Transfer Printing—In this form of dye-sub, currently the most common form of digital dye-sublimation printing, the printer images on a paper that has a coating expressly designed to hold and then later on release (under heat and pressure) the printed image. After printing, the paper is brought into contact with the fabric in (or on) a heat press. The ink on the paper is then “gassed” directly onto the fibers of the substrate. This is the sublimation process where the solid colorant is converted into a gas to penetrate into the fabric. For chemical reasons, polyester fabrics are best-suited to transfer dye-sub printing.
Direct-to Fabric—The next step for dye-sublimation is to take the transfer paper out of the process, for fairly obvious reasons: it’s an expense and once transfer is complete it’s waste that needs to be disposed of. So a system that prints directly on the fabric is highly desirable. The problem, however, is that in order to do so, the fabric needs to be pretreated to accept the ink. Historically, pretreated fabrics were expensive and had inconsistent quality, but as dye-sub has taken off, substrate manufacturers have improved the consistency and quality of pretreatments.
In direct-to-fabric printing, the ink penetrates further into the fabric than with heat transfer. The result can be less vibrant colors and softer text and images, as well as more show-through on the other side of the fabric. This is why the number one application for direct-to-fabric dye-sub at present is flags, where a high level of show-through is desired. At present, duplexing with dye sublimation printing is impractical, and for two-sided printing, you often need to print the second side on a separate piece of fabric and then sew or otherwise attach it to the first side.That said, a lot of development is going into direct-to-fabric—both on the equipment/ink and the substrate side—and many of its limitations are starting to fall away. This is one area to keep close tabs on.
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