Introduction: Iron on Transfers for T-Shirts, Tote Bags, and Other Fabrics

How to Transfer Graphics Onto T-Shirts and More

Iron on transfers are great for t-shirts, and once you know how to apply your own custom images to fabric with the use of iron on transfer sheets, the possibilities are endless!  You can make custom clothing, tote bags, aprons, and much more.  Whether you're making custom shirts for the local sports team, creating the perfect gift for a loved one, or making merchandise to sell on ebay or etsy, iron on transfers provide an inexpensive and easy way to apply images to fabric. 

Step 1: Find Unique Artwork

First and foremost, you'll need an image that you'd like to transfer.  

When considering an image, keep in mind that light colors may not produce results like solid, dark colors.  You'll be printing the iron on transfer with your home printer... and printers don't actually print white ink, they just assume the background color of your paper is white and ignore white ink.  So if your image has white in it... the iron on transfer will appear clear in those areas, showing the color of the fabric instead of white.  Very light colors may appear transparent making for a muddy result.  It's best to stick with solid, dark colors that will be rich with ink and really show the contrast of your image against the fabric.

If you plan to print your image on a dark colored shirt or dark fabric, you'll need special iron on transfer paper with a white background instead of a clear background, allowing for white and light colors but with other restrictions (more on that later!).

If you're interested in selling your custom shirt or product, you will need to make sure that you have the rights to sell the image on merchandise, so don't just copy an image off of google!  You can find inexpensive, high quality artwork in a variety of different subjects on etsy and other websites and legally sell shirts and other products using the artwork.

Visit VintageRetroAntique on for thousands of printable vintage graphics like the cute bunny used in the example.

Next we'll look at different types of iron on transfer paper.

Step 2: Choose Your Iron on Transfer Sheets

There are two different types of iron on transfer sheets: one for light fabrics, and one for dark fabrics.

Iron on Transfer Sheets for Light Fabrics

These iron on transfer sheets are for white and other light colors of fabric.  The paper is transparent, so the background of your image will appear clear, as in the sample bunny shirt seen above.  Be careful - any white in your design will be clear, even if it is part of the foreground.  Light colors may not appear accurate after being transfered, so it is best to stick with medium to dark colors when using this type of transfer paper.  Even though the background is clear, you'll probably want to trim around the edge of your design, as the clear area can still sometimes be slightly visible.

Iron on Transfer Sheets for Dark Fabrics

If your shirt or fabric is black, dark gray, dark blue, or another dark color, you'll want to buy iron on transfer sheets for dark fabrics.  They are thicker and have a white backing, allowing the use of white and light colors in the image or design.  The major downfall of this type of transfer paper is that with the background appearing white, you cannot have part of your image appear clear... so you must carefully cut around any letters or other design elements or have a solid background as part of your design. 

Different Brands and Availability

There are many different manufacturers of iron on transfer sheets, and the results vary depending on the quality of the iron on transfer paper.  Your local craft store may only carry one or two brands, but you can find several online on websites like  if you're unsure of which brand works best, check out some reviews on Amazon and other websites where you can learn pros and cons of each brand and read user experiences.

Next we'll see look at how to best print your design onto the iron on transfer sheet.

Step 3: How to Print Your Design Onto Transfer Paper

Once you've found an image to use, you'll need  to print your image onto the iron on transfer paper.  Keep in mind that if you're using iron on transfer sheets for light fabrics (the standard kind), you'll need to reverse the image or it will appear backwards.  You can usually do this right from the print settings (reverse or flip horizontally).  If you don't have a print setting to reverse the image while printing, you can usually find free tools online by searching google for reverse image tools.  If you're using iron on transfers for dark fabrics, you will NOT want to reverse the image!  It will appear on the shirt as it appears on the printed transfer page.  The only other thing to consider while printing is to make sure that you are printing your design on the correct side of the iron on transfer sheet.

Now, finally onto the iron on transfer process itself!

Step 4: How to Trim and Transfer Your Design

Whether your using light or dark fabric transfer paper, you'll want to trim around your design, staying as close to your design's edges as possible.  If you're using iron on transfers for lights, you'll should NOT peel off the backing until after you've ironed on the design.  If you're using iron on transfer paper for darks, you'll be peeling off the backing before ironing on the design.  Be sure to check your transfer paper's instructions.

When you're ready to iron on the design, make sure to use a hard, flat surface underneath.  This differs from normal ironing... you don't want to use an ironing board for iron on transfers.  Set your iron to the hottest setting, but NEVER USE STEAM!  Avoid any moisture which could ruin your transfer.  Before ironing on your design, be sure to iron the shirt or fabric to make sure it is free of wrinkles.  If you're using iron on transfers for lights, you'll want to place the image side of your transfer sheet down.  If you're using transfers for darks, the image side face up.  Some dark fabric iron on transfer sheets include parchment paper or another paper to put in between the transfer sheet and the iron.  

Iron the design onto the fabric with firm pressure, applying pressure evenly across the whole area of the image, especially the edges.  Continue applying firm even pressure while ironing the design onto the image for 3 or 4 minutes.  Before you stop and move onto the next step, check the edges of the transfer and make sure they appear to have adhered to the fabric.  If they don't appear evenly adhered, continue ironing and applying even pressure to the edges of the transfer.  

After ironing the design onto the shirt, allow the transfer to cool for a few minutes before removing the paper backing (for light fabric transfer sheets) or the parchment paper (for darks).  Now you have a custom shirt! Or tote bag, pilow, apron, or whatever you can think of.  

Be sure to check out VintageRetroAntique @ for tons of great vintage graphics featuring animals, airplanes, musical instruments, and many other high quality images that are great for iron on transfers.

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