Ink 101: What is all this ink, anyway?

With all of the different technology in the garment and apparel decorating industry, it is easy to get lost in the midst of the hundreds of printers and inks available for use. From solvent to sublimation, the terminology can leave a lot of people confused. Having worked with a lot of these inks ourselves, we want to offer some clarity and break it down to a simplified description of each ink system and its pros and cons.

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Inkjet Laser –  Sublimation –  Solvent –  Direct-to-Garment


Aqueous Inkjet Inks

These inks are water-based, but most people know them as just regular inkjet inks. All office and professional inkjet printers come with this type of ink which is contained in cartridges with a certain pigment to water ratio which results in liquid ink. The ink is deposited on the paper during the printing process, and once finished printing, the water evaporates leaving only pigment on the paper. The four basic colors are CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) with some printers using additional colors. What is not as common knowledge is that there are two categories of inkjet inks: Dye-based and Pigment-based.

Dye-based inkjet inks are the most common inks that come with the average inkjet printer. The pigment is fully dissolved in water inside the cartridge.. These inks are technically not as ideal for heat transfer paper garment applications as they tend to run more easily under wet conditions, but are great for daily print jobs for your home or business such as documents, indoor displays, posters, or fine art photographic prints due to their vibrancy and true to color image reproduction.

Pigment-based inkjet inks, also sometimes called UV inks, have larger pigment particles that are insoluble and are suspended in less water,  which makes them more ideal for more waterproof solutions such as heat transfer papers for garment decorating, window/outdoor displays, posters, decals, photographic prints, etc. The prints do not run when they come in contact with water but can fade and break down over time after repeated washing (specifically with heat transfer papers) or prolonged outdoor exposure. They are UV-resistant which AAA_1919means they can be exposed to UV light while the colors remain stable. Due to the nature of these inks and the way the light reflects off the pigment particles, they sometimes appear more muted in vibrancy than dye-based. A lot of the Epson inkjet models, such as the workforce series (we use Epson WF-7010 printer), already come with pigment inks, but it is a good idea to double check with the manufacturer.

Note: These are not to be confused with “UV-curable inks”, which require exposure to a very strong UV light to be cured onto the media.



Aqueous Dye-Based Ink Aqueous Pigment Ink
  • Lower Cost
  • Brighter/more vibrant print
  • More waterproof solution that will not run in contact with water
  • UV-resistant that promotes color stability when exposed to bright light
  • Great for heat transfer paper applications
  • Not waterproof/may run in contact with water
  • Not UV-resistant/ may fade over time due to sunlight exposure
  • Can be prone to clogging if left to dry inside printer
  • Higher cost
  • Color may appear more muted/ not as vibrant as dye-based ink
  • Can be prone to clogging if left to dry inside printer



Laser Toner

The second most popular method for every day printing is laser printing which in fact does not use ink, but rather a very fine powder called “toner”. The toner is contained in large cartridges in the printer and is deposited on the paper through either laser or LED technology.  Then the paper runs through a fuser which uses heat to fuse the pigment in place. Most laser printers use the CMYK colors, but recent advances in technology now allow for select few printers to use white toner instead of black, such as our OKI 920WT and OKI 711WT models.

Toner, unlike most other types of inks, does not use liquid in any way which makes it a very waterproof solution, but is still prone to fading over time. Because toner requires heat to be permanently cured in place, for those who are in the heat transfer paper business, it is crucial to have a printer with fuser that runs no hotter than 350F or else the paper adhesive can melt and jam. This is also why the compatibility of papers and printers is difficult to guarantee and always requires testing to ensure the paper will run smoothly through the printer. With the market constantly growing, in recent years manufacturers have started building printers with heat transfers in mind. Our OKI printers have been tested and are warrantied with most of our heat transfer papers.












