If you want to produce a quick one-off T-shirt for a special occasion, you don't need much more than an inkjet printer, a blank T-shirt, an iron and a little time. Here's some tips to make the process go smoothly.
I doubt anyone would describe me as manually dextrous or artistic, so I was pleasantly surprised by how relatively straightforward the process of fixing an iron-on transfer to a T-shirt actually is. While there are specific iron-on papers designed to match particular printers, I got pretty good results from a generic pack of Ausinc paper (which includes colour coding on the back so you know how long to iron for). Results are generally better on lighter shirts (though there is specific paper available for transferring onto darker colours).
Does it stack up economically? A single sheet of transfer paper costs around $4; how much you spend on the T-shirt is an open question, but you can easily pick up a plain T-shirt for around $6. If you need enough shirts for a whole netball team, then using a professional service might well be cheaper, and certainly will be less hassle. But if you fancy having a truly one-of-a-kind shirt, then iron-on can work well without costing you a fortune.
Iron-on paper will typically come with detailed instructions, which you should follow carefully and patiently. The following notes are based on my own practice with this kind of task, but if your paper offers different instructions, it's prudent to follow those instead.
Prepping your image
The main thing to remember is that you need to send the image to the printer reversed (mirror image) from how you actually want it to look. Any image editor should offer this as a basic function; in perennial Lifehacker favourite IrfanView, just type H to horizontally flip the image.
If you're using a photographic image, make sure it's as high-quality as possible (logos taken from web sites will look terrible). For straightforward text, you can use a word processor or graphic design package (check out our Hive Five of online image editors for some no-install design tools). A rough but workable way to convert a Word document into a picture file you can reverse is to save it as a PDF, then use free online conversion service Zamzar to change the PDF into a JPG.
If you're only printing a small design, you should be able to fit more than one image on the sheet and trim it to size. As well as giving you more transfers, you'll also find smaller areas iron on more quickly.
Also remember to do a test print and work out which side of the paper your printer actually prints on before using your transfer paper. This rarely matters with standard printing, but it's vital when printing onto speciality paper.
Once you've printed your transfer, let it rest so that it fully sets -- don't try and apply it straight away.
Fixing your image
The most important element of this process is to allow plenty of time and be patient. You'll need your iron to be at full temperature (but not on a steam setting), and this can take a good 10 minutes or more. Most manufacturers recommend not using an ironing board, as your shirt can easily slip. I got good results with a ceramic chopping board -- just be careful touching it afterwards, as it will retain heat for quite a while!
The process of ironing on the transfer can also be time consuming. I was very glad to have the visible indicators (which change from green to orange) on the paper which I purchased, as I suspect I'd have stopped too early otherwise.
Once the image is fully applied, peel away the paper (which will be trickier with a full-size image than with a simple design). Leave the transfer to cool and then 'fix' the printing by placing a plain sheet of paper over it (or greaseproof paper if you want a glossy finish) and quickly ironing it to lift excess ink from the transfer. Don't make the mistake of doing this before the original transfer has cooled, as the paper will stick when you try and remove it.
After the garment has cooled a second time, turn it inside out and then wash it to ensure the image is fixed. (I haven't tested what happens if you don't do this, but who wants to get caught in a rainstorm with ink running down their shirt?)
Got your own tips to share on the iron-on transfer process? We're all ears in the comments.
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