Heat Transfer Vs. Sublimation

Heat transfer is a common process you can use to transfer a design onto fabric. It’s actually a broad definition of a process since many methods of design transfer can use heat, but most people use the phrase to refer to heating a design to attach the it to a larger medium. Sublimation is a form of heat transfer but specifically references a set of scientific conditions and processes. Since both methods are capable of completing the desired effect, you should know their subtle differences in order to choose the best option for your project.

What is Heat Transfer and Sublimation?
Heat transfer via transfer paper is a process where a design is put onto transfer paper with a mix of wax and pigment, mirrored so that it applies correctly when placed. You then apply heat to the back of the paper and the heat activates the wax and pigment on the transfer paper to leave the hot, smooth paper and adhere to the cooler, rougher surface of your art project. You can then peel off the paper and see your design on the surface. This is essentially melting your design on top of your art project surface.

Sublimation is a specific process that references an objects’ phase transition from solid directly to gas, skipping the liquid phase. Using this process, you would still heat your design, but upon heating the ink would become gaseous and infuse into the medium. After removing the heat source, the gasses would return to the solid state, permanently fused with your art project.

How to Choose?
Depending on your project, you can navigate the pros and cons of each method to find the perfect fit for your application. Some of the most common concerns are durability, cost, and versatility. It’s important to know how your project will be used to choose the best transfer method.

Sublimation allows for permanent designs since the design will be fused with your project. The design is embedded into the medium, which translates to a consistent feel and protection from machine wash cycles, bending, and general usage. Heat transfers add another layer on top of your project which can make it susceptible to cracking or may create an inconsistent feel or presentation.

However, heat transfer is the most cost-effective since its process is easier to follow and doesn’t require any specific conditions to work. Heat transfer paper and supplies are accordingly priced to be more available to the public.

Since sublimation depends on the design fusing with the original medium, you will be limited to lighter polyester-based items that will accept the sublimation process without distorting any colors or rejecting the gasses during transfer. Depending on the type of art project, this could be a non-issue or extremely limiting. Dark colored fabrics or cotton fabrics will require the heat transfer method. However, sublimation can be completed on many hard-surfaces as long as the surface is poly-coated and will accept the chemical process.

Bottom Line
Both sublimation and heat transfer are equally useful methods to transfer designs onto your art projects. These methods are often confused due to their similarities and it is a disservice to all they can offer when properly understood. Now the differences can be utilized to select the right method to make the best product for any craft situation; happy crafting!