How to Sublimate on Cotton Shirts

How to Sublimate on Cotton Shirts main article image
Posted on August 19, 2021 by Naomi Garcia
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Sublimation opens up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to design. I really like that I can make a full color design as large as my sublimation printer will print. More than that, I absolutely love that I don’t have to worry about layering. Don’t get me wrong, I love working with heat transfer vinyl. In fact, I’ll often add it to a garment that I am sublimating. But sublimation brings a vibrancy with less effort and only one press.

The benefit of sublimation

One of the biggest deterrents to sublimation is that you have to have “special” materials. You can’t transfer a sublimation print to a plain mug from your local home store. Well, you could, but it would just rub off. If you try to sublimate onto just any phone grip, you’re just going to end up melting the plastic grip and making a big, stinky, sticky mess. You can’t just pull out a shirt from your stash and press a beautiful sublimation design onto it and call it a day. It needs to be a polyester shirt.

The problem of sublimating on natural fibers

If you could see my stash of 100% cotton shirts, you’d think I was a distributor (I’m not). Like most crafters, I went really wild when I first got into making shirts with HTV. Whenever there was a sale, I’d stock up and I ended up having both youth and adult shirts. I have long sleeve and short sleeve shirts. I’ve got red, yellow, black, white, green, and even safety orange.  

Here’s the problem, though: you can’t sublimate onto natural fibers like cotton. BUMMER! What’s more, the best transfers are onto light colors, not safety orange or black. DOUBLE BUMMER! However, if there’s a workaround, you know I’ll find it.  And that’s exactly what I did!

The trick for sublimating on cotton

While it’s true that dye sublimation will not work DIRECTLY onto cotton, there is an INDIRECT fix. Through research (by research I mean checking out other amazing creators on YouTube and Instagram) and a little bit of experimentation, I discovered that I could add sublimation to glitter iron-on. Well that’s all I needed to know! I am a glitter lover, so this solution worked great for me. I also found that the same was true with flock HTV. These are great alternatives because while adding the full color of sublimation, you can also add extra texture and interest to your designs.

The magic trick: Sublimation Fabric Sheets

More recently, I learned about another method.  Did you know that “sublimation fabric sheets” are a thing? They are. I found them on JDC.com, an online supplier of vinyl materials such as HTV, Craft Sign vinyls and other crafting supplies.
The basic process is that you print your sublimation design onto sublimation paper. Then you transfer the print to the
sublimation fabric. The final step is to press your pressed sublimation fabric to your garment. Easy enough, right? It sure beats trying to cut and line up multiple layers of HTV.  

At first, I was a little skeptical. But the price point was low, so that wasn’t a big deal. Plus, I’m all about finding what works. Craft fails and I are no strangers, and I’d never know if I didn’t try. So I tried it and the results were better than I expected. In fact, they are amazing! So enough small talk. Let’s get down to business and create a sublimation design and press it on a 100% cotton shirt.  As a note, most of the materials are from JDC and I will link to each in the supply list. Did you know that if you are a Craft or All Access Subscriber on Creative Fabrica, you can get an exclusive discount on JDC’s products? Make sure to check that out!

Materials and Supplies

Note: If you do not have a sublimation printer, you can purchase a pre-printed sublimation print. Search “sublimation prints” on Etsy for some options.

The Process

Creating Your Design

  1. Purchase and download the Autumn Sublimation design from Creative Fabrica
  2. Upload the file into your cutting software (Cricut Design Space, Silhouette Studio, etc.)
    1. If using Cricut Design Space, you’ll want to upload it as a “print then cut” file.
  3. Insert the Autumn Sublimation design on your canvas.
  4. Size your design.  
    1. In Cricut Design Space, you are limited to 6.75” x 9.25” for any print then cut design.
    2. You can also insert your design into a new Word document or other blank document and size it there.  You will have to cut it by hand if you choose this option.
  5. Select your design and create an offset. 
    1. Your offset can be as thin or as wide as you’d like.
    2. Any part of the offset not covered by the design will appear white on your final design.
    3. The offset is what we will be cutting from the sublimation fabric,
  6. Send your design to cut.

Working With the Full-Color Design (sublimation paper)

  1. Be sure to “mirror” the full-color design.
  2. Load the sublimation paper into the printer. 
    1. The paper I purchased from JDC came in 11” x 17” sheets.
    2. I used a paper trimmer to cut my sheets in half to 8.5” x 11” sheets to use in my Sawgrass 500 printer.
    3.  Make sure it is placed so that it prints on the plain side, and not on the side that is labeled.
  3. Send it to print.
    1. I prefer to use the system dialog for printing.  This is especially important when printing on a sublimation printer.
  4. Once printed, you can either cut it using your cutting machine or trim down using scissors.
  5. Set aside.

