How to Make Iron-On Transfer

Iron-on transfers are a fun way to decorate items of clothing like t-shirts, as well as fabrics in your home. When you make your own iron-on transfer, you get to choose which image to use, and whether you want to craft it yourself or download it from the internet. This guide gives you detailed steps on how to make iron-on transfer for your projects.

how to iron-on transfer

Iron-on transfers give you the freedom to create unique and personalized images that you can transfer to your clothes and fabrics. Does the idea of personalized t-shirts for your family sound good? Keep reading!

So, what exactly is an iron-on transfer? Well, an image that can be impressed onto fabric using direct heat is called an iron-on transfer. You simply print your image on one side of the transfer paper and then run over the other side with a hot iron.

The image, under the influence of heat, transfers from the transfer paper to the fabric. After the material has cooled off, peel off the paper, leaving the image imprinted on the fabric. Cotton and cotton-blended fabrics work best with iron-on transfers.

For your transfer to come out just right, there are some steps you need to follow.

1. Making the Iron-on Transfer

To make an iron-on transfer, you will need some fabric or a plain item of clothing, transfer paper, the transfer image and of course, an iron. Note that a steam iron is not necessary for this process.

a) Purchase the essentials for the transfer

There are packaged transfer kits containing transfer paper, image software and even a t-shirt available at art and craft stores. Alternatively, you can buy the transfer paper, make your own images and transfer them to a t-shirt of your choice.

b) Select the right transfer paper

There are two main variations of transfer sheets, those for light-colored and dark-colored fabrics. Light-colored fabrics are those in white, yellow, light gray and other similar light colors. Dark-colored fabrics include blacks, dark blues, and dark grays.

If you make a light-colored design for a light-colored fabric, the image will appear discolored after transfer. For a bold, clear and eye-catching image, use a design with medium to dark colors.

Transfer sheets for dark-colored fabrics are much thicker than those made for light-colored fabrics. They also have a white backing, making the light colors of your design stand out against the dark fabric.

Do your research, and find out which transfer paper is strong, of high quality and long-lasting. There are plenty of reviews on transfer paper available on the internet.

c) Create your transfer image

What kind of images can you use? Options include designing your own image using software (like Photoshop) on your computer, scanning your favorite image, or downloading an image from the internet. Picture this – a transfer made with a picture from your baby’s first birthday!

When making your choice of image, however, note the following:

  1. The majority of home printers do not print the color white. Any white areas on your image will appear clear after printing, hence allowing the fabric color to show through after transfer. Your image will therefore not look very tidy.
  2. Dark-colored images stand out better than light colors on most fabrics. They are also much easier to print using a home printer.
  3. Be careful when downloading pictures from Google, as you can get into trouble for using copyrighted material. Look for websites that have copyright-free images for download, and select those without watermarks. You can download an image and manipulate it into the picture that you want.

d) Edit your Image

After choosing the image you want to transfer, you will need to edit it until it is just right for your t-shirt.

Use the image editing software on your computer to change the size, colors, appearance, and special effects of your image. If you downloaded an image that has mistakes in it, correct them.

Also, browse the internet for ideas on how to make your chosen image look trendy and professional. There are many online tutorials available for this purpose.

You are just about to print your transfer, so make sure you have legal rights to use the image before you put any more work into it.

e) Mirror the Image

The image must be mirrored so that it faces the right way after the transfer is complete. This step is essential if you are making a transfer for a light-colored fabric.

To mirror your image using your image editing software, select the ‘Flip Image Horizontally”, “Reverse Image” or “Mirror Image” options. If you cannot find any of these commands on your program, do a search in the help section on how to mirror an image.

Flip your image so that it appears to be facing the wrong way on the computer screen. Neglecting this important step will result in an image that is not facing the right way. That would be a disaster!

For instance, if your image has the word “COOLEST,” you must flip the image so that the word faces backward. That way, when the transfer is complete, the words will be facing the right way.

f) Print the Transfer

At this point, confirm that the image looks exactly the way you want it to look. Images on a computer screen often look different when printed out.

Do a test run by printing your image on regular paper. This test run will show you how the image will look once it is printed. The colors must be bright and well defined. Also, check the printout to see how big the actual image is, and if any part of it is cut off.

Before you do the test run, mark one side of the sheet of paper with an ‘X.’ Set your paper to print the image on the unmarked side, and do your test run. If your image appears on the unmarked side, you are on the right track.

The transfer sheets have the non-printable side marked, and the printable side unmarked. Utilize the same technique as you did with the regular sheet of paper –set the image to print on the unmarked side of the transfer sheet.

Finally, inkjet printers are the best for making transfer images. If you have a laser printer, you will need to purchase the transfer paper specifically made for laser printers.

2. Ironing on the Transfer

a) Find a suitable surface to do the transfer on

Ideally, whichever surface you choose should be hard, flat and heat resistant. Examples include a Formica-covered kitchen surface, a wooden cutting board, or a wooden table. There should be enough space on the surface to fit the entire area of the transfer. An ironing board is, therefore, unsuitable for this purpose.

b) Trim the Transfer

Cut around the edges of the image with a pair of scissors or a razor blade. You will then see the exact shape of your image, and figure out how to position it on the fabric.

Trimming the transfer also removes the transparent areas around the design. If these transparent edges are left on, the base fabric will be seen through them, and this will distort the image. Nobody wants to see a cleverly designed image spoilt by spots of fabric here and there. Finally, make sure you trim the edges as close as possible to the design.

