Introduction: 3 Ways to Revive a Plain T-Shirt

A couple weeks ago I went to a Chance the Rapper concert. It was amazing, and I went to buy a t-shirt to have a souvenir of the experience. However, the shirts were expensive (around $45), and I didn't even like the designs. So, I figured--why not make my own t-shirt? I created a t-shirt that was exactly what I wanted and still spent less than I would have at the concert. These 3 methods I used can revive any plain old white t-shirt you have laying around the house. Now, because of the look that I wanted for my shirt, I used all 3 methods: dyeing, iron-ons, and paint to make mine. For most shirts/looks, one or two of these methods should be sufficient.

Step 1: Dye the Shirt: Materials

Since I started with a white t-shirt, to get the background color I wanted, I started to research dyeing options.

Here's what I ended up using:

1 S white t-shirt (100% cotton is important*) [$2.99, unless already have an old one]

2 boxes of fuchsia Rit dye (for deeper colors you will need more than 1 box)** [$4.98]

1 box of sunshine orange Rit dye** [$2.49]

1/2 cup of salt

1 pair rubber gloves

1 stirring spoon

1 bucket

*If you are going to get a shirt that isn't 100% cotton, you will probably need to choose a different dye. Rit is a union dye, which means it works well with most materials. However with some blended fabrics or synthetic fabrics (ex: polyester, nylon) it would could be better to use a dye specialized for that material

**If you are having trouble determining how to create the exact color you want from the limited number of colors provided by Rit you can go this color mixer:

And use colors closest to the given Rit colors to try to mix and create your own desired color/shade. That should give you a better idea of what your combinations of Rit colors should be. And remember, using more than one box of the same color dye will give you a deeper/darker shade of that color.

Step 2: Dye the Shirt: Preparing the Dye Bath

First, throw your shirt in the washing machine on the hottest water setting. This will prep the material for dyeing to ensure that no manufacturer-applied or other chemicals interfere with the dyeing process.

Next, I set up my work space. I put down a few old towels on the floor of my garage catch any water that splashed out. I also put a trash bag in my bucket to prevent any staining and make clean up easier (since I borrowed it from my mom after all).

The dye bath works best at about 140 F, so fill a pot with enough water to allow the shirt to float freely in, and begin to heat it up on the stove top. If you don't want to bother with the exact temperature, it should be ready around when the water simmers (right before it begins to boil). When the water is hot enough, pour it into the bucket.

Now, it's time to add the dye. To get the color you want, it will take some experimentation. Grab several napkins or paper towels (folded over a couple times to depict the color more accurately). If your t-shirt is going to be dyed several colors, start with the lightest color. I kept a picture of my t-shirt's desire final image (the album cover art) and continually compared the background color to the color appearing on the napkin. Repeat the process of adding a little dye, stirring it into the water, and checking the color by dipping the folded napkin in the dye bath a couple times.

Step 3: Dye the Shirt: DYE THE SHIRT

Get your shirt out of the wash (no need to dry). Put it in your dye bath and begin to stir. After 3 minutes, add the salt (this helps ensure the dye is even). Continuously stir it for 15-30 min. Make sure the shirt isn't getting too tangled or folded while stirring.

Since I had another color to dye my shirt, after 20 min I took the shirt out and added more dye to get the darker color for the bottom part of the shirt. Then, I only dipped in the bottom half of the shirt. I let that sit for another 20 min.

Step 4: Dye the Shirt: Rinse and Dry

Wring out the shirt above the dye bath, and take it to a stainless steel sink. Rinse it with hot water until all the excess dye stops coming out. If you're a patient human being, you can hang the shirt up and let it air dry. If you're as restless as me, throw it in the dryer with an old towel to speed up the process.

If dyeing was all you wanted to accomplish, you're good to go! However, that was only 1 out of 3 transformations for my shirt. For me, it was time to move on to the transfer paper.

Step 5: Transfer Image: Gathering Materials

I bought a 5 sheet pack of dark transfer paper [$8.99]. The rule of thumb for dark vs. light transfer paper is that dark will work on colored materials and white/lightly colored materials, but white will only work on light/white materials. Even though light transfer paper is usually cheaper, if you try to use it on a dark material the quality/color of the transferred image will likely be warped or compromised. If you are unsure, I would err on the safe side and get dark transfer paper.

Step 6: Transfer Image: Preparing the Image

First, choose the image you want to transfer onto the shirt (make sure it is a quality photo and won't appear grainy when enlarged).

