grey onesie with a printed graphic of a dog paw-print and crossbones

How To Customize Clothing With Your Own Graphic Designs

Have you ever wanted to customize clothing, like t-shirts or onesies, with your own graphic designs, but thought it was beyond your level of skill and expertise? Maybe you were discouraged by an Industrial Design course in high school that covered several messy, difficult, techniques, without producing good results? Yes, I now have a lasting respect for anyone who masters silk screening, but that course also gave me a fear, and certainly a reluctance, ever to try custom-printing again.

For many years I let this hamper my ability to make things, but now I have an adorable new nephew who clearly needs to wear custom-printed onesies, so it’s time to find a solution.

After a bit of research, I was thrilled to discover that the available technology for custom-printing clothing has vaulted right into the 21st century with heat transfer vinyl. My friends, this is the stuff of dreams. It is a material that will let anyone, no matter how novice, custom-print clothing. All you need to do is to cut out the design you want, stick it onto the fabric, and affix it using heat and pressure. That’s it. There’s no mess, the edges are crisp, and you can make any graphic you want.

At last! Those of us who are silk-screen-challenged, yet want a sturdy, lasting result, have a way to express our inner creative genius with custom-printed clothes! Not only will this technique allow you to make your own designs, it will also let you be more eco-friendly in your clothing choices since you get to decide where to purchase the base garments. I got the onesie for this project from Pact, which makes clothing that is both organic and fair-trade, as well as ridiculously soft. With this one technique under your belt, your gift-giving will never be the same. I know it sounds too good to be true, but it actually works. This stuff is amazing.

To make a heat transfer vinyl graphic:

There are basically two different ways to cut out the design: manually, or using a machine like a Silhouette or Cricut. While those machines make this type of project a bit faster and easier, they are by no means necessary. I’m going to discuss the manual method of cutting because it’s really not difficult, it just takes a bit more time.

Here’s how to cut your graphic manually:

  • Draw your design using clean lines and the thinnest line weight/point size possible. Believe it or not, if your lines are too fat, you won’t actually know which side of them to cut and the result will be a wobbly edge.
    • You only need to draw the outline of each object because decorative lines, like shading for example, will not show up in the vinyl.
  • Print your design.
    • If your design has a direction (like text), then mirror it first so that it’s backwards.
    • You can scan a hand drawing and mirror it on the computer.
  • Cut around the outside edges of the whole design, leaving at least a 1/2 inch border.
  • Tape your design to the heat transfer vinyl in the border area you left around the design.
    • Make sure to tape it to the vinyl side, not the backing side. You may need to lift-up a corner to ascertain which is which. If you do that, then the side that is clear and adhesive (sticky) is the backing. Tape your design to the colored (vinyl), non-sticky side.
  • Then tape the heat transfer vinyl, with your design, to a self-healing cutting mat or another substrate that will protect your work surface from being cut by the x-acto knife:print-out of graphic taped to heat transfer vinyl and cutting mat
    • Use a small mat, so you can turn your design as you cut it, instead of having to change the direction of your cuts.
  • Get comfortable. This is going to take a little time and you want to be relaxed and able to concentrate.
  • Using an x-acto knife, carefully cut along the outlines of your design, pressing hard enough to cut through the paper and the vinyl layer, but not through the backing. The backing is typically pretty thick compared to the vinyl, so you will not need to press very hard. It’s ok if you do cut through to the backing in places, though: it just makes sticking the design to the fabric a tiny bit more complicated.
    • Take your time and hold the x-acto knife upright, which makes it easier and cleaner to turn corners and round edges.
    • For straight lines use a steel ruler or metal straight-edge as a guide.
    • If your design is complicated or large, then you might need to replace the x-acto blade at some point because paper dulls sharp edges very quickly, and you will get the cleanest cut lines from a very sharp blade.
  • Once you have cut all the way around the design, you can start peeling-back the vinyl that will not be used. Everything that you want to appear on the garment needs to stay stuck to the backing at this point:weeding heat transfer vinyl with an x-acto knife
    • See where the edges of two of the ovals are peeling-up? That’s actually where I cut a little too deeply and went all the way through the backing. This is not really a big deal, it just means that I will need to be a little careful that the ovals don’t shift during the next step.
    • Be sure to remove all of the excess vinyl, including in places like the insides of letters like O and P.
      vinyl transfer of a dog paw-print and crossbones
  • Next, flip the whole thing over (why you mirrored it first) onto your fabric and position it into place. This is where I had to be a little careful to ensure that the ovals that were peeling-up ended up in the right spot since they were not fully attached to the backing. Use a ruler to help guide you in positioning the design and to make sure it’s straight:vinyl transfer of dog paw-print and crossbones stuck to grey onesie with ruler for guidance
    • Don’t forget to think about where the design will appear on the intended wearer. For example, I kept this design towards the top of the onesie, so it will still be visible if my nephew wears it with shorts or pants, but it’s low enough that it looks good worn alone.
    • If you need to change the positioning, just peel the whole thing off of the garment and move it around as necessary.
  • Now it’s time to follow the manufacturer’s directions for transferring the design to the garment. I used Siser EasyWeed heat transfer vinyl because it got really good reviews for ‘weeding’, which is removing the excess vinyl that’s not part of your design.
  • Following the directions, I put a piece of parchment paper (directions actually said craft paper) over the design and pressed (really hard) and ironed until I could peel the backing away from the vinyl:parchment paper over vinyl graphic before being heat-transferred to clothing This took many more seconds of pressing with the hot iron than the directions said it would, but I checked every 5-10 seconds, and after about 30 extra seconds, it all stuck.

