1. The basic ingredients necessary to print your photos
onto T-shirts: a compatible ink jet printer (see text;
Epson Stylus Photo 1200 shown); iron-on transfer paper;
Photos © 1999, Dave Howard, All Rights Reserved
Most photo hobbyists are
justifiably proud of their best images, and look for any excuse or opportunity
to show them off. Mounted enlargements and slide shows have been the
traditional means of exhibiting a photographer's work, but both
involve "trapping" an audience in one way or another. Whether
it's luring viewers to a gallery or seminar, mingling with your
peers at a camera club meeting, or just terrorizing your friends and
relatives, you have to bring the bodies to your pictures.
However, now that computers are a standard piece of equipment with most
photographers, there's a fun new option for bringing your photography
to everyone you come in contact with: T-shirts. Jeans and T-shirts have
pretty much become the standard "uniform" of a large percentage
of the world's population. So, if you're going to be wearing
a T-shirt anyway, why not seize the chance to wear your photography?
For little more than the $5 cost of a T-shirt you can be a walking one-man
(woman, person, child--whatever) show.
2. Basic procedure: use broad area of the iron and firm
pressure; doubled-over large pillowcase serves as padding,
open (seamed) end drooped over edge of table to avoid raised
areas under transfer.
Your first choices of potential
images will probably be your favorite fine art or nature photos. But this
inexpensive art form lends itself to a much wider variety of subject matter.
Photographs of yourself engaged in a favorite activity (photography, working
on the Model A, riding your horse, etc.) can attract other folks who share
the same interests, resulting in many new friendships. Teen-age boys would
love to have a shirt with a picture of their cool new tricked-out car.
Teen-agers would also like wearing a shirt showing them with their latest
flame, but be prepared for a fairly rapid turnover in shirts! Family pets
are popular, and what new parents wouldn't like to showcase their
new income tax deduction? If you own your own business, why not create
a shirt to advertise it? The possibilities are practically endless.
So what do you need to get started? A computer is a given; how much computer
you'll need depends on how deeply you become involved with image
manipulation. Practically any computer will do for "straight,"
unmanipulated images, as the resolution required is not high (the texture
of the fabric won't support "hi-res" image detail).
If you want the capability of a major image-manipulation program such
as Adobe Photoshop, then certain minimum speed and RAM requirements must
be considered. Fortunately, there are "abbreviated" versions
of some programs, such as Photoshop LE, that are far less demanding in
terms of hardware and cost, and which are more than adequate for anything
you're likely to attempt for a T-shirt.
After cooling for one to two minutes, lift a corner and
peel off transfer backing.
The printer is the other major
piece of hardware needed. While other types of printers such as thermal
transfer can, with appropriate media, do T-shirt transfers, most readers
will probably have, or be contemplating buying, an ink jet printer; therefore
what follows is ink jet specific, although the actual transfer process
is pretty much the same. The printer used and illustrated is an Epson
Stylus Photo 1200 (which comes with Photoshop LE as a bonus). Its ability
to handle paper up to 13x44" is irrelevant here, as iron-on transfer
paper only comes in 8.5x11" size. Whether Epson or another brand,
check the transfer paper package for compatible models. Although the spec
sheet included with Epson's Cool Peel transfer paper includes a
sizable list of supposedly incompatible Epson printers, their tech support
personnel assured me that in fact the paper will work with all models;
it's just that with the listed models it may be necessary to use
different paper and ink laydown settings in order to obtain optimum results
(e.g. you'll have to experiment). Newly added models may not be
listed, so check your instruction manual or call the manufacturer.
4. A finished shirt, featuring a "straight,"
unmanipulated image (of a much younger author during his
industrial photography days) scanned from an 8x10 color
Standard Epson inks were used;
if you use a different brand of ink than that supplied with your printer
(regardless of make), you'll need to run color calibration tests
to correlate your monitor's colors with what actually comes out
of the printer. You should do this anyway if you're at all particular
about color accuracy. You also need to ascertain that the color balance
obtained with the transfer material is the same as with your usual photo
quality papers; if not, you'll need to add or subtract color to
eliminate any offending color caste. A popular Photoshop plug-in for this
purpose is Test Strip 2.0 from Vivid Details (supplied with the featured
Epson 1200). The calibration procedure is designed to be user-friendly
to any photographer familiar with photographic color printing.
Photoshop (or similar image-manipulation programs) users
can create unique images by combining elements from several
photos, such as this totally underwhelming bunch of point-and-shoot
With a computer, printer,
and transfer paper at hand, the next step is to get your chosen image(s)
into the computer. Prints can be scanned on a flat-bed scanner; slides
and negs can too, or a dedicated slide/neg scanner can be used, such as
are available from Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Polaroid, and others. If you
don't have a scanner, a service bureau can do the scans for you.
You can have them scanned to your preferred storage media, such as a Zip
disk or Kodak Photo CD; Photo CDs are also available from many photofinishers.
Since the shirt fabric limits the reproducible resolution and tonal range,
practically any inexpensive flat-bed scanner will prove adequate.
