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Sublimation VS Screen Printing (What YOU Should Know!)

Let’s take a look at sublimation vs screen printing! What are the differences between sublimation printing and the screen printing process and which one is the better option?

Over the past few years, there definitely have been a lot of new ways to create high quality shirts and other personalized decor for the home hobbyist. 

 There are so many different crafting techniques out there, that you might be wondering what technique is my best option for getting professional looking results??

In my last post we talked about sublimation vs heat transfer vinyl, but today we are going to look at another fun and popular method of making permanent shirts – screen printing and how it differs from sublimation!

sublimation vs screen printing

First, let’s take a look at what the different printing techniques are.

So What is Sublimation Process?

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links from Shareasale, Cricut, Awin, and I receive a small commission at no cost to you when you make a purchase using my links (purple text). As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

For reference, the process of sublimation printing is a chemical process of transferring sublimation dyes to a transfer sheet to make sublimation prints.  The printed images are then imprinted or “sublimated” into textiles or other compatible materials by adding heat.

You need to use a special printer to transfer the designs onto the special transfer paper.

Sublimation requires special inks called sublimation ink (I use Hippoo brand), sublimation paper, a heat source, and either a converted inkjet printer or a specially designed sublimation printer to print the high-quality prints.

sublimation prints vs screen printing

A huge bonus to sublimation is that you are not limited by simple designs. You can print out any picture or digital image with a ton of different colors to add to a light color background on sublimation paper.

The sublimation ink from the sublimation paper actually infuses into sublimation blanks (can’t just be any blank) such as a shirt, fabric, coffee mugs, bag, phone case, etc, and creates vibrant colors from seam to seam when high temperatures are added.

4th of july sublimation can

When it comes to fabric, tote bags, or shirts, the higher the polyester of light-colored fabrics the brighter the ink will come out. You can use most light-colored polyester shirts or shirts with high polyester fabric to other material ratios to make sublimation shirts.

There is no thickness to the sublimation transfers since it actually embeds into the poly surface of the material. In essence, Infusible Ink transfer sheets are sublimation sheets that have already been printed.

polyester sublimation

The heat transfers are full-color and pretty permanent. There is also no cracking or peeling of sublimation images.

Read all about how to get started with sublimation here!

Start-up Costs of Sublimation

To get started with sublimation you’ll need a few tools and materials. You don’t need a Cricut to sublimate.

The biggest price points are going to be the printer and heat presses:

  • Sublimation Printer (price range from $200-1000)
  • Sublimation Ink ($30)
  • Sublimation Paper ($20)
  • Heat Press that can sustain constant pressure at a high temperature ($200-1000) – either EasyPress, Autopress, Heat Press, mug press for mugs, tumbler press for tumblers, or hat press. You’ll want flat surfaces and a heating pad to ensure even pressing and pressure.
  • Sublimation Blanks or Polyester shirts (white color will give best results) – check out all my favorite sublimation supplies on my Amazon store here!

What is Screen Printing?

Now let’s take a look at how screen printing works. Screen printing uses a mesh screen and specific transfer ink or fabric paint to transfer the inked image onto a substrate like cotton t-shirts.

A squeegee is used to move ink or paint across the screen mesh allowing the paint to move through the mesh holes that are not blocked to penetrate part of the fabric or material. Learn more about the process here.

screen printing vs sublimation

So screen printing is not technically printing in the sense you need a printer. You actually don’t use a printer at all.

The ink or paint does sit on top of the fabric (it’s not infused like sublimation), but if the screen printing is done right and is heat set after, the shirts will last a long time without fading or peeling.

For home crafters, you’ll need an electronic cutting machine like a Cricut machine to cut the simple designs out of adhesive vinyl. If you are wanting multiple colors, you’ll need to add them separately in different layers.

screen printing with mesh screen

One of the huge pros of screen printing to make shirts is that you are not limited by the type of fabric. You can use your favorite cotton shirt (unlike sublimation) and any color shirt you want!

You can also use the same mesh set up multiple times. So it’s great for bulk orders of custom t-shirts or other merchandise.

When I made matching cruise shirts for the ten of us that went, I was able to use the same screen print for every shirt without any problems! It was great!

screen printing on shirts

A quick rundown of the screen printing method

You can find the full step by step picture tutorial and video on my screen printing shirts post here.

  1. Cut the image you want to add to your medium out as a mirror image. Apply transfer paper to the stencil and scrape down.
  2. Weed the parts of the vinyl that are inside the image since we are using the vinyl as a stencil.
  3. Peel off the paper backing and center on the top of your screen frame. Place down and scrape. Then turn it over and scrape it well. Remove transfer tape.
  4. Cover the edges of the vinyl with painter’s tape.
  5. Place wax or parchment paper inside the shirt.
  6. Center the frame and words on the shirt and dab a line of speedball paint across the top.
  7. Use the squeegee to spread it down evenly. Pick it up and spread again 2-3 times. Make sure all of the letters are filled.
  8. Once the paint is fully dry (2-3 hours), you need to heat set the paint. Place a protective sheet over it and iron both sides on high heat for 3-5 minutes each (no steam). Do not wash for 5 days.

As you can see, there are quite a few steps and the setup time (and clean up!) definitely takes a lot of time in comparison to sublimation printing, but once the initial setup is done the process itself goes fast on large orders or a number of items.

Start-up Costs of Screen Printing

In comparison to sublimation, the start up costs of screen printing are pretty small if you are already a Cricut crafter and own a vinyl cutting machine and heat press, Autopress, or EasyPress.

Sublimation vs Screen Printing

With these two most popular methods there is not one main difference. You can see that the process of both, the additional cost to get started, and the supplies needed are both very different. 

With the sublimation technique, you can use so many different designs with all sorts of colors as long as they are high-quality images, but you are limited by your base material (high polyester or sublimation compatible blanks).

With screen printing, you are more limited in your screen-printed designs (simple is better for home crafters), but you can make a bunch of the same project in a short amount of time and the start-up costs are not that much.

So it really depends on what you are wanting to accomplish with your fabric printing. 

Myself, I prefer sublimation since I don’t tend to make a bunch of the same item. I like having the option of being able to print whatever I want and it not taking a ton of time to set up.

BUT I don’t like being limited to the base materials I can use, so it definitely is a trade-off and it’s so nice to have both techniques in my wheelhouse!

I hope that answered some of your questions on sublimation vs screen printing! What is your favorite?

Thanks for stopping by and have a creative day!


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