Things I’ve learnt: transferring images to fabric

Transfer prints to fabric: useful tips from Wolves in London blog

I’ve got a confession to make.

I started this blog with all the best intentions. As I wrote, in my first ever post four months ago, I was planning on “building a fabric empire” – creating new fabric designs, making beautiful things from the newly-printed fabric and, oh yes, actually starting up a business to sell said fabrics and gorgeous artefacts. And this blog had a high purpose: I was going to record all my trials and tribulations along the way in these pages…

I had visions of small business people around the world (that’s people from small businesses, not business people who are small) chatting in my comments sections, sharing information about how they’d mastered marketing their business, or selling on Etsy, or turning their initial ideas into business plans. Oh, it was going to be great! And inspirational, for me and for all my readers (short or otherwise).

And now I’m four months in to the blog. I’ve talked about cooking I’ve done, and presents I’ve made. I’ve shared a few pictures of some knitting projects I’ve finished. I’ve had a brief foray into some inspiration for the fabrics. And then I’ve returned to daily life, even telling you about the homemade cleaning products I haven’t made. Buuuut, there hasn’t yet been any actual chat about the fabric company. Mostly because, I haven’t actually done anything about that yet.

What can I say? It’s been winter, I’ve not felt like leaving the sofa for too long.

However, in my articles over the past four months there has arguably been one post that actually included something I might do in this nascent company and that was my tutorial for transferring printed images onto fabric.

Though I didn’t explicitly state it in the original article, I was toying with this method for getting images onto knit fabrics like T-shirts as a possible venture for the company. I love the idea of producing a range of T-shirts or baby-grows with attractive designs printed onto the front (it is ridiculously hard, I think, to find nice baby-grows, especially…)

So when I stumbled across the possibility of just printing out a computer image onto some paper and then ironing it on to your fabric it seemed just too good to be true. Which, of course, it was.

That’s not to say this isn’t a brilliant thing to do at home, but it definitely doesn’t create an end result with durability that would be good enough to sell for cold hard cash. (In my opinion, anyway…)

Transfer prints to fabrics: tips from Wolves in London blog
Great T-shirt with octopus book cover, image found on NYPL digital gallery

That said, I am still a bit obsessed with the process and I made quite a few T-shirts for friends’ children as Christmas presents, as well as finishing off another one for my partner.

So I thought I might share a few extra pointers from my experience using transfer paper for putting images onto T-shirts (and kid myself, at the same time, that I’m getting that one little bit closer to starting the dratted fabric business of my dreams).

If you’d like a step-by-step tutorial, return to my original post as well.

Choosing images

Transfer images to fabric: tips from Wolves in London blog
Amazing vintage image of horse and carriage races, found on the Graphics Fairy blog

This is the most crucial part, as the finished product will only look as nice as the image you’ve selected. So:

  • If you’re looking for copyright-free images, there are some amazing sites on the internet. My three favourites, which I return to time and again, are the Graphics Fairy, which has all sorts of vintage ephemera, cleaned up and ready to use, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, particularly good for scientific stuff, I’ve found, like old drawings of animals and so on, and Clip Art Etc, which has loads of black and white illustrations of just about anything you can think of.
  • Images that will work best with transfer paper are ones that have no “blank space” in them. You want to choose whole pictures, or silhouettes you can cut out, rather than line drawings. Any blank space shows up as a shiny bit on your finished fabric. (See my original post for an example of what I mean…)
  • Print out the image onto plain paper first and put it onto your T-shirt. Make sure the colours work together. Sounds obvious, I know, but it makes life easier to realise it doesn’t work at this point, rather than once you’ve ironed it on.

Preparing the images

Transferring prints to fabric: tips from Wolves of London blog
Silhouette of horse T-shirt. (Most pointless caption ever? You could already see that, couldn’t you?)
  • The easiest shape of image to use is a square, to make it easiest to cut, but don’t be put off doing a more complicated shape.
  • Silhouettes can look really great, but just take care with the cutting stage. It’s easiest to use a scalpel on a special surface (such as self-healing board for sewing). If in doubt, cut slightly within your silhouette, rather than outside. Anything you have left outside the outline will show up shiny and clear and won’t look so great.
  • Before you start with the iron, check a few times that the image is in the right place. Is it horizontal? Is it positioned where you want it? Again, this sounds obvious, but I’ve often got a bit carried away and wanted to start the exciting part, only to realise afterwards I haven’t put the picture in the optimum place…

Using the transfer paper

Transfer images to fabric
Raaar, bright red dinosaur T-shirt
  • The transfer paper I’ve used has worked in slightly different ways so be sure you check the correct method first.
  • For images that are being ironed onto light fabrics, you will need to reverse the picture first (choose mirror image on your printer setting), as you put the image face down and iron it on from there.
  • For images that are being ironed onto dark fabric, you print it out as is, remove the backing (rather than the front) of the paper and iron it straight on. Double check before you print, so you don’t end up with writing the wrong way round…
  • Not all transfer papers are equal. Shop around, check reviews, try out a few different brands to settle on one that gives the finish you’re happiest with.

Aftercare

  • I’ve not found that my T-shirts wash as well as I would like. It’s best to put them inside out in the washing machine and wash them on a lower heat.
  • Don’t iron the image again, as it will start to come off and stick to everything. Yeah. I tried.

And I think that covers it! If you’ve used this method of transferring images onto fabric, do drop me a comment and let me know if there are other tips you think I’ve missed off.

If you share my love of vintage images and are looking for a different project that uses them, take a look at my homemade paperweight tutorial. For more images, including the ones I’ve used for these T-shirts, check out my Pinterest board Free graphics.

Things I’ve learnt is an occasional series, where I talk about stuff I’ve picked up while trying to set up a new business of printed fabrics. I’m hoping that the information in these posts might be informative / interesting / amusing to anyone else setting up their own craft business. If you’ve any suggestions for other topics for this series, or any thoughts on what I’ve written about, please do post a comment at the end of the piece…

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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:

Supplies

  • 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

Verdict

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.