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Sublime Personalization

Sublimation has been a revolutionary development for imprinting personalized products. Dye-sublimation printing originated in the 1950s, but has only become widely used in recent years as computers became standard equipment and technology costs decreased.

Sublime Personalization


By Brian Stanley

(Originally published in the November/December 2021 issue of Insights.)


Photo courtesy of Sawgrass Inc.

Sublimation has been a revolutionary development for imprinting personalized products. Dye-sublimation printing originated in the 1950s, but has only become widely used in recent years as computers became standard equipment and technology costs decreased.

“We’ve seen a lot of expansion of sublimation, and I think that will continue,” said Jimmy Lamb, sublimation education manager for Sawgrass, Inc. “As the sublimators themselves find more they’re able to do, manufacturers increase what they make available because of the demand—which leads to further expansion.”


Photo courtesy of Sawgrass Inc.

Sublimation continues to gain popularity. “Each year there seems to be new sublimatable products introduced to the market,” said Gregory Kolenut, national sales manager at Marco Awards Group, which offers traditional polyester coated discs, key tags, name badges, clip boards, coasters, mouse pads, metal sheet stock, plaques, acrylics, mugs, and bottles—all of which can be sublimated. Marco’s customers also use a lot of fiber reinforced plastic, which is pre-cut into products such as such as luggage, license plates, and name tags.

George Privateer, content and media manager for Johnson Plastics Plus, has noticed a demand for trendy drinkware that can be sublimated, such as stemless wine glasses and skinny tumblers. He also has noted that unique home décor items, particularly those that have interchangeable inserts or are holiday themed, have been highly sought after by customers.

“Things are always evolving within the sublimation industry,” said Austin Weisenbach, sublimation specialist for JDS Industries. “More and more, we’re seeing traditional textile products made with polyester material. We continuously test new products. As far as our most popular products, Polar Camel tumblers remain atop the list. We don’t see very many diminishing products other than discontinued items that we’re no longer able to source from our manufacturers.”


There are some limits on what can be truly sublimated, where heat produces a chemical bond between the polymer and polyester, but many people are working around and challenging those laws of science.

“You can’t really sublimate to cotton or wood. The molecular process isn’t the same,” Lamb said. But manufacturers have created transfer papers that can hold to the surface like screen printing. Even if the ink hasn’t penetrated the material, surface-sublimated clothing can last through many washings.

And that’s not just for the traditional cotton T-shirt. Weisenbach said the biggest new trend he’s seen is sublimatable burlap. “It’s a polyester burlap material that sublimates very vividly. New this year is our burlap line of more than 35 products,” he said.


Photo courtesy of Sawgrass Inc.

Privateer said he has seen growing interest in larger format sublimation. “While the traditional desktop printers are still in-demand, customers are now coming to us looking to increase both their output and print size,” he said. Models such as the Epson F570 and Epson 6370 have been very popular, as well as the Sawgrass SG1000 and Sawgrass VJ628. These models offer varying print media, including cut sheets and roll-fed paper, and optional accessories such as stands or media take-up reels and baskets.

Weisenbach said Sawgrass printers have a new ink formula, and he’s noticed more vibrant color compared to the previous models.


According to Privateer, the pandemic led to significant growth in sublimation as a home-based business. Many customers used it to supplement lost income during shutdowns and expanded to creating personalized face masks and hand sanitizer holders.

“Those projects grew into other personalization items like mugs and shirts, and now many of them have full-fledged businesses,” Privateer said.

Lamb agreed that the pandemic expanded sublimation, which can really be done with just “a printer and a kitchen table,” and will have some long-term effects.

“I think a lot of crafters have been coming into sublimation. These are very much do-it-yourself people who start challenging the so-called ‘rules’ in ways that those of us who’ve been around for a while haven’t thought of,” Lamb said.

“Sublimation is a decoration process that few end-users are familiar with,” Weisenbach said. “You will notice a high perceived value with products such as metal prints and apparel that has no touch or feel, for example. Sublimation offers instant full-color design. Many of our customers are able to offer quick turnaround with a full-color design for their customers who want just one or two items.”


Kolenut also feels silk screening is most economical in large quantities, but sublimation is a great option for smaller orders. “The setup of screen printing makes it expensive to process a small order,” he explained. “Not true with sublimation. With sublimation, you just need a beautiful design, print it on a transfer, and apply heat to the substrate one at a time, if you wish. Sublimation is not inexpensive, though less expensive than other types of full color decoration. Our customers are looking for lower costs for sure.”

Kolenut said many customers also use UV printing to decorate products with full color, yet the machines in that process are often large and expensive. “With full-color sublimation, you can achieve great results at a fraction of the cost,” he said.

“In the old days we used to joke that sublimation was only good for mousepads and coffee mugs,” Lamb said. “Now the manufacturing of blanks for sublimation has exploded, and papers and ink suppliers have expanded. Every dealer has some basics and also tries to have a few products no one else has.”


“In order to sublimate, you need heat. A heat press that is either flat or cylindrical is the means to apply the heat and create a perfect result. So any flat or round product can be sublimated today as long as it is polyester or polyester coated,” Kolenut said. “It would be really interesting to be able to sublimate on surfaces that aren’t flat or cylindrical. We hear there are a few people testing the technology— more than likely a little expensive.”

Lamb believes the next revolution in sublimation will be if someone figures out how to sublimate vivid colors directly into dark-colored garments without requiring white ink or sublimated vinyl on the surface.

“Our customers are looking for ways to sublimate dark colors, but it’s not possible yet,” Kolenut said. “Other types of transfer printing, using white, is the only economical solution to printing on dark or black substrates—especially apparel.”

“People also want to be able to easily put their own polymer coating onto products,” Lamb said. “That magic spray would be great. Coating can be done now, but there are a lot of variables that affect the images, and with a clear coat, you can’t easily see how well you’ve covered it. The look of the sublimation may not be the quality you need.”

“I’d say at this point, keep looking rather than investing into trying your own coatings. There are over 1,000 sublimatable blanks in the marketplace. You can find something that won’t jack the cost up so high you aren’t making any money,” Lamb said.

Awards and Personalization Association

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