The Difference Between Screen Print and Sublimation

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Screen Print  vs Sublimation

The difference between screen print and sublimation ultimately depends on the purpose and available resources, why you will choose one over the other.  Are your designs colorful and intricate?  Or they are just simple and less complicated.  Do you need to print many or just a few?  

You should read this to learn how to put those intricate and colorful designs from your head onto your shirt.  What is the best printing technique? Is it screen printing or sublimation printing?

Both sublimation and screen printing are popular techniques that are still the go-to printing processes these days.  Traditional screen printing has been around in the 1900s, while sublimation in the 1950s.  If you ask if screen printing technique or sublimaton is the best, we cannot answer without exploring their differences first.

The Impactful Difference of Sublimation vs. Screen Printing

Screen Print and Sublimation

Sublimation printing or Dye Sublimation printing is a technique that applies a heat press to transfer a design onto a fabric specifically polymer-coated fabrics.  The transfer paper is printed with solidified inks, and when the ink gets hot enough (through the pressing machine), it vaporizes into a gas.

This gas or vapor transfuses the fibers of the garment and creates an impressive design that’s vibrant and a photocopy of the design you have conceived and printed onto the transfer paper.

On the other hand, screen printing, serigraph printing, or silk screening has been used longer than sublimation.  Using a squeegee, you press ink onto a t-shirt, and the ink guided by the design stencil and, passes through a silk screen gets in contact with the fabric.

The Equipment

Screen Printing process involves a lengthy process, a silk screen, a squeegee, and a detailed screen print stencil.

Sublimation printing uses a heat press, sublimation printer, and transfer paper.

The Fabric Fibers

Not all t-shirts can be sublimated or silk screen printed with fantastic print quality. Some shirts absorb the ink, screen-printed transfers, or sublimation prints.

Today, there are screen printing techniques that indeed produce high-quality results.  With these fabrics, your screen print transfers will undoubtedly be successful:

Cotton and Cotton Blends

Cotton is said to be the best fabric for screen printing because of its capability to absorb ink and it is comfortable to use.

However, it doesn’t mean that cotton is perfect because its prone to wrinkles and shrinkage.  Plus, it cannot absorb moisture making it less attractive to athletes and sports enthusiasts.  Who would want to feel sticky on a hot day?

Fabrics From Animal Fibers

Fabrics from animal fibers may also be used for screen printing, although they are not frequently used because of environmental reviews.


Silk can be printed on but since it’s extremely smooth it cannot absorb color well.  Once printed on, it tends to give a more pastel, lighter color.


Wool is thick and absorbs color well although you would imagine how hard it is to get the color into all those fibers.

Synthetic Fabrics like nylon and polyester

A Polyester fabric comes from the family of synthetic fabrics.  Screen Printing work can be challenging with synthetic fabrics because they do not absorb color well.  Plus they’re so stretchy that screen printing works only with a special printer using special ink.

100% polyester, like athletic shirts, because of their capability to absorb moisture are screen printed by professionals.  Truly, it is a challenge to get them working right and they are not advisable for newbies.  It takes experience and knowledge about the shirt’s construction.

 Screen Printing: Oldie but Goodie

screen printing

With screen printing, the image is transferred from a design stencil onto a screen where the ink is then squeezed to penetrate its holes and mimic the shape of the stencil.

Screen printing has been around long before sublimation printing was born, approximately 50 years interval.  Still, screen printing is one of the most popular printing techniques.  Why?  Here are the advantages of the screen printing process.

With screen printing, you’ll need the following materials:

Design Stencil

The design that will be printed on the shirt will come from the stencil which is created on polyester mesh screens.  It will define the art to be printed.  The stencil has a part that’s sollid and won’t allow the ink to pass and an open area- the part where the ink adheres to and will be embedded onto the fabric.

You may also use ordinary paper and tape to hold the stencil on the screen.

screen printing

Photo from Canva

Screen Printing Ink

screen printing ink

Top-view of plastisol inks for t-shirt printing

Photo from Canva

Screen Printing Ink is usually water-based, which was recently discovered, and plastisol, which was already used decades earlier.

Note that there are two main types of ink for screen printing: (1) plastisol ink and (2) water-based ink.  These two types produce different results.

The printing process and chemistry of water-based is much different than plastisol. With any water-based or discharge water-based ink the pigment actually integrates or soaks into the fabric.

Screen printing is best for cotton t-shirts.  However, t-shirt printing is not easy especially if you want multiple colors to show on your shirt’s design.