  • Waterproof
  • Requires little to no maintenance as toner does not clog
  • Faster print speed for high volume printing
  • Toner usually lasts longer
  • Costs significantly less per-print
  • Laser printers not compatible with all papers, especially some heat transfer papers
  • Higher cost for full color and photographic printers
  • Bulkier/larger cartridges and printers
  • Not always ideal for quality fine art prints



Dye-Sublimation Ink

Dye-sublimation ink, while also water-based, is a much different type of ink than other typical printing solutions. Sublimation ink is printed on special sublimation paper (similar in look/feel to thicker copy paper) which releases the ink once it is heat activated in the press, turning it from solid to gas while bypassing the liquid stage.

It is compatible with a select few existing small format printer models, such as the Sawgrass Virtuoso SG400 and SG800 printers, the Epson Artisan 1430, and the older Ricoh SG3110DN and SG7100DN. It is also available for some wide format Epson and Mutoh printer models for those who seek high production, larger printing and high cost savings (lower cost for ink overall). There are so few models available because it is a special ink that also requires specific color correction software, and that is available for these select printer platforms for greatest performance consistency. Older formulations of sublimation ink, such as those for Epson printers, have a higher water to dye ratio, which makes them more susceptible to drying up and clogging the nozzles if not used daily, but are the only small format inks that offer a bulk-system option for higher volume printing and lower cost. The newer Sublijet R and Sublijet HD inks for Ricoh and Virtuoso printers are reformulated into a gel-like substance, which uses less water, preventing clogs when printer is not being used daily, however only come in cartridges and are not available for a bulk system.

The process of sublimation transfer printing and pressing to a product is usually done at around 370-400F depending on the item and the process ends as soon as heat is no longer applied and item starts cooling down. Sublimation ink dyes the garment/item on a molecular level rather than being transferred just on top, which results in a permanent solution under normal conditions. Since the dye can be re-activated at really high heat at any point, it is important to transfer a full design from a single sheet of paper in a one-step process. The ink can be reactivated at temperatures as low as 340F, and sometimes even lower, and could stain equipment or already pressed items.

Because sublimation is an additive color process, and it only DYES the color of the item, it is compatible only with white or very light substrates, as the color of a non-white shirt will bleed into the image (and black will block an image out entirely, so sublimation onto black t-shirts is not possible at all). It is also best compatible with 100% polyester garments and polyester-coated items . Other blends of polyester will work as well, but only the polyester content will be dyed – ie: 50/50 blends of poly/cotton will turn out half as bright as a 100% polyester garment. This method does not work on natural fibers (cotton, rayon, wool, etc) as it will wash out completely.  It will not transfer on non-coated items.



  • Permanent transfers that last as long as the garment/item
  • Easy and fast set up and transfer process
  • Transfers realistic full-color photographs and designs with high detail
  • No texture of its own, easy to transfer on variety of coated items such as mugs coasters, mouse pads, ornaments and more
  •  High cost on inks
  • only compatible with 100% polyester or sublimation coated items that are white/light
  • Requires some design software/printer set up for proper color control

To learn more about sublimation, visit our Sublimation Basics page!

Note: We only sell and support patented, high quality inks made by Sawgrass.




Solvent Ink

Solvent ink is a more aggressive type of ink, available specifically for standing professional style printers with an inkjet style printhead, and is typically used mostly for outdoor applications due to its ability to adhere to a wide variety of media and vinyls and incredible durability. It is great for sign/banner vinyls, T-shirt vinyls and wallpaper media among others. The pigment is dissolved in a solvent chemical instead of water, which evaporates once it has been printed. Its chemical makeup makes it waterproof, fade-proof and scratch resistant in most weather conditions and lasts as long as the material it is printed on. However, due to its caustic nature, it is only compatible with special solvent inkjet printers, such as our wide format Mutoh printers.

