What is sublimation?

Today we’re starting a new sub-series called Collectors Club Encyclopedia. By now you’re hopefully familiar with the ethos of Collectors Club, (and if you’re not, check out the extensive back catalogue), and we’re keen to dig deeper in to the terminology around football shirts.

We often use words like “jacquard”, “tonal” or “taping” when talking about football shirts, but if you’re anything like me you don’t actually know what all these words mean. You might have vague idea, but if someone asked you in a quiz you’d hastily pass.

Alongside some dictionary definitions, we’ll look at practical applications for collecting if there are any.

Join with me and let’s learn together through Collectors Club Encyclopedia!

We’ll kick off with a classic, what is sublimation? How do you know if a shirt is sublimated or not? Let’s take a look.

What is sublimation?

We often talk about sublimated football shirts, but what exactly is sublimation?

Sublimation is the process of printing a design onto a piece of fabric using heat. This is achieved in one of two ways. 

Image via Flickr

The first and most common method involves the use of transfer paper. A design is printed on the paper and then pressed onto the fabric at a high heat. During the process, the ink changes from a solid to a gas (the word “sublimate” literally means the solid deposit of a substance which has sublimed, or changed directly into a vapour when heated), embedding itself into the fabric. The other method is known as direct sublimation printing. With this method of sublimation, the sublimation inks are printed directly onto the fabric.

Image via Flickr

With both methods, the resulting design ends up looking and feeling as if it was part of the fabric itself, rather than an application layered on top of the fabric.

What are the benefits of sublimation?

Sublimation has a range of benefits, not least from a design perspective.

Unlike other printing methods, sublimation allows for “seam-to-seam” printing with greater freedom than other methods of printing. This is a particularly attractive prospect for football shirts, where all-over patterns are often preferable to patterns restricted to certain areas of the kit. 

A great modern example of a fully sublimated shirt that makes good use of the benefits of sublimation would be something like the popular Forward Madison ‘Drip Kit’. The vibrant design was a hit with collectors the world over, and without sublimation the impact of the design would likely have been weakened.

As a method, sublimation is also relatively cheaper compared to other, more bespoke methods. As the technique has become more and more widely used over time, sublimation has become a go-to option for smaller clubs or individuals. You can even buy printers to create sublimated shirts yourself at home, although of course this wouldn’t be a cost effective route for anyone just wanting to print the odd design here and there.

Another significant benefit of sublimation in regards to football shirts is the integrity of the various details on the shirt, including sponsors, crests and manufacturer logos. Plastic or transfer applications can be a real headache for shirt owners, as just one over-eager wash cycle can easily damage a sponsor and leave a shirt looking worse for wear (for tips on how to wash football shirts in a way that won’t cause damage, check out our Collectors Club on the subject).

What are the limitations of sublimation?

Sublimation offers a great degree of freedom, but there are some things it could never achieve. Perhaps the most important one in regards to football shirts is the lack of a ‘proper’ crest.

Throughout history, many football kits have featured sublimated details including club crests, but for a lot of fans there’s no substitute for an embroidered crest that sits on top of a kit. After all, it’s not quite the same kissing a crest that’s embedded into the fabric, is it?

Many people also look down on sublimated football shirts, rightly or wrongly, for feeling lower quality compared to shirts with raised details. You don’t get any sort of satisfying feel running your fingers over a sublimated manufacturer badge or crest like you do with embroidered or even plastic details. As innovations continue, particularly with player issues shirts, this difference has only widened.

Sublimated football shirts are here to stay, and their cost effectiveness and flexibility makes them an attractive option at all levels of the football pyramid.

It’s easy to dismiss sublimation as a cheap technique, but if it’s a choice between an off the shelf template, or a bespoke sublimated shirt, give me sublimation every day of the week.

Phil Delves

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