What is the difference between screen print transfers and sublimation?

When it comes to customizing promotional merchandise like t-shirts, bags, or hats, the choices can be overwhelming. Nowadays, there are many printing techniques available, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Two of the most popular techniques are screen print transfers and sublimation?

Sublimation vs. screen printing: what are the differences

  • Print quality and durability

Sublimation printing produces exceptional print quality by allowing precision fine lines and vivid, sharp details in multiple colors. The embedded coloring in fabric fibers ensures the colors won’t wash out easily and won’t crack or peel, making the print durable and long-lasting.

Screen printing delivers exceptional quality prints with vibrant and sharp colors. It may not support multicolored designs like photographs, but if your design requires one or a few colors, screen printing should be your top choice. It’s worth noting that screen-printed ink doesn’t sink into the fabric as it does with sublimation. The more colors printed on the garment, the thicker the print will appear.

Screen printing is less durable over time compared to sublimation printing. Frequent washes can cause the ink to crack, and peel off and the colors can also fade because the ink merely sits on top of the garment in screen printing.

  • Print complexity

Sublimation printing is capable of supporting a wide range of design complexities. Detailed patterns, gradients, colorful artwork, and digital photos can be easily printed.

Screen printing is an ideal method for creating bold designs that use one or few colors. When it comes to designs with multiple colors, simple artwork works best, and it’s best to avoid using gradients as they are tricky to print. Keep in mind that if your design contains gradients, it may not come out the way it looks on your screen.

  • Number of colors

Sublimation is a process that allows for the use of multiple colors in designs and gradients. It is typically used on light-colored fabrics, so any white areas in the design will be left blank on the fabric.

Screen printing works best with one or a few colors, as each color must be printed separately, which takes additional time to complete the garment. However, screen printing is suitable for use on various fabric colors, which can be leveraged effectively.

  • Special effects

Silk screening is a technique you can use to add creativity to your designs. With glitter, specialty inks like gold or silver, or cracked or cork textures, you can create eye-catching artwork. You can also make use of different types of inks to add varying effects.

Sublimation printing utilizes the four primary colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) to print all designs. Though, it doesn’t support specialty inks and add-ons like glitter, which is better achieved through screen printing.

  • Fabrics and materials

Sublimation is a printing technique that is best suited for printing on light-colored polyester, polyester blends, or fabrics coated with polymers. It is also suitable for materials that contain nylon, spandex, neoprene, and lycra, amongst others. However, when it comes to cotton, heat transfer printing is better adapted to synthetic fabrics.

Sublimation can be used to print designs on ceramic, enamel mugs, and cork-backed coasters, while screen printing is better suited for printing on cotton and cotton blends, with ink that adheres better to fabric fibers. Silk screening is commonly used for paper printing but can also be used to print on metal, wood, and plastic with specialty inks.

  • Eco-friendliness

Sublimation is an eco-friendly fulfillment method that minimizes overproduction by creating products on demand. The ink is non-toxic and eco-friendly, while its dye transfer technique saves water compared to other methods.

Printful’s all-over print products are crafted in-house, minimizing waste during production. By repurposing leftover fabric scraps into scrunchies and headbands, the company takes steps to reduce fabric waste as much as possible.

Screen printing requires bulk orders for better pricing, which might lead to excess inventory and environmental waste in cases of poor sales. Screen printing mostly relies on plastisol inks that are toxic and not biodegradable, but some suppliers offer water-based inks that are eco-friendly. Customers should research suppliers providing eco-friendly inks.

  • Quantity 

Sublimation printing is highly versatile and suitable for printing both small and large quantities of items, making it a popular choice among dropshipping companies. This printing technique is easy to use, allowing you to print as many or as few items as required.

Screen printing is ideal for bulk orders as each piece is printed manually using stencils customized for your design. Therefore, it’s advisable to place a larger order of at least 25 pieces to benefit from the better pricing per garment available for bulk orders.

  • On-demand fulfillment

Sublimation is a favorable choice for on-demand fulfillment because it allows customers to order even a single item. Conversely, screen printing is not a popular technique in on-demand production. For instance, Printful produces your order only when you receive it if you offer all-over print products or other sublimated items. However, if you want to sell screen-printed products by bulk, it will be more cost-effective. That way, you can ensure that no stock remains unsold.

  • Upfront investment

Printful offers a smart solution for selling sublimated on-demand products without requiring upfront investment. With Printful, your stock is never at risk: your products are only fulfilled when a customer orders them. You receive payment from the customer, forward payment to Printful for the item they requested, and keep the profit margin.

When utilizing screen printing, an investment in products often needs to be made prior to their sale. This is due to the requirement of paying upfront for bulk orders. It’s important to note that this can result in your money being tied up in stock, which may not all sell. If you are forced to discount items in order to sell them and move your stock, you will see a reduction in profit.


At the end of the day, the choice screen print transfers and sublimation ultimately depends on your specific needs and preferences. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option that works well on cotton and polyester, screen print transfers might be for you. If you want vibrant colors and a wide range of fabric options, sublimation might be a better fit.

Whichever method you choose, make sure to work with a reputable printing company that can offer guidance and expertise throughout the process. With a little know-how, you’ll be able to create custom promotional products that look great and last long.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is sublimation printing better than screen printing?

A: Sublimation and screen printing are two distinct printing techniques, each offering unique advantages. Sublimation is the preferred choice for printing on polyester fabrics and achieving seamless, all-over coverage of the garment. Additionally, sublimation produces detailed designs with vibrant colors, making it the better option for complex artwork.

Q: Can you sublimate on dark colors?

A: Sublimation is a heat transfer printing method mainly used on light-colored fabrics. While sublimation on dark colors is possible, it involves a prolonged process and could yield undesirable results. It requires that a white base be sublimated on the dark fabric before the design can be printed on top.

Q: Do you need a heat press for screen printing?

A: Screen printing does not require a heat press to print designs. Instead, inks are applied to the fabric with a squeegee and then dried.

Q: Is screen printing more expensive than sublimation?

A: Screen printing employs a stencil to apply ink to the substrate, costing less and requiring less specialized equipment. It is less expensive than dye sublimation, though the prints are not as high quality.

Q: Can you use sublimation on cotton?

A: To sublimate designs onto fabric, a minimum of 65% polyester is recommended. For optimal results, use a white polyester T-shirt, such as Cricut’s. While a poly blend shirt can be used, note that the design may not retain its vibrancy after washing.

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