Introduction: A [Novelty] Novel Tee

About: In which I turn the thoughts from my head into objects in my hands

I'm quite partial to puns, and this project's title is no exception.

A friend of mine loves to read, so for her birthday I designed a shirt with a few of her (and my) favorite books. Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson were the series of our childhood, so of course they had to feature prominently in the design. My favorite book in the universe, The Name of the Wind, also had to be there, along with some other fantasy favorites like Royal Assassin and Graceling. The Girl with Borrowed Wings is a bit of a reference to my own username and while it's not a classic that many have heard about, it's still in my top five favorite books. And if you're looking for other good reads, check out the list on step 2.

Iron-on material is a pretty standard project with many tutorials already previously done, but this project focuses on little tips to better handle the material to avoid wrinkles and bubbles, in addition to graphic design tips for the book title word cloud. For those who want to learn a bit more about the software Sure Cuts a Lot and about using a USCutter vinyl cutter (I have access to one courtesy of UMakers in Claremont, CA), this is also the tutorial for you.

Step 1: Materials

  • t-shirt (wash this before using iron on; 100% cotton works best, but synthetic materials like polyester and rayon will suffice as well -- just that more heat is required, and fumes are a bit more harmful for you so ventilation is more important)
  • iron-on (a type of material that you can cut and use to iron designs onto your shirt; commercial retailers like Silhouette and Cricut offer small rolls of this, but amazon will be one of the cheapest places to get generic iron-on if you're not rushed for shipping time. If you need a large roll of the stuff for mass production, contacting manufacturing suppliers might be more your thing...)
  • vinyl cutter (I used the USCutter standing vinyl cutter 28" at UMakers in Claremont, CA)
  • iron and towels
  • graphic design software (I used Adobe Illustrator because I'm most familiar with it, but there are free options such as Inkscape, and other softwares like Corel Draw.

Step 2: Font Selection and Arrangement

I've worked with yearbook design, and one of the key takeaways was the importance of choosing the correct font. You can use any font for anything you'd like -- no one's stopping you -- but there are certain tones and moods that a font can associate with your text that may be desireable.

With that being said, be careful with your font selection. Download fonts from the internet that you find match your book titles (see here for great free fonts). Some books may even be popular enough that they have their own fonts associated with them already (the common example is Harry Potter's font, but Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl had their own as well). Here's a general list of font features to look for as you pick out corresponding fonts for your books:

  • Serifs (the fonts with stroke extensions on the tips of letters in Times New Roman and similar fonts) give text a more serious, somber tone. These fonts are typically associated with traditional, conservative, and intellectual qualities. They're also popular, especially for headings, because the strokes make them easier to read. My favorite serif fonts are Cochin and Ledger, which I'd use for a serious book like To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Sans-serif fonts lack the stroke extensions (so think Calibri and Arial). They give your text an air of being simple, uncluttered, and even youthful. My favorite sans-serif fonts would be Hero and Jura, and these are for more young-adult, lighthearted text.
  • Italics can give your text a more romanticized feel, or it might serve to differentiate certain text from others. For example, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks might use a serif font to give it some gravity, but it could be italicized to lighten that gravity, add a touch of whimsy.
  • Capitals might be a good choice for your book title if it's serious but not Times-New-Roman serious. For example, I capitalized Graceling because I felt that fantasy/epic books would look good in all caps.
  • Fonts with thinner lines are commonly seen as more modern and chic. Some fonts have a special version for this called Light in which the lines are intentionally thinner to get this look.
  • There are some fonts with stylizedspecial effects, like a chalkboard texture (think The Fault in Our Stars), pointilism/perforation (check out Dot Matrix), or handwriting (see Daniel and Pea Valerie). Prime and Tesla are fonts that have a techy/engineering feel to them, so you can seek specific effects like that too. Look at Sunday for a relaxed, afternoon-tea sort of atmosphere.
  • Like I said, there are also fonts so popularly associated with books that they're quite recognizable like Harry P and Charlemagne from Harry Potter. See The Book Thief's font also; very distinct.

