Dye Sublimation Printing

A real life magic trick that turns printed paper into beautiful fabric!


Kristen McMenamy in the Pantone print, photo Craig McDean for Bazaar

Dye sublimation printing is a fabric printing technique that originated in the late 1950s. It was first used to create photo realistic imagery often seen on t-shirts throughout the 1970s. The process is created by printing an image on paper with a specific ink that turns into gas when heated and embeds onto the surface of synthetic textiles. This technique proved challenging and fell out of favor in the the 1980s.


Salt N Pepa wearing Todd Oldham Collection Spring 1994


En Vogue wearing Todd Oldham Collection Spring 1994


1994 photo Gilles Bensimon for Elle

I lucked out by finding a hosiery manufacturer that was still using this printing method in the early 1990s and talked them into making new works. The paper the designs were printed on could not exceed 39”x26” and therefore became an engineering challenge to use for full garments.


Printed dye sublimation panel of crewel embroidery

To create the “Fire” print used for Spring 1994, we set wood chips on fire in a tuna can and then photographed the results. Elaborate hand beaded panels were made in India and then photographed to make the “Beaded” print which looks fully dimensional when transferred to fabric. We made prints using beautiful shredded paper packing from a gift my mom sent me, bingo cards I plucked from the trash walking to work, rubber stamps printed onto origami papers, and even crinkled aluminum foil. One season we folded the dye printed papers into quarters and cut out snowflakes and then transferred them to fabric one at a time.


Gail Elliot, Todd Oldham Collection Spring 1994


Tyra Banks, Todd Oldham Collection Spring 1994


Naomi Campbell, Todd Oldham Collection Spring 1994


Cindy Crawford, Todd Oldham Collection Spring 1994

The 2000s have been kind to sublimation printing with new transfer techniques and now lots of DIY versions that can be made on home printers. Nowadays, digital printing have taken over for most photo-realistic printing techniques. These methods can create truly astonishing effects with precise details, while the blurry charm of orginial sublimation printing techniques had never met a computer. I often read praise for our early computer printing skills but the truth is we never used computers for any of our designs, only for inventory and invoices.


Emma, Todd Oldham Collection Spring 1994


Tyra Banks, Todd Oldham Collection Spring 1994

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