When printing custom apparel on natural fibers there are several methods to choose from, but when it comes to printing on 100 percent polyester or poly blends – it gets a bit tricky. Polyester is a synthetic, man-made polymer often referenced to as polyethylene terephthalate. While this synthetic fiber is most commonly used in industries like fashion and sportswear, it’s becoming a popular request for custom print jobs (the fabric is durable, doesn’t wrinkle and can handle vibrant designs).
Two of the most popular methods for printing on polyester include screenprinting and sublimation printing. While both options can create a beautiful, finished garment – there are situations in which we’d suggest using one method over the other. To consider these, we’ve broken down the basic process of printing on polyester or poly blends for both techniques, and their pros and cons.
Screenprinting on Polyester and Poly Blends
When it comes to screenprinting on polyester, there are two distinct challenges: dye migration and shrinkage. When polyester is heated to a temperature above 360°F the dye of the fabric turns gaseous, causing the ink to “migrate” from the garment into the screen print ink – creating ink discoloration. Also, when heat is applied to polyester fabric it can cause it to shrink or burn. To get a clean design and proper outcome, we’ve listed a few pertinent tips:
Use a high-tension mesh screen with thin thread, and make sure to set an off-contact distance about 1/16-inch for uniform application.
Know the temperatures associated with the ink used to properly cure the garment, without causing sublimation. Generally, polyester is cured at temperatures below 320°F.
While screenprinting is more labor intensive in general, it still provides many benefits!
Factors to Consider
Screenprinting can be a better option on many occasions, but it also has its drawbacks. We’ve listed the pros and cons to consider below:
- Screenprinting is more cost efficient for large volume orders
- You can use light or dark garments to print on
- Specialty inks can be used for 3D prints
- Works well with simple designs
- Cracking and peeling of the printed design is common over time due to the ink sitting on top of the fabric
- You can only apply one color at a time
- It would be very difficult and time consuming to recreate a photorealistic image
Sublimation Printing on Polyester and Poly Blends
The process of sublimation is still relatively new, but is quickly becoming one of the most popular methods for printing in the custom apparel industry. Dye sublimation utilizes two steps.
First, the graphic is printed onto special sublimation transfer paper as a mirror of the original design. Next, the transfer paper is placed in the heat press with the garment for about 20-30 seconds, anywhere between 380°F-400°F (depending on the poly blend garment used). During the sublimation process the fabric is dyed by using heat-sensitive ink, that when exposed to extreme temperatures, turns from a solid to a gas – permeating the fabric. As it cools, the dye resolidifies becoming a part of the fabric itself, rather than sitting on top.
Sublimation can only be done on polyester or poly blends with at least 50% polyester, because only the poly yarns will retain the ink (poly blends will create a vintage look). While sublimation is only used on polyester fabrics, dye migration and shrinkage can still occur if the process is not done correctly.
Factors to Consider
When trying to decide if sublimation printing is suitable for the job, take a look at these pros and cons:
- The process uses the CMYK color model and can reproduce any amount or combination of colors (and can even print all colors at once!)
- Photorealistic images require no additional set up, and can be printed with high-resolution detail
- All over seam-to-seam printing
- Not cost efficient for large orders
- Can only be used with light fabrics
- Areas around seams and arm pits may not transfer 100 percent
- Can only create flat prints
To decide whether screenprinting or sublimation is the better option for the print job, look over the design and garment request, while keeping in mind the pros and cons above. If the order involves a dark garment, you’ll have to go with screenprinting. If the customer wants a small volume order including a design with a variety of colors, sublimation is probably the better route.
Does your business often print on polyester? Let us know which method you use in the comments!
S&S Activewear offers many high-quality, polyester and poly-blend apparel perfect for printing (such as the Bella + Canvas Women’s Slouchy Tank)! Browse all your options for your new fulfillment order on our website.