Maybe you want to immortalize a silly childhood photo on a t-shirt as a gag gift, or maybe you want to make adorable t-shirts for your whole little league team. Either way, you will need a method to take a photo and transfer it onto the fabric of the shirts. Fortunately, you can learn how to put a picture on a shirt in multiple different ways!
The traditional way to put a picture on a shirt is to use transfer paper, a printer, and a heat source like an iron. Other methods include using a heat press, screen printing, or applying Cricut-cut vinyl. For a non-DIY option, many online stores accept custom orders and will print a photo onto a shirt at a low cost.
In this article, you will find out exactly how transferring photos onto fabric works. You will learn nine methods for putting a picture on a shirt. Finally, you will find tips on how to custom order a photo on a shirt if you decide to skip the DIY.
How to Put a Picture on a Shirt: 9 Methods
Depending on the tools you have at hand, you can put a picture on a shirt in many different ways, including using a printer or a vinyl cut-out. Some methods require equipment such as a printer, a heat press, a Cricut, or even just an iron.
You can have a great time learning how to transfer photos onto fabric. None of the methods described in this article are super hard! That said, you can also take a none-DIY approach and have your picture custom printed onto a shirt of your choice by an affordable online shop.
1. With Transfer Paper
Using iron-on transfers is probably the simplest and most popular method for DIY picture transfer onto fabric. This method does require access to an inkjet printer that can print on transfer paper. You will also need to purchase transfer paper, which you can find at most craft stores or online.
Before you dive into the nuts and bolts of this process, keep two tips in mind.
First, not all transfer paper is created equal. Read up on what kind of ink your paper can use and what fabric it will adhere to. For instance, it may work on cotton but not on polyester.
Second, you also need to pay attention to how well the color of the shirt and the color of the design will pair together. Usually, a high contrast works best, so try to use a dark design on a light shirt and a light-colored, white, or super brightly colored design on a dark shirt.
- Wash and dry your shirt before you start. New shirts, especially t-shirts, tend to shrink a little in the wash. If you wash the shirt for the first time after printing, you may skew your new design!
- Next, iron the part of your shirt where you want to place the image. You will need a smooth and flat surface to apply the transfer paper.
- Set up your inkjet printer so that the design will print onto the coated side of the paper, not onto the peel-away backing on the reverse side of the paper.
- Print your design onto the transfer paper. Let this sit for five to ten minutes.
- If you have a small image, go ahead and peel the backing off the paper and carefully smooth the sticky side down onto the shirt. For larger images, you may want to peel down just the top edge, stick that onto the shirt, and then gradually peel the rest away as you smooth your way down the design.
- You will want to place some kind of pressing cloth over the design before you begin ironing. You can use a kitchen towel, an actual pressing cloth, a piece of parchment paper, or even the backing you peeled off the transfer. You do not want to place the iron directly on the design.
- Read the instructions on the transfer paper package to find out how hot to make your iron. Adjust its heat setting accordingly.
- Begin ironing over the transfer paper. Keep moving the iron in small circular motions, smoothly rubbing over the whole design. Repeat this for however long the transfer package says to apply heat.
- Gently peel away the pressing cloth you used, and make sure your design looks ok!
As one final pro tip on transferring designs, you can also find light or dark transfer paper. Generally speaking, you will want to use dark-colored transfer paper when you have a black shirt. This thicker paper offers a white background to offset images from the black shirt.
2. Without Transfer Paper
How do you transfer pictures to fabric without transferring paper? You can try using plastic wrap! This simple method does not provide the crisp, clear image you get while using transfer paper, but it’s a fun experiment to try. Plus, you can do this even if you do not have a printer!
- Either print an image using an inkjet printer or find an image on glossy magazine paper.
- Lay the image facedown on a large piece of plastic wrap. Then fold over the excess wrap neatly so that it lies on the back of the print.
- Next, iron your shirt to create a smooth, flat surface for the image.
- Set the plastic-wrapped print face side down on top of the shirt.
- Next, spread a piece of parchment paper over the image. You can find parchment paper at any grocery store for just a few dollars, but you could try using an unfolded brown paper bag as well.
- Turn off the steam function on your iron and set it to medium heat.
- Iron back and forth over the parchment paper for three to four minutes, moving in smooth, slow motions.
- Allow the shirt to cool for two minutes and then carefully peel away the paper.
