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Sublimation Transfer vs Vinyl: Which is Better?

Let’s deep dive into sublimation vs vinyl! What are the differences between sublimation printing and using heat transfer vinyl?

Probably the two most popular ways of customizing shirts or other apparel nowadays are by adding a sublimation design or heat transfer vinyl design cut with a vinyl cutter.

There are definitely big differences when it comes to using sublimation prints verse iron-on vinyl that you cut with a cutting machine, so I thought I’d dedicate a post to helping you decide which technique is for you and when to use what!

sublimation vs vinyl

So What is Sublimation Process?

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

But you can’t just use any regular printer or any base material. Sublimation requires specific sublimation ink (I use Hippoo brand), sublimation paper, a heat source, and either a converted inkjet printer or a specially designed sublimation printer.

sublimation printer vs vinyl

I use a converted Epson Ecotank printer because it is the most budget-friendly and I find it easy to use. The printing methods will differ depending on the printer, so make sure to understand how your specific printer works.

Among crafters, the best sublimation printers that are recommended are Sawgrass Sublimation color printer (on Amazon here), Epson Workforce, and converted Epson Ecotanks (putting sublimation ink in a brand-new printer).

sublimation vs vinyl

You are also not limited by designs. You can print out any picture or 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 such as a shirt, fabric, mug, bag, phone case, etc, and creates a seamless design from seam to seam when high temperatures are added.

diy sublimation puzzle blank

BUT you can’t just use any blank. These sublimation products have a type of poly coating that the sublimation dye sublimates into.

There is a huge variety of sublimation blanks including tumblers, mugs (sublimation mug tutorial here), cups, puzzles, mouse pads, pillowcases, key chains, ornaments, hats, and more! Check them out in my Amazon storefront here.

sublimation tumbler using press skinny glass tumbler

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.

Note: There are some workarounds on sublimating on cotton including using a sublimation spray or sublimation fabric sheets.

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

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.

sublimation vs vinyl fabric

Sublimation on dark fabrics requires different techniques to be used because regular a sublimation transfer will not show up well on a dark shirt.

A heat transfer paper for dark fabrics is usually needed which sits on top of the garment. Angie Holden has a great video on sublimating dark fabrics if you would like to know more!

So sublimation also differs from using heat transfer paper and printable vinyl. I used to make my husband Father’s Day shirts with my kid’s hand-drawn designs on them by printing them on transfer papers and then using a regular iron to adhere them to the shirts.

shirt with heat transfer paper

The transferred design will sit on top of the garment and will fade over time. I have shirts going back 13 years and you can barely tell what was on them anymore!

Make sure to check out my post all about sublimating on shirts for more info.

Start-up Costs of Sublimation

To get started with sublimation you’ll need a few tools and materials. 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)
  • butcher paper and Teflon sheet to help protect your press from getting ink on it

Using Heat Transfer Vinyl

Now let’s take a look at using heat transfer vinyl AKA HTV or iron-on vinyl. Heat transfer vinyl requires heat and a certain amount of pressure to transfer a cut image to fabric or other base material.

The vinyl adheres but it sits on top of the fabric or base material. There is a thickness to it and you can feel it. Especially if you are doing a multiple-layer project, the vinyl can get pretty thick on top of the shirt (like my family’s Disney shirts).

Cricut Iron-on vinyl or Smart Iron-on is just what Cricut calls their brand of adhesive vinyl that needs to adhere with heat of a certain temperature. So heat transfer vinyl, HTV, and Cricut iron-on vinyl all mean the same thing!

cricut vinyl

Heat transfer vinyl comes in tons of different types including solid colors, glitter HTV, patterned HTV, glow-in-the-dark iron-on vinyl, holographic iron on vinyl, stretch, etc.

HTV has an adhesive that when heat is applied adheres to the base material. So you can pretty much use any type of material with HTV, it doesn’t need to be polyester. This is a huge advantage of using vinyl designs!

