Introduction: Geekify a T-Shirt

Well, it's finally that time for kids to graduate from high school and move on to their next big adventure. Of course, you can't leave without exchanging parting gifts to your classmates or colleagues that have endured the good times and the bad times with you along the way.

Caitlin wanted to get a cool T-shirt for her friend but there was really nothing out there that was fitting enough for the personality of this person. The situation seemed to call for something that was custom made by DIY.

So this is a quick guide to putting a custom design or graphic onto a T-Shirt.

Step 1: Do I Have to Spell It Out...

There are many ways of getting a custom design onto a T-Shirt.

The easiest way is to print out your graphic on iron-on transfer paper, cut that out and iron the design on to your T-Shirt. Most of those iron-on transfer papers require an ink-jet printer to print the image from the computer. You also have to get the thicker material for use on darker fabrics. Follow the manufacturer's instructions if you need to mirror the image or need to peel off and then apply. There are some papers that can go through a laser printer/copier and even a few specific kinds color laser printer but I am not taking any chances of running that through my laser printer to have them gum up the expensive drum unit or rollers. I have not used my inkjet printer for such a long that the ink cartridges have definitely dried out so I will go with the newer tech that I have.

I have a Silhouette Cameo printer which is essentially a stencil cutting machine.

The concept for the T-Shirt was to put the person's name on the shirt but spelled out with Periodic Table element blocks. There are many Periodic Table sign generators out on the interwebz so you can use them to do the heavy work of looking up the elements that fit and lay them out. It was lucky that this name can be generated from stand-alone element names and will not have excess characters to spoil the look. You can even download the generated graphic which you need to tweak for the final image. I used GIMP to do some resizing of the graphic and sharpened the lines to fit the area on the T-Shirt that I wanted the graphic to be placed. I also flipped it horizontally or mirrored so it would be cut correctly on the heat transfer material.

The Silhouette machine is a computer printer that has a small blade as the printhead instead of ink cartridges. The design software can import a jpeg image and then can automatically trace or generate the cut lines for use. Since I knew we were going to end up with an iron-on mask or stencil of some sort, the base image was generated in black and white. Any cutout areas would show the color of the T-Shirt underneath.

Caitlin picked out one of the T-Shirts from the batch of many different colored T-Shirts gotten from those sales at the craft store. It was the closest thing we had to Tufts blue. So yeah, Congratulations, young man.

I don't use my Silhouette that often so every time it gets used it is a learning experience. You do need to do test cuts to figure out that the blade is cutting deep enough to score the vinyl layer but not go through and perforate your backing sheet. The on screen display did not correspond to where the machine started cutting. There was probably some adjustment to the size of the borders on the cutting mat I had to change or it didn't catch right when it was loaded. I did get everything right on the third try without having to waste too much heat transfer material.

(edit: It's that LOAD MEDIA default or LOAD MAT option that gets you everytime...I'm too busy fumbling with getting it to line up on the feed marks and catching it just right under the rollers)

After the machine does its job of cutting the outlines, you have to "weed" or remove all of the excess vinyl. I used a small pin and a pair of tweezers to lift and pull out the unneeded parts. It is a design consideration that you try to use the largest font you can and probably try not to have small sharp corners. The insides of the 4, 8, and e were difficult to keep in place as you pulled off the outer parts. Some of those small bits were stuck to the blade or became dislodged when cutting. I had to use small bits of vinyl cut from the weeded parts to repair the missing segments.

Step 2: Iron On, Iron Off...

Now that you have the iron-on transfer completed, it's time to apply the graphic onto the T-Shirt.

You will need an iron that has a cotton setting to get the iron really hot. This my cheapo iron dedicated for craft use since it was used for hot glue laminates when building countertops so I am not worried about gunking it up and ruining clothes with it. It doesn't have a teflon nonstick ironing surface but then again I can scrape or sand off any buildup on this iron. If you do this often, consider getting or making a real T-Shirt heat press. The commercial units get hotter for the optimal temperature of the heat transfer material and apply a whole lot more clamping pressure over a larger area.

With heat or iron-on transfer paper kits you might get a sheet of teflon coated paper to use as a barrier when you are ironing so that the heat transfer material will not melt and stick to your iron. I use a piece of parchment baking paper instead. It resists high temperatures and may have a silicone or waxy coating.

Mock up where your iron-on transfer will be positioned. With the T-Shirt draped on you, use tailor's chalk, reuse the T-Shirt size label or a piece of tape to establish a guideline for your iron-on transfer.

Now lay the T-shirt out flat on the ironing board and smooth it down. Position the iron-on transfer and make sure the side that will adhere to the T-shirt is against the fabric. My iron-on transfer has the clear plastic carrier sheet that you iron through to melt the vinyl cutout to the fabric.

Put your teflon sheet or parchment paper over the iron-on transfer and iron.

Deliberately heat up sections at a time and incrementally slide over to the next. Apply even pressure as you go.

When you think things are set, it is trial and error depending on the materials and how hot your iron is, stop ironing and let the iron-on transfer cool. It will be hot so be careful!

You can then start peeling away the backing sheet and peeking under to see that the vinyl is fully adhered to the fabric.

You may need to cover it back up and iron again. I even ironed on the back side of the iron-on transfer to made sure it adhered well. The only problem was really with the little bits inside the letters and numbers that needed a touch up.

Once the clear plastic carrier sheet was peeled away, I went over the entire iron-on transfer with the parchment paper and iron to really set the design onto the fabric.

Let cool and it is ready to use. You can go wash the T-Shirt, but hey, these are college students, who are we kidding?

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