This method is quick, fun, and cheap. That said, it does not create durable results. You will want to handwash your shirt to protect the transferred image.
3. Wax Paper
You can print directly onto wax paper and use it almost like a rubber stamp to transfer the ink to a shirt. This method works best with mostly solid one-color images or with bold outlines or text. Once again, it is not the most durable or precise image transfer option, but it is cheap and easy!
- Cut out an 8.5 X 11 piece of wax paper. Place it between two heavy books to flatten it out a bit, as wax paper tends to curl up easily.
- Place the wax paper in your inkjet printer. Both sides of the wax paper have a wax coating, so it doesn’t matter which way you align the paper.
- Print your image directly onto the wax paper. Take extra care while removing the paper from the printer, though, as the ink will remain wet and can easily smear.
- Iron your shirt and make sure you have a flat surface where you want to place the image.
- Place a piece of cardboard inside the shirt, so the ink does not leak through to the back.
- Carefully set the wax paper ink-side down on this part of the shirt. You will need to lower it directly onto the fabric to avoid smudging the ink.
- Gently peel away the wax paper.
- Let the ink dry on the shirt for a few hours before touching it.
4. Parchment Paper
Parchment paper has one matte side and one shinier side. Some crafters find that using parchment paper shiny-side down on top of transfer paper gives your transferred image a more durable finish.
To try this, follow all the steps described in the section above on the transfer paper. When you get to step 6, follow these steps instead:
- Cut out a piece of parchment that will cover your design and allow an inch of overlap on all sides.
- Place the parchment paper shiny-side down on top of the transfer paper.
- Turn off the steam setting on your iron, and heat it to medium heat.
- Iron back and forth over the dull side of the parchment paper for one to two minutes.
- Allow the paper to cool for a minute, and then carefully peel away the parchment paper and transfer paper.
As a pro tip, you may find that the design lasts longer if you put a blank piece of parchment paper over the design, iron it, and peel it away after you launder the shirt.
5. Heat Press
Using a heat press creates some of the most permanent, professional picture transfers you can find. If you have this option, you will instantly notice the difference. Using a heat press instead of a printer and iron is like the difference between cobbling together a Halloween costume using a glue gun or sewing on a sewing machine!
Of course, the downside to this professional method is that you do have to purchase the equipment and learn how to use it. For that reason, you may not want to commit to this level if you plan to make just one or two shirts. On the other hand, if you want to start a t-shirt printing business, you will need to invest in a heat press!
A heat press looks like a scanner or copier and has a similar flatbed and lid that lifts on hinges. The lid pressed down and the heat timer set apply perfectly even and concentrated heat to set images.
You can use a heat press to put a picture on a shirt in several different ways.
- You can apply a printed image on transfer paper and use the heat press to seal it.
- You can use a Cricut or similar tool to cut out a vinyl design and use a heat press to seal the vinyl to a shirt.
- You can use it to set screen print designs, at least in some cases.
- You can even use it to apply iron-on appliques to a shirt!
Cricut is a popular brand of electronic cutting machines. These days, Cricut sells other tools such as t-shirt heat presses as well. Still, when people talk about “a Cricut machine,” they usually mean the electric cutting machine that can cut through all kinds of paper, vinyl, cloth, and even wood!
Cricut machines have an online component called Cricut Design Space that allows you to upload, select, edit, or create a design. The machine then cuts out this design. To create a design in multiple colors, you can separate the colors in a photo and have the Cricut cut them out one layer at a time.
After creating or selecting your design, you simply have to direct the Cricut to cut out the pattern you chose. It will cut through the iron-on or heat-transfer vinyl but leave a sheet of clear plastic intact beneath. Then you simply remove the “negative space” chunks of vinyl from your design.
Once you have a vinyl cut-out ready to go, follow these steps to put the picture onto your shirt:
- Prewash the shirt to avoid accidentally shrinking the design later.
- Iron the area of the shirt where you will apply the design.
- Next, set up your heat press or turn your iron to its hottest setting, with no steam.
- Place the vinyl design on the shirt with the clear plastic peel-away sheet facing up. Align the image exactly as you want it.
- Apply heat to the plastic sheet. For a heat press, you usually only need a few seconds. The instructions that come with your press will give you specific timings.
- Turn the shirt inside out and apply the same amount of heat to the inside of the design.
- Once the shirt cools down, gently peel back the clear plastic transfer sheet.
