There's lots of different ways you can apply an image or graphic to fabric. Honestly, I do believe I've tried them all. But each method seems to pose its unique set of limitations that keep me from making the kinds of shirts I'd like to. I don't have the right materials or space for screenprinting. Stencils can be easy and don't require a lot of materials but there are parts of a design (like the space in the middle of a letter like the letter O or A or B) that make using stencils a little tricky. Iron on transfers haven't given me the kind of finished result I'm looking for. So in the last few projects, I've resorted to straight out painting on t-shirts with a paintbrush, paint (mixed with fabric medium) and any shirts I've wanted to transform. I've come up with a few tricks to make this process a little easier and I'm producing shirts that satisfy my design aesthetic. Just so you know, this isn't necessarily the easiest way to create your own designed shirt, but if you have some patience and a steady hand (good for painting even lines) then I think this method can be useful.
So here we go!
First off, you'll need the following materials.
- A shirt that you want to embellish (sorry, I took this shot after I was done, so pretend that the green shirt is blank instead of having a design already on it). Make sure that if you are using a brand new shirt that you have washed it first and dried it in a dryer but WITHOUT fabric softener. The fabric softener won't allow the paint to stick effectively, so this part is really important. If you're using an old shirt from your wardrobe you need to make sure that it's clean and has been dried (again WITHOUT fabric softener).
- A design you want to put on the shirt. (I do my designing on a computer using Adobe Illustrator, but if you have a photocopy of an image or a drawing, that works too). Make sure that the design is on a piece of paper in black and white which will make it easier to transfer the image onto your shirt.
- 4 straight pins (safety pins are okay too, but can make things a little fussy, so I prefer straight pins)
- clear contact paper a little larger than the size of the paper that your design is printed on
- acrylic paint (I painted with one color only, but you can use as many as you'd like)
- fabric medium (I bought a 3 oz bottle at a crafts store a few years ago and it still seems to be in usable form)
- paint brushes (I preferred two different kinds. One for broader strokes to cover large areas quickly and easily and a finer one for detail painting fine lines or little corners)
- Tape (I used scotch tape and low-tack masking tape, but you really only need one kind)
- a lightbox or a window that faces the sun on a bright day
- fabric pencil or washable marking pen
Smooth out the shirt over a slat surface like a table top. Lay your paper with the design on the shirt and position it so that the design part of the paper rests where you want it to with relationship to the rest of the shirt.
Pin along each side of the paper to mark the edge. You're pinning just the shirt, not the paper TO the shirt. This way, when you pull the paper away, your pins will have created a sort of frame indicating where your paper should go. You might have to slip your hand under the shirt for the bottom and/or sides which you'll have to do carefully so you don't shift the paper around Or I guess you can tape the paper to the shirt first which didn't occur to me till just now. Duh. Anyways, you can use more pins if you'd like to create more of a box around the paper, but I used just four. Like so:
Tape the paper to the lightbox more or less in the middle.
Turn the shirt inside out. You're going to apply the clear contact paper to the inside of the front of the shirt. The contact paper will serve two purposes. It will create a barrier between the front of the shirt and the back of the shirt so that the paint won't seep through the fabric as you paint the front causing spots and blotches on the back. Also, because it's sticky the paper will adhere to the fabric and make it stiffer which is great because trying to drag a damp paintbrush over t-shirt fabric is tough. The fabric clings to the brush and you get unintended mistakes where the brush couldn't go smoothly over the fabric.
I find that the easiest way to apply contact paper is to fold down a narrow strip on one end, creating a bit of a crease in the contact paper.
Peel away just the strip that you folded down.
Lay the strip of exposed contact paper on the surface of the shirt. Make sure you have it positioned so that that the rest of the contact paper will cover the shirt.
Then carefully pull the backing of the contact paper and at the same time smooth the contact paper onto the shirt.
It can be a little tricky to manipulate both the contact paper and the shirt while keeping everything smooth. It's also a little tricky if your contact paper is roll-y and doesn't want to lay flat, so you might want to leave it under something heavy overnight to help it stay flat.
Once you've removed the backing from the contact paper and simultaneously stuck it to the shirt, smooth the contact paper into place ensuring that it's completely adhered to the fabric. Also, try to make sure that you are not over-pulling the fabric while you are trying to apply the contact paper. The shirt fabric needs to lay flat and smooth but not pulled taut.
Turn the shirt right-side out so that the contact paper is on the inside. (If you were to put the shirt on, you'd feel the slick smooth contact paper against your chest.) Turn the lightbox on and slip the shirt over the lightbox positioning it so that the pins on the shirt frame the piece of paper. This way you can ensure that the design on the paper shows through (cause of the lightbox) and will be in the spot where you want your design to appear.
Tape the shirt at the neck and hem to the lightbox so that it doesn't wiggle around. Here my shirt is pretty long so I folded up the hem a bit and then taped it to the lightbox.
Using a fabric pencil or a washable fabric marker, trace the artwork onto the shirt. I used a fabric pencil (sort of like tailors chalk, but in pencil form) and the markings it was making wasn't very dark so I had to go over the artwork a few times to make my lines visible. It's still pretty light, but it's visible enough for me to provide a guideline as I paint.
I forgot to photograph this part, but basically you can mix the fabric medium with the paint. The directions on the fabric medium say that you are to use two parts paint to one part fabric medium. I usually eyeball it and it's been fine. The fabric medium will make the paint a little runny so I've had to paint a few coats to get the opacity I want.
Paint! (Also forgot to take photos of this process, but I think you can use your imagination) This is where a steady hand will make the process easier for artwork that requires smooth lines. For this project which is basically a circle-ish design, I started painting from the inside and worked my way out. I didn't squirt out a whole lot of paint for this but some of the detail areas slowed me down a bit so I found that my paint dried out well before I was done. If that happens to you, you can add a few drops of water with an eyedropper to dilute the paint back to a more usable consistency. Though I do have to say that the congealy paint did have its benefits with being more opaque so I did my second coat with the thicker slightly dried up paint, if that makes any sense.
Hang your shirt carefully or leave on a flat surface and let dry. I usually leave it be overnight to make sure that it's completely dry. If your painting is inconsistent (some areas have thinner paint coverage) then just make sure that the thicker bits are completely dry. You don't want to smear something by mistake thinking that it was all dry when only part of it was, ruining all your hard work.
I think my handiwork turned out pretty good, though there are a few bits that came out sloppier than I like. But I think they will go largely unnoticed so mostly I'm okay with it.
A few detail shots in case you're wondering just how wonky it can be:
Inconsistent paint at the bottom and the vertical lines along the letter "T" aren't crisp.
The letter "N" is probably the wonkiest of the lot. And the smallest lettering of "20" and "08" were a bitch to paint. Also I was being stubborn and didn't dilute my paint back down to something more manageable. I could have avoided this. Eh.
Overall, I think this turned out well and I am pleased with my new shirt.