Here are a few "general specifics" for printing transfers:
the printer driver should be set to "ink jet paper," at an
output of 300-360dpi, easily accomplished with a $250 printer; a lesser
ink laydown setting may produce better results; paper feed should be set
to manual; insert the sheet of transfer paper with the notched corner
at upper right; be sure to select "flip horizontal" ("mirror"
with some printers) in the printer driver, or your image won't read
correctly when transferred. Other operational tedium specific to your
particular printer and brand of transfer paper will be covered in the
appropriate instruction manual/sheet.
Surfin' Critters! The cats and dogs were extracted
from the snapshots and placed in the old Ford woodie wagon.
Note that the cat on the fender required flipping left to
right. Photo montage by Silvia Howard.
Until you're confident
of your various printer settings, it's a good idea to practice applying
your first few transfers to T-shirts that are one step away from the rag
bag. It also lets you get the hang of the ironing technique required.
Determine where you want the image. Try the shirt on first and hold the
transfer up to it to gauge where it will look best. If you're short
waisted and wear your shirt tucked in, this is an important step!
Before you're ready to try a transfer, you need to find an effective
working location. A hard, smooth surface is necessary, such as a desk
or table; don't use a glass table, as the heat may shatter untempered
glass. Take a large pillowcase and double it over as a pad for the T-shirt,
laying it on the work surface with the open (seamed) end hanging over
the edge to avoid raised areas that will leave defects in the transferred
image. Smooth the pillowcase to eliminate any wrinkles or bunched fabric.
Place the T-shirt (I prefer a 50/50 cotton-poly blend for transfers, because
it's more dimensionally stable than 100 percent cotton) over the
pillowcase, making sure that the image area is wholly contained by the
pillowcase, and smooth it. Iron the shirt/pillowcase perfectly smooth
before applying the transfer.
This close-up detail is of the transferred image before
Incidentally, if you're
a single guy and don't own an iron, any $10 discount cheapie will
do the job. Heavy is good, and you don't need steam; if you can't
find a non-steam model, just use it dry. Beware of yard sale irons; the
usual reason they're there is that the heat control is shot.
Place the transfer (trimmed to a 1/4" border around the image) image-down
on the (cooled) shirt; there's no need to secure it to the shirt
with pins or tape, as it immediately adheres to the fabric as soon as
the iron is applied. The iron needs to be very hot, so set it on "high,"
or "linen." If the iron isn't hot enough, the transfer
won't set properly, resulting in peeled areas that don't transfer.
Use the widest part of the iron platen, apply a firm pressure. With an
8x10" image, iron the top 1/3 of the transfer, left to right, taking
about 30 sec from side to side. Iron the middle and bottom thirds in the
same way. Reverse the iron direction (grip it "backward,"
as shown in the illustration) and repeat the process, but begin at lower
left and work left to right back to the top. Finally, make 30 continuous
circles with the iron (about 4 sec each), maintaining firm pressure, covering
the entire transfer but paying particular attention to the edges.
Same area after washing, showing practically no change (the
vertical artifact is a wrinkle, not a defect in the transfer).
Current transfer materials are considerably more durable
After completion of the ironing
step, let the transfer cool for one to two minutes (Epson; some brands
require immediate backing removal), but no longer; if allowed to cool
too long, removal of the backing paper will be difficult or impossible.
Lift any corner and peel the backing off with a steady motion. That's
it--your T-shirt is ready to wear!
You can also apply several small prints instead of a large one. One 5
sec left to right ironing will adhere the transfer; then, pressing firmly,
wiggle the iron to and fro over the transfer for 45 sec to one minute.
After completing a transfer, let the shirt and padding cool thoroughly
before starting the next transfer. Make sure you don't contact a
previous transfer with the iron.
You can apply your transfer(s) to the front or back of the shirt. If you
want a transfer on both sides, you will need to insert an insulating material
into the shirt (thin plywood or Masonite, cut to size, work well) to prevent
reheating the previous transfer on the other side. Wrap the pillowcase
around and under the insulator, making sure that the case and shirt are
smooth in the transfer area.
Iron-on transfers aren't as durable or fade resistant as screen-printed
shirts, the pigmented inks of which penetrate the fabric; however, current
iron-on materials are much improved from past versions, and hold up quite
well. A little TLC in the care department helps: wash in cold water only,
preferably using a detergent that features color protection. Turn the
T-shirt inside out before washing, to protect the image from buttons and
zippers on other garments. Remove the shirt from the washer as soon as
the machine turns off. Washing by hand is another option. Air dry or tumble
dry at normal settings.
Once you've got the process down pat with T-shirts, you might want
to try decorating other light-colored cotton or cotton-blend articles
such as aprons, shopping bags, napkins, place mats, tablecloths, etc.
Just keep in mind that the smoother the fabric texture, the more detail
will survive in the transferred image.
Be forewarned, though; once your friends, relatives, and coworkers find
out you made the T-shirts and other items yourself, they'll be pestering
you to make some for them--fame has its price!
Epson America Inc.
20770 Madrona Ave.
Torrance, CA 90503
fax: (310) 782-5220
Vivid Details (Test Strip)
8228 Sulphur Mtn. Rd.
Ojai, CA 93023
fax: (805) 646-0021