While you can use this method for photos or more complex designs, vinyl often looks best when you have one, two, or three colors in the design. This is an excellent method for transferring text or a logo to a shirt, for example, but maybe not the best way to transfer a funny meme to the front of a t-shirt!
Heat-set vinyl does offer one of the nicest and most durable transfer methods, though. It will hold up through many washes.
7. Screen Print
Screen printing is another ultra-professional way to transfer a picture to a shirt. This method does require a fair amount of time and artistic know-how, but once you master it, you can make all kinds of cool t-shirt designs!
So, what is screen printing? This image transfer process uses a mesh screen, thick ink, and a stencil to print an image onto fabric.
Please note that screen printing is its own art form and can have many variations in technique. These basic instructions will get you started on a simple design, though!
- Find a design you like and print it onto acetate film. You will use this to creatine a stencil.
- Coat your mesh screen with a special substance called light-reactive emulsion. This will work very much like an old-fashioned developing photograph to make your stencil on the mesh.
- Spread the acetate sheet printed with your design onto the emulsion.
- Aim a bright light at the mesh screen. This hardens any parts of the emulsion not covered by your printed design.
- Gently rinse away the still-soft parts of the emulsion. This leaves negative space in the shape of your design. Let the screen dry fully, and then you will have a stencil ready to go!
- If you have an official screen printer, you will then insert the mesh into the printer. If not, you can apply the screen by hand.
- Place the mesh screen onto the fabric of your shirt, with the stencil aligned where you want the design to go.
- Load ink onto the inside of the mesh screen.
- Use a squeegee to firmly and slowly pull the ink from one side of the screen to the other. This will force it through the stencil and onto the fabric.
- Lift away the mesh screen and allow the ink to dry on the shirt.
8. Inkjet or DTG Printer
You may find yourself wondering, “how come you can’t print right onto the shirt? Wouldn’t that be easier?” Actually, you can print onto fabric in some cases. This is called direct to garment, or DTG, printing.
Lots of big industrial t-shirt companies do use this method. It does not create the thick, raised ink of screen printing, but it does allow you to more easily create images with lots of colors, like a photo.
The big catch is that you have to buy a DTG printer designed with a special metal platen for holding shirts. You can’t put a fabric shirt through a regular inkjet printer!
So, if you want to use a printer to create your design, you have three options:
- Buy a DTG printer. This is costly but possibly a great choice if you want to start a small home business.
- Follow the steps explained in the transfer paper section, and use an inkjet printer to get a design onto the transfer. You can then use the transfer paper to put the image on your shirt.
- Create your design and pay someone else to print it out using a DTG printer. Find out more about this in the next section!
9. Custom Order
If you want a personalized shirt without all the drama of transferring the image yourself, you may want to consider custom ordering the print instead. Of course, this process is not quite as rewarding as wearing a shirt you made yourself, but it does save a lot of time.
Plus, if you need just a few t-shirts as a gift or as a team uniform, you may find that ordering the shirts costs a lot less than buying the equipment and art supplies to make your own.
Many online companies offer this service. Some allow you to upload the image you want to be printed. Others may only allow you to select the text you want. Some will create a design for you, though this level probably costs a lot more.
Here are a few things to consider if you decide to order your shirts:
- You will need to select the color, style, size, and possibly even the fabric of the shirt. When picking a color, think about how it will contrast with your printed design. T-shirts come in many shapes these days, some better suited to men or women, as well to slender or bulky bodies–so think about that, as well!
- Most of the time, custom print shirts decrease in price when you order in bulk. Some boutique companies offer to print just one or two shirts, so you can search for those companies if you do not need twenty-five or more shirts at a time!
- Also, the fewer colors you want in the design, the cheaper it will be! Printing a solid-color logo or image will usually cost much less than printing a photo, for example.
How to Transfer a Photo Onto Fabric?
The best way to transfer a photo onto fabric at home is to use transfer paper and an inkjet printer. You can find step-by-step instructions for this process earlier in this article, in the section titled “Transfer Paper.”
Short of using a DTG printer like a professional t-shirt manufacturer, this method does deliver the best results for photo transfer.
That said, you can also try a couple of other techniques for photo transfer onto fabric.
