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Screen Printing T-Shirts or Sublimation Printing T-Shirts: Which to Choose?

1st Nov 2017

What is Screen Printing and Sublimation Printing?

Screen printing and dye sublimation printing are the two most popular t-shirt printing processess we offer at Teesnow. Screen printing is an analog process where ink is physically pushed through a fine mesh stencil via a squeegee onto the t-shirt being printed. The ink forms an opaque layer which colours the garment. Sublimation printing is a digital process where ink is first printed onto special transfer paper which is then heat pressed onto the garment being deocrated. The heat from the heat press turns the dried sublimation ink into vapour, the vapour penetrates the garment being printed and when it cools down it colours the garment.

Factors to Consider choosing between Screen and Sublimation

Order Volume

For large volumes screen printing pricing is lower. Once the screens are made and the job registered on the screen printing press, printed t-shirts can be produced very efficiently and cheaply. The per unit cost of screen printing 1 t-shirt is very high but the 1000th t-shirt costs next to nothing. Screen printing has large economies of scale whereas there are none for sublimation printing. The per unit cost of sublimation printing is constant. The first t-shirt costs the same to produce as the 1000th one. Dye sublimation is time consuming, material cost per print is high, and is labour intensive for large orders. Small orders, choose sublimation printing. Large orders, choose screen printing.

Substrates: Versatility and Limitations

Screen printing is a very versatile process, allowing you to print on virtually any garment with the proper inks and additives. Cotton, polyester, nylon, fleece etc can all be printed by screen printing. Dye Sublimation only works on synthetic garments or polyester. Cotton and other natural fibres cannot be dye sublimated. Sublimation is further limited to light or white coloured garments. Sublimated prints will not be visible on dark t-shirts whereas screen printing can be used on garments of any colour.

Job Setup

With screen printing t-shirts, each colour to be printed requires its own screen. For multicolour designs, multiple screens need to be made and aligned to each other to produce the final design. For high colour counts and tightly registered designs, it is not uncommon for the preparation and setup time to be longer than the actual printing time. With sublimation printing we do not have to worry about lining up separate layers of coloured ink to produce the final design. The inkjet printer prints all the colours of the design out in perfect registration everytime. Dye sublimation also allows you to customise individual designs, eg name and numbers on team uniforms. Customisation is not an option for screen printing.

Intricate Designs

Both screen printing and dye sublimation are capable of reproducing fine details and photorealistic images but such prints are infinitely easier with sublimation printing. With sublimation printing the printer prints out the transfer just like a regular photograph. The number of colours and alignment is not an issue. Screen printing photorealistic images is an art form. Choice of mesh, thickness of stencil, colour gamut of ink set used, the skill level of the person doing the colour separation etc are all factors which affect the final print. If any of this is wrong, the screen printer has to start from scratch again. High intricate colour designs are easier to print with sublimation printing.

Speciality Printing

Sublimation printing just prints colour. If you require speciality effects such as glow in the dark, colour changing prints, puff, crackling effect, glitter, foil or metallic ink, screen printing is the only option. Sublimation printing is limited to the cmyk colour gamut. Screen printing with the right colour mixing system can hit almost any PMS colour. For corporate logos which require a specific PMS colour, screen printing is preferred.

Comfortable Lasting Prints

Both screen printing and dye sublimation t-shirts can produce prints with a soft hand feel. Dye sublimation ink by nature permeates the substrate material, so the final print has no noticeable weight, you cannot feel the print, leaving you with a comfortable garment. Soft hand can also be achieved with screen printing via water base or discharge ink but you usually have to request this from your local screen printer as the majority of screen printers (including us) use plastisol ink for most jobs for production reasons. In a mass production workflow, plastisol ink is easier to work with. Plastisol ink leaves a layer of ink sitting on the top of the garment. Both methods, when properly executed will produce long lasting prints that will not crack or fade after multiple washes.

Both screen printing and dye sublimation printing are versatile methods for garment decoration. Long run and low colour count designs are suited for screen printing. High colour and intricate photo realistic designs are suited for sublimation printing. Send us an email or give us a call and we will advise you on the optimal printing method for your next project. Alternatively submit a quote form.