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Can You Sublimate on Colored Shirt? (+Easy Steps)

Sublimation is currently one of the textile industry’s favorite decoration methods for fabric. It’s easy, customizable, and durable. Unlike other printing methods that deposit dye on the surface of an item, sublimation printing embeds the dye into the material’s fiber making the design more durable. Besides fabrics, sublimation printing is used to decorate sportswear, bags, stainless steel, wood, and ceramics.

Recently, sublimation printing has become popular in small-scale and home crafts projects where people use it to repurpose or re-decorate daily-use items. Some simple sublimation printing DIY projects at home include making t-shirts, birthday or greeting cards, repurposing stainless steel mugs, and many more. Shirts are especially common because they are simple to use and decorate and have various decoration options you can use.

If you’ve been using sublimation printing to customize your shirts, you’re likely curious about sublimating on colored shirts. The truth is, you can sublimate on colored shirts but with varying results. Remember, sublimation dye embeds with the fabric’s fibers, meaning darker-colored shirts won’t give the best designs when sublimated on directly.

Still, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to ensure you have excellent results when sublimating on colored shirts. This post covers factors to consider when sublimating on colored shirts and the steps to sublimate on these shirts for the best results.

Why Sublimation Works Best on White or Light-Colored Shirts

As noted above, sublimation is essentially a dye process. Before sublimation begins, you’ll design and print an image on sublimation paper. After, you’ll use a heat press to heat the paper, turning the design into a gaseous form. The design then embeds into the fibers of the material you’re sublimating on. This means the gaseous dye particles combine with the material’s fibers to create a permanent design.

When the shirt is white or light colored, the sublimation dye will reflect better. However, when the shirt is colored or dark, the dye combination will be dull because there are two colors to reflect. This is especially true if the colors are close on the color chart, for example, red and orange. An orange design will reflect better on a white shirt than a red one.

Factors To Consider When Sublimating on Colored Shirts

Now that we’ve established you can sublimate on colored shirts, there are a few things to remember to achieve better results. These include:

The Shirts Fabric

Like standard sublimation, the shirt’s fabric will determine the results. Polyester is the best material to sublimate because its fibers are lightweight, airy, and absorb sublimation dye well. However, they are uncomfortable and not a great option for daily wear. If you’re not working with pure polyester shirts, consider those with a high polyester level, like 65%. Purely natural fiber shirts like cotton will not respond well to sublimation because natural fibers repel sublimation dye.

Your Printer

The type of printer you have or intend to purchase will determine the sublimation method you use for your colored shirts. For example, you may choose to use HTV instead of direct sublimation. In such a case, you’d need a printer compatible with various HTV types like glitter or glowing. Inkjet printers with sublimation dye capacity are some of the most common for small-scale and DIY projects. This is mostly because they are affordable and compatible with various types.

The size of your project also determines your printer. Small inkjet printers might work for at-home DIYs but aren’t appropriate for huge commercial projects.

The Size of Your Project

Like the printer, the project size will also determine the tools you need. For example, if you’re working on a few colored shirts, an iron box will be sufficient. However, you need to invest in a high-quality heat press for a bigger project.

The Design Color

Because you’re working with colored shirts, it’s essential to consider the design color you want to imprint. Remember, colored shirts don’t reflect a design well, especially when working with multiple colors. For best results, try using colors opposite each other on the color wheel so they are easier to see. Colors close together on the color wheel, like pink and red, seem to blend in during sublimation.

How To Sublimate on Colored Shirts

Here, we detail the steps to sublimate on a colored shirt:

1. Create Your Design

The first step is to create your design. You can use online sources like the free photo websites to find cool and fun images for your shirts. However, for a unique design, use online design software. Luckily, there are no limits to what you can design. You can use a funky quote, an image, a combination of an image and words, or anything else you like.

The main thing to consider when creating a design is the color. Remember, you’re sublimating on a colored shirt. Meaning your design should be darker than the shirt so it reflects.

Additionally, consider working with colors opposite on the color wheel so they don’t blend during sublimation. For example, even though red is darker than pink, the two colors are close and won’t reflect well. Instead, consider using pink with blue or another color like orange so the design stands out.

After creating the design, the next step is to print. Here are some factors to remember when printing a design for your colored shirt:

  • Use the highest image resolution so the final design is high-quality and clear.
  • After designing, ensure you mirror the image so it appears correctly on the shirt you’re sublimating on.
  • Check your printer settings to ensure the size and quality are accurate.
  • Check the sublimation paper’s size to ensure it’s not too small or too big for the design. Ideally, it should leave a few inches of paper after printing.

2. Cut Off The Edges

After printing, the next step is to cut off the sublimation paper’s edges. Even though sublimation paper doesn’t transfer onto the shirt, ensuring you cut off the blank edges is good practice. First, the blank edges could absorb ink, taking away from the actual design. The other problem with the edges is they cause alignment problems, especially when working with smaller designs.

Ensuring accuracy is essential when sublimating on a shirt; edges can sometimes disorient the size. For example, if you place a design centrally, the edges will feel like part of the design. After sublimation, the design can appear higher or lower than it should be.

