Hats: Screen Printing or Dye Sublimation?

Screen printing may not always work on hats. Each decoration technique has its pluses and minuses and associated costs. Which technique will suit the project best, create the most eye-catching design, and be most cost effective for both the client and your shop?

Dye sublimation can be the ideal option for smaller runs, as the process requires few steps, no screens and offers easy cleanup. If the client wants a short run on a polyester substrate, sublimation offers a quick setup and print time, and the costs are competitive with those of a screen-printing job.

Dye sublimation can’t be done on dark-colored garments. There’s no white sublimation ink, so there’s no way to print an underbase, as there is with screen printing. The design to be sublimated must be darker than the substrate on which it’ll be printed. Keep in mind that any substrate color other than white may impact the finished colors in a sublimated design.

When pricing out larger jobs, it’s likely that screen printing will cost far less than sublimation. As the number of items to be decorated rises, so do the dye-sublimation ink costs. In cases where 500 or more items are to be printed, screen printing may be the more cost-effective option.

While sublimation can be a great choice for decorating 100% polyester hats, and even blends can work in some cases, it’s not an option for hats that aren’t polyester or don’t contain a blend of polyester and some other material. In cases where the hats are cotton or other non-polyester materials, screen printing would be required.

If you’re sublimating a hat made of a poly blend, a blend that’s a mixture of a larger percentage of polyester and something else will work best. The higher the poly mix, the brighter the sublimated image will be.

As the name implies, dye sublimation uses a dye, and actually dyes the image into the material to which it is transferred. Screen printing uses an ink that lies on top of the fabric. If durability is a concern and the fabric is suitable for sublimation, consider whether you should use that technique. While screen-printed designs do have impressive durability, a sublimated design will last as long as the hat fabric lasts.


Brian Burr is the chief operations officer of Wholesale Apparel. He has more than 18 years of experience in custom embroidery and hat decoration.