Thursday, February 9, 2017

A tutorial to celebrate the fact that I am not dead, while mourning the fact that, maybe, democracy is.

It's been two years, and I am still alive, despite having just been stung by a jellyfish not 2 hours ago. Oh well, that's not what I'm here about.

Among other things, I've been making a lot of custom t-shirts, and I'm here today to give the instructions, as well as some terrible photos because I can't afford a new phone and also it's 2017 and I can't just go buy a camera, it's not 2004 any more, Dick Smith stores don't even exist anymore. So hopefully the words make sense.

My demo shirt for this tutorial is one that says "Nevertheless, she persisted" because the joy of this project is the lack of wait time - some fucker insults a feminist icon and it's reclaimed and on shirts by the end of the working week.

Custom foil slogan t-shirt

As always, maybe try this stuff on a scrap of fabric first to get the gist of things. Ironing is more art than science, so yours may take more or less of it to get everything to stick right.

Materials and Tools

  • Plain cotton or cotton-blend t-shirt or singlet (some stretch is fine, but avoid anything too drapey. I like the $3 ones from kmart)
  • Iron-on adhesive (I use Heat n Bond lite, but they all work pretty much the same)
  • Transfer foil (Jones Tones if you can still get any, Minc if you can afford it, or, like I do, use nail transfer foil. You can get 50 packs of mixed designs for a couple of dollars on ebay, or rolls of fancy designs for about a dollar each that will make a few shirts. Keep in mind though that the heat and stretching will cause the holographic sparkle to largely vanish, so go for cool designs in the colour, not the sparkle)
  • Non-stick baking paper
  • An iron and a surface to use it on
  • Pen or pencil
  • Sharp scissors and/or a craft knife and cutting mat
  • Computer for coming up with a design, or just a pen and paper if you want to freehand something.

Come up with a design

This tutorial is for a simple text design with only one or a couple of colours, but you can also get fancy and do a multi-coloured design in layers similar to screen-printing. That said, for a simple shirt, I have these tips:
  • avoid any really really narrow parts to your design; remember, you need to cut the design out. More words means more cutting, and smaller words means trickier cutting.
  • using a cursive design means you don’t need to worry about laying out multiple bits with correct spacing, or the step where you carefully tack down the main parts so you can trim out bridging bits.
  • that said, some cursive fonts can be harder to read; make sure that your word doesn’t look like something else at a glance. 

I usually play around with a whole heap of fonts till I find one you like the look of, and alter it as necessary – move the letters about till you like the look of it, vary the cases between upper and lower, and add or remove flourishes at the beginning and end of the word. Scale the design to the size you want – I aim for about 20cm long, but my shirts are fairly small. Nip to nip will lower the risk of unreadability.

Trace the design onto the paper backing of the interfacing

This is especially easy if you are doing so straight from the screen of your laptop, as it works like a tracing lightbox. However, the Heat n Bond I use has a similar opacity to notepad paper, so you can usually manage to trace it straight from white paper too.

Cut out the design

If there are any spaces in your design, you can leave little bridging bars between the letters to be cut out when you start affixing. Alternatively, on a light coloured shirt it might be possible to put a copy of the design underneath to align the pieces, depending on the fabric thickness.
Using a craft knife or small scissors, cut out any holes in the middle of letters first. I usually also cut out any tricky curves with a craft knife first, and then cut the bigger bits with scissors, but cut out the design in whatever way works best for you.
Don’t forget about any tittles (the dots on tops of the letter i).

Affix the adhesive to the shirt

Position the design where you think you want it on the shirt.

If you have bridging gaps, first use the very edge of the iron to stick down just the middle of each letter. 

Then, with small sharp scissors, cut out each of the bridging pieces. Again, don’t forget the ones holding the tittles. Make sure all the little bits are brushed off the shirt’s surface.

Put a piece of non-stick paper over the entirety of the design and press the iron firmly over the whole thing. Check that the adhesive has been fully affixed, then peel the backing paper off of each letter to be foiled once it has cooled down.

Adding the foil

Lay the foil over the design coloured side up. If you are using nail foil it might not cover it entirely, but that’s fine, you can do it in multiple passes. Likewise if you want to use multiple colours; you can put different foils over each letter all at once, or, like I have done, leave the backing paper on some letters for now and do it in a couple of goes.

Put your non-stick paper over the top again and press the iron firmly over the whole thing. Let it cool before removing the foil – this will stop the Heat n Bond from attaching to the foil and plastic in places and getting pulled off accidentally. Pull off the foil starting from an unstuck corner – the foil itself should remain stuck to the design where the adhesive is, leaving you with a part clear/part scrap piece of transfer foil.

If necessary, repeat the process so that any missed parts of the design are covered. If you are using more than one colour of foil, put a little piece of non-stick paper over what you’ve already done, as sometimes the foil wants to stick to other foiled parts - not always, but unless you’re going for that look, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Soften the design

At this point, the transferred design will likely still be very shiny and stiff, though it may have areas of different textures if it was done in two goes, because the non-stick paper is less smooth than the plastic backing of the foil. This can be homogenised by putting the non-stick paper over the entire design once it’s finished and ironing it again, though it will still remain fairly stiff.

To really soften it, give it a quick pass with the iron under the non-stick paper and then remove it while the design is still a bit warm, though not hot. 

Stretch the entire thing across the width of the design bit by bit, so that a crack forms in the design along each column of the knit fabric. 

This will distort the shape of the design and the fabric, but if you then stretch it lengthways it will restore some of its shape. Finally, lay it out on the ironing space again and flatten it out by hand, trying to restore its shape as much as possible. 

Using the non-stick paper, press it one last time, but this time, the non-stick paper will probably stick to the shirt, as cracking the foil will have exposed some of the interfacing, and pulling it off hot will take some of the foil with it, so leave it till it's totally cold. However, that cracking will also cause the interfacing to melt into those gaps during the final ironing, which is what keeps the design soft and pliable, and prevents big cracks in the design in the future.

It should now be back to its original shape, but with a softness and drape not much stiffer than the fabric itself. 

On my shirt I then decided, since I had a lovely yellow gold to go with the pink and rose golds, to add a flourish at the bottom. Because it's long and skinny it shows much better how cracking the foil softens it up.

These shirts are totally machine washable, though it usually will lose a little bit of foil over time just like commercially available shirts do. I did a christmas one to wear to work last year though, and it would have been washed about 15 times and it still looks presentable. The design isn't iron-able without something over it, but what kind of crazy irons t-shirts?

The foil is rainbow, but I cut it up to go in different directions.
I'll mainly be using this method to make shirts that are either in-jokes or quiet, non-overt political statements.

it's hard to read there but tomorrow's shirts are 'reject fascism' and 'will punch nazis'

Wait, did I say NON-overt? That's not right, I'm doing two whole topics on social movements and activism this semester, since the world is falling apart, and I need shirts that let everyone know I'm ready to cut a bitch.

If anyone wants the designs I've made/used so far, let me know.