The Advantages of Screen Printing

Can print large volumes

Screen printing is best if you intend to print large volumes of shirts.  For most crafters, screen printing is the best because they can produce large volumes using the same design stencil.

Versatile and Simple

Screen printing is versatile as it can be used for different fabrics- cotton, cotton blends, and polyester.  Because it can accommodate most fabrics, it is the favorite for uniforms, sports apparel, and most shirt printers.

With screen printing, you just need a stencil to transfer a design to the shirt through the mesh screen.

Have a Wide Range of Screen Printing Specialty Inks

With screen printing, you can also choose from a wide range of screen printing inks.  This printing technique allows you to create special effects like three-dimensional and foil designs, which can both be screen-printed.

Specialty inks like gold or silver may be used to create interesting textures or head-turning graphic designs.

sublimation printing

Photo from Canva

The Disadvantages of Screen Printing

Only One Color Printing at a Time

The screen printing process only allows one color printing at a time, so, it is impractical to reprint when you wish for more screen-printed designs and colors on your shirt.

Can Be Messy

Screen printing can be messy with the ink manually or digitally splashed onto the garments.  Inspiring or complex screen-printed designs with multiple colors may be achieved with this printing method.

Screen printing takes  more than just having the right materials, it must foremost have the right moves.

Sublimation Printing: The Game Changer

sublimation printing

Sublimation printing uses sublimation ink and paper using a compatible sublimation printer.  The digital image is printed onto a special transfer paper and thereafter, high heat is used to transfer the dye into the garment’s fibers.

But more than that, it has these characteristics that make it supreme compared with screen printing.

The Advantages of Sublimation

Screen Print and Sublimation

Photo from Canva

Can Print More Vibrant Colors

Since it prints the design you have processed using a computer design software, sublimation can print with more vibrant colors.

Photo-Realistic Prints and Digital Photos

With sublimation printing, the images that you can transfer on the shirt are photo-realistic because they are digital.  When crafting your designs, you can use graphic designing software like Adobe Photoshop or Canva.

Uses Safe Ink and Less Water

A sublimation print uses non-toxic ink and less water than the other printing techniques.

Can Even Be Used on Hard Surfaces

Anything you can print digitally can be transferred to a garment.  In reality, the number of shirts you’re printing with a design determines whether sublimation or screen printing is the ideal printing process.

You can use sublimation on anything, even on hard surfaces.  You just have to treat these surfaces with polymer.  So, you can sublimate coffee mugs, signs, tumblers, etc.  The key to all these is the right type of heat press.

Maintains the Quality of the Fabrics

Sublimation printing maintains the quality of the fabrics like the performance of sportswear.  The sublimation dye applied to this kind of fabric will have the same quality, and does not alter the comfort the fabric gives the wearer.

Compared to sublimation-printed graphics, screen-printed jerseys fade faster depending on the printing process.  Between sublimation and screen printing, the latter can maintain the freshness and vibrance of your t-shirt designs.

Cost-Effective Method

Sublimation printing does not use screens because you can put it into a single transfer paper for every design you wish. With all colors embedded simultaneously, it is more cost-effective.  Remember that when you want screen-printed shirts, expect that you will be preparing not only one design stencil for more than one color.

Screen Print and Sublimation

Photo from Canva

The Disadvantages of Dye Sublimation

Costly Printers and Time Consuming

Sublimation printers are costly, as also the other materials and equipment needed to print your shirts successfully.

Since there will be many colors sublimation will process, and it takes more time to print shirts.

Works Best on White Garments and Polyester

Sublimation printing only works best on white or light-colored polyester.  

Sublimation only works on dark colors of fabrics containing less than two-thirds polyester.

Needs a Heat Press and Special Paper

Dye sublimation needs a heat press and through heat transfer or the sublimation ink won’t get into the fabric.

Sublimation also requires a transfer paper as the channel to transfer the ink to the fabric.

Limited Compatible Fabric

The sublimation printing process only works on synthetic  fabrics with a high polyester count and light in fabric color.   That’s why it is not best for pure cotton shirts.  It is compatible with sports uniforms or training gear as they are made from polyester.

Not Very Environment-Friendly

Sublimation printing produces wastes that cannot be recycled- thus not very environment-friendly.

Sublimation printing needs to undergo many processes, compared to screen printing, before producing the final output, that’s why it takes more time to do.

Printing Methods

The Printing Methods involved in designing through screen printing and sublimation

Let’s Go Digital Printing With Sublimation

With sublimation printing, the digital image is printed on a transfer paper.  