Solvent ink is technically available in two different styles, though both are incredibly similar to one another (similar to pigment vs. dye-based ink differences):

Traditional  solvent– This ink has a stronger chemical makeup which allows it to dry faster and penetrate deeper into a wider variety of media that doesn’t necessarily need to be coated.  However, since the solvent chemical evaporates once it has been printed, it can cause hazardous fumes that can be inhaled by humans. Proper ventilation and space are required for this type of ink.

Eco solvent– “Eco” refers to the lower hazard level this ink is for humans.  Eco-solvent inks use a solvent that is not as aggressive, Hulk_findthesnail1usually derived from mineral oil,  and is better suited for indoor environments that don’t have a special air ventilation in place. The trade off however is slower drying times, with anywhere from a few seconds up to 12 hours of drying time depending on the media. This is becoming less of an issue with certain vinyls being added to the market, such as our ColorPrint Easy vinyl for garments which dries instantly.


< – – – Our beloved Hulk printed on Photo Tex Removable Wall Media for solvent printing

Traditional Solvent Ink Eco-Solvent Ink
  • Faster drying times
  • Waterproof, scratch-resistant and fade-proof
  • Harsher chemical allows for printing on wider variety of media such as uncoated vinyl/banner material
  • Low costs for inks
  • Waterproof, scratch-resistant and fade-proof
  • No odor and made with biodegradable chemicals that are not as hazardous
  • Can be used in smaller indoor spaces
  • Low cost inks
  • Hazardous fumes require proper ventilation and large working space
  • Requires proper disposal and handling
  • Slower drying times
  •  Not compatible with as many vinyls/materials




Direct to Garment ink

Direct to garment (DTG) is a process in which ink is applied directly onto 100% cotton fabric through a flat bed printer, such as our Epson SureColor F2000.  These inks are water-based and similar to pigment-based aqueous inks, and come in the standard yellow, magenta, cyan, black, and white colors. Once printed, they are permanently cured onto the fabric by applying heat and heavier pressure, ideally with a heat press around 335-340F for 1 minute or less depending on the color fabric. They feel similar to a screen print (some can’t tell the difference) and often times even softer because the process eliminates the use of vinyl or paper media, leaving ink to be the only thing on the shirt which lasts as long as the garment and is waterproof and fade-resistant.

DTGWhite or very light colored fabrics don’t need any prior treatment and the design is printed directly onto them, however since the ink absorbs into the fabric, it would be difficult to stand out on dark fabrics, which is why the printer has to print a solid base of white first on most brightly colored and black garments. That creates a heavier print with the additional layer of white ink added into the mix (titanium oxide is its main makeup which already makes it heavier), which can cause the ink to bleed through the fabric. To prevent this from happening, dark/black garments are coated with a pre-treatmeant solution by hand or using a machine (we use our Zoom AE All-Electric pre-treatment machine). The transparent pre-treat coating also helps the white ink to adhere better to the fabric. The extra pre-treat solution on the shirt dissolves in the wash, leaving the shirt with a clean and bright print.

DTG inks are most compatible with 100% cotton only or in some instances, cotton/poly blends. 100% polyester is not recommended because it is a plastic material which will not absorb the ink, causing it to sit on top of the garment. With average amount of washing, the print will fade dramatically over time. DTG may be used for cotton based, polyester-coated items such as mouse pads and flip flops, for display purposes.


  • Waterproof, fade proof and scratch resistant
  • Highest quality print for garments on the market
  • Very soft and durable (should last the life of the garment)
  • Great vibrancy and detail
  • Printer requires monthly maintenance and upkeep
  • RIP software required, with specific settings that need to be calibrated every time a fabric is changed to a different fabric weave and thickness
  • Black or brightly colored fabrics require pre-treatment which makes for a longer process and potential higher costs for pre-treat solution and machine
  • Compatible with 100% cotton fabric only and some cotton/poly blends




Technology is constantly growing and improving, and there may be other types of inks for printing methods that weren’t included in this blog. This list is compiled to represent inks that we offer to our customers on a regular basis and are capable of providing great support over phone, e-mail or chat!