Working With the Offset (sublimation fabric)

  1. Do not mirror the offset.
  2. Place your sublimation fabric on your mat with the liner (shiny side) down.
  3. Select your material type for your cutting machine. 
    1. On my Cricut Maker 3, I selected “Glitter Cardstock” and increased the pressure to “more”.
  4. Cut and weed.

Sublimation paper and sublimation fabric design (Naomi D. Garcia)

*Save any extra sublimation fabric to use on future projects. We don’t waste good product.

Pressing Your Design

  1. Set your heat press to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Set the time for 50 seconds
  3. Place your printed design face down onto the fabric side of the sublimation fabric. (This is why we printed the design as a mirror image).
  4. You can use heat resistant tape to hold your design in place.
    Heat resistant tape (Naomi D. Garcia)
  5. Place the pieces on your heat press with the sublimated piece on top.
  6. Cover with a piece of parchment paper or teflon sheet.
  7. Press at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 seconds.
  8. Your design will be hot, so carefully remove it from the press.
  9. Remove the top sheet of sublimation paper to reveal your design.Transferred sublimation design (Naomi D. Garcia)

In the photo above, the left shows the sublimation paper after pressing.  The right side is the actual sublimation fabric once I pressed the design onto it. In all honesty, I was so thrilled at this point that I didn’t even care about adding it to my shirt. The design was so bright!  I was truly amazed at the results. But then I remembered the purpose of this project was to be able to successfully add sublimation to a cotton shirt. So let’s finish what we came to do.

Pressing the Design on the Shirt

  1. Set your heat press to 302 degrees Fahrenheit and set the timer for 12 seconds (weird numbers, right?).
  2. Place your shirt on your heat press and press for just a couple of seconds to remove any moisture and wrinkles.
  3. Use your lint roller to remove any lint or dust from the shirt.  Trust me, there will be lint that you cannot see and it will sabotage your project in the end.
  4. Remove the back liner from your printed design.
  5. Place your design on your shirt.
    1. For adult sizes, the general rule is about 3” from the collar.  For child sizes, 2” is usually ideal.  Baby bodysuits are about 2 finger widths down.
  6. Cover the design with a teflon sheet or sheet of parchment paper.
  7. Press for 12 seconds at 302 degrees Fahrenheit.
  8. Remove the pressed shirt from the press.  

100% cotton shirt   Completed sublimation on cotton using sublimation fabric

My shirt came out beautifully and I couldn’t be happier. The transfer is soft and blends well with my shirt fabric. I love that although I used a gray shirt, I still have the full vibrancy of the design because of using the white-based sublimation fabric. I may go back and add some HTV to the sleeve just to get my HTV fix. But overall, I am extremely satisfied with the results. In fact, I’m already making more in child sizes so that my kiddos and I can match (yes, I’m one of those moms). As I mentioned, the sublimation fabrics from JDC are affordable. The package I purchased came with 3 sheets that are 8.5” x 12” each. I can easily get 2 full baby designs from each sheet. Plus, I’ve taken the guesswork out of whether it really works or not for you. 

Vinyls for your sublimation projects

JDC offers a lot more cool HTV’s for your crafty projects. Their Inkjet Printable HTV that not only accepts standard dye and pigment ink (from standard size inkjet printers) but also holds sublimation ink very well. This HTV allows you to sublimate on 100% cotton and dark-colored garments, using your existing equipment.

They also list beautiful Rainbow White Glitter HTV, with which you can sublimate over the vinyl, cut, weed, and apply to clothing for a full-color glittery design.

More vinyl & HTV projects

If you’re not really into sublimation, there are still lots of fun projects you can make with vinyl and HTV.  Here are a few I’ve enjoyed:

  • Add HTV to shoes for a custom look
  • Create one of a kind mousepads
  • Make decals for your home, office, or even your vehicle
  • Make fun stickers for your kids (Who am I kidding?  The stickers are really for me)
  • Make porch signs
  • Add decals to your cups and tumblers

The list can go on and on. For me, one of the best things is using images from Creative Fabrica for these projects. Sometimes I use the images as is, and sometimes I combine them with other elements to create something new. I just love that I can easily download images and create whatever I want at any time. Combine that kind of creative freedom with cool products like the ones I found at JDC and you’ve got a winning combo.

If you love the beautiful fall design I used as much as I do, you can find it and many more designs on Creative Fabrica. Search “fall sublimation” designs for a huge selection to choose from. I’d love to see what you create using sublimation fabric to sublimate on cotton. Please tag me on Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok. I am EJsFunCrafting on all platforms. Make something beautiful!


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