Wear Your Photography
From Camera To T Shirt With An Ink Jet Printer

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; household iron.
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.

3. 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 print.

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 snapshots.

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 washing.

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 than previously.

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
(800) 463-7766
(310) 782-0770
fax: (310) 782-5220

Vivid Details (Test Strip)
8228 Sulphur Mtn. Rd.
Ojai, CA 93023
(805) 646-0217
fax: (805) 646-0021