Optional: Go into Photoshop (or another photo editor) and erase unnecessary background colors. This will save ink (this is my mom's printer after all). This shouldn't take too long. Open Photoshop, select File > Open (Ctrl + O) > Choose the Image. Use the Magic Wand Tool ("W" key) to select the background colors and hit delete (or replace with white). Do this to delete the large chunks. Then, go back and clean it up a little with the eraser ("E" key). Then File > Save (Ctrl + S). Again this part is optional, I just didn't want to waste that much ink on the parts I wouldn't be using.

IMPORTANT: Check the instructions on YOUR transfer sheet package to see if the image needs to be mirrored or not. Some do and some do not, IT DIFFERS DEPENDING ON BRAND! For mine, Jolee's Easy Image, it does not. If you do need to: open the file in Windows Photos (or another photo editor) > Edit > Crop and rotate > Flip > Done. And save the image. Be meticulous on this part to save yourself some time, money, and heartache!!

Now, you have to determine the size. If the size of your image fits within one typical 8.5 x 11 in. transfer sheet, great! Skip to the next step!

If you want your image to be larger than that, you have a little more work to do. My image would be a picture of Chance that is featured in the middle of his album cover. If I only used one sheet it would be way to small (relative to the size of the shirt). So, I found a free program called PosteRazor, which can be downloaded here:

This will allow you print a larger image by combining several 8.5 x 11 in. sheets. The instructions are pretty clearly stated. Choose the image you want, choose the orientation of the sheets (for my image, Landscape orientation used less transfer sheets so I chose that), you can change the overlap to 0 cm in step 3, enter the size of your image (I measured out what the height would look like on my t-shirt and decided on 38 cm and the width was automatically calculated--double check the width fits your shirt too). On step 5, save it as a pdf and open the file. Now you're ready to print.

Step 7: Transfer Image: Printing the Image

Recommended: Print a test image on a regular sheet of paper. This will catch several mistakes that could occur that you DO NOT want to discover on a pricey sheet of transfer paper. Look for: position (correctly mirrored or not), color (Is there enough ink? Are the colors exactly as you wanted them to appear?), side of paper (which side does your printer put the ink on? Mark one side with pen/pencil and print part of the image to determine), and size.

In Adobe Acrobat (or another pdf reader), click the print icon. Select pages and start on 1. Even if you are going to print on several pieces of transfer paper, load them into the printer one at a time, and print each page separately to avoid printer jams. Then click Properties and change the Media setting to the whatever is suggested by your transfer paper package. If there are no specific instructions on yours, any setting denoting "Specialty Paper" and/or "Best Quality" is a safe bet. BEWARE using an "Iron on T-Shirt Transfer" setting!! Some of those will automatically flip/mirror your image during printing without notifying you (yes, I learned that the hard, frustrating way).

Double check the transfer sheet's non-glossy side is on the printer's "ink" side and print out your image! Then, trim off the excess paper around the image.

Step 8: Transfer Image: TRANSFER THE IMAGE

Now, take the transfer paper image, parchment paper, and t-shirt to a hard surface that can withstand significant heat and pressure (using an ironing board is not recommended unless it is very sturdy). Heat up the iron to the highest setting, and iron the shirt by itself to get rid of wrinkles and moisture. If you have multiple sheets, it's easiest to iron on one section at a time. Peel the back of the transfer sheet off and place it on the shirt (transfer sheet instructions will specify if the image should be facing up or down). Put the parchment paper over the image. Iron over the parchment paper in small circles. DO NOT USE STEAM. Make sure you are pressing with sufficient pressure (I used two hands and leaned into it). Spend 2 min on each section of the image.

And there you have it! The transferred image should be good to go (my transfer instructions recommended washing inside out on a low spin, cold water setting)

Step 9: Paint the Shirt

The final way I used to customize my shirt was to paint it (to get the cloud-like background and stars). I bought fabric paint [$3.99]. You can use acrylic paint, but applying to the shirt alone will probably stiffen the fabric and it wont blend very well. So, for the best results with acrylic paint, mix it with textile medium or a fabric paint. This will keep the shirt soft and help the color stay on permanently. I already had a brush and sponge that I used to paint the clouds and stars.

Step 10: (Optional) Roll the Sleeves

Since it's summer--and I wanted to give the shirt a little more flair--I folded up the sleeves twice and sewed them in position. It gives the shirt more character and I simply like the look :)


So in the end of the day I spent a total of $24.45 and had a lot of fun creating a shirt that looks exactly like I want it to. I hope you found this helpful!

Before and After Contest 2017

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Before and After Contest 2017