I Made It Myself: Creating Custom T-Shirts

Creating custom t-shirts with your students is a rewarding experience and a great way to wrap up the year. Take the opportunity to say something special about each student or commemorate the “graduation” from your grade level. Maybe your class had a theme or a project that they were very involved in throughout the year – these can also work towards great designs. Whether each student creates a unique shirt or you decide on a universal pattern for the group, you’re assured an afternoon of fun and a group of satisfied artists when it’s all over.

Purchasing Shirts
Most inks and paints are somewhat translucent, so unless you can really make a case for those pretty blue shirts, white is really the way to go. Wal-Mart may seem the obvious choice for rounding up 25 or 30 cheap shirts, but always look for the freebies. Call “screen printers” (check the yellow pages or Google) in your area and ask if they have an overstock, or anything they can donate. If not, see if they would be willing to sell the shirts to you at cost. The direct wholesale cost for shirts can be as low as $2.00, so it’s worth your dollar to check around. You can also order the shirts direct from manufacturers, but be prepared to wait a minimum of a week for them to ship. Keep in mind, too, that one size is often considered to fit all.

Choosing Paint
While there are professional inks available that work very well, there are many reasons for not using them, including fumes, flammability, general lawsuit-type health hazards. Instead, visit your local craft store. They will be able to recommend the best brands and hopefully can explain the “life expectancy” of the product, both on the shirt and for the leftover on the shelf. It may seem like common sense, but be sure to buy the product most appropriate for your task. If you’re sponge painting, you don’t want paint with a roller ball built into a bottle. A tip to keep in mind when you’re finished and the paint has dried, is to put a clean sheet of paper over the painted areas, and iron over the paper to set the paint.

You may need dye instead of paint depending on the process you use to make the shirts. If you are tie-dyeing or batiking, you will need a good fabric dye. Again, visit your local craft store or fabric store, and be sure to explain to them exactly what you want to accomplish. They will be able to recommend certain brands as well as which spray bottles can work best for the job, etc.

While a number of your students may have painted t-shirts before, tie-dye can be a real mess, so most kids have probably never had the opportunity to try it! If you’re feeling daring, gather up some rubber gloves, rubber bands, and fabric dyes, and get ready to dive right in. Rather than try to list all the instructions here, you can find complete instructions at: www.hanes2u.com/how/tiedye.html. If you really want to get into the different types of dying, Dharma Trading offers some wonderful products as well.

Batiking Without the Wax
Traditionally, batiking does use wax when laying out the design. For our purposes though, get out your white school glue, paint brushes and fabric dye in various colors (Rit¨ works great.) Paint a design on the t-shirt with the glue, keeping in mind that the design will be reversed out – the glue part will be the color of the shirt Be sure to put it on thick enough to cover the cloth well, or plan to apply two coats, then let the glue dry. Mix the various colors of dye in spray bottles, and spray the areas you want colored. If you only want the front of your shirt colored, put a thickness of rags or cardboard between the two layers of fabric, to keep the ink from soaking though to the back. Be sure to saturate the colored areas well, then let the dye set overnight. The next day, soak the shirt in cold water to loosen the glue, then machine wash with detergent and hot water to set the color, tumble dry.

Iron-On Transfers
Heat applied transfers may sound like cheating when compared to the possible mess with tie-dying, but it could be an easy way to create a single design to be applied to all shirts equally. Many ink-jet printers allow this option, and with some, it is as easy as using a different type of paper. Because of the many different flavors of printers, consult your printer’s instructions. Then, to draw your design, use a graphics program which will allow you to flip the finished design into a mirror image before printing. Remember designs need not be “full front”. Smaller pocket-sized ones might do nicely to identify your class and use less supplies.

Deciding what process to use may prove difficult, as there are so many great options. Check out the list here, and be sure to read the comments below from our T2T forum for some great tips to keep in mind…

Sponge Painting – using pop-up sponges that you can cut with scissors simplifies this project, or you can buy sponges already cut into shapes
Block Painting – stamps carved from everything from wood to potatoes work well for dipping in paint, then pressing to transfer the paint
Crayon Iron Transfers – students color on iron-on transfers, then adhere by ironing (design will be backwards!)
Magic Markers – signatures & quotes
Writing Paint – use bottles with roller ball tips
Stenciling – make your own stencils with heavy paper or plastic

These T2T Contributors would like to add:

I have a very small class of 2nd Graders at a private school. I would love to tie-dye t-shirts with them as an end of the year project. The kids wear uniforms so I thought I’d cut holes in large garbage bags for them to wear over their clothes. -Cassie in Mississippi

My kid’s kindergarten class had sponge stamps in a variety of patterns that represented their studies. Each child was able to add what they liked best. They were really cute and kids had a great memento of their first year. -Sharon

I helped in a kindergarten classroom one fall, and each child had a turn to make a tshirt. I took them back to a table where they could pick four colors of fabric paint (the kind that comes in bottles, such as ColorPoint) Then they went to town!! When doing this, it is extremely important that each child wears a good smock and is very closely supervised since this paint is permanent!! -SwtTeacher

While working at a preschool one summer, we took sponges shaped as various sea life, (fish, starfish, boats) and painted the shirts in various colors. You can also use the tube paint for shirts to put rhinestones for eyes. -SJohns731

I have a shirt from when I worked in K that has each child’s handprint in different colors (on a white shirt) with their name written above it. It has my name on the left hand side (where a pocket would be) It’s the cutest thing. It was my 12 year old’s class and I still have it. -Linda

Just went on field trip with high schoolers to the zoo. The little kids had matching t-shirts and it looked as though they had used sponges to paint on animal shapes. They had allowed the adults they had with them to also wear them. Adorable. -jlitton

You can also use fabric crayons directly on fabric…young kids don’t always understand their their design will be reversed when it is transferred from paper to fabric. Just color directly and then put an old piece of cloth between the iron and the shirt. I’ve done this many times with no problems! -Dawn

In Northern Nevada each elementary school picks an “Oceans Week” and that is all they do they whole week. One teacher had students bring in white t-shirts and then she got ocean shape sponges (octopi? shells, waves, sea horses, etc.) and they sponge painted them with ordinary (outside) housepaint. These shirts have been washed a zillion times and are handed down to younger sibling who are still wearing them. They only drawback is it is imperative to have 2-4 adults helping with this project. -Brbidondon