How to Print Iron-On Transfers for T-Shirts

Production Tips, Software Recommendations, Free Artwork

man ironing shirt
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You can buy T-shirts with great designs already on them, and if you want a whole bunch of personalized shirts for a local drama club or church group, you can find shops that do shirts in bulk. However, if you want something original and maybe only one or two, do it yourself with an iron-on transfer.

You can create your own custom clothing with absolutely no sewing skills. Decorate T-shirts, canvas bags and other fabric items with iron-on transfers that you design yourself on your computer and print on your desktop printer.

What You Need

Kits are available that give you everything you need, including software and a T-shirt, or you can assemble your own materials. Whichever route you go, you need a few supplies for the typical iron-on style of transfer printed from your desktop printer and applied with a household iron.

  • Software to design the T-shirt or other transfer
  • Artwork
  • Transfer paper
  • Printer
  • Iron
  • Hard surface for the iron
  • Pillowcase or other fabric
  • T-shirt or another item to receive the transfer

Tips and Tricks

When the instructions say you need a hot iron, they mean it. Here are a few tips and explanations to clarify the process of creating and applying iron-ons.

  • Print a preview. Always, always, always print a preview copy of your image before printing it on the (often expensive) transfer paper. Do this to ensure that colors print correctly, that your image doesn't fall into your printer's no-print zone along the margins, and to see the actual size of the design —sometimes the on-screen view can be deceiving.
  • Flip the image. Don't forget to flip or mirror the image. This is especially critical if you have text in your design. The text should be backward on screen and on the printout. Another good reason to print a preview copy first! Some programs can flip the image for you. 
  • Use the right kind of transfer paper. If you have a laser printer, be sure to purchase transfer paper specifically for laser printers. Most T-shirt transfer paper is for inkjet printers. Transfer papers for white T-shirts is different from transfer paper for dark T-shirts. For example, the Avery Personal Creations Light T-Shirt Transfers are for white and light-colored fabrics. Avery Dark T-Shirt Transfers are specifically designed for dark-colored 100 percent cotton fabric. Get the right kind of transfer paper for your printer and fabric.
  • Use the right side of the paper. Transfer paper has stripes or some other design on the nonprinting side. Be sure to put the paper in your printer so that it prints on the clean white side. Not sure how to properly load your printer for transfer paper? Mark a plain sheet of paper then run it through to see which side comes out printed.
  • White does not print. In designing your artwork remember that white does not print. The fabric shows through any parts of the design that are white. For example, if you print a white ghost on plaid fabric, you get a plaid ghost. Plan your design accordingly. As with any desktop publishing project, consider the background color when selecting colors for your designs.
  • Test on scrap fabric. Test your design on scrap fabric of the same type and color before applying it to your final T-shirt or other fabric. Some types of fabric may require more ironing than others or may not show off your design as well as you expected.
  • Use lots of heat. Use the hottest setting on your iron but no steam. It takes a lot of heat to transfer the image evenly and completely to the fabric. Peel off the paper while it is still hot unless you purchased cool-peel paper. These newer transfer papers allow you to wait up to two minutes before peeling off the backing, so the paper is cooler to the touch. 
  • Use a hard surface. The reason transfer instructions specify a hard surface is because it holds the heat. Ironing boards tend to disperse the heat and the transfer paper needs to be very hot to work properly. Protect the hard surface with a pillowcase.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions. Do what the paper manufacturer says. The instructions may provide exact instructions for their specific paper on heat level, how long you should iron the transfer, and how long to wait before separating the paper from your fabric.

Design Software

You can use almost any graphics or creative printing program to design iron-on transfers artwork—as well as professional desktop publishing software you already own. Ideally, the software will have an option to flip or reverse the image for transfer printing or you can manually flip the image in the document.

However, there are some T-shirt design software programs designed specifically for creating personalized iron-on transfers for T-shirts and similar projects. Many come with templates you can use to get you started.

Other desktop publishing and print creativity software that you can use for creating iron-ons and many other projects includes Serif Page Plus and Print Artist for Windows and Print Explosion and PrintMaster for Mac.

If you already own Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, CorelDraw or similar graphics software, use those programs to design your artwork. If you want a free option, consider GIMP. Just remember to flip the image before printing.

Free Artwork

The heart of your T-shirt design is the image. You can create original artwork from scratch, customize canned clip art, or use ready-made designs and free images off the web. Print creativity software, including software specifically for T-shirt design, comes with hundreds, even thousands, of ready-made designs you can use or modify.

Customize Clip Art

Whether it comes with your software or you're using images you've found online, you can customize clip art to create even more personalized iron-on transfers