Peacocks and paradise: William Morris at Tate Britain

Before Christmas, we trotted off to Tate Britain to meet some friends and visit the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. The highlight of the exhibition, as far as I was concerned, was room number six, entitled Paradise. A room devoted to William Morris.

Peacock and bird carpet, William Morris
© William Morris Gallery, London

I flipping love William Morris. I love the ornate details, the colours, the grandeur, I love how his designs are fabulously floral without being twee.

But what really inspired me, aside from the individual beauty of the designs, was seeing all of his different work in this room and realizing just how much he was involved with.  There’s wallpaper, of course, textiles, curtains, books with stunningly ornate wood engravings… There’s even his four poster bed,  festooned with the Kelmscott Tree fabric.

As the Tate website says, his firm, “produced tiles, furniture, embroidery, stained-glass, printed and woven textiles, carpets and tapestry for both ecclesiastical and domestic interiors, examples of which are included in this room. In 1891 Morris founded the Kelmscott Press for the production of high quality hand-printed books.”

That’s quite a list! Everything from fabric to furniture, glass to books. For someone with plans and desires to set up a new fabric business, but who has a serious problem trying to weed through millions of different ideas and settle on doing one solitary thing, this was just what I needed to see. Why not try and do a bit of everything?!

Of course, my biggest problem is that I don’t exactly have the talent that William Morris did. But realising that even the greats sometimes take a scattergun approach, rather than refining and refining one specific discipline, was highly encouraging to me.

I didn’t take any photos of the room (well, you’re not allowed to, so I obeyed the rules), but I strongly recommend a visit if you’re in London before January 13th. There are all the details on the Tate website:  Pre Raphaelites, Victorian Avant-Garde.

Here, though, are a few William Morris patterns that are currently available, which are bringing me a bit of joy and good cheer on this gloomy January morning. I hope they do the same for you.

All photos are copyright Morris & Co and if you click on the photo you can go straight through to their website.

William Morris wallpaper
Fruit wallpaper, designed in 1864
Kelmscott tree fabric from Morris & Co
Kelmscott tree fabric, inspired by the curtains on Morris’s four poster bed
Kennet by Morris and Co
An original William Morris design, this is called Kennet. I think it’s simply stunning

How to transfer printed images onto fabric

If you’ve read my last couple of posts about my plans for my partner’s birthday, you’ll know that some of the final presents I needed to make him were three T-shirts with ironed on prints.

(If you haven’t read these posts, don’t worry, there’s absolutely no fascinating back story you’re missing out on, beyond what I just wrote, required for enjoying this post, but if you would like to catch up, you can find them here: Three secret projects and His (birthday) scarf.)

If you’d been waiting in suspense to find out whether I would get these made in time for his birthday, the answer was no. The printer arrived the day before, which coincided with a grumpy baby day, so there was no chance at all of me getting anything done. So instead of the finished product, Jamie received three plain T-shirts with tags on and a promise to be turned into something a little more wonderful…

A T-shirt tag
Erm, not quite finished with your present yet love, but it’s coming soon. Honest…

But, in the end, we had a crack at one of them together over the weekend.

This is how we got on:


  • Plain cotton T-shirt. (I bought mine from the bargainous Primark, at a whopping £2.50 each.)
  • T-shirt transfer paper. (I bought mine from eBay. Stick it in the search and loads of options come up. I had two packs with ten pages each: one for printing on light fabrics and one for dark.)
  • Some cool graphics. (You can use whatever you like here. I’ve been particularly enjoying the ones at Clip Art etc. You can use these images for free for non-commercial projects.)
  • A printer (ink jet not laser jet).
  • An iron, with the steam setting switched off.
  • A hard surface, with a couple of tea towels on top. Note: not an ironing board as this is too soft for the transfer to take properly.
Three T-shirts
Cheap and cheery, three T-shirts ready for printing

Once you’ve gathered all your supplies, it’s really very simple to transfer the print onto the T-shirt. The instructions that follow work with the transfer paper I had, but obviously check the instructions on your paper before you go ahead.

How to

Image lined up on T-shirt
Oh what a lovely hand that is, lining up the image so delicately onto the T-shirt
  1. Practice printing your graphic out onto normal printer paper first. You want to make sure you know which side of the paper your printer is using, that the graphic is the right size for your T-shirt and that it looks how you’d like it to once it’s printed out. Put the white paper over the T-shirt and make sure it all looks right. It’s also worth pointing out that your final graphic will appear as a mirror image of the one in front of you, so make sure it looks okay this way round. (If you’ve got words in your image, you can use the “mirror” setting on your printer, though this might not give as clean a print as normal.) But at this stage, experiment and make sure you’re completely happy with your results before you put it onto the transfer paper.
  2. Print!
  3. Cut round the details of the graphic as closely as you can. Try and remove as much of the area that has nothing on as possible.
  4. Line up your image onto the T-shirt. The clear side with the print on should face the fabric, the white side with the squares faces out. Check and check again that it’s straight and just as you want it to be.
  5. Iron the paper for around two minutes. Make sure the steam setting is not switched on. Concentrate on the centre first and then work your way out to the sides.
  6. Let the paper cool down. (I found this part hard! Patience is not my strong point.)
  7. Carefully and slowly remove the white backing, starting at one of the edges and pulling it off evenly.
  8. Admire your creation…
T-shirt printed with shark graphic
The finished result: one red T-shirt boldly emblazoned with vintage shark image


Update, summer 2014: since writing this post, I’ve discovered the absolutely wonderful transfer paper made by Lesley Riley, which produces a really brilliant finish and definitely could be used on products to sell. In fact, I’ve plans in the pipeline to sell some tops I’ve made using it!

I’ve also written a few more tips on how to get the best results when using transfer paper, which you can read here if you like: Things I’ve learnt: tips on transferring images to fabric

I’d never tried this before and was really excited to see how it was going to turn out, wondering if this could be a good way to get  prints onto babygrows for my embryonic fabric line. I have to admit, however, my expectations slightly outweighed the end result. From a distance, and away from direct light, the T-shirts look great. Every little detail of the pattern has been transferred, crisp and clear onto the T-shirt fronts.

But up close, or in the light, the area where the transfer has been ironed is really shiny and stiff, to the point of being reflective. That area has also lost any stretch, so it sits stiff and solid even when it’s being worn. Overall, it definitely looks amateur.

T-shirt with printed image
Shiny, shiny, shiny: you can clearly see in this picture where the whole patch of transfer paper sits

Because I’d used an image that has lots of black lines with white “space” behind it, those areas which should appear neutral show up shiny. I think this method would work far better for transferring on a solid block image, probably with colour, rather than one that any blank spaces in. Then, you’d need to cut exactly round the image you had and you’d eliminate my problem of shiny areas where nothing is happening.

I’ll reassess once they’ve been through the wash a few times, as that might help soften it up a bit, but for now, this wouldn’t be a method I’d repeat for anything but a “homemade” effect.

I’ll try the next one with a solid image, though, in colour, and see how that works out. Will report back with findings…

If you try this method of printing images onto fabric, do post a comment below and let me know how you get on.