Troubleshooting Faded Dye Sublimation Transfers
Dye sublimation is a popular form of digital decoration partly because it produces vivid color and very soft transfers. No other form of garment decoration produces an image that feels softer than a sublimated transfer.
But occasionally, that very softness can turn against you and make your normally vivid transfers look pale and lifeless.
When this happens, you can check all the boxes–certify the correct temperature, press time and pressure—to no avail. Customers are waiting and orders are piling up.
What to do?
Before we reveal the solution, it’s important that you understand the process.
Dye sublimation is done by sublimating ink causing it to become a gaseous dye that permanently stains polyester molecules. Sublimation is the change from a solid or liquid to a gaseous state. It happens in nature every day, even to rocks. That’s how we smell things. We detect the vapors given off by solid or liquid objects. Dye sublimation printing harnesses this process. When the ink and paper reach 400°F, the ink sublimates and becomes a dye that permanently bonds to polymers.
The amount of time required varies depending on the item being dyed. While polyester apparel can by sublimated in 35 seconds, it can take four minutes to dye a ceramic tile. So for something like Champion Performance Wear, you’ll generally get a vivid transfer on white shirts with the standard 400° at 35 – 40 seconds. So what’s going on when the same process produces faded prints? Most are tempted to blame the printer, the ink, or the heat press. But the answer lies elsewhere.
The problem is in the polymer coating itself. Referring back to the recommended press times for ceramic tiles and polyester garments gives us a clue. Ceramic is much harder than fabric so it generally takes much longer to sublimate. But remember, we’re not actually staining the ceramic itself, but the polymer coating that’s been applied to enable decoration. The softer that polymer coating is, the more quickly it opens to the dye and allows the sublimation process to begin. And that’s where the problem is.
Some items coming to market have softer than normal polymer coatings. According to well placed industry source, some polymer-coated mugs being imported from Asiahave coatings so soft, the transfer paper melts into it during the heat press cycle. Not good. The same is true of polyester apparel. Perhaps in a bid to match cotton for its trademark softness and comfort, some manufacturers are turning out polyester garments that are so soft, the standard settings don’t work. It’s a good thing if your customer wants a really soft garment. Not so good if you can’t decorate it properly.
Fortunately there’s a simple solution. Sometimes less is more, even in chemistry. If you’ve been getting good transfers from your Hanes or Vapor Apparel shirts and you start seeing this consistently faded output, just reduce the temperature. We tried this recently with a batch of Vapor Apparel shirts. Normally, we get brilliant transfers from these garments by sublimating them for 40 seconds at 400°. When we started getting consistently faded images, we backed it down to 390° for 30 seconds and Voila—vivid color! If you’re experiencing the aforementioned mug transfer problem, try pressing at 340° for 30 seconds.
To reduce the possibility of confusing yourself or your staff, it’s always a good idea to start with the recommended industry standards. For polyester apparel, that benchmark is still 400° for 35 – 40 seconds. But, if you see a sudden drop in quality, you now have a simple solution. Less is more.