If you are printing letters, find a way to cut out the space inside each letter neatly so that the fabric shows through. Alternatively, you can use a white background for the letters, but you will still have to trim the edges around each letter. Remember that white backgrounds do not always work well on dark fabrics.

c) Protect the fabric of the item where you want to place the transfer

Ironing on the transfer requires lots of heat. If you are putting the transfer on a t-shirt, protection of the side underneath the one receiving the transfer is crucial. Protect the other side by putting a thick brown paper bag or a piece of cardboard inside the t-shirt directly under the place where you will position the transfer.

The above protective measures also prevent the transfer of the image to both sides of the t-shirt. If you do not use any form of protection, it is likely that you will have a burnt, sticky or double-sided t-shirt!

d) Put the transfer image in position

Position the transfer image exactly where you want it to be, with the image facing down. Get the positioning right, because once you start the ironing process, it will be impossible to move the transfer.

e) Prepare to iron on the transfer

To transfer your image successfully, you need lots of direct heat. This direct heat comes from an iron set to the highest setting. Be careful not to burn yourself during the process.

The amount of heat used for the transfer demands that you use a firm and heat-resistant surface. Wooden and Formica surfaces are not only heat resistant, but they also retain heat well, thus speeding up the transfer process.

Do not use steam or water from a spritz bottle when ironing on your transfer. Steam will prevent the transfer from sticking to the fabric.

f) Iron on the transfer

Finally, you get to the part you have been waiting for – ironing your favorite image onto a fabric or garment of your choice.

First, focus the iron on the outside edges of the transfer, then work your way to the center. Move the iron in large circles, applying pressure evenly so that the image attaches on all sides. Repeat this process for around three minutes.

You must keep the iron moving all the time so that the transfer paper does not scorch, and so that the image does not burn.

Keep checking to see if the edges are stuck. If they are still loose, run the iron over them several times until they finally stick. Do not try to remove the backing paper before the edges of your image are firmly in place.

g) Let the transfer cool

Once you are convinced that the picture is firmly in place, turn off the iron and give the transfer time to cool. As the image cools, the glue behind it adheres more firmly to the fabric. Peeling off the backing paper too soon interrupts this important process.

h) Remove the backing paper.

Peel off the paper gently, starting from one of the corners. Once again, you must wait for the image to cool before you remove the paper. Admire the results of your hard work as you remove the paper.

Now that you have successfully made your own iron-on transfer and applied it to one of your garments, the challenge of making the image stay intact lies ahead.

Are there special care instructions for items with iron-on transfers? Yes, there are, as listed below.

3. How to Care for Fabrics with Iron-on Transfers

a) Wait for the image to set

Before you even think of washing your newly transformed item of clothing, wait for 24 hours after application. The image needs to set so that there is no chance of it coming off during the wash.
Once the 24 hours are up, you can opt to hand wash your item or put it in the machine.

b) Clean your item

If you choose to use the washing machine, please set it to wash and dry on a cool setting. Some machines have a gentle care cycle, which would be ideal for your item.

Items of clothing should be turned inside out before washing so that the image is on the inside. To protect the transferred pictures on pieces of fabric, place them inside a cotton pillowcase and put into the machine.

Hand washing is also a good option for items with iron-on transfers. Wash the item gently in light detergent. Do not be tempted to use bleach, unless you want to see your image fade away before you get to show it off.

After washing, put the item out to drip dry. The image is still quite sensitive and may be damaged by the heat of a dryer.

c) Secure your image

Iron-on transfers may start peeling off after a while. You can secure them by stitching a border around the edges using a machine, or by hand. If your image is stuck on a piece of decorative fabric, you can use decorative stitching or embroidery to secure it. For garments, use stitching that is barely visible, preferably in a neutral color.

Note that high-quality paper hardly ever peels off at the edges. Online customer ratings will give you a good idea on the brands of high-quality transfer paper available.

There you are – the steps on how to make, apply and care for your iron-on transfer. Before you go ahead, however, quickly recap the main points as listed below.

  1. Choose the right transfer paper for your image. The color of the fabric should influence your choice, as well as durability of the paper itself.
  2. Not all types of transfer papers go with inkjet printers. Owners of laser printers will be happy to note that there is special transfer paper for use with this printer.
  3. Cotton material responds better to iron-on transfers than other materials.
  4. Care for your image, and it will give you excellent service. Consider how much work you have put into the transfer. The sensible thing is to make it last as long as possible.
  5. Direct heat is the key to successful application of the transfer. If you are scared of very hot irons, this job is not for you. Keep little children as far away as possible when ironing on the transfer.
  6. You cannot use your ironing board as a base for the actual transfer process. The intense heat from the iron will damage it.
  7. Dark-colored images look much better than light-colored ones.
  8. Open spaces in your image may not turn out the way you want. To avoid having the color of your fabric peeping into your image, fill in the spaces with a different color.
  9. Many inkjet printers do not print the color white.
  10. The transfer must cool at its own pace. Do not try to hurry the cooling process by removing the backing paper.
  11. ‘Mirroring’ or ‘flipping’ your image is important. If you skip this step, your image will turn out differently from what you intend.

The uses of iron-on transfers are quite varied. Once you learn the process, you can make a fully-fledged hobby out of it, making t-shirts for birthdays, school concerts and scout camping trips.

Also, you can make transfers out of your favorite family photos and use them to decorate cotton throws around your house. Moms can even design trendy nametags for their children’s’ uniforms and backpacks.

The best part is, the same hot iron that you use to transfer your image is the same one you can use to remove the image when you are sick and tired of it. Either way, you will have learned a new skill that you can use! All the best in your new endeavor!

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