Unless you are ordering pre-cut iron-on vinyl decals from Etsy, you will need a Cricut machine or other cutting machine like a Silhouette Cameo to cut images out of the vinyl.

cutting iron on vinyl

As with sublimation, you’ll also need a good heat source such as a Cricut EasyPress, AutoPress, or heat press.

cricut easypress

If you are wanting to sell Cricut crafts or want shirts to last up through years of washing, I’d recommend investing in an EasyPress or heat press instead of using a home iron.

Grab our free printable EasyPress settings printable and check out this roundup of some fun iron-on vinyl projects!

htv on canvas
Iron on Vinyl on Watercolor Painted Canvas

Start-Up Cost for Iron on Vinyl

If you are already a Cricut crafter, you’ll probably have a good amount of supplies already but if not, you’ll need:

  • Cricut machine – Cricut Maker, Cricut Joy, Cricut Explore family, or other cutting machine ($120-350)
  • Iron-on Vinyl ($5+)
  • Weeding Tools ($7)
  • Cutting Mat ($7)
  • Heat Press Machine ($200-1000) – Heat press, Easy Press, or Autopress is recommended if you want the image to last a long time!
  • Pressing Pad (optional but ideal)
  • Telfon or another protective sheet to add that extra layer of protection for your expensive heat press!

Sublimation vs Vinyl Review

To sum up, adding either or both sublimation printing and heat transfer vinyl to your tool belt is a great way to make unique one-of-a-kind gifts or to even make a little cash by starting a side hustle!

But there are limitations to both:

Sublimation Pros:

  • The design is chemically infused into a blank so it should never fade or chip and there is no extra thickness to the material.
  • Not limited to a single color since you can print pretty much any detailed image or photo or pattern, etc.
  • Sublimation ink, paper, and blanks are relatively inexpensive.
sublimation blank onesie

Cons of Sublimation:

  • The initial cost of sublimation start-up can be expensive since you will need a dedicated printer and a constant heat source (you can not use a home iron).
  • Sublimation printers can dry out if you don’t use them for a while, especially the Epson EcoTank. I’ve had to replace one already since I couldn’t unclog it after not using it for 6 months! So if you get an EcoTank, make sure you print something every week or so to keep the ink flowing!
  • Have to use specific sublimation blanks that sometimes will cost more than just grabbing ceramic mugs from Dollar Tree and adding a vinyl decal.
  • Having to use light-colored garments and polyester material (for most cases).
diy cricut leather bookmarks
Iron on vinyl on leather

Iron on Vinyl Pros:

  • Can use on any fabric like cotton or and on a large number of base materials like wood and faux leather.
  • Can use on any color of fabric including a black shirt and pillowcase.
  • If you already own a vinyl cutting machine, start-up costs are not much.
  • Lots of different kinds of vinyl like glitter, holographic, sparkle, mesh, etc to add texture and depth to images.
  • HTV is relatively inexpensive.

Cons of using HTV:

  • Possibility of vinyl cracking, peeling, or fading at some point after numerous washes or if not washed properly.
  • Thickness to shirt since the vinyl sits on top (if you are in late 40s like me, sometimes that extra thickness can make you extra hot, loll!)
  • Limited to color and type of vinyl you are using.
  • Layered vinyl doesn’t always match up perfectly since the first layer shrinks a bit.
  • Weeding can be time-consuming and hurt your wrist.
weeding iron on glitter vinyl

Well, I hope this comparison of sublimation vs vinyl gave you some idea of the main difference between the two and which one might be a better option for your next project.

They both have pros and cons and are so different, that ideally if money and space aren’t a factor for you, I’d recommend trying both!

I love having the option to do either method depending on the final project I am going for!

If you’d like to save this sublimation and vinyl comparison post for later, simply hover over the image below and PIN it now.

vinyl vs sublimation

Thanks for stopping by and have a creative day!

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