You can print onto a small, 8.5 X 11” piece of fabric by ironing the fabric onto a piece of freezer paper. With the freezer paper attached to it, the fabric will slide right through your laserjet printer! Of course, you cannot do this with a whole shirt, but you could then attach the printed fabric to a shirt using a simple applique stitch.
If you want to get artsy, you can use a gel medium like Liquitex Gel Medium or Mod Podge Photo Transfer gel. Print out your design, coat it in the special gel medium, and place it face-down on the shirt. Let it dry overnight, and then repeatedly spritz with a water bottle and rub at the paper with your fingers until it comes away, leaving the print on the fabric!
The freezer paper technique and the liquid gel look cool, but unfortunately, these designs don’t have a lot of permanency. You will want to carefully handwash your shirt if you use these methods.
How to Put a Logo on a Shirt at Home
The easiest way to put a logo on a shirt at home is to use a Cricut or similar cutting machine to cut out a vinyl logo and then use heat to adhere it to the shirt.
You can find directions on how to put a Cricut image on a shirt earlier in this article.
Alternatively, you may want to consider using an embroidery machine. Many companies and teams use an embroidered logo on t-shirts and polo shirts to create a classy style.
Another option is to use your Cricut to cut out a stencil of the logo. You can then screen print a nice thick, viscous ink through the stencil. This will create a crisp, delineated logo on your shirts!
Print Photo on T-Shirt Online
One of the most popular ways to get a personalized t-shirt style is to print a photo onto a t-shirt online through a custom-order company. You can find thousands of companies offering this service these days! You will even see this option pop up when you search Amazon for specialty t-shirts.
This service may cost as little as $4 per tee or as much as $20-$30 per shirt. It depends on the company, the complexity of your order, and the type of design you request.
For example, CafePress offers the option to either create your own design or customize a design from the library provided. You can upload an image with a few simple clicks. This popular website does allow you to buy just one shirt at a time, but it will likely cost you at least $20.
How to Transfer Photos Onto Fabric for Quilting
You can transfer photos onto fabric for quilting using the transfer paper method, a liquid transfer gel, or the freezer paper technique; all described earlier in this article.
Here are a few more tips to keep in mind, especially for quilting, though:
- Consider adding a hand-stitched “frame” around the printed photo in your quilt. This will add a pop of color and help the printed design blend into the fabric part of the quilt.
- Try not to use dark photos. Photos with bright colors or sharp contrasts, like a black and white image, will pop out from the quilt and catch the eye. Dark or blurry photos will not look great.
- If you want to print directly onto the fabric using the freezer paper technique, you will need to have digital copies of your pictures. Make sure you have these in a high resolution, so they do not print out looking grainy!
What is the Best Fabric to Print Photos On?
The best fabric to print photos on is 100% cotton. Cotton has a high absorbency rate and generally reacts better with many types of ink than synthetic material like polyester. That said, many professional t-shirt printers use polyester shirts with DTG printing because synthetic shirts cost a lot less.
If you want to print photos onto the fabric directly at home using freezer paper and your laserjet printer, you should probably use 1005 quilting cotton. This stiff, absorbent fabric will accept the photo image better than most other materials.
Companies That Print Photos on Fabric [Near Me]
If you want photos printed onto fabric for quilting or other projects, but you don’t want all the hassle of doing it yourself, you can find several popular brick-and-mortar stores near you that will offer this service.
For example, Office Depot offers canvas prints perfect for tote bags or other gifts.
You may also have a local sportswear or t-shirt company that offers a custom print service on the side, besides their main business of selling ready-made apparel.
If you do not have a physical store near you, no worries! You can find thousands of custom print stores online. All you have to do is upload your design, and they will mail you the printed t-shirt or fabric!
Every store may have specific requirements about the type of image file you upload. Most of the time, though, you can expect to send in a file in a high-resolution SVG file. Some companies may also accept a PNG or even PDF file, though!
One of the easiest ways to put a picture on a shirt is to print it on transfer paper and then iron the transfer onto the shirt. Tools like a Cricut machine, a heat press, or a screen printer can create more professional-looking pictures on a shirt. If you prefer to save time, you can also custom order a photo or design printed onto a shirt from many online stores.
Transferring a solid-colored design is an easier DIY task at home than transferring a photo to the fabric. You can use photo transfer paper or a liquid transfer gel to put a photo on a shirt, but you may find it easier to order the photo custom printed.
Have you ever put a picture on a shirt? What method did you use? Leave a comment below to let us know!