Tip: Use a hard, heat-proof surface when you transfer the vinyl because you will need to press really hard to get the design to stick and an ironing board will be too soft.

  • After you have gotten all of the vinyl to stick, remove the backing material slowly and carefully. If there is some vinyl that is not fully-adhered, then repeat the previous step (with the parchment paper!).
  • Last, put the parchment paper back over the design and iron it for a further 5-10 seconds. When you remove the parchment paper after this step, you will probably notice that in some parts of the design the texture of the fabric can be seen through the vinyl, but not everywhere. Put the parchment paper back on top of the design and continue ironing the spots where you cannot see the fabric texture, checking every few seconds, until you can:close-up showing clothing texture visible through correctly-adhered heat transfer vinyl paw print graphic

That’s it! You are going to love having this incredibly fun skill.

What you will need: 

  • Onesie, or other clothing, for your design
  • A design either drawn or printed onto plain paper
  • Heat transfer vinyl in the color, or colors, of your choice
  • X-acto knife and sharp blade(s)
  • Self-healing cutting mat or other cutting surface
  • Tape
  • Steel ruler, or metal cutting edge
  • Craft or parchment paper, large enough to cover your design
  • An iron
  • A hard, heat-proof surface

Tips and tricks:

  • Before you begin, launder the clothing as you plan to later. This will allow any shrinkage to happen before you set your design, so it won’t move around or pucker with shrinkage later.
  • For your first design, consider making something simple, so you can master the art of cutting it out of the vinyl before moving onto something really complicated. Straight lines are always good, so the more of them you can include, the better. A simple star would be a great first project, for example.
  • There are a lot of places online to get free clip-art, which can be a great place to start with your design.
  • If you make a mistake in the cutting, just print another copy and start over. I know this might be frustrating, but there is no way to fix a mistake once the design is stuck to the garment, so now is the time. You will love the result if you take the time to get it right. If there is some part of the design that is already cut that you can salvage, then do that. For example, if I had made a mistake cutting around the paw-print, I could have cut it away from the crossbones, re-printed and re-cut it, and then positioned it in relation to the crossbones paw-print and crossbones on grey onesie
  • Although heat transfer vinyl prints can be machine-dried on low heat, it is always better to air-dry your custom-printed clothes so they last longer.

I hope you have fun unleashing your inner creative genius with this skill.

Feel free to leave a comment, ask a question, or send pictures of your custom-printed clothing, and don’t forget to follow Creatorvox on Facebook and Twitter for more tips and tricks between posts. Thanks for reading, and happy making!

5 Replies to “How To Customize Clothing With Your Own Graphic Designs”

  1. OMG! I never saw this post and NEVER knew you actually created this onesie! Emory wore it a lot and it was super cute and super durable through many washings. I assume you did our favorite (the albatross), too? Unbelievable! Thanks!

    1. LOL, glad you liked them! We’ll have to work on some t-shirt designs now that the boys are older.

  2. This is awesome – I have plenty of ideas of things to make. However, this instruction: “Get comfortable. This is going to take a little time and you want to be relaxed and able to concentrate.” might be a bit hard for me to follow for a while! 🙂

    1. Hi Beth, So glad you’re excited about this project! Let me know if you have any questions along the way, and feel free to send pictures of what you make. Have fun…and maybe find some good podcasts? 🙂

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