As a reference guide, here's the list of fonts that I used for each book title that I tested out (see how they look in the third image above):

  • The Name of the Wind: Athelas
  • To Kill a Mockingbird: Georgia
  • Harry Potter: Harry P
  • The Giving Tree: Burst My Bubble
  • Green Eggs and Ham: Hauracherell
  • The Fault in Our Stars: Sunday
  • Poison Study: Optima
  • The Book Thief: Cochin (original font wasn't free...)
  • Howl's Moving Castle: Charlamagne
  • Artemis Fowl: Dark11
  • Percy Jackson: Windlass
  • The Girl with Borrowed Wings: Baskerville
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret: Big Caslon
  • I am Malala: Bell
  • The King of Attolia: Calisto
  • The Princess Bride: Book Antiqua
  • Graceling: AvQuest
  • Terrier: Papyrus
  • Inkheart: Charlemagne
  • Royal Assassin: Windlass (you can tell that I ran out of fonts here, huh)

The reason why I didn't rely on some word cloud generator like Wordle is because I tried to shape the text like it looks on the actual book cover. For example, I looked a my copy of The Name of the Wind and arranged the text like how it looks on the book cover. Same for The Girl with Borrowed Wings.

P.S. Brownie points if you find my typo in the book titles. Yes, I am ashamed -- but I fixed it later on!

Step 3: Designing the Word Cloud

Now that you have all your text, create outlines from them (to lock the thickness of their stroke). Do this by selecting all of it with your black arrow pointer before going to the Text top tab and going down to Create Outlines.

Now that the text are outlined paths instead of text, you can drag them around and resize freely without worrying about the text stroke thickness and all. Try to image a rectangular box around each of the words and creating a brick wall with them. I say brick wall because bricks are slightly offset: you want your text to be arranged interestingly and randomly rather than in a straight line. When arranging, try not to group serif fonts next to serif fonts; mix serifs and sans-serif fonts to give the word cloud a feeling of randomness.

Step 4: Setting Up the USCutter

You might not be using a USCutter, but for those who are, this step is for you.

Begin by inserting your material between the rollers from behind. Make sure that the side you want to cut is facing upward. Catch the inserted material in the front and line it up with the straight horizontal edges (which one doesn't really matter as long as your material is parallel to the ruler). Snap the black levers up to lock the rollers down and thus keep your material in place. Up is to lock your material in place, and down is to free it.

Now plug in and power on the machine. You should see some speed and power ratings on the screen. If reset is flashing, press that once before beginning everything. Press the origin button to have the blade indicate where it is on your material. It'll touch down so if your material isn't under where the blade goes down, adjust so that it is.

Press setup until you see the screen for cut speed and pressure. Adjust according to your material, but if you don't know don't worry; you can do test runs to check and adjust your settings. Just press the test button and the machine will quickly draw you a star. Use a blade or needle to carefully test if the material is cut to your liking: in my case, I peeled the iron-on top layer off to see that it didn't go through the bottom plastic layer but did go completely through the iron-on. Increasing cutting pressure will make your blade go deeper so your material is fully cut, but you also don't want to cut through the shiny plastic. Increasing cutting speed makes the job go quicker, but the blade is more prone to dragging and catching on sharp turns in your material.

Step 5: Sure Cuts a Lot: Cutting Software

The companion software for the USCutter is Sure Cuts a Lot. Open up the app and have a file (ai, pdf, jpg, svg, etc.) of your design ready.

Click SVG button in the top left corner to import your ai, pdf, svg, etc. file into the software. Then go to the cutter tab on the top horizontal tool bar and check out the cut settings to see how your cutter is oriented (picture on the right). You can see that the cutting starts at the bottom right corner of this cutting mat so be sure to position your image in that corner.

Depending on your material dimensions, you'll need to change the "mat size" option that you see in the upper right corner (or go to the cutter tab and choose "mat size"). In my case, my iron-on material was 15" wide and it was a roll, so I just used 15" by 12" since I knew my design wouldn't hit those bounds anyway (make the mat bigger than your intended dimensions).