“Light Fabrics” vs. “Dark Fabrics”- Heat Transfer Paper 101

Heat transfer paper has become a popular garment decorating method for many hobby and commercial businesses and a lot of people who are getting into doing transfers may notice that papers generally fall into two categories: for light fabrics and for dark fabrics.  It is important to understand the difference between the papers as well as which color shirts are actually considered light and dark, especially when it comes to the different color shades and tone.

Light fabrics include: white, light grey, heather grey, and pale color shades.

white fabric light grey

light blue pale yellow

Dark fabrics include: brighter and saturated colors, dark grey, black

medium blue red

dark grey black

There is a grey area of some colored fabrics that can be considered either category by some, such as bright neon colors or certain pastels which allow for a very dark or black design to be transferred well by using paper for light fabrics.

So what is the real difference between these papers? Papers for light fabrics are very thin and the white of the paper tends to transfer as an almost transparent layer that blends nicely into the shirt. Since the transfer is so thin, it partially relies on the white of the fabric to make the design look more opaque. If the fabric is a darker color, for example a bright red, the design in general will be tainted red because of the base color of the shirt. For that reason, papers for dark fabrics were made thicker and much  more opaque in order to avoid the fabric color showing through. These papers transfer the white of the paper as an opaque sheet, which is why the design has to be trimmed down or any white leftover will transfer solid white and will not blend in with the shirt. Dark fabric papers tend to have a feel similar to a sticker or vinyl onto the shirt vs. papers for light fabrics that feel more like a screen print and take on the texture of the fabric.

Another difference, most seen in papers for inkjet printers, is the way the paper is applied onto the shirt. Papers for lights are pressed face down on the garment and then the backing is peeled off immediately after pressing (hot peel). It is a less time consuming process since you can trim close to the design but it doesn’t have to be exact to the edge. Papers for darks are trimmed or cut with a vinyl cutter so any excess background can be removed, and then the design is peeled off the backing and placed face up on the shirt, then pressed with a protective sheet on top such as silicone or Teflon. Once the pressing time elapses, the design has to be in most cases cooled off before removing the protective sheet of your choice (cold peel).

We tested Jet Pro SofStretch for lights and 3G Jet Opaque for darks on white and black fabrics and here are the results:

jetpro-light jetpro-dark

3G-light 3G-dark

As the photos show, Jet Pro SofStretch transfers are almost transparent and take on the color of the fabric which is why papers for light fabrics generally do not work on darker or colored fabrics. Additionally, because Jet Pro paper is so thin, you can see a loss of vibrancy as the paper can only take a certain amount of ink saturation which is compensated by the softness of the transfer. 3G Jet Opaque and other papers for dark fabrics however are completely opaque and the white of the design comes entirely from the white of the paper with no see through. For that reason, the colors also pop more but the feel of the transfer is much thicker and feels similar to a thin sticker on top of the fabric. Most people with white or very light garments prefer the screen printed feel over the thicker feel, but papers for dark fabrics are definitely compatible with all colors.

To watch our Youtube video on light transfer paper pressed on different colored fabrics, CLICK HERE!

From our testing, we can conclude that papers for dark fabrics are compatible with ALL colored fabrics, but papers for light fabrics are only compatible with whites or light tones of color.

The Hows & Whats of Decorating Apparel

There is a huge range of different decoration methods available to the average user to create their own custom printed and designed apparel. What decoration method is best for you and your print shop? See some creative examples below with an explanation of the production process behind each to get some new ideas and inspiration!

