs a lot more to start from scratch than vinyl.
Well, both vinyl and sublimation are relatively easy to execute. You only need to learn how to use a vinyl cutter for vinyl and a sublimation printer for sublimation.
It is more of learning how to set them up, including drawing or uploading artwork, scaling the image, and then cutting or printing.
The steps involved are nearly the same; printing or cutting the design, transferring to the fabric, and heat pressing. Vinyl has an additional step of weeding out.
A printer, cutter, and heat transfer machine are pretty straightforward and not hard to use. Even better if you’ve used them before on other projects or know someone who has.
Trust us; it is not rocket science. The learning curve is low and fairly smooth for both of them.
Lastly, you need to know how vinyl compares to sublimation with regard to the longevity of the results.
Before sidelining sublimation due to hefty costs, you must analyze the quality of both decorations and how long they last. This is especially critical if you are making gifts of sentimental value or products you intend to sell.
You need them to last and, so how do vinyl and sublimation compare?
If you use high-quality vinyl, it will produce fantastic quality results. The final print is usually flat, like part of the surface, yet you can still feel the outline of the design on the surface. The specific part is also a bit weighty on fabric.
It lasts long, but this depends on how well and often it is cared for. Vinyl will, unfortunately, crack and peel eventually like any other plastic since it is a superficial layer. However, if you are adding your vinyl design to a tumbler, mug, or similar object, you can also add some kind of finishing layer over it like a varnish, CrystaLac, or resin to keep it sealed in.
Sublimation infuses ink into the weave of the fabric, becoming one. It is practically impossible for the artwork to peel, crack, or deteriorate regardless of the number of wash cycles in the product’s lifetime. You can’t separate the ink from the fabric. Therefore, sublimation beats vinyl hands down in terms of the durability of the final product.
Which One Should You Use?
Having provided an overview of vinyl and sublimation, it should be easy to decide on the path to take. Simply weigh the pros against the cons.
Let’s go over them pretty quickly.
- The startup cost is reasonable
- Unlimited products to design
- Block or silhouette designs only
- Not very durable, cracks and peels
- Underwhelming color diversity
- Print any design, even real-life images
- High quality and durable results
- Use restricted to polyester products
- High on investment
- Light-colored fabrics only
If you are low on budget and want to explore design on a wide range of products, and durability is not a priority, go with vinyl. It is the best for hobbyists. If you are adding your vinyl design to a tumbler, mug, or similar object, you can also add some kind of finishing layer over it like a varnish, CrystaLac, or resin to keep it sealed in.
However, if you wish to cast your nets wider and play on commercial ground, produce high-quality products in unique colors and unrestricted designs, and don’t mind working with polyester or coughing up extra capital, go with sublimation.
The decision is now in your hands. Hopefully, this post has helped you see things much clearer, and you can now decide between sublimation and vinyl without hesitation.
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