Since the blade is cutting the iron-on material side up, you'll need to mirror your image. To do this, right click the image and go to transform --> flip horizontal.

Easily resize your design to fit the shirt using the option on the right panel that appears when you have the design selected. Just input your constraint and keep proportions to scale the design up or down. In my case, height constraint was 6" tall so I put that in and resized.

When you're happy with how everything looks, go up to the cutter tab on the horizontal tool bar at the top and click on Cut with USCutter.

Step 6: Cutting

The dangers of cutting are that if you don't cut deeply enough, trimming will be a huge pain. But cut too deep and your plastic backing is now useless. So be sure of your testing and material settings before you attempt to begin cutting! Also keep an eye while the cutting is happening in case your blade speed setting is fast enough that it gets caught on your material and rips it.

Step 7: Trimming

As a quick check, place your cut-out iron on onto your shirt to see if it fits and is the size you like. Better to know now rather than after you've painstakingly trimmed the design.

Cut out as much of the excess surrounding iron-on to make the trimming easier. Grab a corner of the iron-on material (not the shiny plastic backing!) and peel it off gradually at as sharp an angle as possible. Then go in with a sharp blade or needle to dig in and lift the inside material leftover after peeling the surrounding material. Don't rush or you might accidentally lift away a letter or five! Just put on Netflix and relax.

You can alternatively use transfer paper, but I find that this is the best way for accuracy without spending extra money.

Step 8: Ironing

The shirt should be prewashed and completely dry before you iron for best results. Consider using a 100% cotton shirt: it works best, but synthetic fibers like polyester and rayon should work fine also (my shirt happened to be 100% rayon, but that just means that it wrinkles quite easily too). The synthetic fibers will require higher heat in order to full bond the iron on. Be sure that in terms of color choice, the iron on will stand out in the colored background of the shirt.

Use an ironing board if you have one to ensure that your shirt will be well supported as you press, but if you're like me and don't have one, a simple towel-covered tabletop works just as well. If your iron isn't too strong and you're worried about heat transfer (especially for synthetic fibers) place a sheet of aluminum foil underneath your shirt. This will better reflect your heat as you iron.

Put your shirt as flat and wrinkle-free as possible on your ironing surface and arrange your design on top, sticky side of the plastic facing down. Press down on the design so that the adhesive is sticking onto the shirt (more flush is better) before putting a thinner towel to completely cover the design (protects it from the iron's heat. Plug in your iron, turn it to the highest setting, and as it heats up, just contemplate life.

Once it's fully hot, begin applying pressure on the towel-covered design with your iron. Iron from the center of the design outward to push out any bubbles that might form. Spend the most time (just hold iron there for 10-20 seconds) on the edges since those are the places most likely to peel up.

Test the bonding periodically to see if you're done. Just gently peel up the plastic backing and if the text stays on the shirt, congratulate yourself. Let the shirt cool thoroughly before moving it or trying it on; this gives ample time for the bonding to stay fixed and secure.

Step 9: Finished; Future Steps

In general, hand wash for the first time after you've ironed on the design so that your washing machine doesn't violently rip off your gorgeous design. Avoid bleach as this is likely to wear out your design, and when washing turn the shirt inside out to minimize abrasive effects. If possible, avoid high heat settings when drying in dryers also, as this can warp your iron on.

And that's it! Future steps and tweaks that you might want to try out next:

  • Instead of just having book titles on your shirt, consider recreating the entire book cover for an even more specific Novel Tee.
  • I had all my text horizontally parallel and relatively rectangular, but you could try rotating some at different angles or shaping the text into triangles that fit together using word wrapping tools or clipping masks.
  • All my text was in one color only, but a mishmash of colors might be fun.

As always, I hope you enjoyed the tutorial; feel free to leave questions or comments below and I'll get to it once I get the chance.

T-Shirt Transformations Challenge

Participated in the
T-Shirt Transformations Challenge