The transfer paper, with the image already printed on it, is positioned on the surface of the shirt where the design should be.  

Once the transfer paper is positioned, heat is applied thru a heat press or even just a common household iron.  But of course, a pressing machine will surely produce a high-quality result.

The heat will make the dye from the transfer paper, transfer onto the garment’s fabric fibers.

The vapor permeates the fabric’s fibers and embeds the design on sublimation blanks.

Let’s Value the Traditional

For those who are quite apprehensive about a digital go-to printing method that has changed the game, the traditional technique still works well.

How does traditional printing work?

A design will be created in a stencil, which is going to be the template the silk screen will hold and the guide for the ink that will pass through it.

There are different techniques of using this method:

  • You may use masking tape or vinyl to cover the areas      where you don’t want the ink to pass through
  • Some use light-sensitive emulsion to create a stencil developed in the same process as photographs.
  • Some paint the stencil onto the mesh by using screen blockers like lacquer or glue.


Frequently Asked Questions

Are there dangers from screen printing?

Both screen printing and sublimation have their setbacks, especially regarding health concerns, such as the following:

  • Some printing solvent vapors can make one dizzy when inhaled
  • These vapors can affect the central nervous system.
  • These inks used in screen printing can irritate the skin.
  • When exposed to inks for a longer time, it can damage internal organs like the liver and kidney.
  • Solvents and inks can irritate the skin and may cause dermatitis.

Are there dangers from a sublimation print?

An example brand of sublimation ink is Sawgrass and the company producing this gave out this statement in 2012:

Generally, sublimation inks are safe, even their fumes.  So, while you’re working on y our shirt, find peace in the idea that the fumes are not going to put your health at risk.

Why is screen printing not environmentally friendly?

Screen printing companies produce wastes more than just chemicals and inks that are not environmentally friendly and are not recycled.

  • Unused ink
  • Clean-up materials
  • Rags that are not disposed well
  • Empty containers
  • Used film
  • Cardboard boxes

Why is sublimation printing environmentally friendly?

Yes, sublimation printing is environmentally-friendly.  Why?

Because of the following reasons:

  • Doesn’t require using lots of water
  • Doesn’t require heavy machinery
  • Lot of options for recyclables

What is a light-sensitive emulsion?

In t-shirt printing, a light-sensitive emulsion is a liquid substance that generates an ink-resistant frame around a design, and it is typically sensitive to light.

What sublimation sheets can give quality prints?

TeckWrap has quality transfer sheets that ensure a 98% effective sublimation transfers.  Meaning, 98% of how your original design looks from your computer screen will be the design you’ll see once you’re looking at your sublimation shirts.

transfer paper
sublimation paper



TeckWrapCraft Sublimation Paper


  • Size:8.3"x11.7" x 100 sheets`1
  • compatible with inkjet printer with sublimation ink
  • print on the white side
  • apply for white or light-colored polyester ( cotton less than ≤30% and coated objects
  • fast dry
  • transfer rate ≥98%
Screen Print and Sublimation


Screen Print and Sublimation

Sublimation vs. Screen Printing: Now, what should it be?

Now that you have learned the different concerns about sublimation and screen printing, you’ll probably have come up with the decision of the discussed dye transfer techniques that appeal to you as you think of the t-shirts that are going to be your printed material.

Both screen printing and sublimation can be your go-to methods in printing shirts for business or even for your own pleasure.  You can create the graphic design you’ll put on it using any graphic design software, you’re comfortable with.  

When discussing sublimation vs. screen printing, our main considerations must be the purpose and the available resources.  Sublimation printing requires little set-up and is cost-effective for any order size.  When you compare this with other dye transfer techniques, the more you’ll realize that sublimation tops your decision.

Sublimation will give you more freedom to express your designs without compromising comfort and the environment.  The setback to this kind of technique is the printing of a new transfer sheet for each garment. Which can be time-consuming.

When we weigh down the pros and cons of sublimation vs screen printing we’ll find out that it’s a close fight.  One will overpower the other in some aspects.  Even when we talk about their weaknesses, which they both have, it’s really a tight competition.

Finally, though right now we may have our fave printing technique already, more so after learning about its pros and cons, there may be times when we will still have to resort to the other over our favorite.  It will sometimes be a matter of practicality over aesthetics.  Depending on our main purpose, both sublimation and screen printing will give us the printing quality that we need.

We may now print designs that rock!  How?  Sublimation or screen printing?  It’s up to you!

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