Introduction: Family Reunion T-shirts With Iron-on Vinyl

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My grandfather turned 88 on the 8th of August this year. We wanted to do something special for this very special birthday, so we decided to make matching t-shirts for our whole family.

I originally planned to silk screen the t-shirts, but with sizes ranging from 12 months to mens 2XL, I thought I would have to make multiple screens. Cutting the design out of iron-on vinyl seemed like the easiest way to make so many shirts in so many different sizes. Ultimately we didn't end up having enough vinyl to do the graphics as big centered images on all the shirts, so we could have gotten the same results with only 2 or 3 screens, but using the vinyl did allow us to customize each shirt with the person's name, without having to make dozens of screens.

For this project, you'll need:

  • t-shirts (one for every family member)
  • iron-on vinyl (for our 31 shirts, we used 4 rolls of Cricut brand iron-on heat transfer vinyl)
  • electronic cutting machine (we used a KNK Zing, but a Silhouette or Cricut machine would also work)
  • X-acto knife or other wedding tool
  • wax paper (optional)
  • tea towel
  • iron

Step 1: Plan & Design

For the design on the shirts, my brother, Eric Button, drew an image of our grandfather and sent me the svg file. You could use just text or find graphics online (the noun project would be a great place to find something).

The first real challenge of this project is getting the shirt sizes for all your relatives. After finding everyone's size, I determined that we would need to divide the shirts into multiple colour groups, since we would not be able to find all the shirts we needed in a single colour in Whitehorse. You could break it down into nuclear families or do what we did, and assign a different colour to every generation.

I drew a diagram to help me keep track of what colour of shirts I needed in each size.

We used Make the Cut, digital cutting software, to set up the cutting file. You could use whatever software you usually use with your cutting machine.

When we discovered that we hadn't bought enough vinyl to make a large central image on all the shirts, we sized the main image to be like a crest on the adult shirts, and a larger central image on the child sized shirts. The one exception was my grandfather, who, as the guest of honour, got a large central image on his t-shirt.

We added all the adult's names to the cut file and positioned everything to fit on the sheets of vinyl. We chose not to personalize the kids' shirts since some parents prefer not to have their children's names on display. This will also make it easier for the child-sized shirts to be passed on as hand-me-downs.

Be sure to mirror image your design so it will not be backwards when you iron it on the shirts.

Step 2: Cutting

Roll out the vinyl onto your cutting mat, with the shiny transfer sheet facing down. The rolls are 12" x 18" so they fit nicely on a 12" x 24" cutting mat.

Set your cutting machine blade to do a "kiss cut" so the vinyl is cut but the clear transfer sheet remains intact. I recommend doing a couple test cuts before starting to cut out your t-shirt graphics, so you can make sure you have the settings right.

Cut out your designs.

Step 3: Weeding

Weeding is the process of removing the unwanted parts of your cut design.

With scissors, cut around each design so you can work on them one by one.

Using an X-acto knife or other weeding tool, carefully peel off the unwanted vinyl bits.

Stick the weeded vinyl and transfer sheets, sticky side down, on wax paper to keep them clean and together until you are ready to do the ironing.

Step 4: Ironing

Pre-wash and dry the t-shirts.

Empty the water out of your iron and set it to the highest setting (linen-cotton).

Warm up the t-shirt by ironing it for 10 to 15 seconds.

Carefully place the vinyl where you want the design.

Cover the vinyl with a tea towel and iron for 30 seconds.

Flip the t-shirt over and iron the back side for another 30 seconds.

If the vinyl is not totally stuck, iron it for another 15-30 seconds.

Peel off the transfer sheet while it is still warm (but not immediately or it will be too hot to touch).

Step 5: Finished!

Your t-shirts are now done!

I was surprised at how well the vinyl held up in the wash, even when we forgot to follow any specific care instructions. For the best results, turn the t-shirts inside out before putting them in the washing machine and dryer.