Design Hey, look. Art. t-shirt crafts

Get crafty. Decorate your own t-shirts for supreme holiday merriment.

i smell a craft coming on

“She’s crafty, she’s gets around / She’s crafty, she’s always down / She’s crafty, she’s got a gripe / She’s crafty, and she’s just my type…” – Beastie Boys

At our house, we’re well into holiday craft season. Every year we do something crazy and new like a snowman made out of old cans (it never melts!). This year we dug around the print shop for ideas and rummaged out (surprise) handmade t-shirt decoration.

In addition to screen printing as a t-shirt decorating option, we also do some vinyl heat press work, typically for one-offs or very small orders. The vinyl is cut on a plotter from an Adobe Illustrator file, so it’s very exact. You just peel (weed) away the excess from the parts you want to keep and then press it on the shirt with gobs of heat and a ton of pressure. After a few orders, I noticed how much vinyl was left laying around, destined for the trash.

excess vinyl
Exhibit A, egregious vinyl waste.


As I imagined this pile in the trash I thought, that just can’t happen. We save all our excess ink, so why are we throwing away all this excess vinyl? Crazy town. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure so they say. Whoever they are, they’re right. But what to do with the excess vinyl? Once it’s off the backing film, we can’t put it back through the plotter. Exactness is out the window. But to hell with exactness! What if we could make things without needing to be computer-precise for a change?

I smell a craft coming on.

When decorating shirts for a customer order, I like things orderly and organized. When doing a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants craft project, we all silently agreed upon the maxim, “When crafting, make as large a mess possible.” Goal achieved. The table was a mess of vinyl, markers, cardboard and beverages. The air was rife with the odor of creation (or maybe that was lemon ginger tea).

We all took very different approaches to masterminding our shirt designs. I went minimalist with 100% vinyl, Gwendolyn created a complex tree accompanied by cursive text and collar embellishment. Jenni laid down her signature happy font with colorful vinyl bulbs and H went full-on marker, inspired by his favorite holiday movie, The Santa Clause 2.

minimalist shapes
My minimalist shapes. Should I be trusted with scissors?
heat press vinyl shapes
After pressing. I can be trusted!



Fabric marker t-shirt
G starts with marker…


vinyl christmas tree
…then builds her tree.
vinyl decorated tshirt
After pressing. The ampersand was a stroke of genius. Get it? Stroke?
Decorating with fabric marker
H decorating without a net!
decorated t-shirt
That’s egg nog, guys. Watch the movie!
jingle joy merry cheer t-shirt
Jenni lays down her signature font and bulbs of joy…
heat pressed vinyl t-shirt
After heat press. Merry!































It was fun decorating these, even if it was one big experiment. The best part was not being so exact for a change. I love the crafty handmade look. We also learned a lot about using the excess vinyl – yes, there’s a right side up thing you have to watch out for – that not only gives us more ideas, but helps us better understand our process for making vinyl shirts for customers. That sounds super geeky, but it’s true.

Try it yourself!

If you want to do this at home, you don’t have to have vinyl or t-shirts laying around like a pro apparel shop. Everything you need is at your local craft store. Try Joann’s for iron-on vinyl (you don’t need to buy the fancy cricut machine, just use scissors) and get some dollar store tees (or again, Joann’s, Michaels, Ben Franklin, etc).

Go crazy. No, seriously. Don’t get hung up on perfection. Just have a good time. Send pics!

How t-shirt crafts

How to Color a T-shirt with Fabric Markers

05 coloring

Who loves to color? Ooh, oooh, oooh, we do, we do!

If you love to color and you want to turn a blank or printed tee into your own work of artistry, you’ve come to the right place. I’m going to show you how easy it is to color a t-shirt with fabric markers. How easy is it? Super easy.

Here are the supplies you’ll need:

  • Printed T-shirt
  • Thin cardboard (letter-size or larger)
  • Fabric Markers

The Printed T-shirtThe printed tee in question.

For the purposes of our tutorial, I chose one of our own white tees with our famous Vegan Zombie printed in black. You can use any t-shirt you want, really. Go thrift store hunting if you want to do it on the cheap! Sometimes we find some pretty interesting stuff that begs to be decorated. You can also dig something out of your closet, or if you’re cheeky, your roommate’s closet. Just make sure it’s clean. Even a new t-shirt will work best if you wash it once before coloring.

Helpful Hint: If you use someone else’s shirt, make sure they are not wearing it at the time. Although in certain situations, that might be fun.

The Cardboard02 cardboard

In our house, finding cardboard is easy. There’s always some kind of cardboard available, if it hasn’t already been taken by our 8-year old to build a Bionicle diorama. A cereal box works great (take out the cereal first). If you don’t eat cereal (what’s wrong with you), you can use a cracker box, the back of a notepad or cut up one of those boxes from your latest Amazon order. You just want something large enough to fit behind the area you’re coloring. If you have a small piece you can move it around as you go. No biggie.

The Fabric Markers

You can find Fabric markers in most craft stores like JoAnn, Michaels and Ben Franklin. You can also get them online. Most markers are about the same in how they work, so don’t sweat that too much. Try to find ones with fatter tips to start out. If you’re coloring a large area you’ll start to get cranky using a fine tip. Not that I would know, of course. Call it… intuition.

Let’s Color!

03 markersGet yourself set up in a well-lit area with a nice, clean, flat surface. I usually pour myself some sort of cocktail before starting, but you can substitute cocoa, tea, or I hear some people even drink water. Let me know what that’s like.

Put your cardboard piece inside the shirt (not behind it). This keeps any ink from getting through to the back side.

When you start to color, you’ll notice the color going onto the shirt is a lot lighter than the cap. That’s okay. It might look like your marker is running out of ink already, but it’s not. You’re coloring on fabric which soaks up a lot of ink, hence the cardboard. Fill an area with color, then let it dry for a few minutes. Go over it again and you’ll notice that it’s much darker now. Yay!

Let it Dry, Already!

If you’re like me, you’ll put your shirt on right away and go parading around like you just invented cereal. While I can’t fault you for this, I do recommend that you let it sit overnight to dry completely. I guess you could use a hair dryer if you’re in a hurry, but I haven’t lab-tested that as of this writing.

The Result06 colored

Here’s how mine turned out. I really loved doing this because I could add shading and make my Vegan Zombie design look more hand-drawn and sketchy.

You can see that the color is not particularly dense. I left mine this way, but you could always let it dry, then go back over it again to darken the colors.

In the side-by-side below, you can see that our full color screen printed version is much brighter and darker with lots of flat color. This is what I love about doing this crafty coloring project, no two t-shirts will be the same, even if I colored them myself.

09 side-by-side

I Want to Do This RIGHT NOW!

It does look exciting, doesn’t it? Like I said, if your significant other, partner, brother or roommate has a t-shirt that looks like it would be fun to color, that’s the quickest route. But since you have to live with them afterwards and you still need to go out and get markers, why not pick up something new (or used)? You’ll sleep better.

I hope you have fun with this. Let me know how it works out for you!