Do you want to own your fabric? Like, really totally own it! With your own images which you have seen and loved in a magazine or maybe photographed it yourself or created it in your computer with beautiful images interspersed with lettering and graphics like on this Next t-shirt.
Transferring photographs or picture or any image to fabric is a fabricaholic’s dream come true. Who doesn’t like personalized things? So when beautiful fabrics in your favorite color are printed with photos that you love. You are in fabric heaven!
These methods have an umbrella term to describe them – Photo transfers. With these methods, your photograph in black and white or color image is transferred to the place you want in your clothing /fabric.
Most of these methods involve keeping the image on the fabric and transferring so they require you to produce a mirror image. You can modify your images in Photoshop, reverse them (make mirror image) and make other additions like texts, graphics etc before printing them out and transferring them.
Easy Photo Transfer methods to fabric.
1 Contact printing with transparency and medium
This involves using the clear plastic transparency sheet on which the image is already imprinted. This is then transferred to the fabric. You will have to buy the acetate /transparency sheets available at most stores ( ask for overhead projector sheets) .
How is it done: You can copy a mirror image of the print you need (from a photo, book or a printed paper) to this plastic sheet using a photocopy machine or print on it directly from your printer. If using a copier ensure that the transparency is compatible with the photocopy machine, otherwise it will be damaged /warp or melt. Print a mirror-image of your photo into the non-shiny side of the transparency.
Coat the fabric with Gloss Gel Medium and place the image side of the transparency face down into the background surface.
Smooth the transparency softly with your hands to remove any air bubbles and to help transfer the ink. Lift the transparency to reveal the transfer.
The disadvantage of this method is that it is not so colorfast. You will have to be very careful in washing the print you get – otherwise, the color will fade peel or crack very unattractively. So, though the process of photo transfer is easy, Just do not expect it to last forever.
(A more easier method is to use the printed transparency without the medium – take it out of the inkjet printer as soon as it is printed and press on your fabric for a quick photo transfer. If the paint is wet it might work for you.).
2 Photo prints on paper, Transfer medium, and heat transfer
This is a method similar to the earlier method – but here the special gel medium (Acrylic gel medium) is applied on the print you have and then it is kept on the fabric and rubbed. The image will be transferred to the fabric beautifully.
How is it done: The easiest is to use a laser printed image – do not use an inkjet print. Matte printed magazine cutouts or attractive prints on thickly printed flyers etc can be transferred with this method – you need thick paint on your printed paper which will totally be transferred on to your fabric. Original photographs can not be used in this manner – you should take a color laser copy of it and use it.
One important criterion with this medium is that it works best with a white/light colored fabric.
3 Solvent transfers
This is a permanent method to transfer prints on a paper to fabric – both black and white and color can be transferred this way. Commonly used solvents in this method of photo transfer are Turpentine, mineral spirits, acetone ( nail polish remover with acetone in it can be used) and other commercial solvents specifically made for this transfer
How is it done: In this method, the copy of your print is kept face down on your fabric and the solvent is rubbed on the print from the back with a cotton cloth. When the paper is soaked up with the solvent totally, you should press the print with another smooth applicator – this will ensure that your print has adhered properly and you will get an accurate print.
You will need to heat set the print after the print is dry for permanence.
This is a slightly dangerous process as the solvents may be harmful; especially if you somehow get your bare skin in contact with it or use it within the confines of a closed room. Solvents are dangerous, period. Good ventilation is a must when doing this transfer and keep away from flames.
(Even if the transfer is coming up poorly, just chill. Do not succumb to stress and think about smoking to relieve your stress – you may never ever smoke or do photo transfers ever again. Solvents are flammable)
4. Heat transfer sheets (Iron on transfer sheets)
The heat transfer sheet is a special polymer-coated paper which is used to make a copy of your favourite photograph with a color laser copier or printer and then it is heat set onto fabric. This technique is used in t-shirt printing – so you will hear of this sheet as t-shirt transfers.
How is it done : Take a copy of your full color images on your color laser copier on special heat transfer sheets and then keep it face down on your fabric and then use your iron on the back of the transfer sheet and see your image magically transfer onto the fabric – with all vividness and clarity of the print you have – this is the easiest method of transferring photos onto fabric.
You also get transfer sheets on which you can print the photo onto. You will need the specific transfer sheets that are compatible with your printer. Some transfer sheets maynot work with laser printers. If you have only an inkjet printer check for transfer sheets that will work with the ink in it.
First off, scan your photograph into your computer or take an image from any of the free image sites. You will need to get a reverse image or mirror image. Print on your transfer sheet and then transfer.
The downside is that you need to have access to a color laser copier/printer and the special transfer sheets. Some transfer sheets even need a heat press.
In fact, a professional who does this for a living swears that the heat press paper does not work at home and needs a heat press machine which gives a temperature of at least 400 degrees.
Then the print produced maynot be soft to touch – you maynot like the rubbery texture on your garment. By no means iron on top of this print – it will just come off and stick to your iron
You can also check out this post on mixed-media-artist.com where this is illustrated.
5. Laser / inkjet printing
In this method, you will be printing your photographs directly on to your fabric using your inkjet or laser printer.
How is it done: You can scan your photograph or take images from the internet, play with it, alter it with software tools like Photoshop to suit your creativity and then print it directly on the fabric with your printer.
You will need to stiffen the fabric before feeding it into your printer otherwise the soft fabric will jam the printer. You can check out the post on inkjet printing on fabric for more details on how it is done.
With laser printer if you try to feed thick fabrics it will not accept it; you will need to use thin fabrics like silk. With inkjet printers, you will need to print with pigment inks for it to be permanent. As in any process, this print also has to be heat set.
You will get special inkjet transfer fabric sheets for printing for inkjet printers – they are polymer treated fabric sheets which are used with water based inks in inkjet printers. After printing on this, you will take off the transparent backing from the fabric and then rinse the fabric (after it is dry, ofcourse) – you can add special fixatives to the rinse water for making the printing permanent.
Other than the difficulty of doing it, the disadvantage of this method is that, you cannot get your whole garment into the printer. You will need to go by the page size settings of your printer.
6. Sun printing
Sun printing is a method of printing onto a surface using the rays from the sun. In fabric printing, this method uses a specially formulated Cyanotype fabric / blue print fabric and produces a negative image on a blue fabric after sun exposure.
How is it done : You will need to use a transparency with the print of your choice (Create a negative version of your favorite digital photo and print it out on an inkjet/overhead projector transparency sheet) or if you are a photographer choose a negative from your collection with a good contrast. You should place it on the sun printing fabric, set a piece of clear non UV blocking glass over it to hold it down and keep it flat, and expose it to direct sun.Usually, about 10-15 minutes are enough for the print to be visible. The print will appear as white or some other lighter colour according to the fabric you have. Learn more about the blue print fabric here.
Other than these photo transfer methods, there are other means of getting you photo directly onto fabric – In one method you simply use glue to attach it to canvas in such a way that it is not immediately noticeable that it is not printed on fabric – you can use it as wall decoration, as it maybe unsuitable for making clothes. Check out the tutorial here
The other method is to convert the photo into an embroidery project. Check out the post on embroidering your photo onto fabric for more details
Updated on October 21, 2022 by Sarina Tariq