Printing on Fabric

Attrib:Flickr/Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

We all like to express our individuality through the clothes we wear, and one of the quickest and least expensive ways to create unique and original clothing is using an ordinary inkjet printer. The techniques we are about to discuss work brilliantly for making personalized t-shirts, but there’s no reason that you can’t apply the same ideas to decorating other items of clothing.

There are a couple of techniques that are frequently used to print designs onto fabric: the freezer paper method, and using transfer paper. We’ve found that the latter method is more reliable and results in images that last longer, so that’s what we’re going to focus on here, but we’ll give a brief explanation of the freezer paper printing method for those of you who want to try it out.

Whichever method you choose, you’re going to need a design. You can use any graphics applications you like to create the design. If you haven’t got the appropriate software, take a look at this list of great online art applications to get you started.

Freezer Paper Method

This method allows you to print directly onto the fabric, without using any transfer medium. That sounds cool, but the ink in your printer isn’t really designed to work on fabric, and it probably isn’t waterproof, so, if you go this route, your designs may fade and run in the wash.

The problem with printing directly onto fabric is that it isn’t stiff enough to hold its shape as it goes through a printer. It will twist and bunch up. You’re probably familiar with how annoying a paper jam in your printer is; a fabric jam is worse. Freezer paper, used in the kitchen, is a thin paper with a waxy substance on one side. If the waxy side is pressed onto fabric with a hot iron it will adhere to the surface, making the fabric hold its shape as it goes through the printer. When you’re done, the freezer paper can be peeled away.

Most people don’t have t-shirt sized printers, so they’ll have to cut a piece of fabric to fit, and then sew or glue the printed pattern onto their item of clothing. This is great if you plan to print small decorative elements, not so much if you want to cover the front of a garment.

Using Transfer Paper

This is probably the most straightforward method, and it results in designs that are more permanent than with the freezer paper method.

You’ll need:

  • A plain t-shirt (long or short-sleeved).
  • Transfer paper (A4 or A3-sized).
  • An iron and hard surface for ironing.
  • An inkjet printer.
  • A design.

The only thing you’ll need to keep in mind is that there are different types of transfer paper depending on the color of the fabric. Light fabrics and dark fabrics need different transfer paper, because, with light fabrics, the light color is used as the image background, whereas with dark fabrics the transfer paper has to also transfer a light background (printers don’t print white).

  1. Create your design. If your design is not symmetrical, or contains text, you will need to reverse it so that you print a mirror image, otherwise it will come out backwards on the garment.
  2. Print your design as you would any other document.
  3. Cut out the part of the transfer paper that contains the design.
  4. Place the garment on a hard surface, like a cutting board covered by a dish towel or pillow case, not on an ironing board.
  5. Place the transfer paper, design down, onto the garment.
  6. You’ll want to heat your iron to its highest temperature, but make sure you turn off the steamer function, and don’t wet the fabric or paper; it’ll spoil the design.
  7. Iron over the top of the transfer paper, making sure you cover the whole of the paper several times without letting it slip.
  8. Leave the garment to cool.
  9. Carefully peel off the backing of the transfer paper.

Et Voila!. You have your own personalized and unique t-shirt. Home printed designs aren’t as hard-wearing as commercially made garments, so always wash them turned inside out at a low temperature and avoid ironing the transferred portion.

If you really want to get your hands dirty, you can have a go at the old-fashioned block printing method as shown in the video below.

Corey Northcutt

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