3. Use a Lint Roller on The Shirt

Next, run over the shirt’s surface with a lint roller to remove dust or lint. A lint roller is essential because it prevents you from permanently pressing dust and lint particles onto your shirt. Even though dust particles are not typically visible some appear like light blue strikes when you look closely.

The other reason to run a lint roller over your shirt before sublimation is to collect any loose fibers on the shirt’s surface. Removing loose threads after sublimation leaves a blank streak that can sometimes be visible on the design.

4. Pre-press The Shirt

Pre-pressing is an essential step if you suspect your shirt might have some moisture. You can pre-press with an iron for about 5-10 seconds. Pre-pressing also works for wrinkly shirts with folds that may prevent the design from sitting on the shirt correctly.

Please note that fabrics like cotton, even when blended, retain more moisture than 100% polyester shirts.

5. Heat Your Heat Press

Now that your shirt is ready, the next step is to heat your heat press. The temperature will depend on the shirt’s fabric. Check the manufacturer’s instructions if you’re unsure about the correct temperature. Using the correct heat and pressure settings is crucial because if the heat is too low, the sublimation print will not be bright or vivid. If the heat is too high, it may scorch the print and leave yellowish marks on the design.

Here’s a guide for heat and pressure settings for some fabrics:

If you’re using colored cotton-blend shirts:

  • The heat press time should be 40 to 50 seconds
  • The heat press temperature should range between 390° -400°F
  • Use medium pressure
  • Spray a polymer coating before sublimation if you work with over 65% colored cotton shirts.

If you’re using 100% colored polyester shirts:

  • The heat press time should be 45-60 seconds
  • The heat press temperature should range between 385° and 400° F
  • Apply medium pressure

Please note that the higher the shirt’s polyester percentage, the better the sublimation results will be. Also, note that you’ll need a polymer coating spray if you work with 100% colored cotton shirts. Remember, natural fibers like cotton do not absorb sublimation dye.

6. Prepare to Sublimate

After heating the heat press, the next step is to prepare your shirt and design it for sublimation. Here is a step-by-step guide:

  1. Place your shirt on a flat surface.
  2. Place the design you printed on the sublimation paper inside the shirt where the design is supposed to be.
  3. Secure the sublimation paper with heat-resistant tape to prevent ghosting. Ghosting is when the paper moves from the correct position during pressing.
  4. Place a Teflon sheet above the design on top of the shirt to moderate pressure and heat.

7. Sublimate

To sublimate:

  1. Press the design using medium pressure with a temperature of 390-400 F, depending on the material.
  2. Wait until the pressing time is over before lifting the heat press.
  3. Remove the Teflon sheet, then peel back the sublimation paper quickly but smoothly.
  4. Remove the shirt from the heat press and allow it to cool.

Other Sublimation Methods For Colored Shirts

Besides the DTG (Direct to Garment) sublimation method detailed above, there are other ways to sublimate on colored shirts. Examples include:


Bleaching works well with 100% polyester shirts or at least 65% polyester. This method is ideal for users who want to get brighter and more vivid results with their design. To bleach, you’ll need a cardboard cutout or a template to protect the areas around the section you want to bleach. This applies to those who only want to bleach a specific section, usually where the design will sit.

Another bleaching method is the ‘marble effect,’ where you bleach the whole shirt in diagonal stripes to give the impression of dark and lighter colors. Besides the marble effect, you can also crunch the shirt and bleach it randomly to get a tie and dye effect. Bleaching is an excellent alternative if you’re looking for other ways to upgrade and customize your colored shirts besides creating a sublimation print.

The best way to bleach is to use a bleach spray and not pour bleach directly. You’re less likely to use too much bleach with a spray than with pouring. Remember to place a cardboard at the center of the shirt when bleaching so you don’t whiten the back of the shirt.

Using HTV (Heat Transfer Vinyl)

Another method of sublimating on colored shirts is using HTV. HTV is a lightweight film with an adhesive backing applied to fabrics through a heat transfer. Like polyester, HTV works well with sublimation dye.

Using HTV is a convenient way to sublimate on colored shirts, especially those with high cotton percentage. Additionally, you can achieve better vibrancy and brightness because the HTV will reflect the design.

HTV also allows you to use designs with a color similar to the shirts’ because the design will sit on the HTV and not the shirt. HTV offers customization options like glitter, glow-in-the-dark, dark, clear, deco film, and many more.

Using HTV for colored shirt sublimation is straightforward. You’ll only need to purchase the type of HTV paper you prefer online or at a nearby store. The sublimation process is similar to Direct To Garment but may vary depending on the type of HTV you’re using.


If you’ve been curious about sublimating on colored shirts, you’ll be happy to know you can. However, the sublimation results will not be as bright and vivid as with white or light-colored shirts. Remember, sublimation embeds the dye with the shirt’s fabrics meaning colored shirts will absorb rather than reflect the design. Still, using darker designs than the shirt you’re sublimating on can give excellent results.

If you want to experiment with various sublimation methods for colored shirts, try bleaching or HTV sublimation.


Should I Wash a Shirt After Sublimation?

No, it would be best if you didn’t wash a newly sublimated shirt. Wait 24 hours before washing, folding, or pressing a newly sublimated shirt.

Is Sublimation Permanent?

Yes, sublimation is permanent. Sublimation embeds the sublimation dye into the shirt’s fibers making a design permanent.