DIY: Custom T-Shirts

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With some time and imagination, you can create unique custom t-shirts to express your sense of style, convey a message, or support your favorite organization. Combine multiple customization methods on one shirt to create a designer look that will draw attention and envy.

Tie-Dye

  • Choose a color palette, such as bright colors or earthy muted tones, to transform your plain white tee. Be ready to dye with rubber dish washing gloves to protect your hands, a big rod or spoon to stir with, rubber bands or string to tie clothing with, and a big heat-resistant tub to do the dying in. Buy inexpensive one-step dye brands like RIT and Deka at many grocery, fabric and craft stores. Color your fabric all at once by mixing the dye in very hot water in your tub and submersing your t-shirt until you get a color two shades darker than you want (the fabric will be a lighter color when dry), then rinse in cold water until the water squeezed out is clear. Dye your shirt a light color, add more ties, then dye a darker color for a multi-colored look. The downside of these easy-to-use dyes is that they don't produce very bright colors and tend to fade after many washings. Fiber-reactive dyes found at some specialty craft retailers require mixing with additional chemicals and heat to set the colors, but depth of color can be seen without soak time and their rich colors last through many washings.

Draw or Paint

  • Draw, write and doodle directly on your shirt with specially formulated fabric markers. These markers are made to resist fading from washing. Apply fabric paint to decorate your shirt as you would to a canvas; use fabric-specific paints as they remain flexible after washing and resist peeling. Paint with fiber-reactive dye on your shirt to create watercolor-like blended effects.

Print

  • Carve a linoleum block or use a precut stamp and coat the image with fabric paint to print on your shirt. Dab fabric paint with a flat brush into precut stencils to add the image to your shirt, or cut your own stencil from plastic sheets with a sharp knife. For a single-use custom stencil, use your inkjet printer to transfer an image on freezer or butcher paper, which is heavy paper that has a waxy coating on one side. Cut out the image printed on the non-coated side of the paper with a sharp knife to create the stencil, then place on the shirt with the coated side down. Iron over the paper to create a light bond between the coating and the shirt. After applying the paint, peel the paper away from the shirt to reveal a crisp image. Use a silkscreen to transfer detailed designs to your t-shirt. This is a more complex process involving photo-sensitive chemicals to create the image on the screen, but the screens can be reused to create more shirts for your friends, family, or team. Purchase silkscreen kits and ink for printing on fabric at fabric and craft stores.

Embellish

  • Add iron-on appliques, sew-on trims, buttons, grommets or rhinestones from the fabric or craft store for finishing touches. Embroider designs on your shirt with cotton floss. Copy designs for embroidery from books or buy iron-on designs that you stitch over.

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