Commercial methods

  • Sublimation– A digital printing process that transfers special sublimation dye-based ink printed designs onto garments using high heat and a commercial press. This process works only on white/light polyester garments or polyester coated items and is the most permanent transfer since the dye ink becomes part of the garment. It literally dyes the fabric, therefore there is no weight or texture to the transfer. No limitation on design: transfer photographs, full color designs, bright or light colors and gradients.

sublimation tank top
















  •  Heat transfer paper– Process in which the design is printed on a transfer paper through inkjet or laser printer and then pressed onto a shirt. Designs are easy as print and press for transfers onto white/very light colored garments, and with the addition of a vinyl cutter, transfers for dark or color fabrics can also be done with a very professional quality after contour-cutting and weeding the excess white background! Plus, with new technology, laser printers now allow for self-weeding transfer papers which only transfer the design on the shirt with no need to cut it out!

















FOREVER Laser Dark  No-cut printed with White toner OKI printer and transferred on black shirt.


  • Heat transfer vinyl– This is a simple process of cutting designs out of heat transfer vinyl, a one-color/one-material on a roll and liner, weeding away the material that you do not want in your transfer design, and simply pressing them onto a shirt! There is a huge variety of vinyl, far beyond just standard colors: sparkly glitter, soft flock, shimmery metallic, and more! Vinyl transfers are great for lettering jobs and simple clipart/graphic designs, as there is no printing involved and the only machine needed is a vinyl cutter and computer software.

















Glitter flake transfer vinyl in silver and black

  •  Solvent printing– Digital printing process that requires a special solvent printer (generally wide format) which then prints on specialty solvent-design paper or vinyl. This is often the process used for water proof or weather resistant signage, car decals, stickers, wallpapers, window decals, but is also used for t-shirt transfers. It is highly durable and very rarely results in fading or cracking.
  • Direct to garment– This is the only process that involves a printer directly printing on the shirt. The printer has a flatbed on which the shirt is placed and using a computer software, the design is printed directly on top of the flat fabric surface. Dark color t-shirts are coated with a special pretreatment coating that allows for bright vibrant prints onto dark colors.

















  • Silk Screen printing– The old school and proven stencil method that uses a mesh screen which is coated with a light sensitive solution and exposed to light with a stencil that results in open areas of the screen through which the ink is pressed onto the garment with a squeegee. Each color is run through its own screen which can be a lengthier process however this works great on any color or material shirt since the ink is opaque and sits on top of the fabric. Since multiple screens must be set up for each color, the limitation of this tried and true printing method is that it’s not best for true photographic or full-color output, and smaller orders are nearly impossible to make profit on after set-up time is considered.
  • Rhinestones– Add sparkle and shine to your designs by using rhinestones that look like small diamonds. A cutter with a vinyl software equipped with rhinestone tools and design cutting capabilities is required. Sizes and colors of rhinestones vary giving you freedom to create, mix and match, and with custom bling designs, a huge profit potential is possible with your ability to deliver a truly one-of-a-kind product!

rhinestone DSC_0158












  • Embroidery– Using a needle and thread/yarn on an automated machine to decorate garments. Other materials could be incorporated into the design such as beads, but the process in general involves stitching the design. While embroidery can be done on nearly any and all apparel products and fabric types or colors, investment and learning curve in this process can be huge!

Handmade methods

  •  Cyanotype– a photographic process that uses a light sensitive solution that can be coated on most porous materials and results in a cyan/blue print. For photographs, s greyscale image is printed on a transparency and then is laid on top of the coated garment and pressed with a glass to flatten it, then left out in the sun (bright, mid- day is best) for roughly 10 minutes or until blue coating becomes very light and faded. Then the garment is soaked in water so the non-exposed areas wash out. Other techniques include laying out leaves or other shapes to block out the sun from areas of the garment. Different colors can be achieved by using different additives or chemicals in the cyanotype coating. Print fades over time.

cyanote cyanotype2








Image source: Pinterest/


  • Stamping– a method that uses a hand-made stamp to transfer an image/design. Stamps can be carved out of wood or rubber or objects can be used as stamps such as one’s own hands or just everyday objects. There are variety of inks or paints out there to experiment with and create textures or images on garments.
  • Fabric markers– for those who love to draw, there are markers and pens with inks designed for garments! This creates unique, 100% hand drawn apparel.