I love using t-shirt transfers to make personalized tote bags -- that's become my go-to birthday gift for kids and friends. It's perfect packaging for a few well-chosen small items, and so easy to create and personalize. I wanted to put together a nice tutorial for you, so enjoy!
T-shirt transfer paper (also called iron-on transfers) is specifically designed to transfer a printed image onto fabric with the application of heat from an ordinary household iron. T-shirt transfer paper works with any number of software programs, from the easy-to-operate Microsoft Word to more sophisticated graphic design programs such as Adobe's Photoshop CS or Elements. Many brands of t-shirt transfers, such as Avery, also feature pre-designed templates that make image design a snap. Most transfers are designed for use with inkjet printers, as the heat from laser printers can affect the transfer paper and printed image.
T-shirt transfers come in two types: transfers for light fabrics and transfers made specifically for dark fabrics. If you're going to be printing your designs onto white, light gray, or other light-colored surfaces, then choose transfers designed for light fabrics. Dark materials, such as black and dark blue or gray, call for transfers created expressly for use with these colors.
What's the difference? Light colored transfer paper is much thinner and essentially allows the color from the t-shirt to show through the transfer. That's why images printed on light transfer paper don't show up on dark fabrics -- the images end up blending into the material. Transfer paper created for dark t-shirts, on the other hand, is solid white, so no color from your backing material shows through the printed image.
PROS / CONS
Light transfers are most susceptible to peeling and cracking (because they are thinner) and can often feature a "halo" effect around your ironed-on image, even with careful trimming. On the other hand, dark transfers always require trimming unless you want a solid white outline around your transfer image (these transfers feel more like a thin vinyl sheet). However, colors are richer and more true-to-life with the dark fabric transfers, which is a definite bonus.
T-shirt transfers are sold in packages ranging from 5 to 12 letter-sized sheets; prices range anywhere from $10.00 to $15.00 per package. Whenever possible, print multiple projects at once so that you can combine them onto the same sheet. This allows you to get the most use out of each sheet, thus saving money.
HOW TO USE THEM:
Although manufacturer directions for each brand of transfer paper vary, the basic procedure is generally the same. (*Note: The photos shown use light-transfer paper.)
- Create your image using the software of your choice. It's best to choose an easy-to-trim image with no free-floating text.
- Print your image. If you are using light transfer paper, you will need to flip or reverse your image. This setting is normally included under printer options on most printers. Some printers also have a specific setting for transfer paper, which will automatically flip your image. If you are using dark transfer paper, you DO NOT reverse the image. It's important to pay close attention during this step of the process so that any text will print and transfer correctly. Also, make sure you are printing on the correct side of the paper. Most transfer paper will have a blue line or a manufacturer's graphic on the back.
- Trim your design, sticking as close to the edge as possible. Save any portions of the page that can be used for future projects. At this point, if you are using dark transfer paper, you'll peel the paper backing from the trimmed image. You won't remove the backing from the light transfer paper until after you've ironed the image and let it cool.
- Prep your workspace. Use a flat, hard surface (an ironing board is NOT recommended) no taller than waist height, and cover your work surface with a pillowcase. Set your iron to the hottest setting but do not use steam. In fact, it's best to make sure that your iron is completely dry so that you don't risk accidentally ruining your transfer image.
- Iron your fabric surface to remove any wrinkles (and any moisture that might be present). Place your transfer image onto your fabric surface. Dark transfers should be placed image-side up, while light transfers should be placed image-side down. Cover the image with the parchment paper, if it is included in your transfer package.
- Iron over the image, making sure to cover all areas of the image, particularly the edges. Use firm pressure -- it is best to apply as much of your weight to the process as possible. Begin by applying 20 seconds of pressure to all areas of the image and then continue with side-to-side and up-and-down strokes for another 2-3 minutes.
- Check the edges of the image. If they do not look firmly attached to the fabric, continue to iron with more pressure. Allow the image to cool for a couple of minutes before removing the parchment paper (on dark transfers) or the paper backing (on light transfers).
- Follow the manufacturer's directions for washing and care of your item.
You can also add dimensional embellishments such as glitter, rhinestones, buttons, puff paints and more to your transfer image. If you are working with multiple images, I suggest keeping the original image covered with parchment paper so the iron won't melt and distort the base image. Here are a few more tips to keep in mind when working with t-shirt transfer paper:
- Keep your background color in mind. When using transfers for light colors, any white portions of your design will not be printed by your printer. Once you iron on the image, those portions will be blank and the color of your fabric will show through. If you need to have white portions in your design (teeth, eyes, etc.), then use transfer paper for dark material and trim closely around the main design.
- Conversely, remember that any design printed on dark transfer paper will have an opaque white background. If you want your background to blend in, either choose a color that matches your fabric or choose an overall design that allows for easy trimming.
- Always print a test copy of your image onto regular printer paper. This lets you check image size, colors, design and more without wasting your transfer paper on possible mistakes.
- Test on scrap fabric. If possible, print a small image and transfer it to a piece of scrap fabric, such as the cut-offf sleeve of an old t-shirt. If you are working with canvases for wall hangings, purchase a small canvas (3 or 4 inches) and use it as a test surface.
Here are a few additional projects that I've created using iron-on transfers; if you've created any, feel free to link them in the comments.
These three images are photographs, layered with a number of textures and edges, printed onto dark transfer papers and then ironed onto flat artist canvases. You can also iron these images on top of painted canvas too.